When I was a kid I had a nervy dad, whose dream had been to make it in professional sports, preferably baseball. Failing in that youthful ambition, he somehow succeeded in getting us onto the Boston Red Sox outfield for morning practices during the team’s spring training in Sarasota, Florida. We would be out there with the odd other gatecrasher in street clothes and with numerous Red Sox players in uniform. This was the 1950s, and America wasn’t yet hyperlitigious, so we were generally allowed to remain on the field chasing balls or, more usually, watching someone else snare them. I remember Lew Kiley, a Red Sox pitcher, trying on one occasion to eject us, and my father inventing all sorts of reasons why we ought to be able to stay put. He was quite the con man; for starters, there I was in Florida for close to six weeks, missing a good chunk of school.
Anyhow, the most glamorous player the Red Sox had to offer was Ted Williams, who, though aging, was still a pretty sight to watch in a batting cage. I was a great reader of baseball history and at age ten or twelve already knew Williams’s life and achievements backwards and forwards. I used to read one book in particular over and over: Arthur Daley’s Times at Bat , which offered marvelous vignettes on such luminaries as Dizzy Dean, the Babe, and yes, Teddy Ball Game.
So there I was in the outfield one day, clad in my ball cap and shorts, pounding a Rawlings mitt as big as my head. Your very relevant question, since we are talking history, is exactly how old I was. I can’t see myself being over twelve, but I could have been as young as nine or ten. I had already spent thousands of hours playing baseball, so I knew how to field pretty well for my age.
Williams used to hit hooking line drives, and this one started well out in his “wrong field”—that is, almost at the left-field foul line. I had stationed myself somewhere in fairly shallow center field. There were ballplayers near me, behind me, and in front of me in the infield. Anyway, this hook started out by way of Peoria, so to speak, and then it curved and curved and curved, and suddenly it was zeroing in at high speed right for my young head! I know this sounds positively mythological, but it happened. At the last second I had to make a quick decision: either raise my glove and snare that liner or be killed. Somehow I managed to catch it right in front of my face, and I remember some of the Red Sox players yelling, “Sign him up!”
That was nice of them to say, but there was no real possibility of that. I wasn’t fast enough to be a fielder, and in Little League games when I came to bat, I was terrified of the fastballs sizzling in on me, a fear that didn’t leave me until I quit organized baseball at about fourteen. And though my father had an obsession with sports, that was his thing. Eventually a son ought to develop interests of his own, and I did.
But there it is: my brush with history—the day I caught a line drive off the bat of the last .400 hitter, the one many still call the greatest ever. My thanks to Rawlings and to plain luck for saving my young life.