ROWLEY — Angelo "Junior" Dagres flipped through a scrapbook that includes memories of his professional baseball career yesterday in his Rowley home and could only shake his head in disbelief.
The Newburyport High alumnus, who will turn 74 tomorrow, struggled to remember the point in his life when he was widely considered baseball's top prospect.
"I can hardly remember any of this," Dagres said. "I couldn't have been drunk the whole time. Baseball was good to me, and I was not good to it."
Dagres' scrapbook reads like the first 21 years of a potential Hall of Famer's life. Before graduating from Newburyport High in 1953, the man who has since been elected to the Newburyport High Wall of Fame rewrote the record books for the school's basketball and baseball programs. In basketball, he averaged 32 points per game as a senior and set the record for career points with 1,350. In baseball, he hit .679 as a senior.
Naples, Fla. resident Doug MacBurnie was a senior captain on the Newburyport baseball team when Dagres was a freshman. MacBurnie hit .389 that season, second on the team to Dagres, who hit .434.
"All I can tell you is (Angelo) was the best there ever was coming out of Newburyport," MacBurnie said yesterday.
Dagres' ascent to the big leagues was swift. After rewriting the University of Rhode Island's basketball and baseball record books, he was signed by the Baltimore Orioles as a 21-year-old on Sept. 11, 1955. He played his first game the same day, registering an RBI when he beat out a potential double-play with a runner scoring from third. The best day of his professional career came Sept. 21, when he collected three RBIs in a doubleheader against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
By the end of the season, Orioles manager Paul Richards regarded Dagres as the league's top prospect.
"Send us some more New England boys like Angi Dagres, and maybe we'll do all right sooner than fans expect," said Richards in a story printed in the Boston Globe that offseason.
The following spring, Orioles coach Luman Harris said of Dagres: "There's a kid I wouldn't take $150,000 for."
Newburyport residents were quick to recognize the hometown hero. Before Dagres returned to spring training for his second season, more than 3,000 Newburyport fans gathered at the Masonic auditorium for a banquet in Dagres' honor. Boston Red Sox pitcher Jim Piersall served as a guest speaker at the "testimonial banquet." In a bit of foreshadowing, he offered the following advice to Dagres: "Remember this, Angie. If you can't play in the big leagues right away, bear down wherever you play."
Dagres never played in the big leagues again. Although he led all Orioles players in hitting at spring training in 1956, he was sent to the club's Triple-A affiliate in Vancouver, British Columbia. Dagres said he developed a drinking problem, one that kept him from reaching his potential.
"If I was the coach of the Orioles back then, I wouldn't have brought me up, either," Dagres said. "I was spitting in their eye. They told me to do something, and I went on my own. If I had been a regular, normal person, I would have gone to Vancouver and busted my (butt). I would have been back in Baltimore shortly. Instead, I was brooding. My mind wasn't right, I started drinking, and that got progressively worse."
Dagres said he believed his talent would eventually prevail — a talent that was immense, by all accounts. In Dagres' scrapbook, he has photos in which Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson is standing at home plate, waiting to greet him after his second home run in a spring training game in 1956. The scrapbook also includes tales from Orioles players in which they claim Dagres beat longtime Dodgers great Maury Wills, who eventually stole 586 bases in the major leagues, in a 60-yard dash. There are tales of Red Sox legend Ted Williams tipping his hat to the athleticism and power of a 21-year-old Dagres when they traded spots in rightfield during the doubleheader in 1955. In a late 1955 story in the Baltimore Sun, Dagres is regarded as the top major league prospect since the 1953 call-up of eventual 18-time All-Star Al Kaline by Detroit.
"It was never my ability that kept me out of the big leagues," Dagres said. "I was better than most of the players playing for the Orioles. God blessed me with everything a baseball player could want — speed, power, a great arm ... People said I made it look so easy, like I wasn't even trying. But then I started drinking. That's what I regret."
Dagres married his high school sweetheart, Betty, in 1959. The two are still married with three children and six grandchildren. Dagres said he started to turn his life around by the 1962-1963 offseason, when he received an assurance from then-Red Sox manager Johnny Pesky that he would be playing in the big leagues for the Red Sox at the start of the 1963 season.
As luck would have it, Dagres suffered an injury that would plague the rest of his short career before spring training in 1963. When he was sleeping in a hotel in Philadelphia, the ceiling collapsed on his left elbow. The southpaw had surgery that required the insertion of wires and a screw into his elbow. After brief attempts to switch to first base or pinch hit in the minor leagues, Dagres retired from baseball.
Following his playing career, Dagres opened the Sportsman Lodge in Newburyport along with his uncle. He then started two more local restaurants, both of which he eventually sold for a profit. He coached for a stint at Salem State College and started the Newburyport Legion baseball program in 1972. His latest job was as a partial owner of Green Tree Dog Kennel in Seabrook.
His two sons, Todd and Troy, both played baseball in college — Todd at Trinity College and Troy and Colby. He also has a daughter, Tara. Todd Dagres was one of the most successful venture capitalists in the Boston area earlier this decade before selling his share of the business in Battery Ventures in Wellesley in 2004. He now produces movies. Dagres' grandson, Chad Martin, is also following the baseball family tradition. He completed his junior season as the starting third baseman at The Governor's Academy.
Angelo Dagres has experienced significant health problems over the last two decades. In 1994, he contracted chronic lymphocytic leukemia for the first time and has battled the disease off and on ever since. He had his spleen removed in 2008 and subsequently dropped 61 pounds in a span of four months. He has since returned to his target weight.
"Every time I think I'm healthy, something else comes up," Dagres said.