I first fell in love one night in July of 1954. The first kiss, the one you never forget, occurred in the twilight of a Milwaukee summer day, warm and very humid. The kind of night where the 35,000 or so fans, gathered in a Wisconsin celebration of summer and baseball, sweated profusely in their light cotton shirts and slacks of the period. Miller Brewing Company was a major force behind the Brave's arrival in Milwaukee and the locals supported Miller very well. Add a long established local love for Pabst Blue Ribbon, common in the parking lot, and the smell of alcohol was more prevalent throughout the night than any manly musk. A perfectly normal perfume to an eleven year old born-and-raised Milwaukee boy.
Love struck me exactly at 6:45 PM, standing next to the Brave's dugout on the first base side of Milwaukee County stadium. Struck hard as the crack of a 38 ounce bat sending a Clem Labine fastball into the centerfield bullpen of our year old stadium. Struck by a mountain of a man, 6'4", 250 pound, Joe Adcock.
It was pre-game warm ups and Joe had just stepped out of the batting cage and walked over toward the first base dugout. Several boys, me included, were standing next to the dugout, calling Joe over to us in the hope of autographs. He walked over, smiled, and reached for another young man's pen and paper. Realizing his hands were full, he reached towards me with his bat and said, "Here, would you hold this for me?" I was speechless, and I was a precocious boy who was not often speechless. I took the bat and stared at him in awe. He signed for the half dozen other boys that were standing there, and then signed last for me. After signing, I politely reached out to hand his bat back to him. He smiled and said, "You can keep it son," and headed into the dugout. The other boys stared at my face, saying nothing, but even at their tender age they knew the look of love.
A few weeks later, July 31, 1954, when I was supposed to be sleeping, my ear was glued to the old wooden radio by my bed as Joe stroked four home runs and a double at Ebbets Field to destroy the hated Brooklyn Dodgers. He connected off four different pitchers, Don Newcombe, Erv Palica, Pete Wojey, and Johnny Podres, plus Joe's double was only eighteen inches from the top of the wall, the closest any man has ever come to five homers in a game. In any case, good for a record eighteen total bases, a record that still stands. And Joe did it all with a borrowed bat because he had broken his favorite during batting practice! A crowd of only 12,263 saw the game, though a hundred thousand have claimed to!
Though love first bloomed in 1954, the seeds were planted the summer of 1948, when I was but five. Planted by a then 46 year-old-man, Jack Schwindt, my grandfather. They were weeded, watered, and constantly fertilized by him in the backyard of our N. 28th Street home, the playgrounds of Clarke Street Elementary School, the diamonds of Auer Avenue and Sherman Park, and the green of Borchardt Field, home of the original Milwaukee Brewers, a Triple A team. Borchardt Field, one of the strangest ballparks ever built in dimensions and fan seating, but, hey, that's another story!
My grandfather, warmly called "Pa" by my younger brother John and I, had been a local star during his youth in Dickinson, North Dakota. He turned down a professional contract and minor league opportunity as a catcher to marry my grandmother, but he never lost his love for the game. "Pa" and "Ma" took us to several Borchardt field games a year from as young an age as I can remember. We watched players like Jack Dittmer, Billy Klaus, Johnny Logan, Billy Bruton, Del Crandall and others who later became major leaguers. There was also, of course, Charlie "Jolly Cholly" Grimm, who spent time with the Brewers as manager then later came back as the Braves first manager. It was Pa who took John and I to the first game ever played in Milwaukee's new County Stadium, so new that many of the seats hadn't been put in yet! It was an April 9, 1953, exhibition against the Boston Red Sox and the "splendid splinter" Ted Williams. Unfortunately the game was rained out in the second inning and Williams didn't play at all.
My interest in the strategy of the game was always stronger than my brother's, and Pa was always teaching the small details of the game to me. I knew more about when to bunt, steal, or hit-and-run by the third grade than most adults. I understood pitching and hitting strategy from both sides, and the mental game that went on between the mound and home plate. Later, when I played high school ball in Milwaukee, I was often complimented on my perfect, Mel Roach-like, batting stance, and my detailed understanding of the game.
Throughout the '50's and early '60's, my brother and I were regulars at Milwaukee County Stadium. We were "hawks," two of the group of ballhawks that hung out mostly in the leftfield bleachers, though sometimes "shifting" to right for a particular hitter. Our friends and us would always arrive two hours before game time, when they opened the gates for fans to enter. Wayne O., Jerry S., Joe G., Tom P., Dennis D., Dale R., and occasional others from the neighborhood "gang" were often with us. We were there for batting practice and through the last pitch of the night.
What a time I had! And what a hawk I was! Maybe the best to ever prowl the left field bleachers of a stadium that now is no more. I am still proud of that. I once caught seven balls in one night, a night game against the hated Brooklyn Dodgers. Another night I got six. And five? Well, I got five in a game many, many, times. John and I regularly pulled in well over triple figures a year between us. We knew not only how to play different hitters and how to judge the ball in flight, but also how to play the "bounce" of the bleachers. Line drives to high flies, they all ricocheted different when they hit the bleachers and we were among the very small minority of hawks that understood that. We felt just like a professional playing the ball "off the wall" at Crosley, Wrigley, Forbes or Ebbets Fields, the home team outfielders knowing every nuance.
What did we do with all those baseballs? Amazing when I look back at it. Our mother gave us each a dollar before the first game of the season and we made that last all year! A ticket to the bleachers was $.50, bus fare was $.10 each way, and $.30 bought a coke and a box of popcorn. One dollar a game. The going price for a souvenir baseball though was also a buck, more if the ball was in especially clean condition, and we sold at least one every time we attended. Our best market was the many sailors from all over the country who were temporarily based at Great Lakes Naval Station. They loved to come up to Milwaukee for weekend ballgames. A few drinks and they would pay a good price for a ball they could take back to the base and tell their buddies they had personally caught. We still had plenty of good balls left over for our daily neighborhood games when the Braves were out of town.
We didn't discriminate. We caught balls hit by guys who didn't play much and by all the great power hitters of the day. Home team catches included Joe Adcock, Hank Aaron, Andy Pafko, Del Crandall, Johnny Logan, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, Wes Covington, Eddie Mathews, and many other lesser knowns. Visiting team catches were a baseball sluggers who's who of the time: Frank Howard, Dick Stuart, Willie Mays, Hank Sauer, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Jackie Robinson, Alvin Dark, Dusty Rhodes, Frank Thomas, Ted Kluzewski, Bill Mazeroski, Jimmy Greengrass, Gus Bell, Smokey Burgess, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Stan Musial and the list goes on. Heck, I once caught one off Bob Uecker! He could hit in batting practice.
Most memorable to me is the home run I caught on the fly off the bat of Hank Aaron, his career 97th hit way back in 1957. Almost as memorable though is a ball I got off the bat of Pat Corrales, then the catcher for the Phillies. It was Corrales' first major league home run and I always thought that was kind of cool that I caught his first. Heck, he only hit four lifetime. This ball barely made it over the left field fence, actually landing between County Stadium's double outfield fence of the time, but I got it! I always dreamed of hitting my own first major league home run so, though I never made it, it still pleases me to have that ball.
The games? What memories. I was there at the greatest game ever pitched. When Harvey Haddix pitched twelve perfect innings for the Pirates against the Braves, only to lose to Lew Burdette in the thirteenth in one of the wildest finishes ever in baseball. The Braves beat Haddix 1-0 on a three run homer by Joe Adcock, which Bill Virdon almost caught as he crashed into the right field fence. Wait, you say that makes no sense? Neither does a guy pitching the greatest game ever and losing. Look it up.
I was there when the Braves batted around against the Dodgers and Joe Adcock hit two grand slams in the first inning. Well, it would and should have been two if Billy Bruton, the Brave's center fielder, hadn't been picked off second base just before Adcock hit the second one. Joe had to settle for only seven RBI's in one inning on his two mighty swings of the bat.
After that game, Joe was absolutely mobbed by hundreds of kids begging for his autograph as he headed for his car in the players parking area just behind the home plate entrance to County Stadium. He looked at the great number of kids and said simply, "Okay. Don't push. Let's everybody just line up in a straight line and I'll get to all of you." He waved his arm and everyone lined up, a line that went all the way around the stadium past third base and out to left field! Joe sat against the hood of his car for over two hours and signed for every single one of the hundreds of boys and girls in that line. My brother John and I sat right next to him. A beautiful gentle giant.
I was there at a twi-night doubleheader against the Brooklyn Dodgers that proved to be unforgettable. Bob Buhl, a top pitcher for the Braves had been off to a rough 0-7 start, but beat the Brooklyn squad 2-0 in the opener to win his first of the year. Buhl, one of the worst hitting pitchers ever to play the game, was always a Dodger killer on the mound. The second game was a sad affair for eight and one half innings as the Dodgers led 8-2 going into the bottom of the ninth. The Braves had loaded the bases, but there were already two out. Handy Andy Pafko, a Boyceville, Wisconsin, raised farm boy, and my grandpa's favorite player, stepped to the plate. In his usual stance, low crouch, posterior predominant, "Pruschka" Pafko hit a hard ground ball toward the third basemen for the last out of the game. But wait! The ball miraculously hit a pebble three feet in front of the third sacker, took a big bounce several feet over his head and went bounding down the left field line for a double. Well, it was still 8-4 and still two men out, but the Dodgers never got another Brave out and we won 9-8. What a night.
I was there on April 12, 1955, when the rookie Chuck Tanner hit his first major league home run down the right field line to win an opening day game for the Braves. I was there in 1957 when Pittsburgh Pirate's manager Bobby Bragan was thrown out of the game in Milwaukee, then walked out to the mound sipping an orange drink and offering a sip to the umpiring crew. Ironically, Bragan later became the last Milwaukee Braves manager before the move to Atlanta.
I was there when Bob "Hurricane" Hazel hit .403 and was the 1957 summer sensation of all of baseball, though the Brave's lineup of Mathews, Aaron and Adcock in the 3-4-5 slots was quite sensational itself! I was there with my grandfather, father and brother the night of September 23, 1957, when Hank Aaron's 11th inning homer into the center field bullpen off St. Louis' Billy Muffett gave Milwaukee it's first pennant. A 4-2 win over the Card's. 1957. What a great year.
I attended the games of two World Series and was there in October 1957 when Nippy Jones was hit on the shoe in the tenth inning, the "polish" on the ball giving him first base and the game and series turning around in favor of the Braves. I witnessed Mickey Mantle coming out of the locker room after the game, quite angry as he headed for the Yankee team bus. He refused to sign any autographs and actually shoved aside a boy of about ten, shouting at him, "Get out of my way." I remember a gray-haired lady swinging at the great Mantle with an umbrella for shoving that boy. As she screamed, "These kids pay your salary," the "human" Mantle beat a very hasty retreat into the bus. A New York superstar on the run from a Milwaukee grandmother as those of us standing around cheered. We hated the Yankees for referring to Milwaukee as a "bush league" town. I was one of the multitude parading on the streets of Milwaukee a few days later when our bush league town beat the mighty New York Yankees in seven games, Lew Burdette winning three times.
I have seen a thousand double plays and a few triple plays. I have seen innumerable grand slams and quiet solo shots that meant little except to the player who swung the bat. If it's happened in baseball I have seen it happen. I was there when Willie Mays stole home, but was among the missing on April 28, 1961, when Willie hit four home runs in Milwaukee.
So is that all there is to love? It could have been enough, but then there was so much more. The relationship went so much deeper, and "relationship" is the right word. We had a true relationship with the players. A true love relationship.
I loved Joe. Still do. Though we never forget our first love, there were so many others. The order grows a bit fuzzy over the years, but the individual memories remain clear.
George "Catfish" Crowe, a backup first baseman, used to go fishing all day before coming to the stadium for a night game. He would have his catch for the day safe in a cooler tied in the back of his Willys Jeep. After the game he'd stand awhile by that Jeep and chat with us kids while showing off his daily catfish catch from Milwaukee area rivers. We loved those chats and laughed through the night about them.
Johnny Logan, a feisty all-star shortstop on the field, was such a casual and average looking guy off the field that when he left the stadium people would often pay no attention to him, not realizing who he was. One afternoon he was leaning against the wall outside the main stadium gates after the game holding a big cardboard box labeled "Peanuts." No one paid any attention to him except my mother. Mom rarely attended games, one or two a year, but she recognized Johnny from a picture she had seen in the paper. Mom remembered him because she thought he was particularly handsome. She walked right over to him, asked for an autograph, he signed, and they stood there chatting. Just Johnny and my mom! She was just my mom, but she was a much cooler mom after that!
Often players would give us a ride part of the way home after a game. Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Lew Burdette and occasional others. We often rode with them inside their beautiful new cars furnished by a Milwaukee dealership. Where Milwaukee County Stadium sat, it was a little hike to catch the streetcar, which took us to 35th and Wells where we connected to the bus. Then to Sherman and Fond du Lac, where we caught another bus that took us all the way to Hampton and Fond du Lac, two blocks from our home. It was quite a trip, but you don't think about that when you're in love. We were such common faces at the games that the players generally knew us and seemed to treat us as if we were their own children. One of the players would often take us to 35th and Wells, sometimes all the way to Sherman and Fond du Lac, just to make our trip easier.
One day when I was 17, "Spahnie" said, "Sure, jump in," when we asked for a ride and four of us regulars did, one in the front and three in the back. This time, however, there was an "extra" standing nearby whom none of us had met before. A lovely girl of 16 who had been talking and flirting with me. She said to me, "Can I come to?" I shrugged, "Sure," grabbed her hand, and she jumped into the back with me, sitting on my lap in the middle of the back seat! She said, "Hi. I'm Carol," and planted a nice kiss upon my lips! This was 1959, so I was a bit shocked, though pleasantly so. I glanced up and saw Warren's eyes looking at us in the rearview mirror, puzzled, but saying nothing. I rode with Warren many times after that, but he never asked about it and I was so glad he didn't. "Carol" never came to another ballgame to my knowledge, but I've never forgotten her.
Today, I still think how I was kissed by a beautiful unknown girl in the back seat of a car driven by the winningest left-hander of all time. A Superstar. A Hall-of-Famer. Wow! Even greater though, I ran into Warren at a memorabilia show in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1991 and reminded him about the incident. He looked surprised as he uttered, "That was you!" We laughed together and reminisced. Thirty-two years later it was okay to talk about it! Great guy, Warren Spahn.
Spahn, Burdette and many others over the years used to play catch with us during batting practice. Pitchers were normally shagging balls in the outfield during practice and, probably a bit bored, they would often engage us in conversation. A couple of fun loving types, they liked to make trick catches of high flies, often catching the ball behind their back. They were very good at it! Of course, as regular faces, they would often talk with me, my brother and others of our gang. We would holler at them to throw us a ball and they would, but only if we agreed to throw it back. This was a common game and we would always throw it back. Many other players often did the same thing during practice and they became among our favorites just for that, Willie Mays to Rico Carty. Heck, we were playing catch with our idols!
Hank Aaron? He gave us a ride on occasion, but was always quiet around us. A shy young man, but what a ballplayer! He never got the credit he deserved during his playing days, partially due to playing in Milwaukee, partially due to race, and partially due to the presence of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in the New York market. When asked though, even Mantle said, "As far as I'm concerned, Aaron is the best ballplayer of my era." Clem Labine, star Dodger pitcher, commented that in his entire career he never could get Hank Aaron out. Due to Lew Burdette setting down the Yankees three times, few people remember that Aaron was the leading hitter of the '57 Series at .393 with eleven hits, twenty-two total bases, three home runs and seven RBI's. Even fewer know that Hank was signed originally by the Indianapolis Clowns of the old Negro League. On his first day in uniform he went 10 for 11 in a doubleheader and started five double plays as the starting shortstop! What a great ballplayer. Loved the guy but, hey, you've probably figured that out already!
Eddie Mathews? Young and volatile on the field, with tremendous power, he had signed right out of high school and the public glare seemed to be hard on him. He kept it on the field though in our eyes, as he was always nice to us kids. It greatly saddened me when I heard of Eddie's death. He will remain in my heart though, for his beautiful swing and nine straight seasons of thirty-plus homers, yes, but more so for his decency toward us young fans. Hank and Eddie hit 863 homers as teammates. What a pair!
Memories of love and baseball though were not all at the ballpark. In those days the visiting players all stayed at the Schroeder Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. It's now the Marc Plaza. On the day of a scheduled night game, we would ride the bus down to the Schroeder to arrive about eleven in the morning, the time when most of the players had arisen and were down in the lower lobby area eating or just hanging around. How we loved to hang around with them. I had autographed baseballs from every National League team plus the Yankees just from hanging around the Schroeder. Though some players simply signed and moved on, many became our friends, sat and talked with us for hours, and sometimes gave us game passes where we got to sit in the third base stands instead of our usual spots in the bleachers.
Our favorites were Sammie Taylor of the Cubs and Dick "Ducky" Scofield of the Pirates who always took time to talk with us as sons and often gave us players tickets. Pittsburgh was a special favorite visitor of ours and our mother. For a few years our mother worked nights as a waitress in a nightclub across from the Schroeder Hotel and had become friends with several players, particularly Roy Face and Hank Foiles of the Pirates, who also left my mother and us player game passes on several occasions. I would sometimes tell stories about my grandfather to Dick Scofield and about our love for baseball. One time Ducky gave my brother and I four great seats and told us to bring our dad and grandfather. We did. I think they were both impressed!
Perhaps my finest memories of our days hanging around the Schroeder though were at World Series time when the Yankees were in town. We didn't really know any of the New York club players very well since they were not regular visitors to our city. We went down to the Schroeder early that morning in 1958 since it was a scheduled afternoon game, thinking we could at least get some balls autographed. Me, brother John, and friends Wayne and Jerry, each took a newer ball with us from our personal collection and did just that. Everyone we asked signed, and we saw most all of them. It was a great morning, one I have never forgotten. We got to meet Casey Stengel, the leader of the Yankees, and perhaps the most famous and successful manager of all time.
Casey was standing alone, directly outside of the Schroeder's side entrance leaning against the wall of the hotel. We gasped at our luck and shyly approached him for autographs. Shyness was not needed. Casey signed and, even better, immediately started chatting with us just like a friendly grandfather! We quickly relaxed and spent the next TWO HOURS standing there and talking with Casey Stengel. Imagine it! Here was the most famous baseball manager in the world talking baseball with four young teenagers, for TWO HOURS! He invited questions from us! We asked about Whitey Ford's skills, Mantle's power, Billy Martin's competitiveness, Casey's own thoughts on baseball situational strategy, and why the Yanks had so much trouble winning whenever they played the Detroit Tigers and, especially, Frank Lary, a Tigers pitcher who seemed to have the Yankees number. Lary beat the Yanks seven times in 1958. The amazing thing is ole Casey was a bit of a mumbler and a person who often talked in riddles and parables, and he did that to the four of us for TWO HOURS. I'm still not certain if any of us ever really understood a word he said, but God, we loved every minute, all 120 of them! Then Casey said, "Got to go now," stepped on the team bus to the ballpark, and was gone. My personal Brigadoon.
When the Braves left for Atlanta at the end of the 1965 season, lured by Coca-Cola money, it broke my heart and that of my grandfather. He died in 1968 and I believe the team's move hastened his death. How he loved baseball and the Braves. He never drank a Coca-Cola again and I have hated Coca-Cola since 1965 and have not had a Coke since. I never will. Many of my generation in Milwaukee felt that way. Most of Milwaukee drank Miller, knowing that if Fred Miller hadn't died tragically, the Braves would likely never have left Milwaukee. I still hate the "Atlanta" Braves as the real Braves don't belong in Atlanta and never will. I know, Milwaukee "stole" the braves from Boston, but Boston had another team and didn't support the Braves anyway. Besides, don't try to talk logic with me. I was in love and logic has no place in love.
For the next six years my baseball life was pretty quiet. A broken heart could not get excited about the game of the week. I was not ready for a new love. Thanks to a college friend from Ball State University, Merv Rettenmund, I did, however, keep an eye on the Baltimore Orioles and Merv's career rise. Fortunately, I had other things to help occupy me during those six years. I married, graduated from Ball State, and experienced the birth of first, a daughter, and then a son. Taught school in Wisconsin and Iowa and coached myself before heading south to Houston with the family and changing careers, entering the business world. The whole family became serious Astro fans for most of the next decade, particularly Brad, my son, and I as a wonderful bonding experience.
We were among those who loved the unique and colorful Astro uniforms and, again fortunately, we arrived in the Houston area just as the "'stros" started to become a challenger. Featuring Cesar Cedeno, Lee May, Terry Puhl, Jose Cruz, Art Howe, Roger Metzger, Larry Dierker, Joe Niekro, Joe Sambito, James Rodney Richard and others, they were a pretty decent ball club at the time. In addition, Baltimore had traded Rettenmund to Cincinnati and I got to visit with Merv a few times when the Reds came to town, meeting several others of the Reds. In the summer of 1973 I was also privileged to work for the Astrodomain Corporation which allowed my family and I employee tickets to every game we desired to see, and we desired a lot. My son was six and my daughter eight as their youthful love of baseball began. Though my daughters love for baseball faded by her high school days in Humble, Texas, just outside Houston, my sons never completely died. He now lives in the Denver area and is both a Brewer’s and Rockie's fan, but not with the same passion.
The '70's were primarily good baseball years though. The Astros remained a fairly good club and often a contender. We went to a number of games and caught most of the others on television. My son and I were fans together, and the love affair was renewed. We also traveled quite a bit and visited parks in many other cities, Boston's Fenway being especially memorable to us. Even attended a few games of the Brewers in Milwaukee with my son and relived my youth for those hours, pointing out tricks of the "hawk" trade to my son.
We were at the Astrodome for the final three game series against the Reds when the Astros needed to win all three to tie for the pennant. They won the first two before howling crowds, then lost the season final. My son avidly followed the exploits of Terry Puhl and my daughter the "cute" Joe Sambito. We went as a family to "Astro Buddy" events held on the field pregame. I was coaching little league baseball and often took the whole team to several games.
In October 1980 I had to travel to Venezuela on business during the Astro - Phillies National League Champion Series. The games were very big throughout Venezuela, as the Phillies star shortstop, Manny Trillo, was a Venezuelan. When I would tell a Venezuelan I was from Houston, they would smile, say something about the Astros and Phillies, and beat their chest with one fist while adding, "Manny Trillo es un Venezuelan." The pride in their country's star was very evident.
I watched the Astros twelve inning 1-0 victory inside a dusty furniture store in the "centro ciudad" of El Tigre with six locals. The television was an old black and white set with aluminum foil and a pie plate tied to the antenna to improve the reception. They spoke no English, I spoke only a few words of Spanish, drinking soda water, discussing baseball, and cheering or groaning with every pitch and swing of the bat. Our common language was only the language of baseball. Though rooting for opposite teams, we watched all twelve innings as "compadres." I had tears in my eyes as I left, almost wishing the Phillies had won just to see the joy in their eyes. We shared a love.
A few days later I watched the final game of the series late at night via satellite sitting in a beautiful room at the Caracas Hilton. The Astros lost, despite Nolan Ryan on the mound, yet I could not be sad for knowing the happiness of my El Tigre compadres. The power of baseball.
The Road to Divorce
The transfer of the Boston Braves to Milwaukee was approved at Lou Perini's request on March 18, 1953, at a meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, at the Vinoy Hotel. Ironically, I was attending a conference at this same hotel in late 2000. I was sitting in my room one evening thinking about the Braves, the Astros, baseball, everything that had happened since, and the fact that I no longer cared about baseball. The divorce was complete and had been for some years now. Divorce is painful, but my life goes on without baseball. I missed it for a long time, a very long time. I no longer do, at least not today's version of the game.
While sitting in the Vinoy some years back, reading and thinking, the news came on the television about how the Texas Rangers had just signed Alex Rodriquez, a baseball player, a guy who plays a game for a living, to a quarter billion dollar "deal." My ears perked and I put down the paper I was reading. A deal? Who got the deal? I suppose Rodriquez, but certainly no one else. Not the Rangers, not baseball, not the American public, and least of all anyone who attends a baseball game. They will all pay, in one form or another. They have been paying for a long time now.
So, you ask? What business is it of mine? If I no longer care about baseball, why do I care about this latest signing? It's not complicated. Divorce hurts. To lose one you loved for so long remains painful. So painful, I'll likely never get over it.
With most marriages, it is difficult to determine when they began to fall apart. You just wake up one day and find yourself in a whole new place. With my marriage of thirty-three years to baseball, however, one can pinpoint the moment the first crack appeared. It was on December 23, 1975, when an arbitrator, Peter Seitz, struck down baseball's reserve system, allowing players to sell their services to the highest bidder after six years. Alex Rodriquez was still in diapers. Bowie Kuhn? He might as well have been in diapers. As Commissioner of Baseball he sat back and let it all happen. They say he has second-guessed himself since. No kidding, Bowie.
The Seitz decision set free Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, just trivia names in the overall picture. The average baseball salary then was $44,676, a lot of money in 1975. My salary then, with a college degree, was $10,800. How much was yours? Frankly, $44,676 is an annual salary the majority of Americans wish they had today, twenty-five years later, for it is still greater than the current average household income in the United States. Oh, it all started slowly. The players liked to point out in 1980 that the minimum major league salary was only $20,000. They didn't bother to mention that no player really made the minimum. I have lost track today but know that same "minimum" is now over $250,000. Ah, one dreams to merely be a bench warmer.
I grudgingly accepted it all for a few years, still following the Astros religiously and the overall career of my friend Merv. By 1978 though the average salary had jumped to $100,000, yet players were complaining more and more and becoming less and less responsible in their attitudes and actions. Charles O. Finley said back in 1976, "This stuff can't continue. The average club just can't come up with the money to compete in the bidding." I loved you Charlie O, your color and creativity, just as I loved Bill Veeck before you, but boy, were you wrong about this one, at least so far.
In 1981, the average salary approached $200,000, yet this was the year we "suffered" a player strike of 50 days. What was your salary that year? Would you refuse to work, even today, because $200,000 annually was not enough? I don't know what the strike meant to you, but it was a lasting dagger in my heart. The constable showed up at my door every day for those fifty days, delivering fifty copies of the divorce papers. Though it still took me a little time to realize it, the divorce was final on that fiftieth day.
The divorce has been over a long time now. I have continued to read the papers, listen to the news and live my daily life. I have become an avid fan of college sports, men and women. I haven't attended a regular season major league baseball game since, though I admit to attending a few spring training games in Arizona during the mid to late '80's. Spring training is unique. The parks are small and you can still get physically close to some of the players. It has just a small touch of the pure baseball of the '50's that I knew. There have developed clear differences though. I remember one day Reggie Jackson was sitting in the stands behind the first base dugout in Scottsdale talking to someone he apparently knew when the manager stuck his head out of the dugout and told Reggie to hit for someone. He walked down to the field, pinch hit, popped up, and went back into the stands to talk to his friend. One BIG sad difference though. Every kid that came near Reggie he brushed off and shooed away, snapping quite rudely at several of them. Mr. October was not Mr. March, and he was certainly no Mr. Adcock. Reggie's behavior has become the "routine" behavior of today's player.
My sister in Milwaukee, who has a large family, informed me she hadn't attended any games for years because an evening at the ballpark for her family would cost more than three hundred dollars, several day's pay for her. Though I could afford to go occasionally, I don't. The sad fact is that the MAJORITY of Americans simply cannot afford to EVER go to the ballpark. Consequently, each generation of children moves further and further away from what was once America's game.
There has been much discussion and complaints about baseball over the last several decades from strikes to replacement players to interleague play to team moving and the antitrust exemption. Nothing has really changed, however, except the salaries and the loutish, classless, childish behavior of the players has all gotten worse. The average salary in the year 2000 of a major league player, and I use that title loosely, was $1,895,630. It went over two million in 2001. That 1975 average of $44,676? Rodriguez was paid 2 1/2 times that much EVERY DAY of his next season. That is more in two days that any teacher or professor, with up to 10 or more years of college, makes annually, and more daily than 90% of the American public makes annually. How much will you make next year?
Loutish, classless, childish behavior? It is evident daily. I'm sure you can describe many examples you have seen, but let me mention just a few of my own.
Literally every time a player is "plunked" by the ball, or even pitched a bit inside, they charge the mound! What a joke. What babies! Can you imagine Aaron, Mays, Musial, Clemente, Mathews, Furillo, the Duke, Campanella, Mantle, Berra, Adcock or any top ballplayer before the '80's and '90's charging the mound? Never. If you were any good, or if the player before you hit one out, you expected to be decked occasionally. It was an "honor," a testament to your own skills, and you dug in your spikes that much deeper. You earned your own respect by getting up and belting the stuffing out of the baseball, not the pitcher. It's only a gutless, no talent, ballplayer who tries to intimidate with his fists, a player who isn't good enough to take the heat and beat a pitcher with the skill of his bat. Shame on every one of you who charge the mound. Baseball should suspend you for a full year each time you do so until you grow up.
Can you imagine a Spahn, Burdette, Drysdale, Koufax, Gibson, Ford, Labine, Newcombe, Maglie, Roberts, or any decent pitcher of the '70's or '80's, let alone earlier eras, NOT brushing back the hitter who crowded the plate? The plate belonged to them in their eyes. In truth and baseball, the plate belonged to whoever took it, with the ball or the bat.
In 1990 the classless Rickey Henderson was about to break the career stolen-base record when he suggested his club recognize him with a new Ferrari. I guess Rickey couldn't afford a decent car on his little salary. Billy Bruton led the National League in stolen bases in 1953, '54 and 55'. He asked for nothing. Based on the salary difference though, he probably should have been offered at least a little red wagon. Wouldn't you say so, Rickey?
Additionally interesting are comments I recently read reflecting on Rickey as written by Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle. "I hope Rickey Henderson shows up in someone's camp. That would be good for affirming tradition." "I love the part where Rickey reports to camp a week late, and about noonish puts on his uniform and saunters out of the clubhouse, and if he sees his shadow that means there will be another six weeks of bitching about his contract." Rickey, you are a nothing, an absolute nobody in the big scheme of life. God, Allah, whomever, blessed you with speed, but after that you're truly a self-made man, becoming a complete jerk all by yourself.
Oh, I don't put all the blame on the players. Obviously the idiots who own the ball clubs deserve a good share of the blame. This small group of idle rich who doesn't seem to value a dollar and has no concept of life for the typical citizen of this country, let alone the world. I once read an article by Josh Dubow, an AP sports writer, who referred to the winners and losers among teams of baseball's off-season. I ask what winners? He referred to six teams spending $718 million on eight players as "the winners." This is winning? How big are these player's and owner's egos? That is more money than the gross national product of many countries! What good could you do for so many with $718 or even $250 million dollars? I have nothing against Rodriquez, but I suspect he could near buy his homeland for that amount. Josh, how much do you make?
My goal? My hope? My purpose? No major institution is untouched by public opinion or public support. How long can we, as the paying public, accept these ridiculous salaries? We do ALL pay you know. Not just in ticket prices, but in the cost of the products we buy from those companies that advertise in support of baseball and every business and company associated with baseball. In one way or another, a larger portion of our income goes to support professional sports, even if we never attend a game and cannot afford to! Only when we stop going to games and stop buying and wearing various team memorabilia and souvenirs will we get the attention of owners and players. That is if it is even possible to get the attention of the very rich?
What I find most fascinating is the concept of the public paying for everything associated with the game or the players today. The hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary are not enough for a player. They must charge for their signature on a piece of paper. Pay even more to have a player sign a baseball. Pay a weeks salary if you would like a signature on a bat. Amazing! I wonder what would a player charge to give a kid a lift home? But then few players even bother to speak with the kids today. Like many marriages, we have lost the relationship for the sake of money. The deep, heartfelt, love relationship is no longer. Baseball, once the great game of the average man, has become a game for only the wealthy, and I cry for the game. Not for me, for I am old and stiff and tired, but for today's generation of children and their children and their children. For they will never experience the love I did.
Baseball used to be unique compared to football, basketball and other sports because it offered the camaraderie that the other sports never did. The friendly, relaxed, laid back, fun loving, smiling "Boys of Summer," who loved and appreciated the fans who worshiped them. The love was always two-way. When the players and owners took that away, they destroyed the game. Now the game is far behind several other sports in popularity. When did you last watch a baseball game on television. Yawn! Football is king now. If baseball ever hopes to return to the pinnacle of games, it must return to embrace what was different about it in the first place. Sadly, I have lost hope in that happening.
I still have a good part of my youthful memorabilia collection. Homerun balls caught off the bats of Adcock, Aaron, Corrales, Del Crandall, Dick Stuart, Felipe Alou and others. All have the date, inning, and game score written on them, most from over forty years ago. My bats include Adcock's and others from Aaron, Crandall, Johnny Logan, Red Schoendist, Bill Bruton, Hank Bauer, Cesar Cedeno and others. None of the bats have been signed, but several of the home runs have been signed, including Aaron's. They will never be sold, but are only for my family and future generations of family.
Do I miss baseball since the divorce of the early '80's? Not really. I get along fine without it. I have traveled to every State, every Canadian Province, and about three dozen foreign countries, all for less than one games average salary for a player. I lived five years in China! Believe me, it's been a lot more fun than a witnessing a few of today's baseball games or players. I have no personal regrets.
Do I miss the baseball of my youth? The baseball of the '50's, 60's and early '70's? Oh yes! I miss it terribly. I miss Spahn, Burdette, Aaron, Mathews, Logan and every Milwaukee Brave that ever smiled at us and spoke to us. I miss the Schroeder Hotel, Sammie Taylor, Ducky Scofield and every visiting team player that was so kind to us. I miss Casey Stengel's wisdom. I miss Pete Rose's "Charlie Hustle." I miss the towering batting practice drives of Dick Stuart, Frank Howard and Joe Adcock. I miss playing the ball perfectly on the fly or off the ricochet of the County Stadium bleachers.
I miss the fact players once understood that without us, the fans, the kids, they were nothing. WE made the game. Not them, not us, but WE, together. I miss that they cared for us as we cared for them. I miss that they talked to us, played catch with us, graciously signed anything for us, and on occasion gave us a ride part of the way home. I miss riding in the back seat of Spahnie's car. I miss these things for me and for my son, but most of all I miss them for today's children and all the children to come. I do not believe baseball is dead yet, but the baseball I was lucky enough to know is dead, and I believe it is only time before the baseball of today will join it in the ground. Yet I hope I am wrong.
Most of all, I miss Joe Adcock. The towering giant who not only gave a bat to an eleven year old boy, but gave him a love that lasted for a long, long, time. I still love you, Joe. The players of today could learn so much from you.
Where have you gone, Joe Adcock? Unfortunately, I've learned Joe died on May 3, 1999 in Coushatta, Louisiana, his old hometown. I was very sad to hear that. I still had dreams of one day driving down to Coushatta and inviting Joe to have dinner with me. I'm certain he would have been pleased to do so. I'd have taken that cracked, discolored, almost sixty year old bat along. I believe Joe would have been happy to sign it. And I am certain he wouldn't have charged me a dime.