Detroit’s Carmen Fanzone refused to choose between music and baseball

During his stint with the Chicago Cubs in the early 1970s, infielder Carmen Fanzone plays trumpet during a pregame ceremony at Wrigley Field.

Of all the major leaguers reared in Detroit, I would guess that none have a backstory more interesting than that of Carmen Fanzone. A renaissance man with one of the great names in the sport, Fanzone honed his skills as both a ballplayer and a musician while growing up in Michigan. At times, he felt pressure to give up one pursuit so that he could concentrate on the other, but always resisted that temptation. To this day, he has no regrets.

As he was growing up in Detroit in the 1950s, Fanzone’s interests in baseball and music began at an early age. He developed idols in both areas. From music, he admired horn players Chet Baker and Paul Desmond. From baseball, he idolized Tigers stars Al Kaline and Harvey Kuenn.

Fanzone started playing organized ball at the age of seven; one year later, he began playing the trumpet. While attending high school at Cass Tech in Detroit, he performed capably for the school band. Fanzone did his best to juggle both of his primary interests. “If I wasn’t going to a band rehearsal,” Fanzone told writer Jerry Crowe of the Los Angeles Times, “I was going to a baseball practice, or vice versa.” After high school, Fanzone went to Ferris State in Big Rapids, where he played baseball, but eventually transferred to Central Michigan University. It was there that he majored in music.

As a ballplayer, Fanzone drew interest from several major league teams. The Boston Red Sox signed him as an amateur free agent in 1964 and assigned him to their NY-Penn League affiliate at Wellsville, where he played three of the four infield positions. Fanzone made a strong first impression by hitting 21 home runs and posting an OPS of 1.165.

As well as Fanzone had played in Wellsville, he struggled to match that performance as he moved up the Red Sox’ ladder. Fanzone continued to hit for a high average, but without the power the Sox had seen in the NY-Penn League. As a result, it took Fanzone six years to make it to Boston. Curiously, Fanzone faced some resentment in the minor leagues. While his major league managers would never tell him to abandon his musical pursuits, he did receive some blowback from some of his minor league skippers. At least one, longtime Red Sox company man Eddie Popowski, told Fanzone to give up music entirely and concentrate on baseball.

In spite of the resentment, Fanzone continued to pursue both of his loves. As a third baseman, Fanzone’s lack of power had concerned some within the organization, but he did his best to make up for that by hustling at all times. One of those who took a liking to Fanzone was the great Ted Williams, who was serving as a spring training instructor for the Red Sox in 1968. Impressed by Fanzone’s attitude, Williams took a liking to him and gave him some of his patented hitting advice. Fanzone was impressed. “It was like God was talking to me,” Fanzone told the Los Angeles Times.

Carmen Fanzone in a publicity photo while he was a member of the Boston Red Sox in the late 1960s.

Bolstered by the instruction he received from Williams, Fanzone showed more power in the minor leagues that summer, hitting 17 home runs at Double-A Pittsfield. He also drew 98 walks, a career high. Two years later, Fanzone’s work with Williams paid off even more fully when he received a midseason call-up to Boston. He was hardly a young phenom at this point, already 28 years of age. But it was still the major leagues, the culmination of a long period of hard work for a journeyman like Fanzone.

His apprenticeship completed, Fanzone would make his debut at third base, in the middle of the 1970 season, while filling in for Rico Petrocelli and George Scott. In his first game at third base, Fanzone made two errors on the first two balls hit his way. Then he settled down.

Of course, even if Fanzone starred at third base, there was no way for him to become the Red Sox’ starter there, given the power of Petrocelli and Scott, both holdovers from the 1967 “Impossible Dream” team. The only other realistic option for Fanzone was second base, but the Red Sox also featured a capable player there in Mike Andrews, another survivor from their ‘67 team. Barring a trade, there was simply nowhere for Fanzone to play.

That winter, in a move that came as a relief to Fanzone, the Red Sox pulled off a trade. They sent Fanzone to the Chicago Cubs for veteran infielder Phil Gagliano. Now out of Boston, Fanzone hoped for more playing time in the National League.

Unfortunately, the Cubs posed roadblocks to Fanzone. Like the Red Sox, the Cubs already had established regulars at third base, where Hall of Famer Ron Santo resided, and at second base, the home of Glenn Beckert. So it was back to Triple-A Tacoma, the Cubs’ affiliate in the Pacific Coast League. Known as a league friendly to hitters, the PCL provided the perfect backdrop for an experienced player like Fanzone, who responded with a .327 average and 28 home runs.

As a reward for his fine summer in Tacoma, the Cubs called Fanzone up in September. That gave him a chance to make a return to Wrigley Field, a ballpark with which he had some familiarity—but through music. “As a matter of fact,” Fanzone told Edgar Munzel of The Sporting News, “I was in Wrigley Field blowing a trumpet long before I ever got here as a baseball player. I was here with the Central Michigan band for appearances between halves at [Chicago] Bears games in 1963 and 1964.”

Now that he had arrived at Wrigley as a ballplayer, the Cubs hoped to make a utility player of Fanzone. In his very first at-bat with the Cubs, he entered the game as a pinch-hitter and delivered a home run at Three Rivers Stadium.

Fanzone would hit one more home run that September, masking a subpar batting average of .186. Still, the Cubs liked his versatility, which allowed him to play at third base, first base, and the outfield corners. So in 1972, the Cubs included Fanzone on their Opening Day roster.

For the first time in his career, Fanzone would not spend a day in the minor leagues. Maintaining his roster spot in Chicago throughout the summer, Fanzone hit only .225 but did provide protection at five different positions while appearing in 86 games.

Playing in Chicago provided an extra benefit. Since the Cubs played all of their home games in the daytime hours at Wrigley Field, Fanzone was now free to pursue musical gigs at night. Once the game ended, Fanzone typically made his way to a local establishment to participate in extended jazz sessions. As Fanzone would say many years later, “it was good therapy for me.” The Cubs seemed to respect Fanzone’s musical talents, as they asked him to perform the National Anthem with his trumpet.

Typically, Fanzone played for the Salvation Army during the off-season and taught music classes in the winter. He also played the trumpet at night spots in Chicago and area high schools. He specialized in jazz, with a little classical thrown in for good measure.

On the field, Fanzone put up his best season in 1973. Again fulfilling a jack-of-all-trades role, he hit .273 and posted an OPS of .797, a terrific mark for a bench player. With Santo now 33 and showing signs that the end of his career was near, some speculated that Fanzone might take over the third base job. Given his offensive flashes, along with a reputation for good defensive play, the Cubs thought they might have a successor to the aging Santo.

It didn’t happen. That October, the Cubs traded Ferguson Jenkins to the Texas Rangers for a package that included Bill Madlock, arguably the top young player in the Rangers’ organization. It was Madlock, and not Fanzone, who would succeed Santo at the hot corner.

Once again returning to Chicago in a reserve role, Fanzone hit only .190. Now on the wrong side of 30 and stuck in the wrong organization, he received his release after the 1974 season.

At 33 years old, Fanzone did not want to leave the game—at least not yet. He found work in the minor leagues, signing with the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders, the top affiliate of the San Diego Padres. At the time, the Islanders made a habit of signing veterans, making them a haven for major league castoffs like Fanzone. Veteran players enjoyed life with the Islanders, who could provide the benefit of warm, sunny afternoons and the endless beaches of Honolulu.

Fanzone played only sparingly for the Islanders and didn’t hit much. A .217 batting average, combined with a severe ankle injury in midseason, convinced him that it was time to retire.

In contrast to many players, Fanzone had little trouble making the transition from ballplayer to real life. He moved to Los Angeles and became a fulltime musical performer, specializing in jazz as a flugelhorn player. In one of his more notable gigs, one that lasted two full years, he played trumpet for the Baja Marimba Band at the Fairmount Hotel in New Orleans.

All these years after his playing days ended, Fanzone still dabbles in music. He also spends much of his time working as a troubleshooter for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. At last work, he still maintained an office in Hollywood, which is filled photographs of celebrity musicians and teammates that he has met along the way.

Though he never did become a musical superstar, Fanzone has certainly emerged as one of the most successful athletes-turned-musicians in baseball history. Now 75, Carmen lives with his wife in Sherman Oaks, CA. His wife, the accomplished Sue Raney, has done very well; she is a four time Grammy Award nominee.

And just in case you thought that Fanzone has been forgotten, consider this. A recent television show, Transformers Animated, featured a character named “Carmine Fanzone,” who is the captain of the Detroit Police Department. Reportedly, the real Fanzone had to sign a waiver allowing for his name to be used by the TV series.

Even though he continues to live in California, Fanzone still maintains a connection to Detroit. “I grew up [there], and have a sister and friends and cousins [still] there,” Fanzone told Cubs Vine Line in 2011. “I still consider that my home and still am a Tigers fan.”

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.