Arlington native helps open Cooperstown baseball exhibit

Al Ronning spent much of his life in baseball, working as a player, a manager and a scout. Along the way he encountered some of the game’s greatest players, including several who would end up in Cooperstown, N.Y., site of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In May, the 86-year-old Ronning finally got the chance to join them. “It took me 50 years,” he said with a good-natured laugh, referring to the half-century since he retired as a player.

No, Ronning does not have his own plaque alongside the game’s many immortals. Instead he was one of close to 100 scouts who gathered in Cooperstown last month for the opening of the Hall of Fame’s Diamond Mines exhibit, which honors the work and contributions of baseball scouts.

Going to Cooperstown was a thrilling and memorable experience for Ronning, who was raised in Arlington.

“There were close to 4,000 people there,” he said. “I saw people I hadn’t seen for years. Every place I sat, there were guys I knew. Old managers and guys like that.

“And I knew damn near everybody that was on those walls.”

Ronning grew up on a farm just north of the Arlington Municipal Cemetery, and the property was big enough that the road out to the highway was called Ronning Road, as it remains today. He graduated from Arlington High School in 1944 and spent that first summer playing semipro baseball in Bellingham, where a teammate was Earl Torgeson of Snohomish.

Torgeson, who would play in the major leagues from 1947 to 1961, became a close friend.

“I knew Torgie for many, many years,” Ronning said. “Oh, what a character he was. He was a very good friend and I loved him dearly.”

With World War II winding down, Ronning joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to a destroyer. The ship was supposedly headed out to the Pacific, but instead never left the West Coast, and Ronning spent the remaining months of the war in San Diego and San Francisco.

He ended up playing for a service team in San Francisco, where he first caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team that eventually signed him to a contract.

After the war, Ronning returned home and to baseball. He spent four seasons in the Western International League — a forerunner of today’s Northwest League — and then began climbing through the Dodgers’ farm system. A solid catcher with modest offensive skills, he spent seven seasons in either AAA or AA.

His best year in AAA was with Montreal of the International League in 1956, when he batted .249 with a .304 slugging percentage.

In his 17-year minor league career, Ronning teamed with some of the great names in Dodgers history, including Junior Gilliam, Wes Parker, Maury Wills, John Roseboro and Johnny Podres. Three onetime teammates went on to greater successes as major league managers — Tom Lasorda, Sparky Anderson and Dick Williams. And in 1951, while playing for Class A Pueblo, Colo., teammate Elroy Face — later a six-time All-Star pitcher with Pittsburgh — was the best man at Ronning’s wedding.

But Ronning’s own career ended up shy of the major leagues and he spent 11 seasons as a minor-league manager, including six as a player-manager. He left the dugout in 1968 and for the next 35 years worked as a scout, much of it with the Major League Scouting Bureau, which provides player evaluations to all big-league teams.

In 2002 he was named Scout of the Year award for the western United States, as chosen by the Hall of Fame.

Ronning scouted primarily in central California, where he saw several young players who would go on to big-league greatness. Among them, a young shortstop named Ozzie Smith who was, Ronning said, “the best shortstop I ever saw.” And a towering left-handed pitcher named Randy Johnson, who as a 15-year-old high school player “couldn’t throw the ball straight, but you sure couldn’t hit him.”

Looking back on his years as a scout, “I wasn’t always right,” Ronning said. “But most of the time I was.”

Ronning lives today in Sunnyvale, Calif., just outside San Jose. He still enjoys attending baseball games, “and if I can help somebody, they call me,” he said. “I tell everybody, if you need help, fine. It’s something to keep me busy.”

And of his own years in baseball, he said, “I was lucky. And I persevered.”

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