Jerry Royster, Major League Baseball veteran and former Las Vegas 51s Manager, talks with Ron Kantowski about his time in the big leagues and Las Vegas.
During a career that spanned 16 seasons, Jerry Royster played in 1,428 major league games – or exactly 1,428 more than some thought he would.
He batted .249, hit 40 home runs and drove in 352 teammates while playing for five MLB teams – Dodgers, Braves (two stints), Padres, White Sox and Yankees – with timely base hits, sacrifice flies, an occasional squeeze bunt, and whatever else might be required to get the job done. Such as taking a fastball to the kneecap when the bases were loaded.
He was a jack of all trades and master of most, having played every position on the diamond with the exception of pitcher and catcher. Jerry Royster was such a positive influence in the clubhouse that he became a manager in the minor leagues (he had two go-rounds totaling five seasons in Las Vegas with the Stars and 51s) in the major leagues and even in the Korean league. In 2007, he became the first African-American to manage a club in the Korean Baseball Organization.
As he modestly says when pressed for comment on all he has accomplished in baseball, not too shabby for a former utility infielder that stood six-feet tall and weighed all of 165 pounds during a rain delay.
1. Having spent 16 seasons in the major leagues, you must have your share of memories. Can you talk about a few that stand out?
A: I was very fortunate. I got a chance to play against the game’s greatest players. I played against Willie Mays, I played against Hank Aaron. I was with the Dodgers when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, which will always be a defining moment in my life – and Hank and I became good friends after that when I was traded to Atlanta. I was also on the field when Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s career hits record, I was the Padres’ second baseman. These are things I’ll never forget. These are baseball’s elite, but they’re also friends of mine.
2. But what about personal highlights? You wore pinstripes in New York and had your name announced over the public address system at Yankee Stadium by Bob Sheppard, just like Derek Jeter did.
A: (Chuckling). I was able to do that. Playing in New York when I went to the American League, coming up to the plate and experiencing the Yankee fans cheering for you – and then getting a game-winning hit in my first at-bat – that’s pretty special. I’ve had game-winning hits, I’ve experienced a lot in major league baseball, I even became the manager of a major league team (the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002). I’ll never forget the day I got called up (for the first time) when I was in Albuquerque, and my family came together playing major league baseball. So to say one highlight is bigger than the other is hard to do.
3. You had two stints as a manager in Las Vegas. Your teams won 323 games but minor league baseball is about so much more than having success on the field, isn’t it?
A: Yes. The things I remember most were the kids, the players … calling them into my office, telling them they were going to the major leagues. That was always special. So many things happened (in Las Vegas). Some great events, some tragic events. The death of Mike Sharperson (in 1996). To see the whole city of Las Vegas come together at what was a very difficult time for us as an organization – (hotel-casino magnate) Steve Wynn, in particular, was very good to us and Mike’s family. Other things I remember were Celine Dion coming out to the ballpark, all the other entertainers – (singing impressionist and former minor leaguer) Danny Gans – not too many people remember that name, but those were some fun moments. I’d be remiss not to mention Peter Guber, the owner at the time, Don Logan and Chuck Johnson (from the front office) and the whole gang – (public relations director) Jim Gemma is still there, isn’t he?
4. Cashman Field downtown was once a jewel that was starting to show its age by the time you arrived in town. You were a fan favorite in Albuquerque as a player, when the Dukes wore blinding all-yellow uniforms decades before the Oregon Ducks started doing the same. Were there other Pacific Coast League memories so bright that you had to wear sunglasses?
A: I was there (laughing about the glaring tone of the Albuquerque uniforms.) I just got off the phone with my godson, who is the son of one of three little girls who would sit next to our dugout. They would be there every day, and I would give them bubble gum and candy. These little girls and I became friends, and now they are 50 years old, and I am the godfather of one of their kids. Talk about a small world! There were a lot of ballparks I enjoyed – some of the places people hated, I enjoyed. Fresno was always one of the toughest places to get to, but they had a major league atmosphere. During the day when you were at the hotel, you could feel it. Believe it or not, we even enjoyed going out to eat there. I loved Vancouver and when (the PCL expanded) I enjoyed Oklahoma City. Wow, what a place (their ballpark district) was.
5. You spoke of becoming friends with Hank Aaron during your playing career but who were some of your role models on your way up?
A: Without a doubt, first and foremost was my father, Jimmie. My father was my guy, the one who pushed me to the level I was able to achieve. Once I became a professional, Davey Lopes and Tommy Lasorda were with me from the day I flew to my first spring training. Tommy was a huge influence and he still is though he has passed away, God rest his soul. I played for Walter Alston (with the Dodgers) and my third-base coach was Junior Gilliam, who people may not remember very well. Dick Allen – when we are in spring training, after dinner we would go to their rooms and just sit and talk about stuff. These were mentors. This being Black History Month, they walked me through everything. This was in 1970, ‘71, ‘72 (when it still wasn’t easy being an African-American player in the major leagues.)
6. That’s a perfect segue for my next question: Can you be more specific about the adversity you encountered and stereotypes you had to overcome?
A: Just the same stuff you have heard about for years. Unfortunately, I had to deal with those (issues). We would be in the south playing Double-A baseball, and they wouldn’t serve (my teammates at a restaurant) because I was there. I had to deal with a lot of that. Hearing that kind of stuff – you’ll never make it because of your Afro – will stick with me forever. The adversity was tough, but I was able to overcome it because of people like Junior Gilliam and Tommy Lasorda and Davey Lopes and Hank Aaron. I’ve been blessed. I’ve been in baseball since I graduated from high school in 1970 with tremendous people around me, having given me the opportunity that I never would have had were it not for baseball.
7. Things have changed, but I also would be remiss if I failed to point out that in 1971, right after you signed with the Dodgers, 20 percent of major league players were African-American. Last year it was down to 7.2 percent. Neither team in the World Series had a Black player on its roster. Any thoughts about the lack of progress?
A: The statistics you just read off are startling. Right before COVID, the Dodgers had us back for Jackie Robinson Day, and before the game started, we’re up in the press box, and Rachel Robinson (Jackie’s widow) is there, and Jackie’s son and daughter. The Dodgers were playing the Reds, and Sandy Koufax walks up and says ‘Jerry, this is amazing. There’s not one player on the Dodgers that is African-American. He said that it was sad that we’re up there celebrating Jackie Robinson, but not much has changed (since the 1970s when Black players were some of the game’s biggest stars). Now they’re trying to bring that back, and they think they need bigger bases and all this other stuff (rule changes to make the game more exciting). Are you kidding me?
8. So what you are saying is that baseball could leave the rules alone if there were more Black players running the bases?
A: Exactly. In (my hometown of) Sacramento, I just did an event where Derek Lee and I put together teams of family members with representatives of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. All the players on both sides were African-American kids, and it was a really special event. With the programs Major League Baseball is doing now last year’s draft was top-heavy with young African-American players. (Four of the top five draft selections were Black, and Bishop Gorman’s Justin Crawford, the son of former major league star Carl Crawford, was selected 17th overall by the Philadelphia Phillies.) They’re all part of the Breakthrough Series started by Major League Baseball which has done more in the last eight to 10 years than any of the other programs they’ve tried to implement to help kids in underserved areas get an opportunity. There were no travel teams back in my day. You played Little League baseball, and then you had to make your way. Travel ball costs thousands of dollars a year, and don’t think that doesn’t go unnoticed by African-American families.
9. As we observe and celebrate Black History Month, that seems far more significant than my last question. During 1984, you were with the Braves when one of the most notorious brawls in baseball history broke out during a game against the Padres. The benches cleared several times, and in virtually every photograph you can be seen wearing a batting helmet. Were you just trying to protect yourself?
A. (Hearty laugh). We had four fights that day, and all of them when I was on deck, because the last hitter was Pascual Perez (the Braves’ pitcher who had started the beanball war.) I was up next, that’s why I didn’t take off my helmet. But it actually came off. I think somebody took it off for me, and I don’t think it was one of my teammates.