The Occasional Sweet Sounds of the Ballpark -- 2017 Style by Rich Puerzer
Fritz, We Hardly Knew Ye by Rev. Norb
Glimmerglass by Adam Berenbak
"Aparicio to Henry to Skowron" A Close Encounter with Baseball Immortals by J. Patrick Henry
Foley Before the King, October 1989 by David Lawton
Scorebook Memories by Mark Hughson
It Was Game 2 of the 1996 World Series by Nancy Golden
From Devastation to Elation -- Houston Celebrates Its' First World Series by Gabe LaBounty
The Astrodome and Astroturf by Todd Taylor
Baseball and Grass by Todd Taylor
A Few of Our Participatory Moments in This Great Game of Baseball by Abby & Jesse Mendelson
Panda and the Freak -- Written and Performed by The Baseball Project and Annotated by Jade Wade Edwards
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
For the last thirty-some years, I have been a huge fan and had a passion for two things: all things baseball, and music, specifically what was once called “college rock.” In the 1980’s, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bill James, R.E.M, and the Replacements brought me more joy than just about anything else. Unfortunately, at least for me, in those thirty-some years a trip to the ballpark rarely brought aural pleasure. While I will never complain about the classic sound of a ballpark organ jamming away Muzak-style between innings, and aside from the perfection that is “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” generally speaking, the music played before and during games doesn’t really do much for me. I like Springsteen and am ok with John Fogerty, but at this point I would be fine if I didn’t hear “Glory Days” or “Centerfield” for at least a few years.
One of the greatest things to happen in the world in the last decade is the band The Baseball Project. Featuring members of great college rock bands The Dream Syndicate, The Young Fresh Fellows, and R.E.M., The Baseball Project has three albums of songs about baseball culture and history. In my opinion, their songs should be on the mandatory playlist for major and minor league ballparks. But alas, I have only heard their songs in my car on the way to and from games. However, during my trips to major and minor league games during the 2017 season, I had several occasions where I heard music played throughout the park that brought a smile to my face and joy to my heart.
In May, I was in Baltimore and saw the Orioles take on the Red Sox. Of course there was “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” and a lot of other dreck. But during a late game pitching change, “How Soon Is Now” by the Smiths, one of my personal 1980’s anthems, came over the speakers. There is certainly something dissonant in hearing the very English Morrissey signing about loneliness in one of the great ballparks in the U.S., but it sure made me happy at the time.
Another enjoyable music experience came during a Lakewood BlueClaws game on the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend. I really like going to minor league baseball games for many reasons, although music does not usually make that list. Two of my sons and I thoroughly enjoyed this game at this Central New Jersey, Class A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in the South Atlantic League. The ballpark, the food, and the play on the field were all very cool. Of course, minor league teams almost always have a “night” or hook to make the game experience more attractive to the public, and this was “Beatles Night.” I like the Beatles, of course. And perhaps like millions of people walking the Earth, I truly love a bunch of their songs. But I fully expected that the music played at this game would just be drawn from the “1” compilation of their number one hits. However, whoever was in charge of music did a fine job of mixing up the hits with what classic rock stations refer to as “deep tracks.” They played “Blue Jay Way,” “Dear Prudence,” “Polyurethane Pam,” and two of my personal favorites but certainly not #1 hits, “Yer Blues,” and “Blackbird.” But my favorite moment was when the BlueClaws players took the field to the tune of “Helter Skelter.” That was pretty great.
My favorite baseball/music experience of the summer occurred throughout a Red Sox – Blue Jays game that two of my sons and I attended in July at Fenway. This was my first visit to Fenway, and it did not disappoint. Finally getting to this classic park and seeing the Green Monster in person was very cool. And as an unexpected bonus, our trip to Fenway was more than enhanced by the music played before and during the game, especially many of the songs played on the organ. As we were making our way to our seats well before the start of the game and we were taking in the neat features of Fenway on this hot and sticky evening, there was a song playing on the organ that made me pause. I knew the music but couldn’t immediately place the song. And then it hit me – “Innocent When You Dream” by Tom Waits!! It was perhaps the perfect soundtrack for the moment – subtle and sublime. Then I remembered that the organist for the Red Sox, Josh Kantor, was known for his cool playlist – not Muzak-style but classic and, to some, obscure songs. I had seen him play with The Baseball Project a few years ago at what was a very cool show. There were more great songs to come. He later favored us with The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” which sounds amazing on a stadium organ. Later still came “Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkman, another classic from the 80’s. The music played over the PA was also great. CCR’s “Fortunate Son” was played, which I have to think and hope was a political statement for our time. And in between the eighth and ninth innings came Japandroids’ “The House That Heaven Built,” another song that despite its absolute greatness, I never thought I would hear at a ballpark. Hearing all these great songs put our Fenway experience over the top.
I know that college rock classics of the 1980’s is not everyone’s thing, and that next season I am sure to here “Centerfield” at nearly every trip to the ballpark. But on occasion the music that I heard this season made my trips to the ballpark even sweeter, and gives me hope that I will be surprised by some great tunes played throughout the park in the future.
Rich Puerzer teaches engineering and occasionally baseball at Hofstra University, where he is the Chairperson of the Engineering Department. He has a poster of Mark Fidrych, whom he considers to be among the most rock ‘n roll ballplayers of all time, in his office at home.
1965 was a pip of a year for baseball: The artists formerly known as the Houston Colt .45s changed their name to the Astros upon receipt of the lease to their new home, the Astrodome (making them the first major league baseball team to play their home games in a venue named after a character voiced by Don Messick), the Braves finished up their tenure in Milwaukee before heading to the Land of the Boiled Peanut, and the Los Angeles Angels changed their name to the California Angels, presumably in preparation to change it to something even stupider in the 21st Century. The Angels’ roommates at Dodger Stadium for the 1965 season – unshockingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers themselves – won the NL pennant despite pitcher Juan Marichal of the Giants attacking catcher (and former Sheboygan Indian) John Roseboro with a baseball bat during a late-season game, then overcame a 0-2 World Series deficit to upend the Minnesota Twins in seven games, largely on the strength of ace Sandy Koufax – who famously sat out Game 1 due to Yom Kippur – and his complete-game victories in Games 5 and 7. Willie Mays hit his 500th home run, Mickey Mantle played his 2000th game (all with the Yankees), and the Kansas City A's trotted Satchel Paige out to the mound at the grand old age of 59 for his final MLB start in a tilt against the Boston Red Sox, where he gave up no runs and one hit (a double to Carl Yastrzemski) in three innings of work. Zoilo Versalles of the Twins and Willie Mays of the Giants were the AL and NL MVPs. The season, as stated previously, was a pip.
The pippitude of 1965 extended from the primary equation of the MLB season itself to baseball's first derivative, baseball cards. The 1965 Topps set is a rollicking and jolly 598-card assortment of bold shapes, bright colors, and manly joie de vivre, one of the best-looking sets of a visually peerless decade. The most expensive card of the set, were one inclined to undertake a project of this particular tenor, is, as usual, Mickey Mantle. Mickey Mantle is almost always the most valuable card in any baseball card set that has Mickey Mantle as a member (when there’s a set with a card that’s even pricier than The Mick, you got big trouble [looking at you,1963 Pete Rose rookie card]). Given the infernal pull of the Commerce Comet on the commerce of secondary market baseball card trading, this reporter often finds it more interesting to note what the second-most valuable card in any given baseball card set is, assuming that the most expensive item on that year’s to-do list is almost always Mantle. In the 1952 Topps set, the second-priciest card is Braves slugger Eddie Mathews. In 1959, it’s the Bob Gibson rookie card. In 1964, it’s the Pete Rose second-year card, restoring the natural order of things so grievously uprooted in 1963. And, for the 1965 Topps set, the silver medal – per the Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide, generally held to be the industry standard – goes to neither Koufax, nor Mays, nor any other celebrated hero of the 1965 season, but instead to a little-known righty from Northern Wisconsin: The immortal Fritz Ackley.
Florian Frederick Ackley was born April 10th, 1937, in the fair hamlet of Hayward – a city of just over two thousand hardy souls, tucked away in the remote northwest quarter of Wisconsin, and home to the annual World Lumberjack Championships. Hayward’s most well-known landmark is the World’s Largest Muskie, conveniently located outside the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame (a photograph of the Parasites cavorting inside the creature’s mouth can be viewed in the accompanying graphics to the Rat Ass Pie album). Possessed of one of the truly great unibrows of his generation (second only to Dodgers utility man and part-time Dick Tracy villain Wally Moon) and signed by the White Sox organization upon graduating from Hayward High School in 1954, Fritz began his world-beating baseball career with the Class D Dubuque Packers of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League, posting a 2-3 record with a 4.76 ERA. Over the course of the next decade, Ackley spent time with the Superior Blues, Waterloo White Hawks, Duluth-Superior White Sox, Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Davenport DavSox, Lincoln Chiefs, Savannah/Lynchburg White Sox, capping off his tenth year in the minors with a brilliant 18-win season for the AAA Indianapolis Indians. As a late season call-up for the big league team, Fritz made his major league debut on September 21st, 1963 in front of a raucous crowd of 4,291 at Tiger Stadium, giving up three runs over six innings of work in a 4-3 White Sox (Chicago edition) loss to the Tigers (Ackley received a no-decision, Denny McLain took the complete game victory for Detroit). Undeterred by this brief speedbump on the road to greatness, Ackley took the mound six days later for the second game of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators, scattering two hits and a lone run over the course of seven strong innings of work, as the White Sox cruised to an easy 7-1 victory over the Nats. This would be Ackley's lone big league victory that year... or, for that matter, any other year. Fritz stuck around as a reliever with the parent club for the beginning of the 1964 season, but, after three more games with the White Sox in which his ERA ballooned to an unwieldy 8.53, Fritz was sent back down to Indianapolis, traded to St. Louis, and assigned to the Jacksonville Suns of the International League, never to return to the bigs. Ackley's lifetime record in the majors – consisting of five games spread out over the end of the 1963 and beginning of the 1964 seasons – would be permanently frozen at a pristine 1-0, with a 4.19 lifetime ERA, 17 strikeouts, and 11 bases on balls. Although the caption on the back of Ackley's 1965 baseball card reads “opportunity is tapping Fritz on the shoulder after ten years in the minors,” Fritz spent 1965 ringing up an 8-11 mark for Jacksonville, followed by a trade to Pittsburgh, reassignment to the Tulsa Oilers, then the Columbus Jets, then back to Hayward, where Fritz became a manager: Manager of the Chip-A-Flo Lodge, conveniently located on the Chippewa Flowage. Fritz Ackley's 1965 baseball card is worth $200 in mint condition.
At this point, it might do to inject a little context. What, exactly, does it mean when a player's baseball card trades for two hundred bucks American? Well, for one thing, it means the player ain’t no Mickey Mantle: The Mick’s 1965 card books at a hefty $600 in mint condition, triple that of Florian Frederick Ackley (the collector appeal of Mantle-iana is so great that the card commemorating Game 3 of the 1964 World Series – captioned “Mantle's Clutch Homer” – is itself the eighth-priciest card of the 1965 set, listing at $80 in mint). That aside, baseball cards with that hefty of a price tag, unsurprisingly, are generally reserved only for first ballot Hall of Famers and the occasional chronic gambler with HOF-level credentials. Per Beckett, there are two other 1965 baseball cards which command the same dollar value as that of Fritz Ackley: Pete Rose and Roberto Clemente. Rose was a 17-time all-star, and remains MLB's all-time leader in hits (4,256), games played (3,562), at-bats (14,053), and plate appearances (15,890). The beloved Clemente was a 15-time all-star, a National League and World Series MVP, racked up exactly 3000 hits, and died while manning a relief flight for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Fritz Ackley's claim to fame is that he never lost any of the five games in which he appeared. Even some of the players whose cards’ net worth hasn't quite attained the lofty heights of Ackley-dom had fairly decent years in 1965: Willie Mays hit 52 of his 660 home runs that year, en route to his second NL MVP award and the twelfth of his twenty consecutive All-Star seasons, and his 1965 card books at a measly $150. Hank Aaron's home run record might have only lasted 33 years, but he still holds the all-time MLB records for RBI (2,297), total bases (6,856), and extra-base hits (1,477); his card is worth but half an Ackley – $100. A hundred bucks is also the going rate for a mint condition Sandy Koufax, pitcher of more victories in the 1965 World Series than Fritz Ackley pitched in his entire big-league career. Ernie Banks hit his 400th homer in 1965, Tony Perez played his first full season in the majors in 1965, and Jim “Catfish” Hunter, bypassing the minor leagues entirely, made his major league (and baseball card) debut in 1965. None of their cards break the century mark, dollarwise, let alone threaten the two hundred dollar plateau. At this point, one might be reasonably be forgiven for asking the obvious question: OKAY, SO WHAT THE HELL IS THE DEAL WITH THE FRITZ ACKLEY CARD???
The roots of the deal can be, in a roundabout way, traced back to MLB’s 1960’s expansion: From the dawn of the 20th Century through 1959, the NL and AL each featured eight teams. In 1959, Topps Baseball was a 572-card set. Figuring around twenty-five players for each of the sixteen major league teams, and one card to a player, that’s still only 400 cards – leaving 172 additional cardboard rectangles to fill. Thus, pretty much anyone who could walk, stagger, or crawl in front of a camera got to be on a baseball card: Managers got a card, rookies and prospects got cards, all-stars got two cards, World Series games got their own cards, even commissioner Ford fricking Frick got a card. By the mid-sixties, however, the sixteen existing teams had been joined by the Angels, Astros, Mets and Senators Mk. II, thrusting an additional hundred players into the mix. Meanwhile, reflecting a presumably reasonably inelastic demand for baseball cards, the Topps series had expanded very little – nudging up from 572 cards in 1959 to only 598 in 1965. By the mid-sixties, there were a lot less extra cards to fill. As a result, there would be no more cards for front office executive types, no more double cards for all-stars, and multiple rookies were squished together on a single card. The Catfish Hunter rookie card is a quad occupancy deal – the late A's hurler's postage-stamp-sized mug sits among similarly-sized portraits of three other can't-miss Kansas City prospects. This, too, is the situation for the duplexed 1965 Fritz Ackley card: Florian Frederick Ackley's delightfully-unibrowed kisser occupies only the left side of the card bearing the half-correct heading “CARDS 1965 ROOKIE STARS,” while the right half is given over to a player who actually wound up suiting up for the Cardinals. Between Fritz and his rookie cardmate, the two pitchers would combine for 330 lifetime wins and four Cy Young awards, which is because... the $200 Fritz Ackley rookie card is also... the $200 Steve Carlton rookie card. And that is the story behind the 1965 Fritz Ackley card. Hey, at less than $67 an eyebrow, you might need one yourself.
The day began at nine, but I made sure every morning to get through the staff entrance by 8:45, in order to spend at least a few moments watching the sun rising through the windows of the plaque gallery. The morning sun bathed the bronze faces of past heroes in a soft light that matched the soft silence of a room normally bustling with sound and activity despite inspiring an awe reserved for [church altars] and cathedrals.
Soft cushioned benches, like church pews, lined the hall, beckoning me to sit and reflect for a few moments before heading upstairs to my internship in the library of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I have had my share of disappointments, of idols brought down to earth and the true face of heroes exposed. Long ago I gave up any notion of expecting anything from ballplayers that I would expect from any person. But the plaque gallery in the morning was a place where I could suspend reality for a short while and get lost in the mythos.
The stairwell to the second floor of the library took me to a hallway at the end of which was my office. It led past the file room, overwhelmed with dozens of stacked file cabinets filled with alphabetically arranged folders on every man and woman to play or be associated with the game. Crammed into those drawers were the real lives strewn on paper of the gods’ one floor below.
My job did not require a moment of Zen in order to prepare – every facet of the work was a joy. Though I often retreated to the file room to conduct a quick survey of a player or team’s file to support a finding aid or prepare for a museum talk, I spent most of my time in the tiny office down the hall. There I processed collections and wrote draft obituaries, talked baseball with permanent staff and gazed out the window that looked over the small town of Cooperstown.
From that window I could see the rooftops of the cafés, souvenir shops, collectibles shops, hotels, and churches. I could see a tiny glimpse of Pioneer Street as it sloped down to the banks of Lake Otsego, and I could see the end of the short alley running from the staff entrance of the Hall of Fame along the side wall of Cooley’s Tavern.
Unlike many of the interns that summer, I had decided to stay in downtown Cooperstown rather than the student housing offered in nearby Oneonta. This meant that I could walk to work and avoid a half hour drive every evening down Rt. 28, past the Dreamparks and cow pastures, barns filled with antiques and the waterfall, and instead stop in to Cooley’s for a beer.
Though occasionally overwhelmed with summer tourists, the staff and regulars that typically comprised the crowd were genuine and engaging. Besides talk of the Mets or Yankees, the place was an island in a sea of baseball history, a welcome refuge to escape from the ghosts of heroes and periodically to reality.
It was there during Hall of Fame weekend that several octogenarian fans of Dick Williams got into it with some thirty-something fans of Goose Gossage. The reality of the pavement hit the Gossage fan harder than the fists of Williams’ buddies.
However, like my daily sojourns to the plaque gallery at dawn, I was not in Cooperstown necessarily for the sake of reality. As much as I enjoyed hours in the file cabinets lost in the detailed history of forgotten leagues and anti-heroes, the whole town was steeped in myth, surrounded by hills and set on a lake, like something out of a fairy tale. Traveling to the town is an almost medieval adventure, and the goal of the journey is more often than not to revel in all things heroic, legend, and fantasy. So when Cooley’s was too crowded, I would head to the water and the Glimmerglass Queen.
“Rapunzel! Rapunzel! Let your hair down.” The tinny quality of her voice was the result of the overused recording bursting out of the speakers loud enough to rise over the sound of the breaking waves. The trip lasts about an hour.
Up and back from the banks of the Otsego to Kingfisher Tower at its epicenter, the voyage of the Glimmerglass Queen takes you off the solid footing of Cooperstown and into the mystic lake that is ultimately the reason for the existence of the town that houses the legends of baseball.
Council Rock, a meeting place of Native American tribes long before the arrival of the Coopers, as in James Fennimore and family, still resides in the same place as it always has, only a hundred yards from the dock of the Glimmerglass Queen, a tour boat running up and down the lake on the hour. The rock brought civilization, which attracted the settlers, attracting Cooper on down the line to Edward Clark, who made his fortune as the money man for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.
Edward Cabot Clark, you see, had died during the construction of his masterpiece, the Dakota apartment building on Central Park West. But not before establishing a home base along the shores of late Otsego and leaving all of his money to four grandchildren, including Stephen.
Stephen turned the home base into a town bestowed by Clark money. In 1939, he had worked with the fathers of Major League Baseball to turn his small baseball exhibit based on Abner Graves dreams into a Depression-era celebration of baseball mythology. Only decades and decades of chipping away at those legends left the Hall what it is today, serving to promote a true history of the game amidst the pageantry of its lore.
But not too long before Stephen was born, Edward had bestowed upon the town something equally magical. Jutting out at the midway point of the lake, just across from Three Mile Point at Point Judith, he built a sixty-foot gothic revival tower that played a starring role in the girlhood dreams of the pilot of the Glimmerglass Queen.
You learn of her dreams over the loudspeaker as the vessel drifts out of the small dock next to a breakfast joint and meanders past the Leatherstocking golf course at starboard and the tree lined Route 31 off port side. It’s an old audio recording of the pilot meant to narrate the sites, but that quickly delves into the fantasy world of her past.
It’s easy to get lost in the fantasy. My dreams of being a ballplayer melting into my dreams of meeting ballplayers finally melting in grounded dreams of working, in some way, around them and their legacy. I no longer looked up to those ballplayers as idols, as gods, but couldn’t help but worship them despite my better instincts.
As the Glimmerglass Queen approaches Kingfisher Tower, you learn that, as a girl, the pilot would climb the rocks and wander about Point Judith, all the time seeing herself in the high tower waiting to be rescued. She builds the story into a dizzy rapture before singing “Rapunzel! Rapunzel!” as if she is still that young girl dreaming on the shore.
Every visit to Cooperstown is dreaming on the shore. Me in my castle at dawn watching the sunrise illuminate bronze tributes. Alone at my desk, a lowly intern looking over the rooftops of tourist traps and memorabilia shops. Together at the bar, drinking a beer and letting it all sink in.
“A partial plate on my left side and Nellie Fox is to blame.”
So began the essay I submitted to The Buffalo News trying to earn a spot on the field alongside a group of traveling Hall of Famers about to play in what was billed as “Buffalo’s Grand Old Game.”
The year was 1984, and a Chicago promoter had put together a four-city tour of retired major leaguers, everyone an All-Star and many Hall of Famers. The lineup was to include names like Mays, Spahn, Doby, Cepada, Wynn, Feller, Ford, Larsen, Banks, Wilhelm, and many others. The most important name to me, as you’ll soon learn, was former White Sox Shortstop, Luis Aparicio.
First, let’s set the scene.
In the early ‘80s Buffalo was in the midst of a baseball revival. Mayor Jim Griffin had recently obtained a AA franchise and a working agreement with the Chicago White Sox. It was his dream to bring a major league team back to Buffalo, and this AA team was to be the first step. And no, my use of the word “back” is not a typo.
The original Buffalo Bisons began play in 1877, and although they were a AAA franchise for most of their history, from 1879-85 Buffalo was a member in good standing of the National League. Yes, that National League.
By the late ‘60s, the Bisons were a successful AAA franchise, the farm club of the Cincinnati Reds, and fielded a team that included Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher ever to play the game. The quality of minor league baseball prior to MLB’s expansion was never higher, but the economics of the game were changing, and the city lost its AAA franchise after the 1970 season. It seems that the opportunity to watch major league baseball every Saturday afternoon on NBC’s Game of the Week reduced the popularity of minor league baseball in America, and Buffalo was no exception.
Once Mayor Griffin restored professional baseball to Buffalo, plans were begun to build a new downtown baseball park, to be named Pilot Field. It was the first of the retro-style, fan and player (grass field!) friendly designs out of HOK Sport in Kansas City, the company that later brought the same concepts to Camden Yards, starting a trend that continues today. The new park would have two decks designed to hold 20,000 fans, and extra-large supporting beams strong enough to accommodate an additional two decks. Alas, the franchise Buffalo sought was awarded to Toronto instead, and those decks would never be needed. But that’s another story.
Until Pilot Field opened, the AA Bisons played their home games in War Memorial Stadium, a venue originally built for football and home to the Buffalo Bills for the first 12 years of their existence. When you shoehorn a baseball diamond into a football stadium you end up with odd field dimensions. Thus, in a mirror image of the LA Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first LA home, with its 295-foot left field wall, War Memorial had an even shorter right field porch, one that had left-handed hitters drooling the minute they walked on to the field.
The stadium had been vacant for years and was in such poor shape that it was known affectionately as “The Rockpile.” Its condition was so bad that writer Brock Yates was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying it looked “…as if whatever war it was a memorial to had been fought within its confines.”
As bad as it looked, the Rockpile’s 1930s design was deemed perfect as the setting of one of the best baseball movies of all time, The Natural. It was filmed there in 1983 and starred Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall and Kim Basinger. A few former major leaguers with ties to Buffalo were also in the film, including Phil Mankowski, one-time AL Rookie of the Year Joe Charoboneu, and the lesser-known Sibby Sisti. (In a mildly strange coincidence, my family had lived in a house once owned by Sisti that sported a basement stair railing made of his old baseball bats.)
In 1984 I was 36 years old, married and the father of two sons. Refusing to give up the pastime of my youth, I played second base in two softball leagues, one that used modified fast-pitch rules. It wasn’t baseball, but there was bunting and sliding and stealing and, well, it was close enough.
One afternoon in May of that year I picked up the afternoon paper to find an announcement that there was to be an Old Timers game involving former major leaguers to be played in late June. My eyes widened when I saw the sidebar, headlined “A Baseball Buff’s Dream Come True,” and my heart beat double-time when I read:
Two winners—one for each league—will be invited to a party honoring the players the night before the game. Then they will join their teammates in the morning at the hotel, bus to the ballpark, take part in pre-game ceremonies and batting practice. Once the game starts, they will ride the pines with the AL or NL reserves until the manager—Gene Mauch for the Americans, Herman Franks for the Nationals—decides the time is right. Each winner is guaranteed one at bat and one inning in the field.
And, when it’s over, each player will have memories to last a lifetime, not to mention a uniform from the team of their choice as well as a Louisville Slugger with his name inscribed on it.
The rules of the contest were simple: anyone over the age of 35 (just made it!) could enter by submitting a 50-word essay explaining why they wanted to play for the American or National League. Ten finalists were to be chosen and brought to the Rockpile to take batting practice with the Bisons, after which the two winners would be announced.
That sidebar headline said it all: A Baseball Buff’s Dream Come True! What could be cooler than playing alongside the heroes of my youth? These were the same faces that stared out at me when, as a boy of twelve, I sorted through my collection of baseball cards (a collection that my mother, in keeping with an age-old tradition, tossed out when I left for college, cards that today would be worth…yada, yada).
I immediately sat down to gather my thoughts. What would it take to win? I decided that humor was the key. With only 50 words to impress the judges, there was no time to fully explore my love for the game, or to find a way to tug at their heartstrings. Nope, it would have to be funny, and funny in a way that jumped off the pile and hit ‘em right between the eyes. My first draft went like this:
I don’t enter contests. Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes? Toss it. $18.5 million dollar Lotto? Ho-hum…look at the suckers in line. Wait? A chance to rub elbows with the greatest ballplayers of my youth? I can suit up and take swings against Spahn? Mingle with Mays and Mantle? Breathe the same locker room smells as Aaron and Stargell? Show me where to start the incision and my left arm is yours. Well…okay, the right arm if you insist, just let me get my swings in before you start the operation. After that experience I wouldn’t even need anesthesia.
Cute, I thought, but nothing that would grab the judges by the horsehides. I needed something more “out there.” That idea of an operation got me thinking, and led to this second attempt:
I’m sitting in the doctor’s office, standard motif—plastic begonias, soothing watercolors, G-rated magazines—but an inner turmoil clouds my vision: the doctor is waiting to hear my decision. Should he operate? Wait…an old Sport magazine halfway down the pile…hmm…an article on the late Nellie Fox, my boyhood hero. Now THERE was a MAN…a wad of tobacco the size of a ping-pong ball pushing against his cheek, shins a miniature roadmap of Los Angeles from holding his ground on a thousand double-plays…suddenly I know I’ve made the right decision, “No, Dr. Thurlow, they’ll be no sex-change operation for me!” How could I suit up with the gods of my youth on June 23rd without the proper equipment?
Now if that doesn’t get their eyeballs swimming in their heads, I thought, nothing would. But, then again, this was more than 30 years ago. At that time most people couldn’t define transgender, and Renee’ Richards’ successful fight to play in the Women’s U.S. Tennis Open had only recently concluded. This version was “out there” all right, but well beyond the standards of a family newspaper. I’d have to try something else.
Okay, forget that angle, but Nellie Fox? He could still be a hook to hang my tale upon. Like me, he was a second-baseman and an undersized singles hitter. A Hall of Famer, he was crucial to the success of the Go-Go White Sox, winning the MVP in 1959. Although Fox wouldn’t be with the Old Timers (he’d passed away in 1975), his keystone partner, Luis Aparicio would be. That led to my third and final attempt:
A partial plate on my left side, and Nellie Fox is to blame.
I was a 2nd baseman, half of the greatest double-play combination St. Agnes Parochial School ever saw. I wouldn’t take the field without a wad of bubblegum big enough to choke Godzilla nestled against my teeth. I had to look like Nellie and used that bubblegum to push my left cheek out to the proper dimensions. I could spit with the best of them, but never learned to hit the curve ball (to this day I can’t put on my glove without salivating). Anyway, all that sugar rotted my teeth and they, like Nellie, are gone for good. The dream lives on though, and you could fulfill a big part of it by choosing me to play for the American League alongside Aparicio on June 23rd.
A few weeks later the phone rang. It was the Sports Editor of the News advising me that I’d been selected as one of the ten finalists and was to report to the Rockpile the following Thursday afternoon with glove and spikes to take batting practice with the Bisons!
The next few days were one long daydream. I imagined taking the field with the American League team, lining up at 2nd next to Aparicio. I’d make a diving stop to my right and flip him the ball to start a double play, then come to bat to lead off the next inning. Isn’t that the way it always goes? The guy who makes an outstanding play to end an inning always leads off the next, doesn’t he? Well, this time that guy would be me.
I had no doubt that I would be chosen. Playing softball twice a week and running three miles every other day or so meant that I was in game shape. And, when I read the follow up News article profiling the finalists, I became even more confident. Most looked to be at least twenty years older than I, and one of them was a woman! This could be easier than I thought.
When Thursday arrived I drove to the stadium and went through the players entrance, up the tunnel and out on to the field. Every fan knows that feeling of leaving the darkness of the passageway and watching the bright, green grass of the diamond come slowly into view. Knowing that I was about to actually walk out and play on that field made the moment even more special. The setting sun, hanging above the third base stands, threw a layer of golden light across the field, completing the perfect scene.
I found a seat in the dugout, laced up my spikes and took up a position at 2nd. It was disappointing to see that the only Bisons on the field were a bullpen catcher, an older guy throwing batting practice, and a few club interns helping to shag flies. The rest of the team was back in the clubhouse suiting up for the game. But that didn’t matter. I was dancing on the balls of my feet on a professional baseball field, waiting for my first ground ball.
Each of the contestants was allowed ten or so swings, but I wasn’t anxious for my turn to come. I wanted to display my fielding chops first, to show that I could keep up with the major leaguers I’d be playing with in two weeks. When the contestant who’d been manning the shortstop position went in to bat I moved over before someone else could take his spot. I handled a few ground balls with no trouble, but my big chance came when the batter hit a high pop fly in foul territory behind third base. Because this play is more difficult for the third baseman, it’s the shortstop’s responsibility. Without hesitating I raced to the area where I thought the ball would come down and settled under it. Just a routine play, my body language tried to convey, as I casually caught and tossed the ball toward the mound, where a Bison intern picked it up and placed it in a bucket behind the pitcher.
With one exception, another 30-something guy who drove a pitch off the left field wall, most of the contestants couldn’t do much with the bat. My turn arrived and I too started slowly, but soon was making solid contact. As per usual, the hits didn’t travel very far, but most were line drives, well struck. I swore I heard someone behind the cage utter the phrase, “frozen ropes” as my turn ended. I left the park that day sure I’d done everything I could to prove I was worthy to take the field on June 23rd. Now it was up to the judges.
It was a huge relief when the call finally came. There’d been far too many days spent waiting and wondering, savoring all the wonderful things that would be mine when I won—the uniform, the personalized bat, the story, and pictures in the following day’s paper. Then it hit me—the box score! I would be in the box score! Right there, just beneath “Skowron,1b” and “Aparicio, ss” it would say “Henry, 2b”. I’d be memorialized forever among the greats of the game. I imagined myself getting that box score bronzed and hanging it in my office where every visitor would see it, and where I could sit at my desk and stare at it all day.
When the call ended I sat there, staring at the receiver in my hand until the sharp buzz of a dial tone, followed by a snarky female voice that said, “If you wish to make a call, please hang up and dial again,” broke my trance.
How could this’ve happened? Who beat me out? The News secretary wouldn’t tell me who’d won, only that the results would be in the next day’s paper.
Visions of striding on to the field and standing next to Aparicio, images that had shone so brightly in my head for weeks, were shattered into so much diamond dust. My distress was magnified the next morning when I read that a woman had taken what I’d considered my spot! Beaten out by a girl? Good Lord, what was going on? Apparently I was the victim of some horrible, politically correct attempt at gender balance.
Of course, if this happened today I would not have been at all surprised at the notion of a woman wanting to play baseball. In fact, I’ve recently become a supporter of “Baseball For All,” an organization founded by Justine Seigal, the first woman to coach for a MLB organization—A’s in 2015). Her group is working to give every girl a chance to play real baseball. (You can learn more about this movement at their website—Baseballforall.com.)
My battered ego began searching for reasons other than gender bias that explained my loss. Perhaps the judges thought that, because I was twenty to thirty years younger than the Old Timers, I was too young. Or maybe (and most ridiculous of all) after seeing my display of baseball skills at that practice they thought I might be too good? That perhaps one of my “frozen ropes” might be too much for the aging stars?
I eventually came to my senses and got past my disappointment at not winning the contest, but (I’m ashamed to admit now) when June 23rd came around, I stayed away from the Rockpile. I couldn’t face seeing someone else out where I so badly wanted to be.
Reading an account of the game in the News the following day, I got a small sense of relief to learn that the experience of the contest winners bore little similarity to the vision I’d had of the event. While each did get a turn at bat and played one inning in the field, it wasn’t at all as I’d imagined. Each contestant was the 10th man (person?) on the field, playing a position that in softball is known as the “short fielder.” And their turn at bat really wasn’t a part of the game—simply an extra out in the inning. Finally, the aspect of the experience I’d most obsessed over—seeing my name listed among those of my heroes—would never have occurred. The next day’s box score had nary a mention of either of the contest winners.
While I didn’t win the contest, my brief brush with Buffalo baseball immortality got me excited about the game again. I switched from softball to the real thing, joining a team that played in the city’s MUNY league, albeit at the lowest level. Teams consisted of guys like me in their late thirties or early forties along with kids just out of high school.
It was great to be on a real baseball diamond again, with 90 feet between the bases and live pitching, but in just my second game one of those kids taught me a painful lesson about declining reflexes. Swinging at what I mistakenly thought was a slider about to break over the inside corner, my left arm took the full brunt of the pitch. My radius snapped like a popsicle stick and the ball trickled out to the mound, where the young fireballer casually picked it up and tossed it to first. Then, adding insult to my injury, as I lay there moaning in the batter’s box the umpire raised his right arm and called me out. My teammates surrounded the umpire and argued loudly on my behalf, but his out call was the correct one. Because I’d offered at the pitch that broke my arm, the ball was in play, and I was out.
So ended my renewed baseball career, short as it was.
I did come back from that injury, but it was to the softball diamond again—and a coed league to boot.
Thanks to Wikipedia and Buffalo News columnist Mike Harrington for background information used in this article. Any hyperbole or errors of fact are the sole responsibility of the author.
J. Patrick Henry is a retired public servant who has moved on from composing memos and other legal mumbo jumbo to more personal prose, both fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in various on-line and print publications, as well as The Buffalo News. Links to these and other works are available at www.jpatrickhenry.net.