Brooklyn Boro

Fred Claire’s biggest win of his life

November 15, 2021 Andy Furman
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Excuse me. Today I’m drifting out of my lane – I think you’ll understand.

It’s a story about the Dodgers – after they left Brooklyn. 

A story that highlights a man who not only had a remarkable career as a baseball executive.

But a man who won, perhaps the biggest off-field battle in his life.

News for those who live, work and play in Brooklyn and beyond

The battle against cancer.

Fred Claire was a longtime front-office marketing executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

And as he chronicles with Tim Madigan in Extra Innings, the former sportswriter – with no experience in player trades and roster construction – shocked the baseball world by winning the 1988 World Series.

That shocker, sad but true, took a back seat to what Claire endured with his health.

“In 2016, skin cancer that began on my lip had spread to my jaw,” he wrote.

With his life on the line, he found his way to City of Hope National Medical Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Duarte.

City of Hope sprawls over more than a hundred acres in Durate, about thirty miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, wrote Claire. On any typical day, clinicians, researchers, administrators, nurses, volunteers, support staff, and patients hurry back and forth between the medical center’s earth-toned buildings; occasionally, though, they pause for a few restorative minutes in places of natural beauty and quiet, according to Claire.

The year was 1978, remembered Claire. That’s when a young oncologist/researcher named Dr. Stephen Forman treated several leukemia patients at the medical center of the University of Southern California.

All of them died.

“I wanted to be part of something that would change the outcomes for those people,” Forman said years later.

He found that opportunity in an unlikely place – a small medical center in the little-known suburb of Duarte. Despite its obscurity, City of Hope was one of only six facilities in the United States experimenting with the use of bone marrow and stem cell transplantation to treat blood cancers.

For Fred Claire, it began with a spot on the left side of his lower lip – one so small that even his wife, Sheryl, didn’t notice it. 

In January 2015, after a biopsy, a dermatologist diagnosed it as squamous cell carcinoma, a potentially deadly form of skin cancer.

The prognosis was hopeful after a surgery known as Mohs procedure. The cancer did not appear to have spread to surrounding tissue, and doctors were confident it had been completely removed.

Fast forward to April 2017 – Claire now 81 – fighting the ravages of jaw and neck cancer.

In an interview with Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times, two years later he wrote: “1988 secured Fred’s spot as one of the all-time Dodger greats. Look, he achieved something that hasn’t been done again in what, thirty years. He belongs in the pantheon with Koufax, Drysdale, Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, Lasorda, Vin Scully, all of them. He deserves that as much as any of the others.”

When the cancer returned in 2017, the Claires drove from their Pasadena home to City of Hope for an appointment with Erminia Massarelli, Fred’s oncologist at City of Hope. 

She described a new clinical trial sponsored by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb that was being conducted at major cancer centers across the nation. City of Hope Was one of them. Massarelli was the lead clinician and investigator.

The new trial explored whether two checkpoint inhibitors, administered to a patient simultaneously, would be more effective in combating cancer than just one. It was a blind trial, Massarelli said, meaning that randomly selected patients would receive two drugs, while others would get one checkpoint inhibitor and a placebo.

Claire would receive seven intravenous immunotherapy treatments that would be administered every other week – but within a few weeks of his first treatment, he began to notice that the pain in his neck was subsiding. The area around the tumors had softened to the touch. He could turn his head with greater ease.

Something was happening.

“The cancer was stable,” Massarelli recalled.

On June 10th that year – in a game between the Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds – Fred Claire was invited to throw out the first pitch.

Those words by Times columnist Plaschke rang loud and clear to the ballclub – Fred Claire’s recognition was long overdue.

A Dodgers employee handed Claire a package that contained the familiar white jersey with blue trim. When Claire unfolded it, he saw his name on the back over the number 88 – the World Series championship year he constructed.

He was reluctant to put it on.

“Would Jackie Robinson have taken the field as a Dodger without Branch Rickey? And would Kirk Gibson have hit one of the most historic home runs in baseball history without former general manager Fred Claire making the move to bring him to the team?” Those were the words echoed on the video presentation shown on the scoreboard that evening. 

When the tribute was done, Claire was directed to the pitcher’s mound and delivered a strike to Mickey Hatcher, who was waiting behind the plate.

Perhaps that in itself was a miracle.

But on July 25th, the dots had vanished. Massarelli pointed to the places where they had been just the month before.

“It’s a miracle,” Massarelli replied.

A City of Hope miracle.

Andy Furman is a Fox Sports Radio national talk show host. Previously, he was a scholastic sports columnist for the Brooklyn Eagle. He may be reached at: [email protected] Twitter: @AndyFurmanFSR

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