You want to know what sets baseball apart more than anything else?
No matter how many games you watch, it’s astonishing how many times you see something for the 1st time.
A few days ago, I chatted briefly with Truman Owens, who may be the only man in these parts who’s seen more games than I have, regarding this subject. This is somewhat undeniable since Truman umpired more than I’ve seen. He and his late brother, Sam, were at the Polo Grounds in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit “the shot heard ‘round the world.” I was at Atlanta Stadium -- I don’t think Fulton County had bought in then -- in 1974 when Hank Aaron hit No. 715. There were good stories surrounding both.
Truman and Sam, probably still teen-agers, took the train to New York to watch the Yankees play in the World Series, and they had to wait a few days because the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants tied for 1st place in the National League. They had some time to kill – and all two kids from Clinton knew about New York was the baseball played there – so they took the subway to the Polo Grounds, which was just across the East River from Yankee Stadium, and saw what was then considered the most famous home run in history. Thomson’s 3-run homer, off Ralph Branca, gave the Giants a 5-4 win.
The Yankees won the World Series, so Truman and Sam came home happy. It’s hard to catch Truman without a Yankee cap on to this day. He is my favorite Yankee fan, neck and neck with Warren Finney.
My crazy dad got me out of school on April 8, 1974, which was my 16th birthday, and off we went to Atlanta just because it occurred to my old man on the spur of the moment. It was sold out. We didn’t have tickets. My dad didn’t care. For him, that just made it fun.
As I recall, we requisitioned my grandfather’s Cadillac and headed off for Atlanta in a party of six. All of us found our own way in. I sat down the 3rd-base line with a doctor from Columbia whose daughter couldn’t make it. What I remember most is that Aaron hit the 1st pitch he swung at. For those conspiracy theorists who think Al Downing grooved one, it should be pointed out that the Hammer walked unintentionally on 4 pitches in the 2nd inning. It was 1-0 when he hit it in the 4th. Downing didn’t want that mention in the records.
My old man, who was himself an original, found a seat about 10 rows up, almost behind the plate. If you knew Jimmy Dutton, this was not a surprise. The game was on Monday Night Baseball, which was then a thing, and around where Daddy was sitting, many dignitaries congregated. Pearl Bailey sang the national anthem. Sammy Davis Jr. was there. Daddy was a friend of the world, and it occurred to him that he might as well get an autograph or two.
An entourage made its way down the steps, and Daddy thought it was Chubby Checker, the singer known for “The Twist,” not to mention “Let’s Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer),” and Daddy twisted past several patrons to the aisle, where he asked, “Hey, Chubby, how ‘bout an autograph?”
The bodyguards pressed in. The celebrity frowned, but, after a few tense seconds, took my dad’s scorecard and signed it. Quite pleased with himself, Daddy made his way back to his seat and looked at his prize autograph.
He had just gotten the signature of Maynard Jackson, mayor of Atlanta.
I wonder whatever happened to that autograph. It definitely existed because he shared it with me, my brother, my friend Henry and his buddies Big Don and Put.
The Colonel – little know fact: auctioneers are referred to as colonels – hit a home run, on an excuse-me swing, on the 1st pitch he swung at, too.