Mantle, Boyer and their long fight for survival in my shoebox

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.



Mays by Mail, Thanks to Dad

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.


Don Shula Was Perfect

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.

I’m going to have to frame this poster …
I think this motel was close to the Dolphins practice facility.

The Mickey Mantle Beat

This is about my greatest day on a golf course, and I never even touched a club.

Back in the 20th century I was the sports editor for a newspaper group in Madison, Georgia, an idyllic few years for me and my wife, Jane, who was the news editor, our daughter Sam, and various critters. We lived two blocks from the newspaper office on the picture postcard town square in a classic old Southern town.

The company published two papers each week: the old, reliable flagship in Madison, which had been published steadily since Grant was president, and an ambitious (for the time) 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, 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 because it paid me a whopping extra 25 bucks a week), my priorities revolved around local high school sports. Fall Friday nights were always eaten up by high school football games, and the rest of the time there was basketball, baseball, University of Georgia sporting events up the road about 30 miles, 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. Part of the job description: Spend a pretty spring day on a golf course snapping photos and hanging around with 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, this being the heart of the aforementioned ‘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 newspaper’s photographer/distributor guy never saw a free meal that he could pass up, and in those days the country clubs were giving away a lot of free food and booze and rounds of golf.

This 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. I’m pretty sure he never took more than an exposure or two at any event. On Saturdays in Athens when the UGA Bulldogs were playing football, he’d be on the sidelines with the rest of the actual photographers, jostling for position, the last to arrive but first in line at the pre-game and halftime meals.

At one of the Mantle tournaments, I arrived after the pre-tourney cookout, and was pretty steamed about it. Play was about to start. I sped across the golf course toward the action, loading my camera with Kodachrome while steering the cart with my knee. Here came my photographer buddy from the other direction. I asked him, “Where you headed?” He said, “I’m leaving. Too bad you were late, sucker. And thanks! I got two steaks — mine and yours!” Then he was gone.

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 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 will get us back to my best day on a golf course.

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. Here’s how that came into my possession.

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.



Bruce Hampton in the COVID Age

Life is kind of like a race and everyone has a different finish line, an expiration date written into their genetic code, and unless you’re the suicidal type, it’s a secret that nobody knows. So, when Bruce the corporeal being reached his expiration date three years ago today, it was a shock, an emotional exit that most of us who were there have still not wrapped our minds and hearts around. We haven’t gotten over it. We may never get over it, or want to. This was Bruce’s last great performance. I want to remember every bit of it except for the end.

No more of that mad cackle, no more pinky handshakes, no more lunches, no more ‘Fixin to Die’ the way it oughta be played, because Bruce went and did it and it’s probably good that he’s not here, because he hated to see his children crying. And Bruce would also have hated this ridiculous pandemic and the sheltering in place. Bruce was not a shelter-in-place kind of guy.

But he was a brilliant person, and he would have seen the wisdom in the practice, and self-preservation would undoubtedly rule the day. Bruce may have died exactly how he wanted (on stage), but I don’t believe for a minute that he had a death wish. Right now, he’d probably be suffering with the rest of us – at a distance, sheltering in place and hating it because he loved hanging with his friends. Bruce preferred the hang more than the gig, anyway, and he probably would have missed that more than performing. He was a guy who had lunch dates every day of the week, and trivia or poker or something else going on at night.

He was a shy extrovert who preferred the company of others, outside of his home. But he would not have wanted to risk infecting anyone else, or catching the virus. And I wonder what it would have been like to see Col. Bruce Hampton — a singular performing artist, unlike anyone else we have ever seen — navigating digital performance, playing music in front of an iPhone and broadcasting it on social media. He might have hated it, because there wasn’t the audience reaction that live performing artists need as an integral part of their performance.

It would have taken some help from others, because Bruce was a leader but he was not a technician (having singlehandedly dismantled stages with a single move). He would have needed a collaborator to make live digital performance in the age of COVID-19 a reality. Basically, he always needed collaboration. He surrounded himself with the best musicians you’ve ever seen or heard for a reason, man. Didn’t you enjoy it? Didn’t he? Isn’t it best to collaborate with the best? More fun for everyone? It sure was for him, and I’m not complaining. I got to see his bands, some of them anyway.

So, yeah, Bruce would have needed a collaborator to get him online and into our living rooms, if he’d chosen to go that route. I like to imagine that he would. That some of his more influential friends (usually it was Bruce influencing others, though) would have shown him and helped him and we’d be sitting in our living rooms, or dancing on our hardwood or carpeted floors, while Bruce cackled or played his guitar or sang along with pre-recorded music, or whatever.

I only know that I would tune in to watch and laugh. I only know that I wish he was here for me to find out exactly how it would all go down.

If he was here, I’d apologize to him for not finishing the book before he died. The conversation has gone something like this, because I have talked with Bruce since May 1, 2017.

Me: “Hey, Bruce, dammit. I’m sorry the book about you wasn’t finished before you up and died. And what the hell was that about?”

Bruce (rolling his fists around each other three times, raising them to the sky): “Zambi!”

Of course, that explained and absolved everything and put it all into perspective. Life is always too short, so get over it and live. Anyway, the book is done. The publisher likes it. We’re working on edits now. Look for it in printed form from University of Georgia Press next spring (keeping my fingers crossed that book publishing and healthy, interested readers will still be a thing). It’s all about Bruce.

I know that for the rest of my life, on April 30th and May 1st , I will be thinking about Bruce. I know his ghost is around me, but is especially powerful on these days. And no matter where I am, if there is consciousness or semi-consciousness, the Zambi spirit will be near. That’s called having faith.

The Fastest Who Ever Lived has Died

Steve Dalkowski, who died a few days ago, is mostly remembered as a fictional character. If you’ve ever seen “Bull Durham,” one of the best baseball movies ever made, you know him as Nuke LaLoosh, the pitcher (played hilariously by Tim Robbins) with a million dollar arm and a five-cent head.

In the movie, Nuke falls under the world-weary mentorship of his veteran catcher, Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), and into the arms of local fan and serial cougar, Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon). Together and apart, Crash and Annie help get Nuke on the path to big league stardom.

Like Nuke, Steve had Olympian gifts with no real sense of direction most of the time. Dalko, by anecdotal accounts (including Ted Williams’) was the hardest thrower to take ever toe the pitching rubber. He had blinding speed with limited control, just as likely to walk 20 in a game as he was to strike out that many.

Consequently, Steve never pitched in the big leagues, spending nine years in the minors, terrifying 19-year-olds all season long and veterans during spring training. Cal Ripken, Sr., who caught Dalkowski (and saw Sandy Koufax, Goose Gossage, and Nolan Ryan pitch) said Steve was the fastest ever, estimating the left-hander’s throwing speed at somewhere between 110 and 115 miles an hour – basically, Sidd Finch made flesh.

And unlike the comical fictional character, Nuke LaLoosh, the real-life flamethrower flamed out before he was 26, never pitching an inning in a regular season major league game. Dalko succumbed to injury and addiction, spending his post-baseball life in a pitched battle against alcoholism, going in and out of rehab, spending the last 25 years of his life in an assisted living facility a few blocks from his old high school ball field.

Mostly, he disappeared from baseball. But he did have at least one chance to pitch in a big league ballpark before he died, throwing out a ceremonial first pitch last year at Dodger Stadium.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if there had been a Crash Davis or Annie Savoy to set Steve Dalkowski on the righteous path. For me, Steve has always been like an itch I can’t scratch, a what-might-have-been itch.

Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed “Bull Durham” (and played in the Baltimore Orioles’ system a few years after Dalko), put it best: “He had it all and didn’t know it. That’s why Steve Dalkowski stays in our minds. In his sport, he had the equivalent of Michelangelo’s gift but could never finish a painting.”

Steve Dalkowski, I remember you.

Minor league pitcher Steve Dalkowski is pictured in Miami, March 1959. (AP Photo)


The Inning of Two Lifetimes

This is a story about two guys, an African-American child and a 20-year-old baseball prospect. One set a record that will probably never be broken, while the other one’s promising career ended tragically on a bloody plot of land in Korea. Their paths crossed, then diverged sharply. It would be fair to say that they were temporary associates rather than friends, sharing a mutual fondness and respect. It was the typical kind of relationship a batboy has with the star outfielder for the local minor league ball club, except for that one inning when they were actually teammates.

It also would be fair to say, if not for the grace and good humor of one of these two individuals, the other would not have been immortalized in baseball history.

Basically, this is a reconsideration (in places, a rewriting) of a piece I published about one of these guys – the batboy – 10 years ago in The National Pastime, an annual publication of The Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). That story told of the day when Joe Reliford, the bat boy, became the youngest player to appear in a professional (albeit Class D) baseball game, or what they used to call, “organized ball.”

Joe Louis Reliford, named for the boxer, grew up in Fitzgerald, a city of about 8,000 in south Georgia during the heart of the Jim Crow era. Fitzgerald is a small city with a few baseball distinctions. In addition to Joe’s feat while working for the Fitzgerald Pioneers, the city was also once home of a Baltimore Orioles farm team (1957), directed by a 27-year-old player/manager named Earl Weaver.

In 1950, when he was 10 years old, Joe talked the manager of the Pioneers of the Class D Georgia State League – former Major League All-Star pitcher Ace Adams – into hiring him as the team’s batboy. Adams did everything he could to discourage the kid, but Joe, one of Luronie Gillis Reliford’s 10 children (her husband and their father, Roscoe, died when Joe was a toddler), wanted to make a few bucks to help his family.

He loved baseball and was a fan of both the Pioneers and the Lucky Stars, an all-black semipro team from Fitzgerald. “But they weren’t hiring,” said Joe. “The Pioneers were.”

Joe got the gig and served as the team’s batboy (attending to most of the team’s in-game equipment details), shined the players’ shoes, traveled with the club. It was hard work and he was a seasoned veteran by July 19, 1952 when, four months shy of his 13th birthday, he pinch hit for Ray Nichting – the outfielder, and the second man this story is about – in the top of the eighth inning of a night game at Statesboro, becoming the youngest professional player of all time, and breaking the racial barrier in the still-segregated Georgia State League. Joe’s story has interested me since I first read about it 45 or so years ago in one of those “strange but true” sports story collections.

But I became really interested in Ray’s story after first interviewing him more than 10 years ago. He quit playing baseball because he’d been wounded badly in Korea, and had spent years coaching Little League ball. I’d never dug much deeper, but came upon a few cool items, including a great story written by Pete Conrad of the Journal-News in Butler County, Ohio (Nichting’s hometown newspaper). A subscription to helped find a few other things that I didn’t use directly, but helped me understand a little more of who Ray is and was. Basically, he’s a guy that I’d like to know.

But the fulcrum of the Joe and Ray story is an inning in a pretty meaningless game on a summer night in Statesboro (a two and a half hour bus ride from Fitzgerald), where the gnats and the hometown Pilots were clobbering the visiting Pioneers, 13-0. This was the lowest rung of the minors, a sweaty eight-team league that was then in the middle of its nine-year existence, two teams playing below .500 ball battling for fifth place. But It was also the height of what appeared, at the time, to be a promising career for Nichting, 20-years-old at the time and in his second season with Fitzgerald.

He’d been a star athlete on the sandlots around Cincinnati and in high school, where he was a touchdown threat as a halfback on the football team, and the best hitter on the baseball team. He was a right-fielder with a powerful arm, the best hitter in the Fitzgerald lineup, batting .330 as the team rolled into Statesboro, and leading the Pioneers in runs batted in. He’d finish the year with a .309 average, finishing second in the league in triples, and second in outfield assists. His dream of one day playing in the big leagues didn’t seem so farfetched, and he was sure to be promoted up the minor league ladder.

Pilots Field was packed on Elks Night, special ticket prices bringing them in from the sticks, “5,000, maybe 6,000 people,” Reliford recalled to me 10 or so years ago, the numbers undoubtedly having grown like proverbial fish in the decades since that game. “The ballpark was full,” Reliford said. “And every time they saw me grab a bat, they’d yell.”

The crowd was rubbing salt on the wound of the visiting Pioneers. They chanted, “put in the bat boy!” After several innings of this, Fitzgerald’s manager at the time, Charlie Ridgeway, figured, “what the hell?” He asked Nichting, first. The young right-fielder, having a great season, was feeling magnanimous. Plus, he liked the kid. “I was having a good year, but we’re getting killed and Charlie asks me, ‘Do you care if I let Joe bat for you?’ I didn’t have a problem with it,” Nichting told me 10 years ago, recalling the scrawny kid, barely 90 pounds soaking wet, who was actually a fine ballplayer.

“Joe would take batting practice [with us], pitch batting practice, warm up pitchers, shag fly balls, stuff like that,” Ray said. “He was a real good kid, and he worked his butt off for us, a great athlete. But this was a different time, down in South Georgia.”

Nichting recalled years later in the Journal-News what it was like just to try and get a meal in those days. “We’d go to a restaurant, we’d take him in with us, they wouldn’t serve him, they wouldn’t serve us,” he said. So he was glad to give Joe a break in a time and place when breaks usually didn’t present themselves to 12-year-old black kids.

With his leading hitter’s blessing, Ridgeway told the home plate umpire, Ed Kusick, he was inserting Reliford, who wasn’t on the Fitzgerald roster, into the game – with the understanding that if Joe got a base hit, the Pioneers would probably have to forfeit the game. Joe protested. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He told the webzine in 2011, “Ray Nichting wasn’t some ordinary ballplayer. He was our Mickey Mantle.”

But Ray was having too fine a time watching this all go down, and Ridgeway was insistent. “So I grabbed a bat and went out there to hit, and that really revved up the crowd,” Reliford said. “I’ll never forget it, like this was yesterday. Their pitcher was Curtis White. I figured he was gonna throw the ball to me like I was a child. I was a child.” 

White, working on a two-hitter, was Statesboro’s ace, with an ERA of 2.63 with a 16–11 record. He was just as surprised to see the batboy step into the batter’s box as Reliford was to see a fastball zip past him. “He threw it hard, and I got angry,” Joe said. So he tried to hit the next pitch out of the park, but was proud to have just made contact. The third baseman backhanded the grounder and threw young Reliford out by a step. But Joe’s professional debut wasn’t over.

In the bottom of the eighth, after White had retired Fitzgerald, Ridgeway told Reliford to go to right field. “I thought he was kidding,” Reliford said. “I told him, ‘Mr. Ridgeway, we can’t do this!’ But he just said, ‘Go ahead, get out there.’”

With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Statesboro had a man on first, “and the next man hit a grounder to right, a base hit,” Joe recalled. “The man on first tore around second and went for third. He must have figured I was just some little kid. Well, I had a rifle arm, and that ball was waiting for him at third.” 

You can imagine Nichting, who not only led the league in putouts by right fielder that year but errors as well, shaking his head and smiling on the bench while the kid put on a clinic in the outfield.

With two outs, up came Pilots’ slugger Harold Shuster, who was working on a 21-game hitting streak but had gone ironically hitless in Statesboro’s offensive onslaught that night. He would knock in 100 runs that season and bat .339.  A right-handed hitter, Shuster sliced a drive to deep right, but Reliford flagged it down at the fence. “That kid picked it off like a champion,” Nichting exclaimed almost 60 years later. 

That’s when the place went nuts. Statesboro fans came pouring out of the stands toward Reliford, even though there was another inning left to play. Consider the scene: it’s 1952 in segregated South Georgia, and this 12-year-old black kid, still numb after playing an inning of baseball with and against hardened professionals, white professionals, sees a mob of white people – fans of the opposing team, no less – running right at him. 

“I was so scared I shut my eyes and expected the worst,” Reliford says. “I didn’t know they just wanted to congratulate me.”

The fans clapped him on the back and stuffed his pockets full of money. The game was forfeited to Statesboro, the league suspended Ridgeway, fined him $50, and fired Kusick, the umpire. But history had been made. At the end of the season, the club dismissed Reliford, whose greatest moments on a professional ball field were now behind him. The same could also be said for Nichting, as a player anyway.

Joe joined the Lucky Stars for a while and the team tried to capitalize on his new-found fame as baseball’s youngest professional. He got into a few games for the all-black team but his career didn’t last. He went on to become a four-star athlete at Monitor High School and played football at Florida A&M, but a broken collarbone ended his athletic career.

Except for a few months in New York, where he tried to live after college, Reliford has spent his entire life in South Georgia, mostly in the town of Douglas, where he worked as a jukebox repairman for many years, coached football and basketball at a local high school for African American students before Georgia integrated its schools, and served a term as city commissioner. 

His achievement that hot July in South Georgia has been recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records and on the Ripley’s Believe It or Not television program. In 1991, his record also earned him inclusion in the National Baseball Museum, which erected a display honoring his accomplishment, and he spun the growing awareness of his record into an 80-page book, From Batboy to the Hall of Fame.

The poor kid who loved baseball and only wanted to make a few bucks to help his family unwittingly became famous and put his name on a record that probably won’t be broken. “That one inning of ball made me a celebrity,” Reliford said. “They put me in as kind of a joke, and that joke got turned around and became a blessing for me.” 

That one inning is also the thing Ray Nichting is most famous for in his professional career, which seems tragic considering what would happen to him not very long after. Well maybe it just seems tragic to everyone except Ray Nichting.

Following the 1952 season he was sold to the Tampa Smokers of the Class B Florida International League – a promotion. And he also received his draft notice – a war was raging in Korea. He was given a choice: try out for an armed services baseball team, like so many players have done during war time.; or go into battle and have a shorter stay overseas. Eager to get through service and get back to baseball, he chose the second option. In 2011 he told the Journal-News, “It was a bad choice, I guess.” But he also said, “I figured if you want to live in this country, you have to do your job for your country.”

Sadly for Nichting, any chance of doing the job he was seemingly born to do – play baseball – would be dashed the summer of 1953 on Pork Chop Hill, less than a year after that hot night in Statesboro. July 7, 1953 would be significantly hotter. Facing a mass of Chinese soldiers, Ray was a squad leader in a company of 244 men. Six got out of the battle alive.

“One walked off, five of us were carried off,” Nichting told the Journal-News. He was one of the five, losing his right leg and suffering other wounds in a grenade explosion. “I got hit at 10 o’clock. I didn’t get off the hill until 3 or 4 o’clock the next afternoon. I thought I’d lost both of my legs.” He dragged himself most of the way down the hill by himself, crawling over dead bodies all the way. Nichting came home from Korea with a chest full of medals, but left his career as a baseball player behind.

The never-say-die Nichting went to barber school under the G.I. Bill and spent the next five decades cutting hair, while perfecting his bowling game. But he and baseball were not finished with each other. Ray became a youth baseball coach, taking a number of Little League teams from Hamilton, Ohio, deep into postseason play, including several Little League World Series.

Not surprisingly, the man who showed patience and respect for a 12-year-old bat boy in 1950s south Georgia, got along famously with the 10, 11, and 12-year-olds he coached or managed for decades. “He always knew how to communicate with kids, no matter where they came from,” Ray’s son, Tim Nichting, told the Journal-News in the 2011 story about his father.

His players said that Ray Nichting had a gift for teaching kids how to play like champions while allowing them to remain kids. He made practices and games fun, defying the stereotype of the win-at-all-costs big fish in a Little League pond. He was never a screamer, not an intimidator, letting the kids — who, of course, were always fascinated with his artificial leg — do their own thinking, bucking them up when they needed it, never lambasting a child for making a mistake in a child’s game. Why, it’s almost as if Ray Nichting has something called perspective.

At this writing, both Joe Reliford and Ray Nichting are still alive, both in their 80s (Joe will be 81 this year, and Ray will be 88). Their lives went in completely different directions since that strange inning in July 1952. Reliford has tried his best to capitalize on his one inning of fame, and rightly so – it is a singular achievement, being the youngest person, and first person of color, to do what he did. It may have been a lark to the fans and the managers, but it has proven itself, over time, to be a very big deal personally to Joe Reliford, a point of pride. That one inning in organized ball got him recognized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, after all.

Ray Nichting, on the other hand, who played two seasons of Class D baseball and seemed destined for plenty more before the horror of war interfered, will never be enshrined in Cooperstown. Both he and his son are members of their local sports hall of fame, for having guided hundreds of young ball players for almost 60 years. Tim’s son, Ray’s grandson, T.J. Nichting is carrying on the family baseball tradition — he plays in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor league system (or, he did when there was such a thing as professional baseball). And Ray, once voted Hamilton’s ‘Citizen of the Year,’ is a local legend for his contributions on baseball diamonds, in his community, and on a foreign battlefield. who remains a local legend for his contributions.

Alas, hall of fame qualities as a citizen and human being do not equate to National Baseball Hall of Fame enshrinement. It isn’t anyone’s fault, really. Them are the rules. Guys whose pro baseball careers begin and end in the bush leagues, no matter how many bowling trophies they win and how many children’s lives they impact positively, are never considered for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Nonetheless, it is Cooperstown’s loss because throughout his life Ray Nichting has proven one thing over and over again: he’s a guy you really want on your team.

This story was written based on interviews I conducted with Joe Reliford and Ray Nichting about 10, 11 years ago, plus these other sources: Georgia Trend magazine (a story that I wrote),, Associated Press (May 1995),, the Journal-News of Butler County (Ohio), and, and The National Pastime (2010, another story I wrote).

Let’s Shape the New Era

It’s like the entire country has been on an extended acid trip for the past four years. A really bad trip, filled with the most unsettling hallucinations, the kind of shit that your subconscious mind wouldn’t conjure in its darkest moments, and yet it’s all been real.

A man who had never served anything beyond his own mercenary and/or perverse whims is somehow elected president — a B-level reality TV host on par with Mama June from Honey Boo Boo infamy. It felt like a gluttonous, greedy fox had been enthusiastically chosen by a yammering faction of self-loathing chickens.

I know that I shouldn’t make too much of it or put more poison into the world (I’ve done plenty of that already), but it’s hard not to do or say something when you feel helpless, or handcuffed by national acquiescence to or support of a glaringly obvious village idiot with keys to, and control of, the kingdom. It’s hard on everyone, including those who support this dangerous fool.

I’m not the praying type, generally, but will take to bended knee when a friend requests it, for my friend’s sake. If a friend takes strength from my entreaty to an invisible power, it’s literally the least I can do, and part of that means committing to the appeal that I’ve made, a cry from the heart — something besides poison for the air.

Some good, old friends have remained loyal, or open, to the current dictator-in-chief. Some are going through desperate, heartbreaking times, some of it directly related to the president’s gross mismanagement and apathy. So it’s in that “spirit,” that I “pray.” Pray that all of us will be overcome by whatever minimal sanity or wisdom it will take to oust this administration into oblivion, and start over.

And on that score (starting over), we don’t really have a choice. Global catastrophes always change the world, whether we like it or not. This is the new era. We’re in it, and our president is only in it for himself. How is that not as clear as the pixels in front of you? For the love of Dog, we deserve so much more and it really won’t take much to shake up the existential Etch-a-Sketch and create something better as the reality that we are evolving into takes shape.

Henry Aaron, Human Being

This is a revisited, totally rewritten piece that I first published 10 years ago. This version is better. And today is the 46th anniversary of one of the top five greatest moments in baseball, the day Henry Aaron passed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run king. Here you go, hope you enjoy it:

Once I met Henry Aaron. I don’t mean that time I got his autograph at Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium. That was happenstance. I was standing near the Braves dugout on a day when the vast majority of the fans must have been dressed as stadium seats. Felt like I had the run of the place. But I was standing there at the railing during batting practice, watching, daydreaming, lost in my 13-year-old head, when Aaron just materialized in front of me after taking his practice cuts.

He said something like, “want an autograph kid?” Dumbfounded, I said, “wha – what? Uh, sure.” Like an idiot, I almost said, “I’ve already got it,” because a year earlier I’d written to him, courtesy of the Braves front office, asking for an autograph, and he responded pretty quickly with the signed photo embedded in this screed. So, we’re standing there at the railing and I ask him if he’d wait there a minute. Then I ran up about 20 rows or so to beg Dad for a pen and piece of paper, which he just happened to have (I still have Aaron’s autograph on the used envelope Dad produced). Henry actually waited for me! Can you imagine anyone in the big leagues doing that today? “Yeah, sure kid, I’ll just wait here and chew my nails.”

I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about really sitting down with the man and having a conversation. No, I’m not as cool as my good friend and brother from another mother, Jerry Stropnicky — Aaron bought him a beer and they rapped together at some event a million years ago (Jerry’s a little older than me). But hey, I got to interview the Hammer, by God.

He invited me to his office in Turner Field (remember that place?), told me I could have him for 30 minutes, but then he gave me 45.

When I told him how much I enjoyed seeing him play in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when we were both several decades younger, he said, without a shred of pretension, “Well, thanks. Hope I didn’t disappoint you.”

Disappoint? The guy was a baseball virtuoso, consistent as the sunrise.

For nearly a quarter century Aaron was a cool customer who rarely showed emotion, whose athletic elegance, intense focus and passion to succeed was masked by his seeming tranquility – to some observers he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to massacre a baseball, which he did with savage regularity.

He hit 755 home runs in a normal-sized, PED-free human body. He won a Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series championship and endured an onslaught of hate mail while staring down Major League pitchers en route to breaking baseball’s most hallowed record.

I grew up loving the guy. When the Braves traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, it really pissed me off. It still does, in a way. He was 41, near the end, but I always hoped he’d finish his career in a Braves uniform. Instead, he ended his big league career in the city where he started it, breezed into the Hall of Fame, worked in the Braves front office, started a successful business empire and a philanthropic foundation, settled gracefully into his role as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all-time.

“No,” I told him, “you didn’t disappoint me.”

Aaron was a quiet superstar who radiated organic poise. He never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Henry Aaron a full-time job.

“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron said, as if this is common knowledge. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”

When it came to emulating someone else, Aaron aimed high. He was a young teen living in Mobile, Alabama, when he first saw Jackie Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent with friends and family around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.

“Here was the first African-American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example for all the black players who came along of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.

“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. He didn’t have to say anything to me. Good thing, because I was in awe. I probably would have been paralyzed.”

Aaron’s playing career might best be viewed from a distance, from the vantage point of years. He didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – basically, he didn’t play in New York, so he wasn’t appreciated on a national level like those guys.

He wasn’t flashy, but he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays. He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more hits, may have been their equal as a fielder, was a brilliant baserunner, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974, did what many considered impossible, passing Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

After we went past the appointed 30 minutes, I said to him, “looks like we’ve gone into overtime. Do you want to wrap up now?”

He stunned me. He said, “no, I’ve got some time.” He wanted to talk baseball. He liked talking baseball. We talked about stuff that make it into the magazine story, which was focused on his philanthropy. In overtime, he told me what it was like to face a Bob Gibson or a Don Drysdale or a Sandy Koufax, and how brushbacks were an expected part of the game, and that he probably should have been scared against some of those guys, “especially Drysdale,” but wasn’t. He laughed a lot. He didn’t say anything Earth shattering. It was just baseball, and I was delighted because I’d always heard Henry could be difficult, or standoffish.

Not at all. Maybe it was a matter of age. He’d mellowed. He’d grown comfortable living in the skin of a public living legend. The word “poise” keeps jumping out at me, but I don’t want to keep using it.

Anyway, given everything Aaron has done or witnessed, on or off a baseball diamond, the records, the All-Star games, the pennant winning homer in 1957 (his personal favorite), the awards, everything, it’s totally understandable that he would forget that one episode of Futurama that he “appeared” in. Yes, Hank Aaron actually was a guest voice on the animated series, Futurama, in an episode called A Leela of Her Own.

I love the series, but it’s a mostly awful episode in which one-eyed Planet Express captain Leela breaks the gender barrier in ‘bernsball,’ and calls on Aaron’s descendant, Hank Aaron XXIV, to help her along (they used “Hank” in the episode, but Aaron has always preferred “Henry,” which I didn’t know until a few years ago, thanks to a splendid biography about him by Howard Bryant, “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.”).

So, in the episode, Aaron provided the voice for both his progeny and his own preserved head, floating in a jar. Anyway, his animated cartoon presence and voice makes the otherwise forgettable episode memorable … memorable to anyone except Aaron.

Futurama? What is that?” he asked me, bemused.

I was stunned, because of all the questions I’d planned to ask, this one was my personal favorite. I couldn’t wait to ask him about Futurama.

“I honestly don’t remember doing it,” he said, chuckling. And he wasn’t being aloof. He either blocked the experience out of his mind, or he just didn’t remember. Dude hit 755 homers and drove in almost 2,300 runs, etc., etc., etc.

But for the stuff that truly mattered? The guy had a photographic memory and could tell you what kind of pitch Don Drysdale threw on a 1-2 count in the late innings of a mid-summer game in 1962. He could remember which way he broke for a fly ball in deep right field to steal a triple from Willie Mays. But he couldn’t remember his few minutes of animated TV fame.

And that’s another reason to love Henry Aaron. The man’s got his priorities in order.

He signed his autograph “Hank” but prefers to be called “Henry.” Or, I suppose, “Mr. Aaron.”

Cy Young or “the” Cy Young?

If Cy Young had been able to beat death the way he beat other baseball teams, he’d have celebrated his 153rd birthday today. Born March 29, 1867, Denton True “Cy” Young remains the winningest pitcher in baseball history. That won’t ever change. Dude won a ridiculous and untouchable 511 games in his career. He also pitched the most innings, tossed three no-hitters, won 30 or more games in a season five times. He has an award named after him. You might have heard of it.

But the weird thing about all this is, when I woke up this morning I had no idea it was Cy Young’s birthday, after thinking about him, abstractly, for most of the night (I don’t know what’s weirder – the coincidence that today is his birthday, or that I was thinking about him in the middle of the night).

Anyway, I was up half the night tossing and turning mainly because of an aching back. But there was also a rotating playlist of random, nagging thoughts that also managed to chase sleep from the room. One of those thoughts, one that kept repeating itself, was this one: I couldn’t stop wondering how many 300-game winners in the history of baseball were also .300 hitters at some point in their careers. The list of pitchers who won 300 games is an exclusive club, with only 24 members, and Cy topping the list. Given the nature of how the game is played today (well, when there isn’t a global pandemic), there probably won’t be another 300-game winner.

Players who bat .300 are not nearly as rare as 300-game winners, but those .300 hitters are among the highest paid players in the game. A pitcher who can bat .300 is exceedingly rare, because pitchers are notoriously lousy hitters, thus the employment of the designated hitter rule in the American League nearly 50 years ago (I know, I know, even my inner thoughts are long-winded – you should hear them from this end). So a pitcher with 300 wins in his career, who also hit .300 (at least for one full season), has to be almost non-existent, I thought.

When Cy won his 300th game in 1901, he became the sixth thrower to reach that plateau. And then he became the first 300-game winner to bat .300 in a full season when he recorded a .321 mark in 1903, a year in which he won 28 games and helped lead Boston to victory in the first World Series.

It was another 20 years before another top ace batted .300, but in 1921 Grover Cleveland Alexander (who would win 373 games) hit .305 for the Phillies. Next to do it was Walter Johnson, who is second to Young in all-time wins with 417, and was renowned as a hitter among hurlers. Johnson batted . 433 in 1925, while earning 20 victories for the Senators, who won their second straight American League pennant that year (he topped .340 his last season, two years later, by the way).

The last 300-game winner to bat .300 over a full season (not interrupted by injury, war, etc.) was Warren Spahn. A .194 career hitter, the lefty batted .333 in 1958, hitting two of his 35 career home runs, while leading the National League in wins (22) and innings pitched (290) as his Braves won the pennant.

More numbers. I know, big deal.

Even though the trivia question is what bugged me, and was the thing that needed to be fed, the most satisfying thing I absorbed this morning wasn’t the statistics. It was Cy’s birthday. Seeing it listed there, after this absurd trivia question burned my brain all night, had a bigger meaning for me than strange coincidence. I was reminded of a story from 30 years ago when, as sports editor of The Madisonian (an old, tiny weekly that used to exist in Madison, Georgia), I was digging through old copies of the paper and came across some old articles about a short-lived semi-pro baseball circuit in central Georgia called the Million Dollar League in 1920, when the star player for the Madison team was none other than Cy Young.

On the highly-competitive and stressful sports history beat, this was a real scoop. I even pitched the story to Sports Illustrated and they almost bit (I think someone must have discovered that Bronko Nagurski was a cross-dresser, and that pushed me and Cy out of the running).  Anyway, found an old local resident who remembered the league and insisted that this was, indeed, “the” Cy Young, who would have been 53 at the time. Then I tracked down the author of what was, at that time, the only available biography about Cy Young, and he told me, “it certainly could have been him.” Because he knew that Cy had pitched a little some exhibitions in his post-big league years, and could have come south to take money from rich local yokels running a second-rate independent league stocked with college players and professionals.

Digging a little deeper (i.e., going to the local library to pore over the Baseball Encyclopedia, which listed every person who ever had a cup of coffee in the big leagues, and their statistics) I discovered there were several players named Young from olden days who took the nickname “Cy” (as it turns out, I think about half the population had that nickname – keep reading). The story I wrote left the question hanging, and I didn’t find out until this morning that the Cy Young who pitched for Madison, Georgia, in the Million Dollar League was actually a guy named Harley Young, a journeyman pitcher who spent most of his career in the minor leagues (but that made him a ringer in the sticks).

The most hilarious thing I found was a tiny news item in the The Atlanta Constitution from July 20, 1920, under the header, ‘Cy Young to Million Dollar.’ The story is written, perhaps unintentionally, as a fine old joke, reporting that Young “jumped the Petersburg (Virginia League) club, having accepted an offer with one of the clubs of the Million Dollar League.” And then there is the punchline: “Following the jumping of Young, a warrant was issued for the arrest of ‘Cy’ Pierce, scout for the independent league. The warrant charges him with soliciting labor illegally.”

In Denton True Young’s case, “Cy” was short for “Cylone,” because the backstop fences he destroyed with his blazing fastball looked like a cyclone had hit them. Harley Young undoubtedly borrowed the nickname (or it was conferred upon him by hopeful observers) from “the” Cy Young, hoping the magic would rub off on him. It didn’t (he was 0-3 for his big league career). And Cy Pierce? He’s just the punchline in an old joke, but I hope he beat the rap.


Several years ago I went to Boston for a few days for a writing gig. It was March, cold, before the baseball season. In addition to getting some work done, I had a couple of personal missions: Visit Fenway Park, and find the site of the first World Series, the 1903 classic between the Boston Pilgrims (before they were the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh Pirates. I’d heard there was a statue of Boston ace Cy Young, so I went a lookin’ …

… and I walked past it twice before spying it, hidden in a garden behind the Cabot Center, an athletics facility on the Northeastern University campus. It marks the spot where the pitcher’s mound was in the old Huntington Avenue Base Ball Grounds. As the picture shows, I was really geeked to be sharing the mound with “the” Cy Young.