On living rent-free in one’s head

From Sandy Koufax, Game Seven, 1965 World Series . . .

Moments, acts, and people living rent-free in one’s head don’t always have to be the ones that broke your heart. When an online baseball group member asked fellow members for such moments, I found it impossible not to think of a truckload of such moments. Of course, many will betray my age. I’ve been betrayed by worse.

Fair disclosure: I don’t lack for non-baseball moments living rent-free in my head. Things such as the first time I wrote with a fountain pen, my first unaccompanied-by-elder jaunt around the New York subways, my first airplane flight, my first experience with a Gibson guitar, my first crack-of-dawn in Air Force basic training, my first paid published newspaper by-line, my first turn on radio.

But ask me about baseball and I probably have enough tenants living rent-free in my head to fill an apartment house. Half way, at least:

* Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. On two days’ rest. A second shutout with nothing but a fastball left after 359 innings that year. Game Seven, 1965 World Series.

* Willie Davis. Three errors. Top of the fifth, Game Two, 1966 World Series—costing Koufax a win in what proved his final major league game.

* Donn Clendenon ripping a home run over the left field auxiliary scoreboard in Shea Stadium, right after Cleon Jones was awarded first base for the shoe-polish plunk, Game Five, 1969 World Series.

* One not-so-foggy Christmas Eve, 1969: Curt Flood writing to commissioner Bowie Kuhn that he didn’t believe he was just a piece of property to be bought and sold at will.

* Oakland owner Charlie Finley’s capricious attempt to fire infielder Mike Andrews over a couple of errors not entirely of his own making, Game Two, 1973 World Series—and Shea Stadium sign man Karl Ehrhardt, the next day, greeting the first A’s fielding miscue with a sign: YOU’RE FIRED! 1973 World Series.

* Carlton Fisk’s “body English” home run to win Game Six, 1975 World Series.

* ‘Twas the day after Christmas, and all through the house, baseball went ballistic when arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favour of Andy Messersmith. 1975.

* Reggie Jackson. Three pitchers. Three pitches. Three swings. Three bombs. Game Six, 1977 World Series.

Tommy Lasorda deciding it was safe for Tom Neidenfuer to pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from forcing a seventh 1985 NLCS game—and Jack the Ripper deciding how unsafe it was with what proved a pennant-winning three-run homer three-quarters of the way up the left field bleachers.

* Don Denkinger. If you have to ask . . . (Even if it wasn’t his fault the Cardinals imploded in Game Seven.)

* Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner. If you still have to ask . . .

* Phillies pitching coach Johnny Podres forgetting to tell Mitch (Wild Thing) Williams to abandon the slide step (which Podres put on in the first place to keep Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson from grand theft) and pitch straight, no chaser to Joe Carter, Game Six, 1993 World Series.

* Derek Jeter and The Flip.

* Mike Piazza’s mammoth blast in the bottom of the eighth, in the first Mets home game following baseball’s break after the 9/11 atrocity.

* Dusty Baker handing Russ Ortiz the game ball somewhat ostentatiously, when lifting him in Game Six, 2002 World Series, and Scott Spiezio making Felix Rodriguez pay for it to start the Angel comeback that forced the Game Seven they won.

* Alex Gonzalez and the double play hopper bounding off his glove, eighth inning, Game Six, 2003 NLCS—with the Cubs five outs from going to the World Series they wouldn’t reach yet.

* Alex Cora. Dodger Stadium. Eighteen-pitch plate appearance ending in a two-run homer. May 2004.

* Dave Roberts. David Ortiz. Game Four, 2004 ALCS.

* Curt Schilling and the bloody sock game, Game Six, 2004 ALCS.

* “Back to Foulke—Red Sox fans have longed to hear it! The Boston Red Sox are world champions!”

* Albert Pujols vs. Brad Lidge, Game Five, 2005 NLCS. (The only thing keeping Pujols’s blast in the building was the retractable roof bracing of Minute Maid Park.)

* Pujols, three bombs after the sixth inning, in a kind of reverse cycle (three-run homer, two-run homer, solo homer), Game Three, 2011 World Series.

* David Freese. Game Six, 2011 Series.

* Kung Fu Panda. Three bombs. Game One, 2012 Series.<

. . . to Mookie Betts, Game Six, 2020 World Series.

* Madison Bumgarner. Game Seven, 2014 Series. In relief.

* “Now, that’s announcing yourself . . . Game on!” crowed Tom Verducci, the Sports Illustrated prose poet working as a Fox Sports commentator, when Noah Syndergaard dropped Alcides Escobar on the first pitch, leading off Game Three, 2015 Series.

* Lucas Duda unable to make a simple throw home to finish what should have been a Game Five-winning double play to send the 2015 Series back to Kansas City.

* The Cubs. Finishing their 108-year rebuilding effort. 2016 World Series.

The first Angels home game following the tragic death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs. Every Angel wearing Skaggs’s uniform number 45. Mike Trout opening the 13-0 proceedings with a two-run homer. Pitchers Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combine on a no-hitter. July 2019.

* Unaware that a standoff between a narcotics suspect and Philadelphia police left six officers wounded during the game . . . Bryce Harper. Bottom of the ninth. The Phillies down two runs with the bases loaded. The mammoth ultimate grand slam flying past the foul pole into the second deck. Harper running it out as though he had a process server on his tail. August 2019.

* Howie Kendrick. Salami. 2019 NLDS.

* Kendrick, ringing the foul pole and the Astros’ bell, Game Seven, 2019 World Series.

* “The Rays are going to ask for the biggest hit in the life of Brett Phillips.” Game Four, bottom of the ninth, last year’s World Series.

* The Mookie Monster. Last year’s World Series.

And I have many more apartments to fill before my eventual date in the Elysian Fields.

Henry Aaron, RIP: Inimitable

As “715” blasted in neon on the scoreboard way behind them, the entire Dodger infield—including shortstop Bill Russell (left) and second baseman Davey Lopes—shook hands with Henry Aaron rounding the bases and past Babe Ruth at last.

“I don’t want people to forget Babe Ruth,” the man once said. “I just want them to remember Henry Aaron.” Among many other things, we now get to remember that Henry Aaron won’t be on this island earth to celebrate with us what he deserved to celebrate untroubled.

Aaron died at 86 this morning, almost three and a half months before the anniversary of his own Shot Heard ‘Round the World. The idiot brigades robbed him of the pleasure of his original triumph, but Aaron’s dignitas robs them of their ability to keep a quietly proud man in what they only think is his place.

He may have been gracious hoping another would break the record he yanked from Ruth, but only one man can claim to have pushed Ruth out of the all-time Show home run record book. The man whose childhood poverty compelled him to teach himself baseball by hitting bottlecaps with sticks eventually hit 755 baseballs over fences, past foul poles, into bullpens, and into the seats.

That childhood in the deep South compelled among other unwarranted disgraces that Aaron’s mother had to tell him and his seven siblings to hide under beds whenever the Ku Klux Klan was on the march in the neighbourhood. A visit to his native Mobile, Alabama by Jackie Robinson in 1948 compelled him to live by learning first and baseball second.

Oops. Aaron skipped school to see Robinson and ended up expelled for truancy and moved to a private school. “Jackie was speaking at a drugstore, and I said, ‘I’m not going to get this opportunity again, so I better take my chances and listen to Jackie Robinson now.’ Little did I know, I got front row seats, and next to me was my father.” Double oops.

Like his fellow Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, who once said the only way he liked school as a boy was “closed,” Aaron was on a baseball or nothing mission from almost the outset.

He signed and lasted only a month with the Indianapolis Clowns, one of the last of the Negro Leagues teams hanging in. He lasted only the month because Show scouts were on his trail and Boston Braves owner Lou Perini had to have him, outbidding any other comer to sign him. After a short spell in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Aaron helped integrate the old and hostile Sally League (the South Atlantic League) and won its Most Valuable Player Award.

He became a Brave at twenty after the team moved to Milwaukee. He finished fourth in the 1954 National League Rookie of the Year award. He joined white teammate/future manager Eddie Mathews as the Show’s best pair of power teammates since Ruth and Lou Gehrig, whom they surpassed in due course. (Ruth and Gehrig as Yankees: 1,150 home runs between them. Aaron and Mathews as Braves: 1,226 home runs between them. Note: Gehrig as a Yankee and Mathews as a Brave hit the same number of home runs: 493.)

He played quietly, almost stoically through continuing racial growing pains, and finally swung against Cardinals pitcher Billy Muffett with one on in the bottom of the eleventh on 23 September 1957—and hit it over the center field fence to clinch a Braves pennant.

Those Braves would win the World Series and Aaron would be named the National League’s Most Valuable Player. It was the only major league MVP he’d actually win, but from then through almost all his career to follow every season he played looked like an MVP season.

The Braves moving to Atlanta for 1966 didn’t thrill him, and well he might have been un-thrilled at returning to the South of his youth that still fought bitterly enough through its racist ways. Neither did a painful 1970 divorce. He resolved his fears the best ways he knew: he joined the civil rights movement quietly and continued playing baseball likewise.

Such contemporaries as Ernie Banks, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays so often loomed more immediately and larger in the public eye and mind. The outwardly composed Aaron didn’t hit outrageous punt-like bombs; his once-fabled quick wrists produced howitzer-like line drives, even after he began to think of home runs more consciously in 1963.

He had his ways of brushing the racists to one side. “I never doubted my ability,” he once said, “but when you hear all your life you’re inferior, it makes you wonder if the other guys have something you’ve never seen before. If they do, I’m still looking for it.”

With Mantle retired and Banks, Killebrew and Mays beginning to show their age, 1970 was also the year Aaron became noticeable as the man most likely to pass Ruth’s career home run record. It was the year after Aaron’s Braves won the National League West in the Show’s first season of divisional play but got flattened in three straight by the Miracle Mets in the first National League Championship Series despite Aaron’s efforts. (He had a 1.500 OPS for the set with three home runs, five hits, and seven runs batted in.)

Aaron’s days of postseason baseball were over. He’d just have to settle for becoming a legend. A legend who played and swung through the vilest racists bent on stopping the black man from knocking the Sacred Babe to one side, to the point where police and the FBI had to stay close to the man whose career to date was less bigness than sustained high excellence.

A portrait of the artist as a young Brave.

He knew excellence when he saw it, too. When the late Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver introduced himself to Aaron at his first All-Star Game and one of Aaron’s 25, Aaron said it straight: “Kid, I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will know who you are, too.”

(Let the record show Aaron once said Seaver was the toughest pitcher he faced. Lifetime against Seaver, Aaron hit a mere .205 with a .281 on-base percentage, with four home runs and sixteen hits overall in 89 plate appearances. His guarantee was hardly unfounded.)

The man Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax nicknamed Bad Henry also played and swung through the most ignorant of the non-racists who yet believed nobody had any business swinging past the Sacred Babe. And, past the manipulators on his own team who wanted nothing less than the Hammer hammering his way to meet and pass Ruth before the home audience when 1974 opened for business.

The Braves were to open in Cincinnati for a set before opening at home. Aaron entered the season needing one home run to meet Ruth and one more to pass him. If then-Braves owner Bill Bartholomay could have gotten away with it, Aaron wouldn’t have poked his nose out of the Braves dugout until they were finished with the Reds and back in Atlanta.

Word of that plan reached three New York sportswriters, Dick Young of the New York Daily News; Dave Anderson of The New York Times; and, Larry Merchant of the New York Post. They said not so fast, post haste. They denounced the plan without softening their prose or apologizing for their stance, ramping up a drumbeat on behalf of convincing then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn to head the Braves off at the pass.

It turned out Kuhn didn’t need much convincing. He told Bartholomay, Braves manager Mathews, and anyone else listening that the Braves better not even think about sending a lineup to the plate in Riverfront Stadium without H. Aaron on the card. A fourth New York writer, Red Smith of the Times, nailed the point emphatically:

He explained to Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher might have been Atlanta’s sportswriting dean in that time and place, but he placed himself squarely on the wrong side of the line. Bisher led an equally passionate counterattack, denouncing the New York writers as “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” who would do better to demand the cleanup of Times Square before criticizing the sainted Braves one of whom was about to blast the Big Fella out of the books without wearing a uniform from New York.

Aaron had spent his entire career to that point helping to prove further that black men belonged in the Show and were perfectly capable of competing and winning with honour and talent, and Bisher and his like spent their own credibility defending a team determined to cheapen true competition so a black man could break a sacred sports record on home grounds.

Aaron squared off in the top of the first against the Reds’ Jack Billingham, a pitcher against whom he’d already hit four major league home runs. He hit a three-run homer to put the Braves up, 3-0. After he rounded the bases his congratulators included Kuhn himself. Mathews sat Aaron out of the second game in the three-game set, gaining a direct order from Kuhn to put him in the third-game lineup.

He struck out twice and grounded out once, fairly and squarely, but Kuhn’s protection of his and the game’s integrity made him wary of going to Atlanta to see Aaron get the Big One. He looked and sounded clumsy saying he’d had a previous engagement. If he’d only said honestly that he didn’t want to distract from Aaron’s achievement, it would have been better.

Every racist, every shill, every manipulator, everyone who thought a quiet guy who didn’t want to eat, drink, or fornicate the world out of house and home had no business busting the record of the loud lout who set it in the first place got it jammed right back down their throats when Aaron squared off against Dodgers lefthander Al Downing with one aboard and nobody out opening the bottom of the fourth.

Nobody described what happened next better than Dodgers broadcast virtuoso Vin Scully:

He means the tying run at the plate now, so we’ll see what Downing does . . . Al at the belt now, and he delivers, and he’s low, ball one. And that just adds to the pressure, the crowd booing. Downing has to ignore the sound effects and stay a professional and pitch his game . . . One ball, no strikes, Aaron waiting, the outfield deep and straight away. Fastball — and a high drive into deep left center field, Buckner goes back, to the fence, it is gone!!! . . . (long pause during crowd noise and fireworks) . . .

What a marvelous moment for baseball, what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia, what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron, who was met at home plate not only by every member of the Braves, but by his father and mother . . . It is over, at 10 minutes after nine in Atlanta, Georgia, Henry Aaron has eclipsed the mark set by Babe Ruth.

Henry and Billye Aaron, circa 2002.

Two young fans hit the field to run the bases with the new home run king; Aaron’s bodyguard sat in the stands with a hand on his pistol until he was sure the two young white men were there to love, not kill him. Aaron plunged across the plate into a crowd of teammates through which his parents managed to plow before his mother, Stella, hugged him to plant a big kiss on her son’s face.

“I don’t remember the noise,” Aaron said later. “Or the two kids that ran on the field. My teammates at home plate, I remember seeing them. I remember my mother out there and she hugging me. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything about that home run when I think back on it. I don’t know where she came from, but she was there.”

He’d retire two years later with 755 home runs and a truckload of further black ink on his resume. He remains baseball’s all time champion for total bases and runs batted in. He was a four-time single-season home run champion, he led his league in slugging four times, OPS three, and total bases eight. His Real Batting Average (RBA)—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—is .624. It’s also the second-best RBA among any Hall of Fame right fielder who played all or most of his career post-integration/post-World War II/night-ball. (Number one: Hall of Famer Stan Musial.)

Aaron wasn’t entirely wrong when he once wondered whether baseball truly appreciated who and what he was. He’d become the Show’s first African-American farm director but bristled quietly over how slow it was to embrace integrating front offices. Yet he was an annual Hall of Fame presence since his own election in 1992, and people of all races in and out of the game sought him out to pick his mind and savour his presence.

They often discovered Aaron belied his public image of composure with a fine, dry wit. “It took me seventeen years to get three thousand hits in baseball,” he once said. “I did it in one afternoon on the golf course.”

Whether squaring off against the best pitchers in the league yet giving his teammates the bigger credit for team conquests, or taking a COVID-19 vaccination shot, Aaron saw the bigger picture. “I feel wonderful,” he said as he took the needle on 5 January. “It makes you feel like you are doing something not only to help yourself, but to help your community.”

When his former Brewers boss Bud Selig became baseball’s commissioner, Selig’s mistakes may have been legion but it was no mistake that Selig went out of his way to celebrate Aaron. He created the Hank Aaron Award handed since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league—its birth was on the silver anniversary of Aaron passing Ruth.

Aaron re-married happily in 1973; he and his wife, Billye, a former television journalist, had the fourth of Aaron’s three children. He enjoyed business success after his playing days, too, building a successful group of BMW dealerships in Georgia. When he played, he kept a book of Christian inspiration in his locker, Thomas a Kepmis’s The Imitation of Christ. Appropriate choice, that. Nobody could imitate either the saviour in whom Aaron believed devoutly or Aaron himself.

Lord, our grief on earth is too profound that a third Hall of Famer who defeated all who’d deflate him is brought home in just this year’s first month. But our comfort is that You have brought him home to be serene, happy, and swinging for the fences in the Elysian Fields, and that Your forgiven servant Ruth received him with a cold beer, a hearty embrace, and a garrulous “That’s the way to do it, kiddo.”

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A very few portions of this essay have been published previously.