Baseball World: A lifelong love affair with baseball
With my 81st birthday jut a few days away, I sat down, as I do every week at this time, to come up with a subject for this week’s Baseball World. This morning I thought, what possesses an 80-year-old man to love the game so much that he spends half his time watching or reading about baseball and producing article after article and book after book about the game?
I saw my first Major League Baseball game in the original Yankee Stadium on May 15, 1948. Of course, by then, at the ripe old age of 10, I was already a rabid Yankees fan and had listened to hundreds of games on the radio.
Some of you may ask, why the radio? In 1948, we were still three years from the first national television broadcast of a sporting event, the Giants/Dodgers playoff in 1951 that ended with Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” — and the radio and newspapers were the only way to follow your heroes from afar.
My first game was the first half of a doubleheader — single admission, which was common in those days — and the Yankees were hosting the Philadelphia Athletics.
Our seats were what you would call field boxes today, close to the field on the third base line. They were courtesy of the Fulton Fish Market which bought most of my father’s fish. He captained a fishing dragger out of Stonington, Connecticut, and the Fulton had several such boxes in the great old ball park and was generous with them.
In the top of the eighth inning, with the Athletics ahead 2-1, a Czechoslovakian immigrant’s son, Elmer Valo, the A’s right fielder, doubled to right, scoring Eddie Joost to make it 3-1, A’s.
In the last of the eighth, that same Elmer Valo — who, not unlike the “Flying Hawaiian” Shane Victorino, years later — had a tendency to run into walls, leaped at the low right field wall and took a Yogi Berra drive out of the seats before crashing into the wall. The impact knocked him unconscious and he was carried off the field.
I have since seen many spectacular catches, both in person and on that new invention television, but the best part of seeing this one, for me, was watching the “Tall Tactician,” the legendary manager Connie Mack, in his usual civilian business suit, make his way out to oversee the people tending to Valo. He was in his 48th year of managing the Athletics and was the last manager to manage without a uniform. He would manage two more years, for a total of 50 and win a record total of 3,731 games, nine American League Championships and five World Series Titles.
The losing Yankee pitcher that day was Spec Shea, who had been the first rookie to win an All-Star Game the previous year. Until checking my facts for this article I always thought that the nickname Spec was because he wore glasses but found that he didn’t wear glasses, and the nickname came from the specks of freckles on his face.
Elmer Valo, by the way, broke two ribs in that crash, but didn’t tell anyone until he had played for over a week with the ribs broken. Quite different from today when a “contusion” keeps a player out for days.
The Athletics would win that game 3-1 and sweep the doubleheader with an 8-6 win in Game 2. Joe Coleman pitched a complete game in Game 1, for the win, holding my two biggest heroes, Yogi and Joe DiMaggio, hitless. Phil Marchildon, despite giving up six runs on 10 hits, pitched the complete game win in Game 2. The only bright spot for me was a triple by Joe D as Yogi went hitless again. Marchildon would join the Red Sox, as a Free Agent, in 1950, pitching in relief in just one game, a 13-10 loss to Cleveland, before retiring.
The Yankees finished in third place that year, 11/2 games behind the second place Red Sox who trailed the league winning Cleveland Indians by just one game and 10 games ahead of the fourth place Athletics.
I attended many more games in the old Yankee Stadium over the years, many of them as a guest of the Fulton. In one of them, on September 28, 1951, at age 13, on our way to Florida, my father and I took in another single admission doubleheader, this time against the Red Sox in the Bronx.
The Yankees were in first place by 2 1/2 games over the Cleveland Indians going into the doubleheader with five games to play after it. In Game 1, the Yankees took an 8-0 lead into the ninth inning with Allie Reynolds just three outs away from being the second pitcher in Major League history to throw two no hitters in one year.
The Sox sent up Charlie Maxwell to lead off the ninth and he grounded to Jerry Coleman at second who threw to Joe Collins at first and there was one out. Joe D’s brother, Dom, “the Little Professor,” then drew a walk. Johnny Pesky took a called third strike and Reynolds was one out away from history.
The only person between Allie and a no hitter was the last person you’d want to face in that situation — The Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams. Reynolds got Ted to hit a foul pop up and, unbelievably, Yogi dropped it, giving Ted another shot. Just as unbelievably, Reynolds went back to the mound and got Ted to pop up foul again and Yogi caught it this time and the no hitter was in the books. To this day, it’s hard for me to believe that Reynolds got Ted for the last out, twice.
The Yankees went on to win Game 2, 11-3, behind Vic Raschi to clinch the pennant and went on to beat the Giants in an all-New York World Series, four games to two.
Looking back at this article, I guess perhaps that I have answered the question posed in my first paragraph about why I do what I do today.