Dick Derganc turned a little bit of leverage from an extra-long digit into a stint in the minor leagues that left him with a wealth of memories that delight him to this day.
Born and bred in Berkeley, Calif., the 90-year-old Lewiston resident said he inherited his interesting index fingers from his dad. They extend a good quarter-inch past his middle fingers, and the left-handed pitcher figured the atypical configuration gave him an edge when he needed to make the ball dance.
“I never had it the other way,” he said with a laugh. “But I’m sure it made a difference. They never really hit the ball hard when I threw the screwball. They mostly hit it on the ground. It worked well for me and kept me going.”
Derganc played pickup baseball games around Berkeley like any American kid, and discovered he had real talent as he got older and began mingling with better and better players. Some guys from the local minor league team would work out at Berkeley’s James Kenney Park, for instance, and some of the boys got the chance to play with them.
By his senior year of high school, Derganc made it on a team of minor league players that assembled to take on nearby college teams like Stanford and Cal. He got a big break around 1947 during a traditional game that matched up teams from the east and west sides of the San Francisco Bay.
“I was lucky enough to play in that, and I think the scouts saw me there,” he said.
One scout from the St. Louis Cardinals talked to his parents, and instead of heading off to college as planned, Derganc signed a contract to play with the organization’s minor league team in Fresno. His face still beams at the memory.
“I thought it was the greatest thing that could happen,” he said while recalling his two years hurling curveballs and sliders for Fresno. “I was called a ‘thumber.’ That’s a guy that throws a lot of junk.”
Someone told him he still needed another pitch, however, so they worked up a screwball. The off-speed pitch was pretty much the opposite of his curve. It drove hitters nuts.
“It made the right-handed batters chase it,” Derganc said. “There weren’t a lot of people who could throw a curveball the opposite way.”
After two years, the Cardinals sent him to Pocatello midseason to help that team in its quest for a championship. He excelled, going 11-0 as a relief pitcher and helping his teammates finish the season on top. But then the Korean War broke out. The U.S. Army drafted Derganc and assigned him to its signal corps.
He spent 15 months on the Korean Peninsula where there wasn’t much time for baseball. The only time he recalled playing was during some rest and relaxation in Japan. But the Cardinals were waiting for him, and sent him to the Houston Buffaloes minor league team for spring training when he returned.
Things didn’t go well in Texas, however. Derganc said he had too much free time and developed what he called a “nervous condition” that included drinking too much. He split with the team and went home to California to work for a time.
But then in 1953, he heard from his manager in Pocatello, Larry Barton, who was with a new team. It was the Lewiston Broncs.
“He called me with an offer to come up and play for the Lewiston team,” Derganc said.
The Broncs let him go after little more than a season because the team got bumped down to a Class B organization and couldn’t afford his salary. Still, he met a young woman named Faye Herman from Genesee while he was in Lewiston. They ended up being married for 60 years.
Now a team of two, they spent their first 15 years back in California, where Derganc manufactured aluminum and fiberglass parts for the defense industry. But Faye missed her family, so they moved back to Genesee and Derganc took a job at the local school as a maintenance worker.
He still had the game in his blood, and helped out the school’s baseball team by occasionally coaching its pitchers. And Derganc always wears the players union ring from his minor league days. He proudly displays the memento for everyone to see, including the staff at Brookdale Lewiston, the assisted living facility he now happily calls home.
Other admirers include members of the Lewis-Clark State College Warriors team, who visited Brookdale this week ahead of their appearance in the NAIA World Series. Baseball has advanced so much since his day that he didn’t offer any advice to the players, other than to cherish every moment of the fleeting experience.
“Now I look back at it, and I can’t believe it happened,” he said of getting paid to play baseball. “I can’t believe I got a chance to play with professional players.”
Mills may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.