This is for my cousin Susan, whose father taught me how to throw the screwball.
When I saw the flickering black and white images of Bob Feller on the muted TV screen in my hotel room the other night, I knew the news couldn’t be good. Rapid Robert – Bullet Bob – the fastest pitcher of his generation, had died at 92.
Naturally, my mind went immediately to my Uncle Bill Pattison, who died several years back. Naturally for me because any time Feller’s name came up, Uncle Bill entered my mental scrapbook. Here’s why.
I was 12 at the time, maybe 11. We were visiting Long Island for a wedding and we stayed at the Pattisons’ house with Uncle Bill, Aunt Carmella and their kids – my cousins – Carolyn, Eileen, Susan and Billy. It was summer, middle of the baseball season.
Uncle Bill brought out the mitts one day. Some of them seemed to be disintegrating from the inside out, flaky crumbling leather. One of them had three fingers and a thumb. Haven’t seen another mitt like it.
“I’m gonna teach you how to throw the screwball,” Uncle Bill said.
I felt honored, and a little scared.
See, Uncle Bill was an outstanding ballplayer in his youth. It had become the stuff of family legend. He was easily the best pitcher I’d ever known, and he wanted to teach me one of his best pitches.
The guy was a phenom in his day. Once in a while he’d let us go through his memorabilia – scraps of newspaper, old baseballs. There was the game when he struck out 18 batters. There was the no-hitter. This was high school and semipro ball. There was the blurb talking about the major league clubs who wanted to sign him up. Bill was a Yankees fan, and indeed, the Yanks were interested. So were the Pirates. But at the top of the list was the Cleveland Indians. They’d been scouting him heavily.
At the time, the Indians had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, headed by Bob Feller. Uncle Bill always admired Feller. He admired Feller’s blazing fastball, but he also admired the way Feller carried himself, and the man’s patriotic commitment. It was Uncle Bill who first told me about Feller leaving the big leagues in the prime of his youth to join the Navy and go to war.
“He would have won 350, 400 games if he didn’t give up four of his best years,” Bill would say. I’ve heard that statement dozens of times since, but Bill was the first one who said it in my memory.
Like I said, the major league teams were lining up to pursue the teenaged Bill Pattison. But this was the Korean War era, and Bill was drafted. He figured, “a hitch in the Army, then I’ll pursue a baseball career.”
Didn’t happen that way.
There was an accident in the Army – my memory is grainy here, but I think it had something to do with a truck – and Bill injured his right arm, his pitching arm. His baseball career was over before it started.
Instead, Uncle Bill became a police officer in New York City. Not an easy job. It became his career. One of his partners, early on, was Frank Serpico. I seem to remember Uncle Bill not being particularly impressed with Serpico.
What I do remember clearly is the sting of the ball when Uncle Bill threw it. He wasn’t even throwing very hard, and he was 40 at the time. He taught me a few different grips for the fastball, showed me the curve, but mostly he showed me the screwball, and since he was a real student and teacher of the game, he told me how it was Christy Mathewson’s best pitch, he told me about Carl Hubbell, the great Giants ace. My next year of little league, I tried the screwball – and watched as the ball broke in toward one of my right-handed hitting teammates during practice … and in and in and in, until it hit him in the ribs. Then I hit another batter. These were my teammates. That was the end of my pitching career. I went back to the outfield.
A few years later, my family was back in New York for my parents’ 25th anniversary shindig. We spent about a week there, and one day my father, Uncle Bill, my cousin Matthew, brother Tony and I made the long drive up to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. To me it was like going to Heaven, with a roundtrip ticket. We spent hours going through the museum. We looked at all the plaques.
My dad and Bill had a captive audience. They told us stories about the guys they remembered – Gehrig, DiMaggio, Feller. Uncle Bill lingered at the Feller plaque for a little bit and I remember him saying to me, “You know, we could have played on the same team.”
I don’t remember a tone of regret in his voice. It was something else, maybe pride. For me, those few games of catch I had with Uncle Bill in my life were always something special, kind of an honor, and before and after that trip to the Hall of Fame, it was always clear to me that I was tossing the ball with the best pitcher in my large family, with a guy who could have pitched in the same rotation as Bob Feller.