Looking Back (Part 5)

(For the past few weeks I have been traveling down memory lane and then posting entries on my blog. Memories aren’t sequential, I’ve learned. As evidence of that, here is one from my year away from college.)

I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember-but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case ‘fan’ is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the ’50s I spent hours starring in imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the rightfielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was 20, an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals and a brief – very brief – chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.

In 1961 I had taken a year off from Dartmouth and was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for The Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February of ’62, largely for being a pain in the neck.{{1}}

Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.

I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventure. And I had plenty of them: I met hundreds of interesting, lonely people, including a couple of gigolos in New Orleans, got run out of a small town in Idaho by roughnecks who amused themselves trying to run me over, spent a night or two in jail and talked my way into Disneyland and into the Seattle World’s Fair on opening day. But no memory shines as brightly as spring training of 1962 at Al Lang Field.

Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could, in fraternity houses, once in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas, (my choice, not theirs) and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag. Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.

I walked right in–no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.

Suddenly, one of the Cardinals spotted me at the edge of the field. At 6′ 2″ and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”

I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.

“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked. “Kansas,” I answered truthfully, and his expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.” I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. Hitched, I told him.

“What position you play?”

Rightfield. I answered truthfully, and third base, I added, not so truthfully, because that was Eddie Mathews’s position. He squeezed my shoulder. “You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.

After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”

I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential!  I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a longball hitter! For a few minutes I was 11 or 12 again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.

Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep, I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian, now Eckerd College, and met some guys who let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day–wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand! In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade and trying to “hit the long ball,” But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game, anyway.

Spring training was relaxed and informal in ’62, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings. but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.

I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to “some of the guys” in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never finished.

“Who the f**k  is that?” a loud gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the f**k out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh. I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did.

Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave.

“Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”

I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball-player.”

Every fan’s story should have a hero, and mine is no exception, although it took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. {{2}} No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I am certain that he had not seen major league potential in me; I’m sure he believed that I was a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late. I wish now that I knew who he was…and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.

—-

[[1]]1. Which I wrote about in part one of this series[[1]]

[[2]]2. Dick Groat hit .294 that season.  Clemente hit .312 and won a Golden Glove.  Mazeroski hit .271, while Eddie Mathews, my childhood hero, hit .265, drove in 90 runs, and walked 101 times.  All four made the All-Star team.  (Time was I actually knew statistics like that. No longer–I had to look it up.)[[2]]

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7 thoughts on “Looking Back (Part 5)

  1. John — What a delightful story for summer’s end. Growing up in Cincinnati I had similar fantasies, encouraged by professional minor league players in the neighborhood, but you got much closer to the majors than I. You might be surprised at how many of us — of similar age — there are in the DC education network.. Best.wishes for the new education season.

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    • Thank you, my friend. Now it’s back to work. There’s so much going on, and so much at stake. What an amazing time to be an education reporter…but maybe not such a great time to be a teacher or, sadly, a student in one of our score-obsessed schools.

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  2. John, I really enjoyed this, in part because I’m a baseball fan and know the old stats and players better than the new ones. My head also is cluttered with baseball trivia. Lou Gehrig, 23 career grand slams. Willie McCovey held the National League record for career grand slams for a while (with 18, I think). A guy named Wambsganss, who was a distant relative of a college roommate, is the only person to achieve an unassisted triple play in the World Series. Wilbur Wood once pitched both games in a double header for the White Sox. It goes on and on…

    I have a stack of books I’ll never get to, but if you’d write a book filled with stories of your wayward years — and with a little baseball mixed in — I’d put it at the top of the stack.

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  3. Thanks for sharing. I loved playing catcher when I was a kid…didn’t mind the pounding and loved being “involved” on every play. I had similar dreams but didn’t get nearly as close to realizing them as you do.
    However,as a Cubs fan, I remember one shining moment – meeting Ernie Banks – a fabulous Chicago Cub shortstop, before a game. He was very kind, interested that I lived in Wichita Kansas. He had played for the KC Monarchs before being signed by the Cubs. He told me that he missed some of his friends in KC but things were very nice in the National League.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

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  4. At the insistence of my friend Drummond Bell, I sent this story to the President of the St. Louis Cardinals, William DeWitt. Here’s his generous response:
    “Great story – I really enjoyed it. Funny how those certain moments in life can really last a lifetime, and it’s a good lesson to us who are in positions to perhaps create those moments for others.
    Thanks again for sharing and all the best to our mutual friend Drum.”

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