I turned 50 just over five weeks ago in what many people think of as the crappiest year we have had in some time. Setting aside the global pandemic and the egomaniacal imbecile in the White House, 2020 has been a brutal year for sports fans. The pandemic has wrecked havoc on the sports calendar, but I am thinking of something more brutal, something I will get to in a moment. I grew up near West Virginia's capital city, and I was obsessed with baseball. When I was not playing the game, I was reading about the game. I collected baseball cards, read box scores in the paper, and read anything my parents bought me that was connected to baseball (Baseball Digest, baseball books, etc). Numbers have a way of staying in my head, and they dance for me when my mind hears the music of sports. Batting averages, pitchers' ERAs, award winners, World Series stats, and so on. They live in my brain like the birthdates of my daughters.
Did I look at baseball players as heroes? Not really. But I sure did admire many players I never saw play, and there were scores of players who I loved watching play as I grew up. Some names, like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, were so famous and beloved that I felt bad if one of their stats was lost in my head. By five years old, I was well on my way to earning my nerd credentials. Now past half a century in age, I am like anyone else at this point in life. I cringe a little when I see the name of someone from my youth who has died. Consider these names who have appeared in obituaries in this brutal year of 2020: Don Larsen, Jimmy Wynn, Al Kaline, Bob Watson, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and now Joe Morgan. Names from my youth, like Tony Fernandez, Matt Keough, Biff Pocoroba, and Claudell Washington are forever in the past. Those latter names may not be known to many outside of baseball, but I surmise that even non-baseball sports fans know the names Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and Joe Morgan. They are legendary figures in baseball lore.
There is another name, a Hall-of-Fame name, I need to add to the above list: Whitey Ford. He died a few days ago (8 October 2020), almost making it to 92 years of age. When he turned 90 two years ago, I began this blog post in my mind. I was by no means anxious for him to die! But living too long past 90 is rare. And I had something in mind connected to a part of my youth when thinking about the great Whitey Ford.
He threw his last big-league pitch more than three years before I was born. I wasn't even four years old when he and his good friend, Mickey Mantle, went into the Hall of Fame together. By the time I started learning of his World Series heroics and his amazing career winning percentage, I saw only "Hall-of-Famer Whitey Ford" in the stories I read about him. It is weird getting to know a baseball player's career, especially when the entirety of that career predates one's existence. Even weirder is meeting a famous baseball player, and during the few seconds of shared space, trying to imagine that player holding the 1961 AL Cy Young Award or picking up his first World Series ring in the year my parents were born. I never got a chance to meet Bob Gibson, and some argue that Gibson was a better pitcher than Ford. They were very different pitchers, but even those on Ford's side of the argument cannot argue with the amazing lineups that helped Ford win 69% of his games. Ford's winning percentage is one of many pieces of evidence to illustrate that a pitcher's "win" really is a team stat. Wherever Whitey Ford ranks among the great pitchers is irrelevant to me. I got to spend 15 seconds with him.
It was the 19th of June, 1980, a Thursday. School was out for the year and I was already playing Little League baseball. And though I was a bit more than 11 weeks from my 10th birthday, I was already into world events. We were in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, but a miracle on ice in February of that year made it as clear as can be that sports can lift a nation's spirits during rough times. Not only was I a budding scientific nerd, I was precocious on the political front, with faint memories of watching one of the three 1976 presidential debates between Ford and Carter. Come 1980, I was for Reagan all the way. But before the November election came a day on which I met three baseball legends.
A few days before 19 June, my dad saw a notice in the local paper, advertising that Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford would be visiting our minor league team's ballpark. At that time, the Charleston Charlies played AAA baseball in the International League at Watt Powell Park, which was off MacCorkle Avenue, 35th Street, and South Park Road in Charleston. The park was a dinky place that could not even hold 4500 fans. But for a local kid who had yet to reach 10 years old, the place was much bigger. I loved watching games there because I simply loved watching baseball. But to watch baseball AND get autographs from Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford?!? I absolutely wanted to go to the game on the special day.
I was nervous about meeting Mantle and Ford. Heck, I was unsure that "meeting" would even be part of it. Would they sign something and then move on to the next fan? Even at such a young age, I knew they would not converse with me for a few minutes. It was many years later when I learned from a newspaper article that Mantle and Ford would tie one on at a local bar later that night. I knew nothing of their personal lives; I knew only of their stats and of some old film footage. They were larger than life in my mind.
When my dad and I got to the gate at the park, I was handed a piece of paper that I could use for autographs. On the paper were great black-and-white photos of Ford and Mantle. I held on to the paper while my dad and I stood in line. There were many fans in front of us, but the line was orderly and moved at a reasonable pace. I occasionally caught glimpses of Ford and Mantle as they sat together at a table and signed autographs for each fan at the front of the line. I got so nervous as we neared those living legends. My hands were sweaty and my heart was beating fast. I cannot tell you what I was doing the previous day or the next day, but I know what I felt and what I saw and what I heard on that day. So much of baseball was in that line. The park had that minor-league park smell. Smell of food from nearby concession stands wafted in the air, and even the baseball field itself had a scent I knew well. Noises familiar at a ballpark were in my ears. People who love baseball and go to many games know the sounds I refer to. If you are unfamiliar with what I write about, go to a game. Put your bloody phone away and listen. Close your eyes and listen. A baseball park has a pulse and life of its own on game day.
It was now our turn to approach the table. Mantle was on my right and I approached him first. Despite being hopelessly shy at school, I summed all of my nerve to ask Mantle, "Did you really hit 536 home runs?" In that unmistakable Oklahoma voice, he said, "I sure did." He signed my paper, and then I moved on to Ford. I probably had something I wanted to ask Ford, but the courage I summoned to speak to Mantle had drained me of any chance of talking to Ford. I moved my paper in front of Ford, and he slowly signed it. I distinctly recall hanging there an extra couple of seconds, knowing I had to let the next fan up, but wanting to savor those fleeting moments while I was sharing space with baseball royalty. The image below is what I left the table with.