I am a privileged white man in America who is in full sincere agreement with the copy/paste memo that’s been going around in the midst of the continued senseless and cruel racist reality of our blood-tarnished nation, the memo which names and “tags” victims who have suffered at the hands and whims of other privileged white men.
Like so many others who want and feebly try to do better, my heart breaks. I’ve shed tears and written words and taken actions and it’s smaller than small potatoes because … well, you know.
But I am also a baseball geek of unusual proportions and so today I celebrate the memory of Eddie Klep, who became the first white man to play negro league baseball on May 29, 1946. In a sense, Eddie was Jackie Robinson in reverse.
My friend Chuck Brodsky wrote a song about him and it included the following wonderful lyrics: “So while Jackie played for Brooklyn and wore the Dodger blue, Eddie crossed the color line, the one without a queue.” Give a listen!
On this day in 1946, Eddie made his debut with the Cleveland Buckeyes, pitching seven innings of an 8-6 win over the Chicago American Giants, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He pitched that year in the Negro American League, and then a few years later in Rockview State Prison (Pennsylvania). Eddie wasn’t what I’d call a privileged white man, per se. He had a pretty tough life overall, finally taking his backstage pass to the universe in 1981.
But I think that Eddie’s story is particularly relevant now, in light of all we know about white privilege in a country where a black man can still be murdered by the police just for being black.
Somewhere way, way down on the list of “important stuff” is the notion of an equal playing field, regardless of race, in baseball. That didn’t quite exist in Eddie’s time, though that segment of humanity concerned with baseball was getting closer to the ideal (Jackie Robinson had integrated white baseball by the time Klep integrated black baseball, and was starring for Montreal of the International League in 1946).
So here’s to Eddie Klep, the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in reverse, and his teammates in the Negro American League, who were very supportive. Now, enjoy Chuck’s song.
I’ve always had a conflicted relationship with the Pete Gray story. On the one hand, it’s very inspirational. It’s about persevering in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s one of the great underdog stories: A determined young man loses his arm in a childhood accident, grows up during the Great Depression, then fulfills his dream to play big league baseball. Who doesn’t love that?
Actually, I can think of lots of people who probably didn’t love it at the time. They played baseball in what was called the “negro leagues,” because they were barred from playing so-called “organized ball.” That’s the other hand.
Pete Gray grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, coal mining country. He was a natural right hander before losing his arm in a wagon or truck accident when he was seven or eight. But he became a bona fide superstar in the minor leagues and then played a year in the American League with a good St. Louis Browns team. Granted, this was during World War II, when Major League lineups were depleted as men went off to war or to play baseball for one of the service teams or both. So if ever there was an opportune time for a one-armed outfielder (or a good St. Louis Browns team), this was it.
But still – a one-armed outfielder! Pete Gray was a miracle in cleats, who developed a foolproof (for him) technique to play defense, catching flies and rolling the ball across his chest, sticking his floppy glove under his stump while rolling the ball into his throwing hand, seamlessly; or bouncing ground balls into the air with his glove, then dropping it and grabbing the ball as it hovered in front of him then firing it back to the infield, all of this in the same time it took a two-handed man (if not faster).
He was equally incredible at bat. Swinging from the left side of the plate (of course), he batted a mere .218 in 77 games for the Browns, but this was still the Major Leagues, and he did hit .333 and stole 63 bases in 1944 as a minor leaguer. He legitimately had game, and I’ve been in awe of Pete Gray since my father first told me about him almost 50 years ago. But not very long after that, as I descended ever deeper into baseball geekdom, I developed a decent grasp of the game’s social history. And I started wondering.
I wondered why “organized baseball” would take in and promote a one-armed man – even an immensely gifted man like Pete Gray – but would not consider hiring proven superstars like Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige or Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin or Buck Leonard or Cool Papa Bell or any of the excellent players from the negro leagues. Pete Gray broke into whites-only “organized ball” in the early 1940s, several years before Branch Rickey signed Robinson.
There was plenty of first-rate talent available, for many decades before the war and during the war and before Jackie Robinson, all considered off limits for the most ridiculous and hateful of reasons. Racism. Baseball’s white ruling class would rather hire a one-armed outfielder, or a one-legged pitcher (Bert Shepard for the Senators in August 1945), or 15-year-old pitcher (Joe Nuxhall for the Reds in June 1944) – all of them white, all of them remarkable athletes, but none of them better than a Gibson, a Paige, or an Irvin. Or a Robinson.
So, I honor the memory of Pete Gray (who died in 2002) as a truly marvelous and inspirational baseball player – I’m a fan for life. But his story tells me as much about the sanctioned senseless (and yes, evil) policies that once ruled the game, as it does about Pete’s indomitable spirit and amazing athletic skills. And for almost 50 years I’ve been plagued by a nagging rhetorical question: What the hell?
I wanted to wait until after Memorial Day to post this because Memorial Day honors and recognizes military personnel who died while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Therefore, my father, who served in the Navy for a few years following World War II, then came home to meet my mother, get married, have a family, and live the American dream, wouldn’t qualify as one of the honored dead. And I want to honor him.
Dad was a patriotic American and a member of the ‘greatest generation.’ He never knew his father, grew up poorer than most in the heart of the Great Depression, the youngest child in a family of seven kids with a single mom who barely spoke English. He ran the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan with a gang of other mostly Sicilian kids, back when New York had three Major League baseball teams within its city limits.
Look at the dates on his plaque. He turned 16 in January 1945, when the war was still very much alive, still raging and taking lives at a horrifying pace, in Europe, in Asia, everywhere. My father had older brothers in the service. He had older friends in the service, and at least one older member of his gang who’d been killed in action. He didn’t want to miss this moment in history. The son of immigrants, he was fiercely proud to be an American, and so …
… Dad lied about his age. He told the recruitment office he was 17 (the minimum age to enlist) and fooled his beloved, hard-working (mostly-illiterate) mother into signing a permission slip for him to join the Navy, telling her it was a form from his high school. And for a little while, at least, Dad thought he was going to war.
But he was busted. No dice, young man. Come back in a year. And that’s what he did. The war ended as Germany surrendered in May 1945, and Japan followed suit after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated by atomic bombs in August that year. Dad, an artist, had started his own graphics (i.e., sign) company that was (unbeknownst to him, a creative if naive 16-year-old entrepreneur) a front for an illegal (mob connected) gambling ring.
So when Dad turned 17 and enlisted on the up-and-up, it was as much to escape the sign-shop escapade as it was to do his part for post-war America, serving his country as an administrative clerk (Y3 is yeoman third class) in the U.S. Navy, on land and sea.
OK, so he wasn’t Sergeant York (even though he told us stories about great battles and adventures when we were kids — to hear Dad tell it, he singlehandedly defeated Imperial Japan and rescued my mother for his own in the process, while battling dinosaurs as well, of course). But it wasn’t from lack of trying.
Dad was never a war hawk. He never had a desire to kill for his country. He only wanted to do his part. He believed in America as the place where dreams come true. He believed America was great and always evolving. He adhered to the Dale Carnegie school of thought. He was a Roosevelt/Truman Democrat who loved JFK and voted for Jimmy Carter and was not a hateful man — if he hated anything, it was bullies (and maybe Bill Mazeroski, but it wasn’t personal).
If Dad were alive today he wouldn’t hate this president — Dad was a very funny man, expert at whistling past the boneyard. As long as he had his family, Dad was usually happy. He’d laugh at this president. But Dad was no fool. He would have recognized Trump for the profoundly dangerous and self-serving putz that he is, and would have been patiently disappointed by the shambling wreckage of humanity that elected this coward. But Dad said more times than I can count, “this too shall pass, my son.”
So I don’t think he would have wasted too much time wailing and gnashing his teeth. He would have things to do. Dad would have voted against this president and his halfwitted followers, and then he would have forgotten and discarded them for the self-loathing detritus they are, because Dad was always a progressive-minded man. He’d want to move forward.
Today, though, I’m looking back … back on the life of a great American hero who was self-conscious of his heroism but never took it very seriously (except, perhaps, on Father’s Day), a man who served his country, married my mom, raised a family, and left us way too soon. Dad, I remember you.
I’ve loved this baseball card for a long time. It arrived in a shoebox with a thousand other cards, a hand-me-down gift from one of my big sister’s long past boyfriends, probably acquired around 1970.
I would have been nine at the time and this ‘Rival All Stars’ card from the 1960 Topps set wasn’t the most valuable or sought-after card in the box by any stretch. Inside this treasure chest were diamonds like individual cards of Mantle and Boyer, and also Mays, Maris, Koufax, Spahn, Banks, Clemente, Aaron, etc., etc., etc., all from the early 60s. In 1970, the cards weren’t very old yet — there was still a lingering shadow of the bubblegum smell on them, for goodness sakes. But they seemed ancient to me.
Too young to really appreciate the “value” of the cards, I was easy prey for a couple of local conmen down the block (two kids who were 12 or 13, you know, “big kids.”). So, I got ripped off in a few trades, but still managed to hold onto the bulk of the cards in the old shoebox, including this one.
Fast forward about 10 years. Now I’m 19 and savvy to some of the shadier practices in the collecting world, but I’m no longer “actively” collecting cards. For a few years in the early and mid 70s, though, I’d built up my collection a little, ordering cards through the mail, trading with friends (“Here, you can have my ’60 Clemente if you give me your ’63 Mays …”).
My pals and I got really interested after reading about someone who had paid the outrageous sum of $1,500 for a T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card. None of us had ever actually seen a tobacco card. The addition of high stakes to the hobby did make it that much more interesting to us.
So anyway, I’m 19 and my family has moved to the Chicago area. Now I have several shoeboxes of cards and they are stashed in the garage in moving boxes that we haven’t finished unpacking yet. One day while hanging out with a couple of local kids (my little brother’s new school chums), I pulled out a box of cards for some show and tell.
These kids were rabid Cubs fans and their eyes grew to the size of pies when I unveiled a 1960 Ernie Banks card, then the 1962 Banks with its fake wood paneling borders. Here was the hero of their fathers and big brothers. Ernie was long retired by now, but these imps knew all about Mister Cub. The scene of the crime gave them away. A few days later I noticed one packing box in the garage neatly open, and a gaping hole where the shoebox of cards used to be, as if the thieves knew exactly what they were looking for (which of course, they did, because I’d kindly shown them).
My little brother, loyal to the core, brought his friends over one afternoon after school, ostensibly to hang out and play. But he was really bringing them to an intense interrogation as the three Grillo boys — older brother Steve, younger brother Tony, and yours truly — surrounded the two thieves and battered them with questions. They confessed, finally, and while we held one kid hostage the other rode home on his bike to fetch the stolen booty. They had taken handfuls of my 1960 and 1962 cards (for some reason, my sister’s old boyfriend must not have collected much from the 1961 set, because I only inherited a few of those). Now the cards were back, including the one pictured here, a real survivor along with the rest of the cardboard gods stuffed away in little boxes.
So, why this card? I love it for a few reasons. Look at the smiles on their faces, the Mick on our left, Ken Boyer on our right. Two guys from different leagues who, when this card was printed, had barely played against each other at this point their careers, meeting only during Spring Training (when all baseball card photos were taken in those days) or All-Star games (when this photo probably was taken). There is no pressure on their mugs, just glee, maybe a sense of anticipation by two guys who grew up in the same part of the country, eager grips on the ends of their bats.
I also love it for its foreshadowing. These young stars (both men were in their 20s when this photo was taken) would eventually meet on the field of play in the fall of 1964, in one of the classic World Series. That year Mantle, playing his last great season, led the Yanks into the fall classic against Kenny B. and his scrappy St. Louis Cardinals, who had overtaken the stumbling Phillies to win a thrilling National League pennant race. With Bob Gibson throwing BB’s and Barney Schultz throwing knucklers, and Lou Brock stealing bases, and of course, Ken Boyer, the National League Most Valuable Player for 1964. The Cards beat the Yanks in seven games. Both Mantle and Boyer hit clutch home runs in that Series. Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam wrote a book about it.
Sadly, both men would die before reaching deep into old age (Ken in 1982 at the age of 51, and Mickey in 1995, when he was 63). I love this card because it has somehow survived under my sometimes loosey-goosey care, and because it depicts two of my heroes in the bloom of youth, and in spite of its age (60 years, about the same as me), this card looks forward to a universe of possibility. That’s what I love about it.
It’s Willie Mays’ birthday. I’ve been addicted to Mays since reading his biography when I was probably nine. This is a story about a small Mays treasure that I sought through the mail and how it grew into a much larger treasure because of my father’s gift for writing threatening letters.
In February of 1976, I was 15-years-old and still collecting Willie Mays stuff. There was a company back then called The Sports Hobbyist based in Detroit, and the guy who ran this company (in fact, I think he may have been the company) was named Charles A. Brooks. He produced a catalog of available baseball cards, and my eyes nearly exploded at what I saw inside: a 1956 Topps Willie Mays card for $3.
Even in 1976, three bucks was pretty cheap for a 1956 Mays, and I was flush with cash from mowing lawns. This was a treasure that I could afford. So I handed Dad three singles and he wrote me a check for $3 (check No. 242, as it turns out), which I put in the mail to Mr. Brooks, prepared to wait the four weeks his ad claimed that it would take for orders to arrive.
When May arrived but Mays had not, I wrote to Mr. Brooks on Willie’s birthday (May 6th) and “inquired as to the disposition” of my order, “and the merchandise.” Those words in quotes belong to my father. We’re getting to that. Anyway, when I didn’t hear from Mr. Brooks for several weeks following my inquiry, I complained to Dad and he did what he did so well. He got to writing.
My father was many things in his career, but he wrote for the love of it, and he was really good. He wrote two novels, which are unpublished (so far) but terrific. He had a real gift for developing a plot, writing in his characters’ voices, and spinning a tale. But his greatest gifts as a writer typically revealed themselves in his letters. Dad was a sought-after letter writer among family and friends. If someone was having trouble with the water company or had been done wrong in some way that required an “official” response, Dad was exactly the right “official” to remedy the situation. He wrote letters that got results.
Like the time he missed a flight on Eastern Airlines, but his luggage did not. This effort took a few phone calls and more than one letter, if memory serves, but the end result was that Eastern delivered Dad’s luggage to our front door at no cost. Or the time my sister was denied entry into some college program. Dad set word to paper and before long a contrite dean was apologizing for any confusion to my father and my sister, and of course she would be admitted to the program, et cetera.
So when I’d hit a dead end with Mr. Brooks and The Sports Hobbyist, I knew exactly where to turn.
Dad’s intimidating letter begins like a trial, with exhibits listed at the top. Exhibit A is my written order for the baseball card (“as per your advertisement, priced at $3.00,” Dad wrote). Exhibit B was the cancelled $3 check (242), dated Feb. 6, and deposited on Feb. 9, 1976, at the Detroit Bank & Trust. Then Dad regaled some of what I’ve already told you. So then, here’s the nutritious meat of my old man’s brilliant letter to what I imagine was a quaking Mr. Brooks:
“[My son] has received no reply and has consulted me on the matter. My prime concerns are twofold: (a) That my son might possibly be disillusioned toward ‘legitimate business ventures’ at too early a stage in his life. (b) The possibility of a fraudulent operation, victimizing primarily children.
“While consulting the Legal Department of my Company, it was suggested that I write this letter before referring the matter to the Postal Authorities. With due advice, I am requesting that your reply (a full refund, plus postage costs for three mail pieces, and a full explanation to my son) by July 15th, 1976 – at which time I shall proceed, indeed, to pursue this matter, unless fully satisfied.
“Thank you, and I sincerely hope that the issue can be resolved and that my son’s faith in our ‘enterprise system’ can be restored.
“Respectfully, Anthony F. Grillo.”
Two weeks later I received what you see pictured here: The 1956 Mays, in terrible condition, plus the Willie postcard, a postcard of a wrestler I’d never heard of, a tobacco card of a boxer I’d never heard of, and a real surprise, a 1955 Bowman Willie (the one that looks like a TV set). I figure that Mr. Brooks was terrified of the legal department so he just kept stuffing things in the return envelope until he ran out of space.
Anyway, in the decades since that bicentennial summer, my faith in the enterprise system has waxed and waned, but my faith in Dad and his letters has never wavered, because I know what’s good for me.
It’s difficult to adequately explain what Don Shula has meant to me for the past 50 years, or ever since I became aware of him. I’ll try, though.
Anyone who knows me even a little, knows that baseball is my game. No question, no contest. Football is a distant second. But when I was a little kid and becoming interested in sports, my family lived in Pembroke Pines, Florida, about 25 miles from the Orange Bowl, where the Miami Dolphins played their home games.
This was long before the Miami Marlins or Tampa Bay Rays. With the exception of Spring Training, there was no regular Major League Baseball in Florida, no local teams to rally behind. The Yankees trained in nearby Fort Lauderdale. The Dodgers were just up the coast in Vero Beach. Miami had an Orioles minor league team. But the Miami Dolphins were the only major league sports team — the National Football League — and also, they were damn good. They left an impression on my still developing sports mind. Plus, my father scored season tickets to the Dolphins home games in 1971, so yes, I became hooked.
To this day, baseball is my game of choice, but the game matters more to me than any one team; a handful of players more to me than any one geographic area. I root for the Braves and have cared about them more than any other baseball team. But early love goes deepest. For those autumns that we lived in South Florida, from September into January, it was all Dolphins, and I was a rabid little sucker. Mercury Morris was my favorite player, but I also loved Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield, tried to throw with Bob Griese’s three-quarters overhand motion, pretended I was Nick Buoniconti when I played defense.
Presiding over all of it, instilling a sense of unwavering confidence that all was right in the world, was Coach Shula (there are only a handful of head pro football coaches in the history of the game that deserve a proper titular noun in front of their names, and Coach Shula is one of them).
His obituaries and the football statistics web sites have all the career information you need. But in case you haven’t cared enough to look at those sources, here’s a primer: He was the youngest head coach in NFL history at 33, then coached 33 seasons, winning more games than anyone else (347), taking his team to the playoffs 19 times, to the Super Bowl six teams, winning two of them. And, oh yeah, he and the Dolphins had the only perfect season of any coach and any team in the 100-year history of American pro football.
The word ‘perfect’ is in bold face above so that it will stand out. Because it only happened once. That’s right. There’s only been one perfect team in pro football history (in case any Ditka-obsessed Chicago Bears fans need reminding), and it happened in 1972 (and a teeny bit of 1973), and Don Shula was the head coach.
The reason that season is so important to this Miami Dolphins fan is because … well, I’m a Miami Dolphins fan. I don’t have a lot to cheer about most seasons any more. My best years as a fan were almost 50 years ago. So, yes, I cling to that record as a kind of personal salve. My daughter knows this well. Whenever another football team (or pretty much any institution) begins rising to levels of obvious excellence, I’ve always said, “1972 Dolphins.” It can be anything. Samantha might have been talking about something in history class. “Whoa, Dad, that Mongolian Empire was really something.” And I’d say, “yeah, but they were no 1972 Miami Dolphins.”
As my friends and I played different variations of ‘Kill the Man with the Ball,’ or touch football in the street, and later, youth league football, we all became Dolphins fans. Well, most of us did. I remember bringing a Bears fan (seriously, I’m not picking on Bears fans; this actually happened) with me to one of the Dolphins home games in 1971. It was a Monday Night Football game, so we got to stay up later than usual. This kid loved Dick Butkus. Well, Butkus wound up leaving the game with an injury after Csonka ran over him, and the Dolphins rolled. My friend cried.
Shula came to Miami in 1970 and immediately turned the team around. They won three games in 1969. Shula arrived and they won 10 games and went to the playoffs for the first time in 1970, when I began watching them and their coach with the granite jaw. In ’71 we had the season tickets and I started keeping rushing statistics (because I was a running back as a kid, and I was a nerd who was into that kind of stuff). So I knew how many yards Csonka, Morris, and Jim Kiick had, which was probably too much information then, and now.
Then we moved to the Atlanta suburbs in the spring of 1972, and I was crushed. Who cared for the Falcons? Not me. Hundreds of miles away, Coach Shula and the Dolphins started putting together the greatest season any football team ever had. My football team! Fortunately, NBC carried most or many of their games (I think it was NBC), and I watched a lot of that season on the tube. When Griese broke his leg, I nearly wept. Then Shula inserts uber-competent Earl Morrall at quarterback, and Csonka and Morris have incredible seasons, and the No-Name Defense crushes everyone, and … 17-0, perfection. The finished what they started. I remember the team carrying Shula off the field following the 14-7 less-than-spectacular, skin-of-their-teeth Super Bowl VII win over the Redskins. They didn’t give Gatorade showers back then.
Shula took the team to 15-2 and another Super Bowl victory over the hapless Minnesota Vikings the next year, and some people believe that team was even better than the 1972 squad. But 17-0 is 17-0, and as the years accumulated, Miami teams went from the top of the mountain to merely great, then good, and occasionally mediocre (not often – Shula’s Dolphins won 10 or more games 16 times in his 26 years leading the team). Other powerful teams came along to threaten the Miami record, most notably the 1985 Bears and the 2007 New England Patriots.
As a fan, if I’m ranking Miami Dolphins victories, the wins in Super Bowls VII and VIII are one and two. But a close third is their win over the previously unbeaten Bears (again, on Monday night) in 1985. Ditka’s crew entered the game, in Miami, as the heavy favorite with a 12-0 record and a beastly defense. Final score: Dolphins 38, Bears 24. Chicago romped through the rest of the season, shut out its first two postseason opponents, then crushed New England, 46-10, in the Super Bowl, finishing one of the greatest seasons in football history. But not a 17-0 season.
In 2007, the Patriots actually won more games than the 1972 Miami team, posting an 18-0 record before entering Super Bowl XLII, which the New York Giants won, 17-14, thanks to a ridiculous helmet catch by wide receiver David Tyree, and Eli Manning’s lucky right arm, among other things. So the Pats had one of the greatest seasons ever, winning 18 straight and finishing 18-1. Great, but not perfect.
Whenever a team got close, Shula and his boys were never shy about celebrating that team’s inevitable decline. And sometimes they were reproached for openly savoring their record. But Shula himself refuted the criticism saying they weren’t “a bunch of angry old guys who can’t wait for the last undefeated team to get beat. We’re very proud of our record, and if somebody breaks it, I’m going to call that coach and congratulate them. Until they do, it’s our record, and we’re proud of it.”
Now Shula has died. He lived to be 90, a good, long time. Longer than some of the guys on that team who have died already, like Morrall and Buoniconti, and Bill Stanfill, who were all-stars in their time. And though none of them has won a Super Bowl since the 1970s, when Shula crossed over, he crossed over in victory, on the shoulders of great ghosts.
A kind of coda: One of my closest high school buddies was Bob Hnath. We bonded over Miami Dolphins football. We’d both lived in South Florida and moved to the Atlanta area, and wore our teal-colored Dolphins warmup jackets, watched games together, slept over each other’s houses. Bob’s brother Chris died when he was very young, eight or nine. Leukemia. I’ll never forget my good natured friend who laughed so easily at my stupid jokes, who was really strong in his Catholic faith (like Shula), crying during those dark months.
Anyway, at some point, Bob and his family went on vacation back to Florida, and Bob got to meet Don Shula. The photo below, of Shula’s autograph, is courtesy of my friend Bob and his terrific family.
I’m very sad to say, and it’s one of my life regrets, but I lost touch with Bob and his family, except for the occasional Facebook note over the past five or seven years. My family moved away, then I started my own family, and from what I’ve gathered, Bob started his own family, too. But this good boy that I remembered with a sweet nature and a lot of foot speed, was not blessed with long life. He died in 1994. Cancer.
I can never think of Don Shula or the Miami Dolphins without thinking of my old friend, whose last name is pronounced ‘Nath.’ And when I heard that Shula died, the mental image of bespectacled Bob flashed in my mental slide show. Bob Hnath, I remember you.
This is about my greatest day on a golf course, and I never even touched a club (which oughta tell you reams about my game).
Anyway, back in the 20th century I was the sports editor for a few years at a small newspaper company based in Madison, Georgia, the town known for being so pretty that General Sherman refused to burn it during his destructive ‘March to the Sea.’ He didn’t burn it because he was too far away, but the town was plundered some, and a few buildings were set ablaze by troops under Gen. Henry Slocum.
So, it was an idyllic few years in which my wife (news editor for the same outfit), daughter (Sam), dog (Phil), cat (Donna), and I lived a few blocks from the office, which was on the historic picture postcard town square.
I say it was a newspaper “company” because newspapers generally are companies, and to point out that this company published two different newspapers each week – the old, reliable flagship in Madison, which had been published steadily since Grant was president, and an ambitious (for the times) paper covering the communities ringing Lake Oconee, which was experiencing an explosion of growth and investment as golf communities sprang up along the previously sleepy two-lane road that links Eatonton and Greensboro, small towns which also had old, reliable flagship newspapers.
Our owner/publisher, who was fond of seersucker suits and reminded me a bit of the classic Southern dandy, had thrown down the gauntlet, triggering a little newspaper turf war in what was becoming known as the ‘lake region.’ As the sports editor (and weekend delivery guy around the lake), my priorities revolved around coverage of three public high schools and three private schools. So, my fall Friday nights were always eaten up by high school football games, and the rest of the time there was basketball, baseball, and the University of Georgia was just up the road about 30 minutes, and there were outdoor sports, even some pro sports coverage. A little bit of everything, really.
Including Mickey Mantle.
In 1991, he bought a home in one of those golf communities and spent a good portion of the last few years of life there. For several years he hosted a charity golf tournament, bringing in a lineup of Hall of Fame athletes, including Yogi Berra, Johnny Unitas, Whitey Ford, Harmon Killebrew, Enos Slaughter. One year I drove around in a golf cart with Earl Morrall, quarterback of my beloved 1972 Miami Dolphins (another story for another day), taking pictures. Part of the job, man. Spend a pretty spring day on a golf course snapping photos and hanging around a bunch of your childhood heroes? Someone had to do it.
Actually, several people had to do it. The newspapers from Eatonton and Greensboro were also on the Mick beat, it being part of the ‘lake region.’ Greensboro probably ran more Mickey photos than our paper and the Eatonton paper combined. For one thing, Greensboro was the town closest to Mickey’s golf community. For another thing, the Greensboro paper’s photographer/distributor guy never saw a free meal that he could pass up, and in those days, the golf clubs were giving away a lot of free food and booze and rounds of golf.
The dude sparingly lifted to his eye the ‘instamatic’ type camera that hung from his colossal neck and there was speculation that he wore the thing mainly as jewelry. And yet, on Saturdays in Athens when the University of Georgia Bulldogs were playing football, there he would be on the sidelines with the rest of the photographers, jostling for position, the last to arrive because he was the last to leave the pregame meal (and usually the first in line).
At one of the Mantle tournaments, I arrived just before the golfers started swinging, but after the pre-game cookout. As I sped across the golf course, loading my camera with Kodachrome while driving the cart, here came my photographer buddy. I asked him, “Where you headed?” He said, “I’m leaving. Too bad you were late, sucker. And thanks! I got two steaks!” Then he sped away.
Meanwhile, I picked up Earl Morrall and enjoyed seeing Mantle clown around with Moose Skowron and Whitey Ford, and cringed when Johnny Unitas bent over on ruined knees to fetch his golf ball, but ultimately laughed a lot with these old legends, took a bunch of photos that I would have to develop back at the office, took a bunch of notes that I would spin into a somewhat readable local sports feature story.
But there are two Mickey Mantle episodes related to the photos accompanying this essay, or memoir, or lurch down memory lane, or whatever. Look at the pictures. One is a photo that I took of the Mick signing autographs during a press function at his golf club in 1991. The other is a picture of his autograph, which he gave me on a different occasion, which was the most fun I’ve had watching other people play golf.
Regarding the black and white photo. It was taken under a tent. Following the press conference (which was either about a new golf course, or the club’s plans for a polo facility, I can’t remember which), Mickey said he’d sign autographs for those in attendance, which included some club members and their families, maybe six or seven reporters from Augusta, Athens, and Atlanta. And us local yokels. It’s not the sort of thing that you normally see, reporters getting autographs from the person they are covering. It’s not the sort of thing that you should see.
But there they were, my fourth estate brethren lining up to get Mickey Mantle’s cherished signature on a photo or a baseball card or an old magazine. I was embarrassed for them, standing aside on my high horse, which provided me a great vantage point for snapping photos. But also, in the back of my mind I was thinking “it’s the Mick, after all, and they didn’t ask him, he offered, so …” I still couldn’t talk myself into getting in line.
At this stage of his life signing autographs is what Mickey Mantle did for a living. Yet here he was patiently signing each one for free, and personalizing them (which reduces their resale value). He was in a good mood. But then the Greensboro photographer stepped up to the table and lay a briefcase down in front of the Mick. Popping the lid, he exposed two dozen baseballs and with an ‘aw shucks’ grin said, “Hey, Mickey, would ya mind?”
Mickey Mantle gave the guy his withering Mickey Mantle stare, threw his pen up in the air and said, “fuck this,” got up and left. Which is exactly what he should have done. End of press conference.
The autographed postcard is an interesting piece because Mickey’s artistically rendered head looks more like the guy who played The White Shadow on TV than it does Mantle. No, really it’s interesting because of how I got it. Maybe I’ve told you this one before.
It was the honorary first round of golf on the new course at Mickey’s lakeside community. The foursome consisted of the Mick, former pro and UGA football star Jimmy Orr, and a couple of sporting goods executives. I was the only local photographer/writer following the foursome, and I was in heaven. Mickey Mantle was the first ballplayer I was ever aware of, before I even knew what baseball was. He’d always been one of my top five. This was an emotional moment for me, people. And even though I was told to be unobtrusive and not grill the Mick, it was a rare pleasure just to be there. I mean, I’d seen him in an old-timer’s game many years earlier, saw him hit a tape-measure foul ball. I’d met him here around the lake a few times. He swung at a golfball like it was a baseball, with the same kind of follow through, and the ball flew for miles. Somewhere I have the photos, buried. I must find them.
Anyway, there was at least one other photographer there, from Atlanta I think. And Mickey thought it was funny that we’d want to just hang around and get pictures of four guys playing golf and drinking, but he also understood that he was Mickey Mantle (which still seemed to amuse him). At one point on the back nine, Mickey hiked off into the woods above the green to find a proper tree for privacy, then shouted back at us, “hey, you guys wanna get a picture of this?” Then he laughed. We all laughed.
These four were well stocked with spirits and feeling no pain by the time they finished playing their round. As they gathered to look over the final scorecards, Mickey quietly reached into his golf bag and pulled out a stack of postcards (like the one in the picture). He said to me, “Jerry, right?” What was I supposed to say? No thanks, Mick? I said, “uh, yessir.” He smiled and handed me the card. I smiled back, suddenly eight-years old, mumbled, “thanks, Mick.” He did the same for everyone else there. Personalized and signed a postcard. So that’s how I broke a sacred law of journalism and got Mickey Mantle’s autograph while on the job.
Much cooler than that, though, is what happened next. One of the executives – I think he was from Mizuno – passed around his scorecard. He wanted everyone there to sign it, as a personal memento. When it came around to me, my hand shook as I added my own quivering scrawl beneath Mickey Mantle’s autograph, and my favorite day on a golf course had come to a surreal end.