On Administering Baseball's First Rites

By Jock O'Connell

This article appeared in the Opinion section of the Sacramento Bee on Sunday, April 1, 2001, under the title "When Dad took me to the ballpark."

Whatever the calendar mavens may say, Americans instinctively know that spring really begins this afternoon with the start of the major league baseball season.

The months from now until the last pitch of the world series in October will yield many memories, not the least of which will be those associated with that singularly American rite of passage -- the day fathers take their sons to their first big league game.

My first visit to a major league ballpark came during the final weekend of the 1960 season when my father Jack and his brother Victor decided I was finally mature enough (age 12) to make the pilgrimage from our home in Maine to New England's most venerable shrine -- Boston's Fenway Park.

It would turn out to be an excursion that would feature a great deal more than witnessing a tight game won with an extra inning homerun by one of baseball's true legends.

The visiting team that cool, gray Saturday afternoon was the equally cool, gray New York Yankees led by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris with a supporting cast that included future Hall-of-Famers Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. The manager, Casey Stengel, was then in his final year at the helm of a team he would shortly take to their 10th World Series appearances in 12 years.

To be sure, the home nine had its own standouts, the most notable of whom, Ted Williams, patrolled left field that day. He would retire a few days later, but not before swatting a home run in his last at-bat.

As if anyone needed to be reminded, 1960 was a different era. There was no cable, no ESPN. Instead, fans mostly followed their teams by reading the morning newspaper's sports section or by listening to radio play-by-play broadcasts. On summer nights, the reception could be an iffy thing. The signal relayed down the coast from Fenway Park tended to fade in and out as -- according to local lore -- spectral messages from fishermen lost at sea wafted in on the breezes.

Television's coverage of the sport was considerably more primitive then -- in more ways than one. For starters, relatively few games were televised. For another, it was still the era of grainy black-and-white images on screens no larger than today's computer monitors. Most telecasts used no more than two cameras.

Technological limitations (and not a decent sense of decorum) meant there were no close-up shots of players chewing tobacco or scratching themselves or petulantly throwing helmets in the dugouts. And there were absolutely no replays -- instant or otherwise. If you were out of the room when someone stole home or pulled off an unassisted triple play, tough luck.

So while the broadcasts back then might have taken us to the game, they still distanced players from fans. Whether we tracked the deeds of our heroes by radio, television or the printed word, we still saw the game largely through the medium of our imaginations.

"Larger-than-life" was therefore a term a boy could take literally back then. So when I walked into Fenway that day and saw the Yankees taking batting practice, my first impression was one of pure amazement -- Yogi Berra was no bigger than my own father.

The scoring started abruptly. Yankee infielder Gil McDougald clobbered the third pitch of the game over the Green Monster, the fabled edifice in leftfield, and broke a window somewhere in Lansdowne Street. The murmuring debate over who would pay for the damage had barely ceased when the inning's third batter, Roger Maris, smashed a line drive past the right fielder for a triple, and all eyes turned to Mickey Mantle as he strode menacingly to the plate. The anxious crowd grew silent, expecting a mighty swing to send another pitch soaring out of the park. But Mantle, batting left-handed, crossed everybody up. The great home run hitter -- a man who once drove a pitch over 560 feet on the fly -- laid down a perfect drag bunt that easily scored Maris.

After that early display of power and cunning, the game settled down to its accustomed regularity. The home team fought back with two scattered runs to tie the score, but a mortifying bases-loaded balk by Red Sox hurler Earl Wilson gave the Yanks a 3-2 edge in the top of the sixth.

That's where the score stood when Victor took me to meet our cousin, Dick O'Connell, during the seventh-inning stretch. An executive with the Red Sox organization, Dick was seated immediately behind the home team dugout. As we shook hands, Dick produced a baseball he had asked Ted Williams to autograph for me. But before handing it over, he turned to an older gentleman in a dark suit sitting on the aisle in the next row.

"Think you could oblige the boy, Mr. Cronin?"

"Sure can," and with that Joe Cronin, the former Red Sox star, a member of baseball's Hall of Fame, and then president of the American League, added his signature to the ball.

But that wasn't all. Cronin had two guests he wanted us to meet. The first was a man who clearly spent most of his life out-of-doors.

"Son," Cronin said, "meet Carl Hubbell. He used to throw a baseball pretty good. Got real lucky at times, too."

Hubbell! My Lord. Talk about Hall of Fame legends. In the 1934 All-Star game, Hubbell had done nothing less than strike out five consecutive American League batters. And not just any five. His victims that august day were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and, finally, Joe Cronin himself. The whole bunch of them would wind up in Cooperstown.

Hubbell, then a scout for the Giants, told us he was heading to Maine to hunt for moose.

"Yeah," interjected Cronin, "he plans to whomp 'em with his fastball."

We wished Hubbell luck. He was then 57 years old, the same age as my father.

Seated next to Hubbell and standing to greet us was about the only man in the stands that afternoon not wearing a coat and tie. His attire was far more elaborate. Cronin called him Richard but everyone else knew him as Richard Cardinal Cushing.

For an altar boy like me, this was akin to meeting the Pope himself. And just as unnerving. My right knee wanted me to genuflect. My right hand wanted to make a sign of the cross. My conscience wanted to confess my sins. Fortunately, before I could humiliate myself (perhaps for all eternity), his Eminence thrust out a hand, said something like "Hi, kid" and asked which of New England's two Jesuit colleges Boston College or Holy Cross I'd be attending when the time came.

As the game resumed, we returned to our seats behind home plate where I closely guarded my autographed baseball and watched as the Red Sox third baseman Frank Malzone homered in the bottom of the seventh to give the Sox a brief lead. But the Yanks came back behind Berra's hitting in the top of the eighth to tie the score. Neither team put a run across in the ninth and so the game went into extra innings.

In the top of the tenth, Mickey Mantle -- perhaps weary of playing in weather more appropriate to football or more likely thirsting for a drink -- whacked a pitch into the net above the Green Monster to give the Yankees a one-run lead.

As is their wont, the Red Sox, did not go quietly in losing. In the bottom of the tenth, they staged a rally that prompted Stengel to summon a reliever named Ryne Duren.

Duren was notorious for three things. Without his incredibly thick glasses, he was said to be legally blind. He was also known to pitch while intoxicated. And he had a lethal fast ball. His first warm-up pitch would routinely fly several feet over the catcher's head, scaring the bejesus out of some poor spectator in the sixth row and rattling most batters. It was a drizzly autumn day, with the shadows growing steadily darker by the minute. Like Mantle, most of us just wanted to go to a warmer place. Fortunately, the erratic fast- baller faced a batter who had the good sense to wave harmlessly at three straight pitches to end the game.

So it was that I saw the dynastic Yankees win by the slim margin of a Mickey Mantle home run and got to meet a clutch of luminaries bestriding the divide between church and sport. What more could anyone want from his or her first time at a major league baseball game? Little did I realize my smugness would soon be trumped.

Outside the park we ran into an old friend of Uncle Victor. Learning that I had just seen my first major league game, he suggested I might sometime ask Victor about the first game he saw.

As we road home, I asked Victor to elaborate but my uncle demurred. "No, maybe some other time. Just enjoy what you've seen today."

But I persisted as adolescent boys are apt to do. So as we crossed the bridge at Kittery, Victor reluctantly told me of his first visit to Fenway 42 years before. He was in Boston when a friend offered him a ticket to the fourth game of the 1918 World Series. It proved to be an exciting contest in which the Red Sox pitcher effectively won his own game by hitting a triple that scored two of the three runs the Sox needed that day to defeat baseball's most hapless franchise, the Chicago Cubs. That pitcher, that hitter was Babe Ruth.

Sitting in the backseat, I began to imagine what being at that game must have been like.

Copyright 2001 by J. A. O'Connell