Major leaguer Gino Cimoli left his mark on the field and off

MLB Gino Cimoli
The recent death of former major league outfielder Gino Cimoli should remind us of the dramatic role reversal – player vs. management – that has taken place in professional baseball over the not-so-distant decades.

Cimoli was a 10-year major league veteran who broke in with a bang with the then Brooklyn Dodgers. He launched his first full season in 1957 by hitting a game-winning homerun on opening day off the Philadelphia Phillies right-handed Hall of Famer, Robin Roberts.

He was also the answer to a great baseball trivia question: Who was the first player in major league history ever to bat in a regularly scheduled (nonexhibition) game played on the West Coast?

On April 15, 1958, Cimoli earned that distinction by being the leadoff hitter for the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers against the San Francisco Giants in their season-opening game at Seals Stadium.

Cimoli had never been a leadoff hitter. He was generously given that honor on opening day by Dodgers manager Walter Alston, because Gino was a local hero who had been a star multisport athlete at San Francisco’s Galileo High School.

But Cimoli, who was born in San Francisco in 1929, always said that he had been “born too soon.” A line-drive hitter with a shotgun arm, who once led the league in triples, Cimoli played in an era during which the vast majority of players had to work at off-season jobs, outside of baseball, to make a living.  “In today’s game,” he told me, “I would have been a multimillionaire.”

For 25 years, Gino worked as a United Parcel Service truck driver and deliveryman. As such, I knew him as a burly, genial, cigar-chomping guy in a brown uniform who delivered UPS packages to my house along his regular route in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights and Marina Districts.

He would tell us that he “never, ever” made nearly as much money playing major league baseball – with seven teams in a decade-long career – as he did in every year that he worked for UPS. In fact, he said in some years he made “ten times more” as a delivery truck driver than he did playing professional baseball.

The most, he said, he ever made as a major leaguer was $5,000 per season – plus a $2,500 bonus he was given by the Dodgers for making the All Star team in 1957.

None of which, fortunately, ever stopped him from living a full, rollicking, tobacco-chewing, poker-playing life – almost up until two days before Valentine’s Day. On Feb. 12, 2011, Gino Cimoli died of heart and kidney disease in a Sacramento suburb at the age of 81.