A Ball Not Taken

Here I was, a 33-year-old man staring at a kind of fortune, a fortune that contained  another man’s dreams, with thoughts of larceny swirling through my head.

Don’t judge me, not until you hear what it was. 

They weren’t ancient artifacts from the pyramids, or  priceless paintings or even bars of gold bullion. It was a box… of $3 baseballs.

In 1987, I was covering the Major League Baseball All-Star game in Oakland. As part of the festivities they had an “Old-Timers” Game.  Some of the greats in that game were guys you may have heard about: Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Warren Spahn, Willie McCovey, Johnny Bench.  These exhibitions have pretty much faded away now as great ball players of recent eras don’t need the money that the games used to generate for their predecessors. Of course, they weren’t really games. They were more like a couple of innings with a lot of horseplay.

The fans loved it.

Even with those big names in attendance, the guy I wanted most to meet was a wrinkled, 80-year-old former White Sox shortstop with a slow southern drawl and a quick, huge grin. His name was Luke Appling. 

Luke was not as famous as the other players, but had gained fame when he hit a home run in an Old Timers game at age 75 –five years earlier. You’d think he had been a power hitter. The truth was Appling hit 45 homers in his 20-year career –barely two homers a year. I didn’t care about the homer. I desperately wanted to talk to him about his playing days. Fortunately for me, I tracked him down in the clubhouse after the game. There he was, in the middle of all the other greats, doing interviews and autographing baseballs. Each All-Star signed a ball and put the ball in a box in the middle of the room — 24 baseballs per case, 24 balls per box, one autograph per ball. 

Luke played for the White Sox from 1930-50,  his only team. He was a perennial All-Star, a top-fielding shortstop. Despite the lack of power, he hit .310 for his career. In the fall of 1943, at age 36, he finished second in voting for the Most Valuable Player award. By Jan. 1944 he was in the Army. 

“Ducking bullets can’t be much worse than ducking some of those bad hops in the infield,” he said at the time. 

He served at a military hospital in Georgia helping soldiers heal from the wounds of war with “reconditioning” that included playing with him on the hospital baseball team.  Luke was discharged in Aug. 1945, just in time to play the final 18 games of that season. He hit .368. Four more .300 seasons would follow. 

The most money he made in a season was 1937, the year after he hit .388. Luke raked in $18,500, hence the need for the old timers circuit in his senior years.

He played on some horrible Sox teams.  The best finish in his 20 years was third place. More often it was, 6th, 7th, or 8th, and in  an 8-team American League. Pick a season:  1949? Try 63-91. 1937? How about 65-83. One bleak year after another. But he kept playing. He played until he was 43 years old.

He was almost as famous for hitting foul balls as he was for hitting fair balls. There were tons of legends about Appling’s ability to extend at-bats by fouling off pitch after pitch — driving pitchers crazy. 

When he was elected to the Hall-of-Fame he quipped “It’s amazing what a few foul balls can do.”

I knew someone who watched those games as a boy, year after dreary year. He grew up in those years, as did an entire generation. Seasons during the Depression. Seasons during the War. The kid came from a poor family and he was an only child. 

His life was baseball. He owned a bike, a bat, a catcher’s mitt and a bucket of scuffed up baseballs and he loved the White Sox. But most of all he idolized Luke Appling. 

 That boy was my dad. That day in Oakland, after a wonderful chat about those years he played in Chicago, Luke did not have one complaint. All he had was fond memories of Chicago. In fact, he grew nostalgic, remembering the bond between the players and the fans. I guess he forgot about the contract disputes, the team’s failure, the Depression and the War. 

Or maybe not.  In Greek, nostalgia means the pain from an old wound, the twinge in your heart. Mere memory can’t compete with nostalgia. 

Luke said good-bye, got up and walked out the clubhouse door with DiMaggio and Feller. They were American Leaguers, you know. Suddenly, I was alone in the clubhouse. A 33 year-old man alone with not just boxes of autographed baseballs., but the  balls signed by my dad’s biggest hero and the legends of his youth. Thoughts of larceny swirled through my head. I so wanted to swipe just one of those boxes to give to my dad. I sat there for what seemed like an hour. I finally walked out of the clubhouse empty-handed. But really, I never could have given that case of balls to my dad. I could have never confessed that I stole them, and if I’d told him that I had he’d have thrown the balls and me out the back door. 

Walking onto the field, I heard the southern drawl.  “Good by, Bill,” the smiling, wrinkled 80-year old said, waving. “And tell your daddy thanks for his support all those years.” 

Baseball’s opening day was supposed to be Thursday.

I missed it… for so many reasons.

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