As my eightieth birthday quickly approaches, I can’t help but reflect on the many ways in which the sport of baseball has made my life better. One of my earliest baseball memories was sitting in the Sea Village Restaurant on Hancock Street in my hometown of Stonington, Connecticut, and watching the Great Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, walk into the dining area. What greater thrill for an eight year old Yankee fan than to shake the hand of Joe D. No one will ever convince me that he wasn’t the greatest all around ball player of all time and I don’t think meeting him at the Sea Village colors my thinking.
We didn’t have Little League baseball at that time, instead, we went to the ball field on Saturday mornings and the Community Center Director, Frank Turek, ran the closest thing to organized baseball that we had by ‘picking up’ teams. During the week, we would have pick up games almost every day, on our own, with anywhere from four or five to 18 of us playing. You never went anywhere without a ball and/or glove because you might find a game.
At ten years old, I was the scorekeeper for the men’s twilight league in Stonington and I have many memories of wanting to grow up and graduate from Twilight League to the Majors. What ten year old boy had not had that dream in those days?
At 12 years old, I was small for my age. In my eighth grade graduation picture, I look like someone’s little brother that snuck into the picture. My size hampered my ability to compete but never my love of playing. After growing to my present height, (but not my present weight), I played baseball and softball into my fifties and dreaded the day I would have to stop playing.
Along with tens of thousands of other 12 year old boys, I watched in 1950 in awe as 21 year old, 5 foot ten inch tall, rookie, Ed ‘Whitey’ Ford won 9 of 10 starts to lead the Yankees to their second of what would be five consecutive World Series Championships, proving to us that our dreams of playing in the Major Leagues were possible.
The following year, 1951, I was in the original Yankee Stadium, with 39,037 other fans on September 28 when Allie Reynolds no hit the Red Sox in Game 1 of a double header to clinch the pennant for the Yankees. It was Reynolds’ second no hitter of the year, the second pitcher ever to throw two in a year, the other was Johnny Vander Meer. Allie’s no hitter was made more special when he got the great Splendid Splinter, Ted Williams, for the third out in the ninth. He got Ted to pop a foul ball near the first base dugout and, unbelievably, Yogi Berra dropped it. With the crowd in shock, Reynolds went back to the mound and got Ted to hit another foul pop which Yogi caught to end the no hitter.
Five days later, watching the first nationally televised sporting event ever, from a hotel in Jacksonville, Florida, I saw the New York Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit ‘The Shot Heard Round The World’ off the Brooklyn Dodgers Ralph Branca to give the Giants the win in Game 3 of a Playoff for the National League Pennant.
In the early fifties, when I was 14 and 15, we had a Junior League for 13-15 year olds. Each surrounding town had a team and ours was sponsored by the American Velvet Company. We were the Velvet Giants due to a connection the owners of the plant had with the New York Giants. After winning the League, we were taken to New York to see a doubleheader between the Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals and I got to see probably the second greatest hitter of all time, Stan Musial, up close and personal
I watched Don Larsen pitch the only perfect game in World Series history in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series from Glidden Hall at Nasson College, as a Sophomore, in Sanford on October 8, on a black and white television.
Forgotten after the perfect game was the fact that Larsen had started Game 2 and taken a 6-0 lead into the second inning, courtesy mostly because of a grand slam homer by Yogi and loaded the bases on a single, error and walk before Roy Campanella hit a sac fly to make it 6-1. After getting an out on a foul fly, he walked Jim Gilliam to reload the bases and was replaced by Johnny Kucks who gave up a two run single to make it 6-3 and Tommy Byrne came in and gave up a three run homer to Duke Snyder to tie the score at six in a game that Brooklyn eventually won 13-8. If there was any doubt in my mind that baseball was an unpredictable game, Larsen’s performance in those two games, three days apart, would have ended it.
I could go on and on with my memories including 13 years of coaching my own kids’ teams in Little League, playing in the Westerly, RI Twilight League, the Morgan Park League in New London, CT and the Norwich, CT City League as well as tournaments all over. I was fortunate to be in Fenway when the Sox completed the Impossible Dream on the last day of the season in 1967 and when Brunanski made the sliding catch in 1990 to preserve the pennant.
I saw J. R. Richard, one of the greatest talents ever to set foot on a mound strike out ten in the Astrodome, before a stroke ended his career, and Nolan Ryan pitch in the Ballpark at Arlington. I watched games in the Kingdome, Shea Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Braves Field, (In Boston), Schibe Park, Crosley Field, and so many others that are now gone.
As many of you know, I have spent a lot of my time in recent years writing and publishing books about baseball. What better way to end a lifelong love affair with the game. Through my books and book signing events, I have met and talked with many interesting people, fans and players alike.
I have always recognized the fact that Major League Baseball players are a special breed. In order to make it to the top of the greatest game of them all they need, first and foremost, the God Given physical ability to develop the skills necessary to play the game at that level. But that God Given ability is not enough to make it. They need the desire and the ambition to put in the kind of time it takes to hone those skills to the point that they are the best of the best.
Those that have those qualities almost invariably are intelligent, articulate, outgoing people who put baseball’s best foot forward through their personal appearances, work within their communities and their class and presence. Obviously, there are exceptions, but these are generally the more gifted who don’t have to work as hard as others.
Over the past few years I have met many major league ball players, from Super Stars to short term players. I have met players like Jimmy Driscoll, who had a brief, two year career with the Athletics and Rangers, and spent 30 years scouting, and comes to my book signings regularly, to Dave Stenhouse, who was gracious enough to help me with a program at the Westerly, RI, Library, and who was the first rookie pitcher to start the All Star Game but had a career cut short due to arm problems, to Luis Tiant, one of the best pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, who signed autographs with me while I had a book signing at Goodall Park in Sanford, they stand out in a crowd, not just for their baseball ability and career but as special people.
All three mentioned above are nearly as old or older than I and you would still recognize that they and other typical Major Leaguers are special no matter what kind of a setting you encountered them in. They are what makes baseball the greatest game of them all and they are the role models we have always wanted our professional athletes to be.