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Death of Bessent Is Special Tragedy : Baseball: Former Dodger pitcher is found in Florida parking lot, a victim of alcohol poisoning.

July 11, 1990|ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps Don Bessent was not the best known of the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a young role player among the Boys of Summer.

Still, his death Saturday at 59 will be marked by a special sadness because of its tragic elements.

Bessent, who pitched for the Dodgers from 1955 to 1958, died in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., while employees watched.

The Jacksonville Medical Examiner's office reported that Bessent died of alcohol poisoning, aggravated by cirrhosis of the liver. The report said he had a blood alcohol level of 0.35% when he died, sometime between 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Employees of the Wendy's restaurant where he died said they noticed Bessent was slumped in his car in the parking lot. Police have not determined why he was at the restaurant in the upscale Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville. Nor do they know where he had been earlier that day.

Employees said Bessent at first said he was OK when they offered assistance, but later asked for help. They told police that assistant manager Cesar Taracena threatened to fire them if they called for help.

Two employees, however, approached an off-duty police officer who called paramedics, said Sgt. Steve Weintrab of the Jacksonville sheriff's office. The paramedics declared Bessent dead when they arrived.

Mark Starbuck, a regional vice president of Wendy's franchises in the Jacksonville area, said managers are not trained to handle the kind of emergency Tarcena encountered.

Starbuck said restaurant officials are cooperating with an investigation by sheriff's deputies and refused to discuss the situation.

He said Taracena was fired Tuesday. Taracena refused to comment on the situation.

Bessent's death in his hometown ended a life that once was promising.

Although overshadowed by such Dodger stars as Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, Bessent made his mark--first as a starter, then as a reliever--in four seasons.

He was best remembered for his World Series performances, pitching against the New York Yankees in five Series games in 1955 and '56. He was 1-0 with a 1.35 earned-run average in 13 1/3 innings.

Bessent, who grew up in Jacksonville, was called up to the Dodgers from their triple-A farm club in St. Paul, Minn., in 1955, at the same time as Roger Craig, now manager of the San Francisco Giants.

The rookies were called when the team slumped in mid-summer after a 25-4 start. They gave the Dodgers a welcomed lift by pitching complete-game victories in a doubleheader against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Bessent went on to finish 1955 with an 8-1 record and a 2.70 ERA. In 1956, he was 4-3 with a 2.50 ERA and had nine saves. He was only 1-3 with a 5.73 ERA in 1957, then was 1-0 with a 3.33 ERA in 1958, the Dodgers' first season in Los Angeles.

"Don Bessent won my 27th game for me in 1956," said Don Newcombe, one of the Dodger starters. "That save always reminded me Bessent was involved in helping me win the Cy Young (Award)."

Teammates have fond memories of "the Weasel," as they nicknamed him. Although Bessent was a quiet, well-mannered youngster, the Dodgers respected him.

"He was quiet in his own way, but he would go to war for you," Don Drysdale said. "They always talk about Dodger starters, but I'm the first one to say, 'Hey, let's talk about our bullpen, too.' Don was part of those early great bullpens."

Newcombe recounted the time the Dodgers were barnstorming in Japan in 1956 when he and Roy Campanella, both blacks, were barred from certain establishments. Bessent and Bob Lewis refused to join their white teammates at such social gatherings, opting to stay with Newcombe and Campanella.

Newcombe said he particularly respected Bessent for staying behind even though Bessent grew up in the South.

Roger Kahn, author of "The Boys of Summer," said Bessent's quiet manner perhaps kept him from being more famous. But Kahn marveled at Bessent's fastball, which many catchers did not want to catch because of its velocity.

"His personality was recessive," Kahn said. "He was just one of the many promising kids who came out of the Dodger system. One of the curious things was that they produced so many promising pitchers who blazed briefly and then expired. After the first year, we thought he would win 20 games."

Instead, Bessent was relegated to the bullpen, from where he could intimidate hitters with the fastball for a couple of innings.

Drysdale recalled the frustration of having the Yankees read Bessent's pitches, which encompassed a fastball and a curve. He said every time Bessent was about to throw a curve, they would hear a whistle from the Yankee dugout.

"We couldn't figure out why," Drysdale said. "Later, we learned that every time Bessent threw a curve, he stuck his tongue out."

Bessent finished his big league career with a 14-7 record, a 3.33 ERA and 12 saves.

He teamed with Clem Labine and Ed Roebuck to form one of the league's best relief staffs.

Bessent developed arm trouble in 1959 and retired in 1962 after four seasons in the minors.

He graduated from Jacksonville Lee High School in 1949 and was drafted by the New York Yankees. After pitching for the Yankees' farm club in Norfolk, Va., he was left unprotected and picked up by the Dodgers in the 1953 draft.

"One thing that could be said for Don, he always went out strong every time he pitched," Carl Erskine, a Dodger pitching star from the era, told the Associated Press.

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