Don Demeter – Mountain of a Man
The mighty Old Testament prophet Ezekiel thundered, in the depths of Israel’s fall from grace: “So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.”
Sadly, Ezekiel did not live in the time of Don Demeter. In an age of great knowledge, little understanding, and scarce wisdom, modern Oklahoma has not had that problem. At least one good, gentle, quietly great, giant of a man fought the good fight, finished the race just after Thanksgiving, and kept the faith.
He was a mountain of a man whose preaching voice sounded chiseled from Western canyons, whose loping gait made the great major league home run base paths he devoured seem small, and whose bearlike handshake gifted warmth and belief in you, and he empowered the wounded, the unlovely, and the overlooked to feel and walk as kings and queens of the world, and to follow the King Himself.
How unlikely a tale to have begun the way it did. But isn’t that just the sort that God glories in authoring?
Los Angeles Dodger Don Demeter smashing a home run with his first swing from the plate in the major leagues.
Don Demeter began life in the depths of Dust Bowl and Great Depression-wracked Oklahoma, in a broken, poverty-stricken southside OKC home near the smelly old Stockyards “Packin’ Town.” He was a lanky, broad-shouldered boy who could run like the wind. As Demeter bounced from home to home, around the country, God pieced together a life and a vision for him through a devout grandmother who taught and demonstrated the gospel to him and daily prayed for him. A foster father, meanwhile, gave the youth a vision of Christian manhood and servant leadership of a loving family.
At 11 years of age, Demeter trusted in Christ at Exchange Avenue Baptist Church and was spiritually saved. Having found Someone who would never leave him, the verse he clung to from that day until the end of his life was Hebrews 13:5, in which Jesus promised His followers: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
He attended a Capitol Hill High School teeming with tough, poor kids who won state championships in everything, became college All-Americans, gained fame as professional athletes and hall-of-famers, and brought home Olympic gold. A friendly, good-natured kid, he was the only Redskin starter who did not make the All City based team. So revered was he by his teammates, though, that when the Brooklyn Dodgers offered pro contracts to two of them, they refused to accept them unless Demeter was given one, too.
Don Demeter as a Philadelphia Philly putting out Willie Mays at third base.
So, on graduation night in 1953, he signed with the Dodgers for $800 and began his professional career with their lowest level farm team, the Shawnee (OK) Hawks of the Sooner State League. Don recalled the “glamor” of that bygone era of minor league ball:
When you went on a road trip and had a flat tire on the bus, the last guy who’d joined the club pushed the tire to the next town and got it fixed. The day after I reported, another kid joined the club. We ran over a chicken and blew a tire. That kid had to thumb a ride back to a garage and bring a mechanic back.
But within a few seasons, he had risen to play for major league Brooklyn, then Los Angeles when the team moved. He hit a home run with his first swing in the majors. You can watch that here:
His teammates included future hall of famers Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and his roommate Don Drysdale.
At age 24, he played centerfield and got several hits as the Dodgers won the World Series. The three home games they played in that series still boast the three largest crowds ever to watch a series game in person, the final of them being the largest ever, with 93,000 people in attendance.
Yet in the joyous locker room following the final game, Don Demeter asked himself: “Is this all there is to life? Is this the best it gets?”
That memorable sequence tilted his life more directly onto a trajectory that would eventually bless countless people across Oklahoma and far beyond.
Meanwhile, the 6 foot 4 inch Oklahoman with the big hands, speedy legs, and powerful swing blasted 20-plus home run four straight years with the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers, and totaled 163 in his career. He hit .307 one season, the seventh highest average in the National League. Twice, he hit three homers in one game. A complete player, he competently manned five different positions on the field, received Most Valuable Player in the National League votes two different seasons, and played three straight years without committing one error in the field.
The play that ended that errorless streak demonstrates the cheerful trust in life’s course that marked Don Demeter. A groundskeeper’s dog raced onto the field, disrupted Demeter’s perfect throw from the outfield on an opponent’s line drive hit, and caused the infielder to miss the throw and the runner to advance. He later said with a laugh:
The scorer couldn’t charge the dog with the error, so he assigned it to me! But I know in my own mind there were probably some balls before that on which I should have been given an error but wasn’t.
Nonetheless, he held the major league record for games played without committing an error for 30 years.
Gene Mauch, Demeter’s legendary manager in Philadelphia, trumpeted the Oklahoman’s work ethic: “He grinds it out every day, with the best disposition in the world. And now he’s established himself in multiple positions, a greater value to himself and any team.”
A Topps bubble gum baseball card of Don Demeter playing for the Boston Red Sox, of the sort thousands of Oklahoma boys collected.
SOLDIER OF CHRIST
Demeter didn’t drink, smoke or cuss. His abiding trust in God and acceptance of the (apparently) bad with the good, shines as an enduring testament. In 1967, he helped the Boston Red Sox win the American League pennant, but was traded before they played in the World Series. His reaction? He thought the player for whom he was traded helped the team more than he would have.
In 1968, Detroit wanted to re-sign him, but he decided to retire. That team won the World Series.
Why, at age 32, and still in the prime of his career and a young man’s strength, did Demeter retire from baseball? His Christian convictions guided his belief that God bestows His gifts and talents—even great ones—on people not primarily for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, though that often occurs as well, but as means to help draw men and women to Himself. “A solider on active service,” the New Testament apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy, “will not let himself be involved in civilian affairs. He must be wholly at his commanding officer’s disposal.”
Thus, presented a rare opportunity to return to the powerful Detroit Tigers, Don Demeter, so often on the road, out of state, traveling the country playing baseball, battling and overcoming painful injuries, looked at his sons Russ and Todd. What did he see?
According to Todd, decades later: “He saw two boys who needed a father.”
After baseball, Demeter began the Spartan pool construction business, where both of his sons eventually worked with him, and which proved a long term success that continues even today, under Russ’s leadership.
And he continued a faithful pursuit of Bible study, teaching, and leadership, which he had grown well known for during his major league career.
Most importantly, he remained strong and trusting in his faith, even after his beloved son Todd, father of five and himself a tremendous baseball player and man of God, died at age 35 of Hodgkins’ Disease.
In 2002, Don founded Grace Community Baptist Church in far south Oklahoma City as its pastor, with his daughter Jill and her husband, son-in-law Rob Cleveland.
Grace Community Baptist Church Pastor and Co-founder Don Demeter.
ALL ALONG THE WAY
Through the years, Don Demeter won countless awards and was inducted into many halls of fame. All the while, he provided a rare model of consistent, greathearted Christian manhood for his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren, and many others. Perhaps greatest of all, next to his stainless testimony of faith, was his radiant, 64-year marriage to the former Betty Jo Madole. Remember that godly foster father? Well, Demeter and Betty met when he was 15 years old at an Exchange Avenue Baptist Church social event in Capitol Hill, where the man served as chairman of the deacons and Sunday School Superintendent.
Demeter’s embodiment of strong, yet patient, forgiving, and loving fatherhood and husbanding has impacted many who had their own fathers. One was his grandson Cole Cleveland, who heard a sermon from his grandpa as a boy that changed his life. “It was entitled ‘Give a Cup of Cold Water,’” Cleveland recalled. “He talked about the importance of encouraging people. Instead of adding to their confusing and sometimes chaotic life with more struggle, we should give them a cup of cold water. There’s nothing like a cup of cold water for the soul.”
The boy who heard that sermon grew up to be his grandfather’s successor as pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church, and himself a faithful husband and father.
When Demeter was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 2010, acclaimed Oklahoman newspaper sports columnist Berry Tramel wrote: “When they build a Father’s Hall of Fame, Demeter will be a first ballot inductee.”
But all along the way, usually quietly and with few if any human witnesses, big, manly Don Demeter was impacting the fatherless boys of the world as well. Only the Lord knows the number of that legion. One of them was this author.
As a Little League ballplayer living in hot, dusty Oklahoma in a one bedroom apartment with my brother and widowed mom—she slept on the couch in the living room so that we boys could have the bedroom—there were two baseball players whose bubble gum baseball cards I still remember collecting every year when they came out at the beginning of the season: Mickey Mantle and Don Demeter. They were both poor like me and I remember even as a little boy thinking to myself: “They are from Oklahoma and they made it…maybe I can, too.”
Who would have predicted that nearly half a century later, I would wind up meeting Pastor Don for the first time, belonging to his church for several years, and eve