Nearly 50 years have passed since Fred Cambria last sported a Saint Leo University baseball uniform, but his contributions to the program won’t be forgotten.
Cambria — the first Major League Baseball draftee in Saint Leo history— will have his No. 22 jersey retired by the school on April 14, prior to a Lions home game against Sunshine State Conference foe Rollins College at 1:30 p.m.
In a pregame ceremony, Saint Leo’s athletic department will unveil a sign saluting No. 22, which will hang on the outfield fence at Thomas B. Southard Stadium.
Cambria will throw out the first pitch surrounded by family, university administration, alumni and other special guests.
Cambria was a standout pitcher for Saint Leo from 1966 to 1969 for the then-Monarchs under coaches Bill Meyer, Norm Kaye and Bob Sullivan.
His skillset on the mound eventually caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who selected him in the third round (58th overall) of the 1969 MLB Draft.
The former big leaguer was “overwhelmed” when he received a call a few weeks back from Saint Leo athletic director Fran Reidy about the plan to retire his jersey.
“It’s a great honor for me. It really is,” Cambria, now 70, said.
“There are no words to put into it because if it wasn’t for Saint Leo, I don’t know where I would be. It was a great fit for me…and it really was just perfect for me; couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said.
Cambria, at 6-foot-2, originally intended to play basketball at Saint Leo after enrolling from Queens, New York. However, he changed his mind after seeing a bulletin board posting for baseball fall tryouts.
“I don’t think I had a career in basketball, so I went with baseball, and it’s the best decision I ever made,” said Cambria.
“I thought the great opportunity was in baseball, and Mr. Kaye, who was the baseball coach at that time, also gave me a great opportunity to pitch, and things started to work out pretty well.”
Cambria also credits coach Meyer for his development as a ballplayer. Meyer, who also served as a baseball scout for a handful of MLB organizations, taught Cambria various nuances like locating inside, throwing sliders and altering pitch speeds.
Said Cambria, “He knew a lot about pitching and helped me tremendously on getting to the next level. That’s how I really matured on the mound, with Bill’s guidance.”
Among Cambria’s favorite memories in a Saint Leo uniform was a home game against Florida State University that was played at then-Mickens High School in Dade City.
Florida State, ranked No. 1 at the time, “came down to beat up on us a little bit,” Cambria said. But, he recalls leading Saint Leo to a 3-2 victory after racking up 18 strikeouts and hitting a home run, to boot.
“It was a lot of scouts in the stands to see Florida State, and I think they turned their attention a little bit to me on that one; that was pretty good,” Cambria said.
After he was drafted out of Saint Leo, Cambria went on to pitch for five seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees organizations, including for the 1970 National League champion Pirates.
At just 22, Cambria pitched six games for the Pirates, including five starts, posting a 1-2 record, and 3.51 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 33.1 innings.
A young player seemingly destined for a lengthy career, he was never the same after suffering a rotator cuff injury that season.
With few developments in treating sports injuries at the time, Cambria tried making a comeback. But, he toiled in the minors, and he was released twice in one year — out of baseball by age 25.
“I saw the writing on the wall,” Cambria said. “I was disappointed for about six months, ‘Why me?’ But, I tried to never think of it that way. It was a blessing in disguise.”
Though a hapless ending to what could’ve been, Cambria still savors the short time spent in the majors.
That included the opportunity to suit up with three of the game’s most recognizable names in the Pirates organization: Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Bill Mazeroski.
Said Cambria, “Its kind of rare today that a young feller, just coming up to the big leagues, played with three Hall of Famers. I think that’s what made the Pirates such a dynasty in the ‘70s, because they had great leadership because of those three guys. “Roberto Clemente was a great leader, a great ballplayer; and the same for Willie Stargell. They molded this team, they were respected, and it was great camaraderie. So that was a great feather in my cap, having those gentlemen teach me the game the right way and playing it the right way.”
After his playing career, Cambria spent the next decade-plus in the business world as an Izod salesman.
He returned to the game — and school — he loved, when he served as Saint Leo’s head baseball coach from 1990 to 1991. He compiled a 55-46 record in those two seasons.
Incidentally, the coaching opportunity arose following his 1987 induction into Saint Leo’s athletic hall of fame, where he reconnected with Kaye, the school’s athletic director at the time. Kaye later thought of Cambria when searching for a baseball coach in 1990.
“I enjoyed it very much. It was very interesting,” Cambria said of coaching at his alma mater. “I learned a lot about the game of baseball. Because you play, it doesn’t mean you know it, and how to teach kids and things like that.”
Cambria noted he was lucky to work alongside “a great assistant coach” in Frank Verdi for those two seasons. Verdi played in the New York Yankees organization in the ’40s and ’50s and later spent three decades managing for several Triple-A organizations recording over 1,300 wins.
Meanwhile, Cambria stayed closely tied to America’s pastime after his coaching stint ended at Saint Leo.
He served as a pitching coach for the San Diego Padres organization in the Arizona Fall Instructional League and the Australian Professional League.
He also became the commissioner of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League (ACBL) and was selected to its hall of fame. (Cambria played in the ACBL in the summer during his Saint Leo career and was the first player out of the ACBL to make it to the MLB).
More recently, Cambria in 2013 became the first-ever commissioner of the Hamptons Collegiate Baseball League (HCBL), a summer baseball organization located in The Hamptons in New York.
Now retired, Cambria today lives in Northport, New York, staying busy with volunteer work in surrounding communities.
Cambria said he last visited Saint Leo about a year ago, as part of a seminar to guide student-athletes in career development and gaining employment after college.
“I was so amazed with the university and how it’s grown, and what a great campus it is,” Cambria said.
Published April 11, 2018