When Don Demeter was installed in center field for the aging Los Angeles Dodgers of 1959, largely supplanting the future Hall of Famer Duke Snider, he was touted as a star of the future.
Demeter, a 23-year-old rookie with a powerful right-handed swing from his 6-foot-4-inch frame, hit three home runs in an April game at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the last one giving the Dodgers an 11th-inning victory over the San Francisco Giants. He connected for 18 home runs and drove in 70 runs in helping to propel the Dodgers to a World Series championship, a six-game victory over the Chicago White Sox, in their second season since leaving Brooklyn.
“The winds of change were definitely in the air,” Snider recalled in “The Duke of Flatbush” (1988), written with Bill Gilbert. “Don Demeter was being groomed to take my place.”
But Demeter, who at 86 died of unknown causes on Monday at his home in Oklahoma City, never fulfilled expectations as a Dodger. He broke a wrist in a collision with Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills in a July 1960 game and was traded early in the 1961 season to the Phillies when he got off to a slow start at the plate. Willie Davis, the future All-Star center fielder, had shown promise as a hitter while seeing limited action with Los Angeles the previous season and seemed ready to step in as a regular. In addition, the Dodgers got the Phillies’ hard-throwing relief pitcher Turk Farrell in the deal.
Demeter did go on to a fine career, his best seasons coming with Philadelphia in 1962 and ’63, when he hit a total of 51 home runs, had another three-homer game and drove in 190 runs.
Over 11 seasons Demeter hit 163 home runs playing for five teams. He played in 266 consecutive games without an error as an outfielder with the Phillies and the Detroit Tigers, a major league record at the time. (He did commit errors when he played at third base and first base.)
Demeter’s outfield streak ended on a bizarre note with the Tigers in a July 1965 road game against the Kansas City Athletics.
“They had some dogs that were trained to run out with bases in their mouths between innings,” he told an Oklahoma newspaper, The Shawnee News-Star, long afterward. “A line drive was hit to me, and they thought I caught it, so the infield crew let the dogs loose on the field. I scooped the ball up and threw into second base to hold the runner, and the dog ran through our shortstop Dick McAuliffe’s legs. Dick looked down at the dog and missed the ball I threw him, advancing the runner, and they gave me the error.”
Donald Lee Demeter was born on June 25, 1935, in Oklahoma City, one four children of Lewis Demeter, a painting contractor, and his wife, Ailene.
Don played the outfield on a state-championship high school team. A devout Baptist, he was offered an athletic scholarship by Oklahoma Baptist University but turned it down to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization in 1953 for an $800 bonus (the equivalent of about $8,300 today).
Demeter advanced slowly through the Dodgers’ vast farm system, and was finally called up by Brooklyn in September 1956 after hitting 41 home runs for the Fort Worth Cats of the Texas League.
Facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Ebbets Field as a pinch-hitter in his major league debut, Demeter struck out on three called strikes thrown by their outstanding left-hander Vinegar Bend Mizell.
“I was so thrilled to have a Brooklyn uniform on,” he told The News-Star. “I didn’t want to embarrass myself by swinging and missing the ball. I stayed up most of that night thinking that if I ever get to hit again, I’m going to swing.”
The next day, pinch-hitting once more, Demeter hit a home run off the Cards’ lefty Don Liddle. “I thought I was in heaven already,” he recalled.
Demeter’s reputation as a minor league slugger was duly noted in the clubhouse.
“When I came in at the end of the game,” he told the Oklahoma newspaper in 1999, “some of the reporters there had written on the chalkboard, ‘Demeter — 59 behind Ruth.’”
But he wasn’t deemed ready to earn a lasting promotion to the Dodgers. Demeter was back in the minors in 1957 and split his 1958 season between the minor leagues and the Dodgers.
Snider was still a productive hitter during the Dodgers’ 1959 championship season, but he was hampered by a knee injury and played part of the time in right field, giving Demeter a chance to roam the Coliseum’s cavernous center field.
Following his time with the Dodgers, the Phillies and the Tigers, Demeter played for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. He retired after the 1967 season with a .265 career batting average.
Demeter, whose death was confirmed by a grandson, Cole Cleveland, is survived by his wife, Betty (Madole) Demeter; a son, Russ; a daughter, Jill Cleveland; his sisters Betty Ragan and Delores Mohr; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His son Todd, who played in the minor leagues, died of cancer in 1996.
After leaving baseball, Demeter owned a pool installation business. In his later years he was a founder and longtime pastor of the Grace Community Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
In September 2014, the Dodgers’ longtime manager Tommy Lasorda, having arrived in Oklahoma City to mark the Dodgers’ becoming part owners of its RedHawks of the Pacific Coast League, was quoted by The Oklahoman as calling Demeter “a Dodger through and through.”
“He’s a preacher now, someone who helps saves people’s souls,” Lasorda added. “What I try to do is save people from rooting for other teams.”