I have enjoyed many memorable experiences in my role as a baseball historian, including several interviews that I recall with fondness. Yet, of all my interviews, one stands out above the rest. It was the time that I talked to Ted Williams at the Boston Red Sox’ spring training headquarters in
I had been active as an historian for about seven years by then, and had successfully interviewed several prominent Major League players, mostly noteworthy sluggers. After researching Williams rather comprehensively for a few years, I wondered if he would agree to talk to me. I had heard that he didn’t like giving interviews, but I also knew that he loved talking baseball. I had established a career home run log for Ted, which included, at least, basic descriptions of all his 521 official Major League home runs.
So, I figured why not try. I called the Red Sox during the winter of 1985-1986, and spoke to Media Relations Director Dick Bresciani. He couldn’t promise anything, but agreed to mention my request to Ted. When Dick re-contacted me with Williams’ positive response, I was pleased. Since I was scheduled to travel to Disney World during my children’s spring break in March, the interview was set for then.
When I arrived at 10 A.M. at the Sox compound in
At precisely 10:30, as scheduled, Theodore Williams walked through the Red Sox locker room and into the adjoining space where the coaches dressed. He took one look at me, and said: “I hear that you want to talk to me about hitting home runs.” He was still imperious, but he also exuded kindness and warmth. I immediately felt comfortable.
Ted invited me to explain my work which I did over the course of the next few minutes. I really didn’t want to hurry, but I knew that there was a lot of ground to cover in my allotted time. He sat there nodding, and, when I was finished, he simply asked: “What do you want to ask me?”
I responded: “Ted, I’d like to know what you think is the longest ball that you ever hit.”
That was it! All I needed was to get Ted Williams talking about hitting. His first answer took us way past the original ten minute framework, and I could easily see that he wasn’t close to being finished. He identified his legendary “Red Seat Homer” from 1946 in
I then showed him the home run log that I had assembled for his career, which included red stars beside each of the three shots that he had just identified. His eyes gleamed as he reached out and said: “Let me take a look at that.” Williams spent the next few minutes leafing through my binder when he arrived at the page for his 1946 homers. As a visual reference, I had placed the stars in the margins beside any home run that I had estimated to have flown 450 feet or farther.
As most fans know, Ted had been in military service from 1943 through 1945, so there was a three year gap in the records. He couldn’t quite figure out my system, and handed the binder back to me. Pointing to the red star beside the first entry for 1946, he grunted: “What’s this?” He was referring to his monstrous drive into the center field bleachers at
When I started to explain my entry, the sixty-seven year old Williams jumped from his seat, grabbed a bat, and pantomimed his swing from forty years earlier. As he swung through the imaginary ball, he shouted: “Low and away slider, and I went down and nailed that sonuvabitch!” The coaches were sitting around listening to the interview, and they spontaneously applauded. Joe Morgan, who later became the Sox manager, was among them, and Ted said to him: “Hey Joe, I liked hitting in that old park. Some guys didn’t like it there, but I always did okay.”
Taking his seat again, he leaned over and seemingly confided in me: “When the place was sold out, sometimes you couldn’t see the ball because of the shirts in the center field bleachers, but, other than that, I could always see the ball really well there.” I thought to myself: “Is this really happening? Is Ted Williams actually sharing his treasured memories with me?” Well, apparently he was, and I needed to remind myself to act like an historian instead of a starry-eyed kid.
After several more minutes of discussing his longest shots, Williams suddenly changed directions. “Who else is on your list? Who else are you working on?” I responded: “Well, of course, I’m researching Mickey Mantle and Frank Howard.” Ted had competed against Mickey for many years and had actually managed Big Frank, so he instantly nodded his approval of my selection of those two guys as among the few longest hitters in baseball history.
I then ventured: “Actually, at this point, I’ve got Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx as my two longest hitters ever. Maybe, there’s something wrong with my research, but that’s the way it looks to me right now.” For the second time, the aging icon leaped to his feet, exclaiming: “There’s nothing wrong with your research. That’s right where those two guys belong, and don’t let anybody tell you differently!”
Ted had been a teammate of Jimmie Foxx for a few seasons, and knew old Double X intimately. And, even though he had never actually seen the Bambino play, he still had some very interesting second-hand observations on which to base his assessment. Strolling around the space between the lockers and chairs, Williams elaborated:
“When I first came up in the Pacific Coast League (1936), I’d hear
stories about long home runs. They’d point to a house across the
street, and say that’s where Lou Gehrig hit one. Or a wood pile,
and say that’s where somebody else hit one. And then they’d point
to a factory across another street farther from that house, and say
that’s where Babe Ruth hit one. I’d hear stories like that every-
where I went.”
Williams set distance standards in every Pacific Coast League town in which he played.
Yet, they were always runner-up standards. No matter how far he would hit one of his classic shots, he was always reminded that Babe Ruth had belted one even farther, sometimes much farther. When Ted considered that he was a regular visitor to those ballparks during his two seasons in the PCL, whereas Ruth played in them only a few times during barnstorming games, he was extremely impressed. So was I…to the point that I was motivated to spend years thereafter doing the follow-up research.
Naturally, Ted Williams had been right. When I finally finished evaluating Babe’s West Coast accomplishments two decades later, I thought again about my talk with Ted. Regarded by many as “Baseball’s Greatest Hitter” (something for which he was justifiably proud), Williams had unabashedly extolled the unique power of Babe Ruth. On the matter of Jimmie Foxx, who had been his teammate for over three years, Ted had even more to say. Don’t ever listen to anyone saying that Ted Williams was distant or aloof. Perhaps he was some of the time, but, when he let his guard down, he let it all the way down.
When he spoke about his long departed buddy (Jimmie Foxx), he became intensely emotional. According to Williams, Jimmie was the best and most powerful right-handed batsman that he had ever seen. Ted also categorized Foxx as one of the nicest and most likeable human beings who he had ever met. When I acknowledged to him that Jimmie Foxx had been my father’s favorite player and that my dad had seen him play many times during Jimmie’s early days in Philadelphia, Williams got a far away look in his eyes. It looked like he wanted to say something more, but he couldn’t. After a few moments of silence, he finally whispered: “He was a real peach of a guy.”
Ted got back on track, and continued to recount all the power-hitting glories that he had seen. He talked about personal batting duels that he had staged with Rogers Hornsby who had coached him at
As might be expected, I listened intently, sometimes taking notes, until after seventy-five minutes, Williams looked up and then quickly ended the conversation. He wasn’t rude, just abrupt. In fact, he grabbed my shoulder, slapped me on the back, and said: “That was supposed to be for ten minutes, and we talked for an hour and fifteen minutes. I hope that you’re satisfied.” I assured him that I was, whereupon he walked out through the main locker room. I had been seated the entire time facing toward the coach’s area with my back to the larger players’ section. Now, as I stood up to say good-bye to Ted, I noticed that most of the Red Sox roster was dressed and standing in a semi-circle around us.
Somewhat confused, I asked an attendant what was going on, and he responded: “We rarely see him open up like that, and nobody wanted to miss what he had to say.” Until that moment, I didn’t even know that anyone was behind me. Apparently, the Sox were scheduled to play a spring exhibition game somewhere nearby, and they had dressed while waiting for the team bus. Now that Williams had finished pontificating, they slowly began to file outside. I was numb. It wasn’t just me who felt like I had been in fairyland. Even seasoned Major League players reacted to Ted Williams as if they were children in the presence of Santa Claus.
Of course, I stopped on my way out, and thanked Dick Bresciani for setting up the interview. He politely asked: “How did it go?” I assured him that everything had gone just fine. What else was I going to say? I wanted to show my gratitude, but I didn’t want to destroy my mantle of professional decorum. Yet, as I drove away, I pulled the car over to the side of the road, and thought for a moment. I had just traveled through the corridors of Ted Williams baseball mind. Along the way, we had been joined by Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Feller, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and others. It was a feeling that I will never forget.
Although I interviewed Cal Ripken, Jr. in a one-on-one format at
Upon walking onto the brutally hot playing field, I was treated to a pleasant surprise. In the batter’s box was Cal Ripken, Jr., and stationed a few feet in front of the pitcher’s mound was his father, Cal Ripken, Sr. The father was pitching batting practice to the son, and had positioned himself in the traditional location of BP hurlers.
I noticed that the stadium was practically empty. Besides the three of us, there were only two other living souls inside the giant enclosure: two young men chasing down the balls that rocketed off the bat of Cal Ripken, Jr. And I do mean “rocketed.” For anyone who has not seen a star-caliber Big League hitter taking batting practice, it is an unforgettable experience.
I’m not talking about the casual warm-up stage of the process, when the hitter is merely loosening his muscles by swinging easily to prepare for later, maximum exertions. I’m talking about the serious stage that follows, when the practitioner is fully focused, and trying his best to make every swing count as if he were in a game. That’s where Cal Ripken, Jr. was at the moment I walked over to the batting cage.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Pitch after pitch went screaming off his bat in all directions. I had seen a lot of famous Major League sluggers take BP at that point, but this display was particularly noteworthy. It wasn’t that
Bam! Bam! Bam! Nothing but laser-like line drives, pitch after pitch after pitch. I was transfixed. Then, finally, the resonance of the repetitive sound changed ever so slightly, and a long fly ball arched outward and upward toward deep left field. The ball eventually landed on the warning track, and one-hopped against the fence. It had been a fine blow in its own right, a drive of approximately 350 feet. Yet, a Major League left-fielder would have caught the ball for an out…a good hit, but not perfect. No shame in that, right?
I then looked back at the famous father-son combo, and saw that Senior was glaring at Junior as if he had committed some heinous crime. The remorseful son had momentarily stepped away from the plate with the bat resting on his right shoulder. After a few more seconds of that penetrating scowl, Cal Ripken, Sr. pulled his left shoulder backward just a few inches, and raised his eyebrows. Although I hadn’t noticed anything, I knew what he meant. Naturally, so had Cal Ripken, Jr. According to the father, the son had “opened up” on his prior swing, moving his lead shoulder a fraction of a second too soon. In so doing, the arc of the swing had changed minutely, thereby causing the bat to miss centering on the ball by about a quarter inch. The difference between another torrid line drive and a long fly ball.
In response, Cal Ripken, Jr., looking truly repentant, stated simply: “I know Pap.” He said nothing else, and stepped back to the plate. At that moment, he was an accomplished man of twenty-five, someone who had already superseded his father’s worldly deeds. He didn’t have to listen to anybody, but he willingly listened to his father...his coach. Only three words had been exchanged between the two formidable men. Yet their communication was powerful and palpable. They had an understanding, and they simply went back to work. Bam! Bam! Bam!
Although already a star, young
I learned a lot that day. I already knew what “tough love” was, but Cal Ripken, Sr. put it on display in the clearest possible fashion. He became the manger of the Baltimore Orioles in 1987, where he worked with both Cal Jr. and another son, Billy. Always a heavy smoker, Cal Sr. died of lung cancer in 1999 at age sixty-three. But I still think of him often. As a baseball historian, I encounter the phenomenon of Cal Ripken, Jr. on a regular basis. And whenever I do, I usually think about Cal Sr.
I don’t have a choice, really. All through the 1990s, as Cal Jr. was constructing his Hall of Fame career and chasing the legend of Lou Gehrig, I kept thinking about that afternoon in 1985. Cal Jr. is the one who played all those games; he is the one who endured the pain, fatigue, and pressure. He deserves the credit. But would he have accomplished all those amazing things if Cal Ripken, Sr. had not been his father? I suspect that Cal Jr. would still have become a successful Major Leaguer under any circumstances, but would he have broken Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games-played record?
Would he have possessed the same grit and fortitude if he didn’t have a father who glared at him under a broiling sun as the two toiled together to forge that record-breaking mettle? I doubt it. When Cal Ripken, Sr. paused to lovingly rebuke his son for a minor functional misstep, he not only made Cal Jr. a better player, he also infused him with an implacable sense of purpose. When Cal Ripken, Jr. willingly accepted the reprimand without the slightest hint of resentment, he took another step toward greatness.
EPILOGUE and PERSONAL SENTIMENTS:
When I finally interviewed Cal Ripken, Jr. during the 1990 season, it was pretty much what you would expect. He was courteous, thoughtful and altogether engaging. He politely answered all my questions about power hitting, extending particular praise to his longtime teammate, Eddie Murray. It is always a triumph of sorts to obtain an interview with a star player like Cal Ripken, yet I place a higher value on another experience where I was in the role of the average fan.
It was the night of Saturday, May 9, 1992, and I had traveled to
Seemingly simultaneous to the impact, Cal Ripken Sr. shot out of the dugout, and reached his stricken son in the blink of an eye. He dropped down to minister to Billy, whereupon my mind was flooded with images from my own past.
In the summer of 1960, when I was thirteen, I was playing second base for my dad in a crucial game against our archrival. When one of the opposing players tried to steal second, I hustled over to cover. Unfortunately, the runner slid into my legs a split second before the ball arrived, tipping me forward and downward. The ball skimmed off the top of my glove, and struck me squarely and forcibly in the middle of my forehead.
Rolling onto my back, I did not lose consciousness, but I “saw stars,” and feared that I had been seriously injured. Suddenly, I felt a calm and gentle hand stroking my face, and I opened my eyes to see my father looking intently and lovingly back at me. Just as suddenly, I was no longer afraid. Within minutes, I was on my feet, and finished the game. Yet, thirty-two years later, upon seeing Cal Ripken, Sr. dash to the side of his injured son, forgetting all else in the process, I immediately summoned those indelible memories from my youth.
I should acknowledge that I still think of Cal Ripken, Sr. because he reminds me (on some levels) of my own dad. My father was lost all too soon to a form of lung cancer in 1967 at age fifty-one. Seeing those fleeting moments of Cal Ripken, Sr. functioning as a father, I was reminded again of how baseball serves as a conduit between dads and their children. It is one of the reasons that I chose to become a baseball historian.
Moving ahead to 2007, when I published a book about Babe Ruth (The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs), I enjoyed the benefit of Cal Ripken, Jr. writing a promotional “blurb” for the cover. Actually, other than writing the book, I had nothing to do with that. Mike Gibbons, the executive director of the
The last time that I saw Cal Ripken, Jr. was during the final week of February 2008. That was the last season for the original Yankee Stadium, and the Yanks were gracious enough to arrange a series of guided tours for those who wanted an intimate, parting look. Linda Ruth Tosetti, Babe Ruth’s granddaughter, had decided to accept the Yankees’ largess, and visited the
She was kind enough to invite me to join her and her family, and I went along with my son David. By a coincidence, Cal Ripken, Jr. was also there for the same reason…to say goodbye to “The House That Ruth Built.” Since I had never had the opportunity to personally thank
As always, Cal Ripken was gracious, classy and mindful of his responsibilities. I am no expert on the man’s essence, but, during my few limited glimpses of Cal Ripken, Jr., I received the impression that he is absolutely genuine. He is a true American hero, a guy who lives his life by way of hard work, commitment to his beliefs, and unshakable core values. He is one baseball superstar who deserves the accolades, fame and fortune that have come his way.
Baseball Historian (Copyright-2010)
Like many baseball fans, I had heard that Joe DiMaggio may not have been as good a person as he had been a ball player. I had wondered about that. Then, on June 23, 1986 at
Before game time, I was standing adjacent to the batting cage, where I had just completed a follow-up interview with Willie Mays. That’s when I saw Joe DiMaggio signing autographs for fans gathered in the lower boxes just past the first base dugout. Joe was in uniform, but was not scheduled to play. His was seventy-one years old, and his health was in decline. I had already been told by the event organizers that DiMaggio was unlikely to grant interviews.
I sauntered over in his direction, and watched as he graciously signed autograph after autograph. He didn’t seem like the aloof, self-absorbed man that had been portrayed by some detractors. I then considered asking him for an interview. After all, I had not been told that asking was taboo.
Suddenly, as I grew closer, he excused himself, and walked the short distance to the empty dugout. I could see that he looked pale, so I kept watching him. DiMaggio ventured down the steps, and sat on the bench. As I continued to observe him, the man lost even more color and began to tremble. I was both concerned and confused. What do I do? Was the great Joe DiMaggio about to collapse, alone in that impersonal dugout?
I looked around, and confirmed that nobody else was paying any attention. So, not wanting to invade his privacy, but also not wanting to ignore a possibly dangerous situation, I strolled over and sat down about ten feet away. I then gulped and asked in an admittedly rather small voice: “Are you okay Mr. DiMaggio?” At that exact moment, he was in the process of lighting a cigarette, and he said: “I will be in a minute.”
He inhaled a few deep breaths of smoke, and, to my surprise and gratification, began to regain his color. In fact, the trembling stopped, and his entire physical comportment quickly improved. Since I am not trained in the medical sciences, I have no explanation for what I observed. I can only state what I saw.
After approximately ten minutes of relaxation and silence, DiMaggio turned and said: “They’re waiting for me. I guess I better get back out there.” Then, he stood up, and walked over to me. Next, he smiled and, extending his hand, said: “Thank you.” Although much improved from when he had entered the dugout, he still looked like an old man. I watched him walk up the few steps, and gaped at the astonishing transformation. As soon as Joe DiMaggio returned to public view, he became more outwardly graceful and robust. The sick old man was gone, having been replaced by an aging warrior with a regal demeanor.
DiMaggio resumed his autographed signing to the delight of a crowd of worshipful fans who had waited for his return. I recall thinking that, perhaps, Joe DiMaggio wasn’t a genuinely kind and caring man. The fact that he had acknowledged my concern for him by shaking my hand meant little in the context of an entire life. I knew that. Yet, he certainly possessed a sense of decency, and evidenced a tangible awareness of duty to the baseball public. Plus, the man embodied chivalrous dignity in remarkable fashion. I found significant meaning in that brief encounter with the renowned Yankee Clipper.
When I had first met Joe DiMaggio at RFK Stadium, I never even considered asking him for an autograph. Years earlier, after becoming active as an historian, friends kept urging me to procure some kind of memento from all the special interview opportunities that I was experiencing. Accordingly, I asked an artistic young lady named Laura Blake to sketch an image of Babe Ruth swinging the bat in the center of a selected piece of durable parchment paper. I thought that The Babe would serve as the ideal symbol for all the sluggers that I might meet.
Sometime in the late-1980s (I really can’t recall exactly when), I learned that DiMaggio was making a formal, autograph signing appearance at one of the
We talked for a few minutes, and I explained who I was and why I wanted DiMaggio’s signature. The organizer responded that all the vouchers for the first session were already gone, but that the second session, in the afternoon, still had some signatures for sale. Up to that point, I had never paid for an autograph; each interviewee had willingly affixed his moniker beside The Bambino. But Joe wasn’t getting any younger, and I understood that I might not have another chance to get him to sign. Besides, twenty bucks wasn’t too bad.
My oldest, Bill, and I showed up in
Since we had driven two hours from our home to be there, it seemed like a good idea not to just give up. So, we stood at the back of the line, and waited to see what might happen. One by one, the vouchers were exchanged as Joe D. dutifully affixed his signature on various surfaces, ranging from bats and balls to old scorebooks. As we drew closer, I noticed how carefully DiMaggio signed each item. Each signature was a minor work of art.
Finally, young Bill and I approached the table, and had to acknowledge that we didn’t have a voucher. You would have thought that we had just admitted that we were there to assault DiMaggio. As I tried to explain, two different security types hustled toward us with determined visages. DiMaggio simply raised his right hand, and said: “No, don’t do that. I want to sign for them.” The king had spoken, and they stopped in their tracks.
I unrolled the parchment, and handed it to DiMaggio. At the same moment, the fellow with whom I had spoken on Friday arrived at the scene, and confirmed that I had, in fact, called in advance. I believe that it is important to emphasize, however, that Joe DiMaggio had already decided in favor of a father and son who had driven from their home to see him. As he had done with everyone before us, he carefully crafted his signature onto the parchment, and it remains to this day an example of the man’s steadfast commitment to excellence. He signed his name as expertly as he could, just as he had donned his uniform and played center field.
Luckily for me, since we were last in line, I also got the chance to ask a few questions. In response to my query about his longest-ever homer, Joltin’ Joe identified a spring tour blast in
Although our conversation lasted only a few minutes, along with the free autograph, I finally got my interview with Joe DiMaggio. I only met the man on two occasions: neither of which amounted to any in depth interaction. Yet, his good qualities had been apparent. Perhaps, he wasn’t a warm, cuddly fellow, but I feel obligated to recount the elements of goodness and decency that he displayed.
Baseball Historian (Copyright-2010)
I became active as a baseball historian in 1979, when I first started to research the history of long, so-called tape-measure, home runs. Predictably, within a few years, I wanted to know more about legendary Negro League slugger Josh Gibson. As I made my inquiries, I learned that his former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer, Judy Johnson, was still living near
Since I resided in the northern suburbs of
William Julius “Judy” Johnson was born in Snow Hill, on
Most importantly, Judy Johnson possessed the ‘intangibles.” He combined high intelligence with behavioral stability and moral wisdom, and, at an early age, was recognized for his considerable leadership abilities. Throughout the 1920s, Judy played for Hilldale. For those who don’t know, the Hilldale Club was actually located in the small town of
The team changed ownership in 1930, whereupon Johnson accepted an offer to play third base and captain the, equally prestigious,
We had briefly discussed my work on the subject of long distance hitting by telephone, so he wasn’t surprised when I quickly steered the conversation toward Josh Gibson. I had heard the story about how Josh was summoned from the stands at
And, yes, despite the standard conventions of informality within the baseball community, I always addressed Judy Johnson as “Mr. Johnson.” Of course, he encouraged me to call him “Judy,” but it just never felt right.
Midway through the1930 season, Josh Gibson was a mere eighteen-year-old acolyte with the then developmental-level Pittsburgh Crawford team. The Homestead Grays, like all Negro League franchises, carried few substitutes due to financial constraints. Accordingly, when their catcher was injured,
“We all knew who he was. We knew that he would be our catcher
someday. I had seen him hit, and, oh, how he could hit. So, when
Buck got hurt, I just went up to the stands where he was sitting, and told
him to get dressed. He was a polite kid, and did just what he was told.
Of course, that was a pivotal moment in baseball history. Josh Gibson quickly demonstrated that he was one of the greatest power hitters that the game would ever see. Although it required many years to confirm the exact date, we now know that young Josh played that first game on July 25, 1930. He returned to Forbes Field on September 13, later in the season, and launched a ball over the 457-foot mark in dead center field. Within two more weeks, Gibson led the Homestead Grays to victory over the New York Lincoln Giants in the Negro Eastern League World Series. In one of the games, at Yankee Stadium on September 27, Josh blasted a 460 foot home run deep into the left field bullpen. Judy Johnson saw it all happen.
On the occasion of that first meeting, I was absolutely enthralled. The man sitting across from me in his easy chair was a living, breathing encyclopedia of baseball. In fact, after returning briefly to Hilldale in 1931, Judy resumed his
Using his ill-begotten fortune to bankroll a Negro League juggernaut, Greenlee succeeded in grand style. During the 1930s, the Crawfords’ roster included such baseball luminaries as: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston as well as many others. Again, Judy Johnson was in the middle of everything. Back at the start of his career, Judy had been guided by the wondrous John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, and had teamed with the legendary Louis Santop. As a result of this unlikely combination of interactions, Judy Johnson knew as much about the history of Negro League baseball as any other man.
Yet, when we met for the second time, I found myself being moved by events that had nothing to do with baseball. I had arrived late in the afternoon, and we spoke into the evening hours. At about nine o’clock, Judy’s wife, Anita, decided that it was time for her to retire. At that moment, the devoted couple had been married for nearly sixty years, but their love had not diminished. As Anita Johnson prepared to walk upstairs, she tenderly admonished her aging husband: “Now Judy, don’t you stay up too late. I’ll be waiting for you.” In response, Mr. Johnson smiled back at her as if they were still on their honeymoon. I was there to learn about baseball, but found myself in the middle of a classic love story. It was difficult not to react emotionally.
After regaining my wits, I resumed our baseball chat. Before leaving that night, I posed a direct question: “Mr. Johnson, do you remember the longest home run that you ever saw anybody hit?” He thought for a moment, and then explained that in a post-season barnstorming game at
I confess that I was somewhat surprised. I knew by that time that Judy Johnson was the last person on earth that could be regarded as racist. Yet, I had still expected that his loyalty and devotion to his beloved Negro League heritage would sway his recollection in that direction. I was wrong. Judy then reached into his vast repository of baseball memories, and treated me to the equivalent of a Ph.D. dissertation on the history of tape measure home runs.
For the first time, I was introduced to the luminous personages of George “Mule” Suttles and Norman “
By the early 1950s, Judy had done some scouting for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Then, in 1954, he became the first-ever African-American Major League coach, and traveled with the Philadelphia Phillies to spring training in
In subsequent visits, Judy often picked up the thread of his original Babe Ruth reference. It was quite a revelation. It was obvious that he loved the Bambino, and enjoyed talking about Ruth as both a transcendent player and personality. About the closest I ever saw him to anger was when I mentioned that some Ruthian critics had denigrated the Babe’s performance against Negro League teams. Trying to explain away Ruth’s lofty numbers in such appearances, the nay-sayers argued that black pitchers willingly threw soft pitches to Babe to please the mostly white crowds. Judy Johnson bristled at those assertions.
Although not a formally educated man, Judy responded to questions in cerebral fashion.
He always thought before he answered. Accordingly, Johnson acknowledged that he couldn’t be certain that such a scenario never happened, but he was sure that he hadn’t heard anything about it. In fact, he recalled fellow Negro Leaguers bearing down extra hard to get the better of Ruth. It wasn’t because they didn’t like him, but, rather, because they simply wanted to beat the best. However, also according to Judy, they never had much luck. He said: “We could never seem to get him out no matter what we did.”
Judy Johnson was even more vocal when talking about Babe Ruth’s role in race relations. According to Judy, Babe was instrumental in educating Americans of every color about the legitimacy of Negro League baseball. He recalled the natural and spontaneous manner in which Ruth routinely interacted with African-American players. For the record, Mr. Johnson also credited Jimmie Foxx for his exemplary behavior in this same regard.
In retrospect, I doubt that I would ever have written a book about Babe Ruth if I had not been so profoundly influenced by Judy Johnson. Although he felt kindly toward all his fellow men, Johnson was not easily impressed. During the years that I knew him, he mentioned only three men who he regarded as heroes. They were his father, Pop Lloyd (his early baseball mentor) and Babe Ruth. That really made me think. If this worldly man could unabashedly extol Ruth half a century since he last saw him play, the Babe must have been something extra special. It took me another two decades to fully comprehend what Mr. Johnson had told me, but, in 2007, I published The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs.
This is not to say that Judy Johnson preferred Babe Ruth to other players; he just liked and admired him considerably. I should also make it clear that Judy never said that the Babe was a better hitter than Josh Gibson. He simply stated that Babe had hit the longest homers that he had personally witnessed. Johnson explained that Josh’s homers were often struck at a low trajectory, whereby they sped out of the park like bullets, but tended to lose some linear distance. Judy could talk for hours about Josh Gibson, and it was apparent that he also liked Josh very much.
On the matter of Gibson’s premature death in 1947, Johnson bared his soul by stating unashamedly: “I haven’t gotten over it yet.” He still spoke openly about some of Gibson’s off-the-field problems, but expressed his preference that I not repeat those specific discussions publicly.
These issues are now common knowledge to students of Negro League history, since they have been discussed in various public forums, including a few movies. Yet, I still choose to honor Mr. Johnson’s wishes, and try to avoid talking about that part of Josh’s life. It’s important to mention the topic because it illuminates the purity of Judy Johnson’s heart. Although Josh Gibson had been gone for over thirty-five years at the time, it was apparent that Judy still felt protective toward him.
Even then, when he was an old man chatting in the sanctity of his own home, Johnson was still the team captain. The aura of the care-giver permeated his thoughts, and he didn’t want any harm to befall young Josh. In Judy’s mind, he was the one who induced eighteen-year-old Josh Gibson to venture out of the stands and onto Forbes Field. It didn’t matter how long ago these events happened. Josh still needed to be protected, and, as long as Judy Johnson drew breath, he would protect him.
Sadly, within a few years, Anita Johnson died. Since Judy’s only child, daughter Loretta, had married prominent Major League player, Bill Bruton, she had established roots in another city. As a result, for the last few years of his life, Judy Johnson did not have his family with him on a daily basis. By then, I was making regular trips from
He never complained about being lonely. Fortunately, his neighbors cared about him, and did whatever they could. During a visit in 1988, I noticed that much of Mr. Johnson’s baseball memorabilia was missing. I became concerned, and asked him about it. He casually explained that he was getting “near the end,” and simply wanted to put his affairs in order. Apparently, he was giving his collection of trophies, balls, etc. to neighborhood children. Of course, I understood that older folks often engage in such behavior, and I stopped worrying that someone was taking unfair advantage. Still, it made me sad.
Then, in June 1989, I realized that I had not seen Judy Johnson in a few months, and I vowed to find a way to visit him as soon as possible. But, on June 16, a friend called to ask if I had heard that Mr. Johnson had passed away. I had not. Although not surprised (he was almost ninety), the news hit me like a hard punch in the jaw. Judy Johnson is dead! Selfishly, I thought about how I would never again sit on his porch, and listen to him speak about his glorious memories. A light had gone out.
Of course, I quickly realized that my loss was nothing compared to that of his family and closest friends. Thinking about it, I was just happy that I had experienced the opportunity to know this extraordinary man. And, most importantly, I smiled at the thought that Anita could stop waiting for him at the top of the stairs.
Baseball Historian (Copyright-2010)
On September 7, 1985, I drove from my home near Philadelphia to Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium to interview Reggie Jackson. The game that night between the Orioles and Reggie’s California Angels was scheduled to start at 7:35 PM. Since the Angels’ Media Relations staff, who had arranged the interview, had recommended that I arrive early, I had allowed extra travel time.
Specifically, they had suggested that I be available by 4 PM, since Jackson might enter the clubhouse as early as that. Of course, you can never be sure about traffic issues, and I wound up walking across the sweltering parking lot before 3 PM. After picking up my credentials, I proceeded to the visitors’ clubhouse, but was told by the amused attendant that Reggie was not expected for a couple of hours.
Fortunately, there was plenty to do in the interim. Just down the road to the south, the Penn State Nittany Lions football team was taking on the highly ranked Maryland Terrapins at College Park. Seemingly, every sports fan in the state of Maryland was interested, and there were televisions and radios tuned on around the ballpark. Since I was a guest of the “Old Line State,” I tried not to show my natural sentiments as a native Pennsylvanian. When that game ended with a narrow Penn State victory shortly past three o’clock, I wandered out to the field where I was treated to even better entertainment.
Situated just in front of the pitcher’s mound was Cal Ripken, Sr., who was pitching batting practice to his son Cal Ripken, Jr. Other than that famous father and son combo, along with myself, there were only two other souls in the entire stadium enclosure. They were two young men shagging balls in the outfield. A description of what I observed will be found in a separate article, but it was good stuff for any baseball fan.
At four o’clock, I headed back to the visitors’ clubhouse where I waited for Reggie Jackson to arrive. Back in 1976, Reggie had spent the season as an Oriole, and still had lots of friends in Baltimore. It turned out that he bumped into Oriole pitching legend, Jim Palmer, and the two old teammates decided to reminisce. As a result, Jackson didn’t arrive in the clubhouse until close to six o’clock. The Orioles’ starting pitcher that night was lefty Scott McGregor, and Reggie already knew that he was not scheduled to start. Plus, that late in the season, many veterans simply skip batting practice. Accordingly, Jackson had no need for an early clubhouse entrance.
When he finally arrived, Reggie Jackson was refreshingly cordial and polite. He apologized for making me wait so long, and, when reminded that the interview was about long distance hitting, Reggie was unabashedly enthusiastic. Many of my interviews involved men who were superficially courteous, but not necessarily energized by the prospect of a conversation with yet another stranger wanting something from them. That was not the case with Jackson.
I explained to Reggie that I had been researching the history of “tape measure home runs” for six years, and that I was in the process of making historical rankings. He couldn’t have been more interested. We talked while he dressed, and Jackson became as much an interviewer as an interviewee. I was pleased to learn that Reggie Jackson was a student of baseball history, which is certainly not the norm with modern players. When he found out that I could provide him with reliable insights into the batting strength of all the game’s great sluggers, he became totally immersed in the discussion.
It was also fun to observe that Reggie offered a balanced approach to the topic. He spent about half the time talking about his own accomplishments and about half describing his observations of the other powerful batsmen of his era. I was particularly intrigued by his perception of how a few select men had the capacity to “shrink the field.” When he first mentioned that concept, he asked me if I knew what he meant. I said that I thought so, but requested that he elaborate. Jackson then said: “There are a few guys who, when they step up to the plate, create the impression that the field just shrunk. You know: that the ballpark just seemed too small for them.”
Without the need for me to ask, Reggie then named names. He specifically cited Mickey Mantle and Dick Allen as the guys who first came into his mind. I was particularly impressed with Mantle’s inclusion since Mickey was in his final season during Jackson’s rookie year. Nonetheless, the great Yankee Bomber emphatically made it onto Reggie Jackson’s top rung on the long distance ladder. I should also note that I met Reggie a few years later at an event at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. On that occasion, Jackson added Mark McGwire to his list.
When talking about his personal longest blasts, there were few surprises. Reggie predictably started with his legendary 1971 All-Star homer of Doc Ellis in Detroit. That was the drive that he pounded off the light tower transformer atop the grandstand roof in right centerfield. He then continued by naming his two leviathan shots to the tops of the respective scoreboards in right centerfield at Minnesota and Kansas City. Those blasts both occurred in 1969. Jackson also cited a center field homer in Oakland that he had authored off Nolan Ryan. I had known about each of the other blasts at the time of the interview, but needed a few years of further study to eventually identify the Ryan incident as occurring on June 23, 1972.
All this was gratifying, but I most enjoyed Reggie’s remarkable interest in the guys from the past, players whom he had never even seen. He wanted to know if I had authenticated Ted Williams’ epic “red seat” home run in 1946 at Boston’s Fenway Park. As a career American Leaguer, Jackson had logged a lot of at-bats at Fenway, and was well aware of the famous seat situated in the 37th row of the faraway bleachers in right center. I explained to Reggie that, according to my research, the ball had landed anywhere between the 33rd or 37th row in the section traditionally recognized as the landing point.
Listening intently to my account, Jackson just widened his eyes and shook his head from side to side upon absorbing the information. When I asked him to describe the farthest spot to which he had ever powered a ball in that direction, including batting practice, Reggie pondered the issue before responding. Without a hint of reluctance or envy, he stated: “about twenty or twenty five rows up.” I recall thinking to myself that Reggie Jackson had genuinely evolved. He was secure enough in his own accomplishments to be able to tip his hat to a fellow competitor. I gave him the courtesy to further explain that Ted had enjoyed the benefit of a strong tailwind on the day that he had visited the upper rows of those bleachers. I suggested that, perhaps, he could also have reached beyond the 30th row if he had the same extra boost from Mother Nature. He just shrugged his shoulders and said: “Maybe.”
That’s when a new dimension was added to the discourse. I told Reggie that, back in 1926, Babe Ruth had rocketed a ball into the 44th or 45th row of the original wooden bleachers. Amplification seemed appropriate. I then explained that the pre-1934 bleachers were slightly narrower than their successors, but that the risers might actually be a little higher. In other words, although I couldn’t be certain, it seemed likely that Babe’s 44th row shot was even a little longer than Ted’s 37th row blast. That did it; Reggie was all in.
Of course, Reggie Jackson had heard the legends pertaining to Babe Ruth, but Jackson is a smart guy and he was understandably skeptical. I tried to select another example of Ruthian prowess with which Reggie could readily relate. So, I mentioned Babe’s extraordinary 1927 drive that flew completely over the right field grandstand roof at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. Since Comiskey was one of the few stadiums to span the decades between Ruth and Jackson, Reggie instantly understood the magnitude of Babe’s shot. He wanted more, and so we talked.
Eventually, Jackson drew the line, and stated that, starting or not, he still had to prepare for the ball game. He invited me to accompany him into the dugout where I waited until he finished warming up on the field. During the subsequent moments that became available, I managed to squeeze in some tidbits about Jimmie Foxx, Josh Gibson and a few other historically strong hitters. Reggie was still anxious to hear more, and suggested that we continue the conversation after the game. Reluctantly, I explained that I had a family commitment back in Philadelphia which necessitated my departure. He was gracious and understanding, whereupon he returned to the field.
At that moment, I noticed that Angels’ manager Gene Mauch was staring at me. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t look happy. Just then, I looked at my watch, and noticed that it was close to 7:15 PM. I then glanced over to the large sign on the dugout wall that clearly proclaimed that all media types (including historians) must vacate the field area within thirty minutes of game time. Feeling lucky that Mauch hadn’t rebuked me for my inadvertent transgression, I simply waved to Jackson and hustled up the runway.
On the drive home, I thought about what had transpired. I never wanted to make more out of my brief interactions than was warranted. I understood that it was relatively easy for players to be nice to me under such benign conditions. Essentially, I was with them to celebrate a particular skill that they possessed; I rarely had to ask difficult or confrontational questions. It was possible that a player could manipulate me for a short time for their own purposes. Yet, it seemed unfair and unnecessarily cynical to simply dismiss all good behavior to selfish motivation. My best judgment was that Reggie Jackson was a more interesting individual than I had previously thought. I already knew that he was smart, so his intelligence was not a surprise. But, his intellectual curiosity was a revelation. I believe that he asked me more questions than I had asked him. Yes, Reggie Jackson exuded intensity and self awareness, but there was also warmth and vulnerability. It had been a good interview.
In the summer of 1964, I had my first encounter with Reggie Jackson, but it was never mentioned during our 1985 interview. At the time, I was a seventeen-year-old member of the Upper Moreland American Legion baseball team, and Reggie, one year older and significantly better known, played for Cheltenham. Although not normally an outfielder, I was assigned to play center field that night at Toocany Creek Park, Jackson’s home turf in Cheltenham. The field had the quirky distinction of being bordered around the outfield by Toocany Creek Parkway. There were no fences, just the aforementioned roadway, roughly forming a quarter-circle perimeter around the outfield.
As a result, each time that Jackson batted that evening, I was positioned with my back nearly to the street in deep right centerfield. It would be pleasing to report that Reggie sent me running across the road with a tremendous clout, but it didn’t happen that way. He did just fine: cracking a line drive and two hard ground balls in four appearances, but his vast power was manifested differently.
Jackson played first base that night, and, on one of my at-bats, I sliced a ground ball to his right side. For whatever reason, the pitcher failed to cover first base, which meant that I had to race Reggie to the bag. Jackson had starred at Cheltenham High School as both a football and baseball star, and was headed to Arizona State University on a full scholarship. Even then, he possessed a powerful, muscular physique. So, when we arrived at first base at the same instant, and collided violently, I absorbed one of the toughest hits of my athletic life. I played a little football myself, and I can tell you that nobody ever hit me harder.
We both lay on the ground for a few moments, but, fortunately, neither of us was injured. Upon standing up, Reggie asked: “Are you all right man?” I assured him that I was okay, and inquired about his status. He just smiled, and said: “I’m fine.” With that, he jogged back to his position. It wasn’t a big deal, but, when Jackson later became nationally known as a great power athlete, I sometimes thought about the wallop he possessed as a teenager.
Baseball Historian (Copyright, 2010)
Although baseball had always been an important part of my life, I did not begin to actively function as a baseball historian until 1979. I was always particularly interested in "tape measure" home runs, and, when I discovered that no one had ever performed a definitive study on that topic, I decided to take a crack at it. For the first few years, I contented myself with pure research. But, by 1983, it was time to seek some interviews.
I was fortunate in that regard. Both Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were working for Atlantic City casinos at the time, and were getting paid to talk to guys like me. Since I lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, the hour-and-half drive to the Jersey Shore was easy and affordable. Sure enough, when I asked, I was told in both cases to come on down…to the Claridge for Mickey and to Bally’s for Willie. Both interviews turned out fine, and I will discuss the specifics in separate articles. However, although greatly honored to have met such legends, I knew that I had been lucky in obtaining access through such unusual and benign circumstances. I still needed to prove myself.
That is when I called the Pittsburgh Pirates, and asked for an interview with retired long-distance slugger Willie Stargell. I was honest. I told them that I was doing a definitive study on the history of tape measure home runs, and that I had recently interviewed Mickey Mantle and Willlie Mays. They responded that they would contact Willie, and let me know if he were interested. I was somewhat surprised when Stargell called himself, and asked when I wanted to do the interview. When I told him that I was ready to travel to Pittsburgh at his convenience, it was agreed that we would meet for lunch at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh on November 3, 1983.
I made the five hour drive west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and was inside the lobby by the appointed hour of twelve noon. I saw Stargell pull up to the front curb, and wondered why he stopped his car in a "tow away" zone in the highly regulated Golden Triangle area. I then watched Willie politely say hello to a police officer who casually assured him that he (the policeman) would be pleased to keep an eye on Stargell’s "wheels." I knew right away that Willie Stargell was still a big man in Pittsburgh.
We proceeded inside to a cozy restaurant off the lobby. Willie ordered lobster bisque and a turkey pita sandwich, and, on his recommendation, I asked for the same. Within seconds, I was explaining the nature of my work, and he immediately seemed genuinely interested. At first, he just listened, but within a few minutes, Stargell began offering his personal insights. That was good, since that’s why I had just driven three-hundred miles. The day evolved into one of my favorite experiences as a baseball historian.
Willie Stargell turned out to be an especially gracious and appealing individual. His sense of duty and responsibility was instantly apparent. Willie quickly assumed the role of host, recognizing my effort to meet with him on his home turf. He insisted on paying for lunch, and made several references about his desire for me to enjoy my visit to "our city." It was obvious that he loved the Pittsburgh community as much as the city loved him.
Stargell felt fortunate to have made his living playing a sport that he loved, and was also grateful to have played his entire career for a single franchise, especially one (the Pittsburgh Pirates) who had treated him with such respect. Few athletes have such an opportunity. When he said that he felt obligated to "give back," he meant it. I was a total stranger, someone who wanted something from him. Yet, he consistently manifested a sense of responsibility to my work as an historian.
Willie meticulously recounted his personal long distance resume, starting with his Minor League days. He even spoke about some of the overt racism that he had experienced during his time in Texas as a nineteen-year-old novice in the so-called Sophomore League. I recall sensing that Willie exhibited no discernable bitterness about those repugnant episodes. He refused to think of himself as a victim, and seemingly became more determined to succeed. The more he spoke, the more my admiration increased.
When we arrived at his time in Ashville, North Carolina, Stargell was able to relax completely. Apparently, he enjoyed that 1961 season in the South Atlantic League where he was initially nicknamed "On the Hill Will." At Asheville’s historic McCormick Field, there was a steep hill that overlooked the right field fence. Willie earned his moniker by bashing a few towering home runs onto that high slope. Then, when he launched a few completely over that green-covered gradient, Stargell was renamed "Over the Hill Will."
Willie instinctively recounted his tape measure history in chronological order, moving next to the first half of his Major League career when Pittsburgh’s cavernous Forbes Field served as his home park. He made specific reference to his seven drives atop the towering right field grandstand roof along with his epic shot over the distant center field wall in 1967. Despite the short right field dimensions, the rest of the home run boundaries at Forbes were prohibitively lengthy. Stargell was emphatic in stating that, when the Pirates moved into new Three Rivers Stadium in 1970, he had it much easier hitting home runs. His career statistics confirmed his assertion. At Three Rivers, Willie was especially proud of his four blows to the right field upper deck.
Yet, ‘Pops" wasn’t even close to finishing his dissertation on long-distance hitting. When he completed his personal story, Stargell focused on the other players who had particularly impressed him. The guy who stood out the most was Dick Allen. Willie identified Allen’s 1969 blast over the Coca Cola sign atop the left centerfield grandstand roof at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium as the mightiest that he had ever witnessed. Since I had already completed a career home run log for Allen, I knew the one he meant.
Stargell was still astonished that Allen had been able to drive the ball so far "against a strong wind coming straight in from left field." Continuing his analysis of Dick Allen’s power, Willie made an observation that I had never heard before and have not heard since. Stargell recalled playing left field the first time that he competed against Allen, and acknowledged that he had already heard stories of Dick’s remarkable batting strength. Yet, when Dick lined an apparently routine single into short left field, Willie had a surprising experience. According to Stargell, Allen’s single "hummed and whizzed" as it skipped along the outfield grass in his direction.
All those years later, while sitting in the booth of a crowded restaurant, Stargell spontaneously replicated the sound as other diners turned and looked at him. He finished his description by looking at me and saying: "Honestly, that’s what it sounded like. Nobody else ever hit a ball at me like that." Having watched Dick Allen play for many seasons with my hometown Phillies, I assured Willie that I believed him.
By then, it was close to two o’clock, and I was already satisfied with the outcome of my trip. I had no way of knowing that the best was yet to be. As he paid the check and thanked our waitress, Willie asked me if I had any interest in riding with him across the Allegheny River to Three Rivers Stadium. He thought that I might enjoy a personal tour of the places where some of his longest homers had landed. Although thrilled at the prospect, I managed to limit my response to a merely polite affirmation.
The same police patrolman was still on duty, and Stargell made a special effort to thank him for watching over his illegally parked car. While keeping an eye on the passing traffic, the man simply smiled and said: "Anytime Willie." We then drove over the bridge to the nearby stadium where Stargell continued to work his magic with another security representative. Upon hearing Willie’s brief explanation for our unscheduled visit, the guard escorted us to a parking space, and suggested an unlocked entrance.
Pops headed straight for the right field upper deck, and, after a few minutes, we walked through an exit into the open air of the deserted ballpark. Stargell located the fourth row where his 1973 moon shot off Gary Gentry had landed. He then ventured to the front of the upper deck, and explained that his 1970 blast off Ron Taylor, although ricocheting of the façade, was struck on a line drive trajectory. Accordingly, Willie believed that the façade shot eclipsed the fourth row, upper-decker for distance. I agreed.
We then sat in the first row where Stargell pointed toward the elevated center field seats. Willie recalled pounding a few of his "better shots" into that remote area. He then fell silent for a few minutes, and was seemingly content to reflect back upon his glory days as a Hall of Fame slugger. Frankly, I could have sat there for hours, but, when I acknowledged that I had no further questions, Stargell suggested that we should "get moving" in view of the impending rush hour traffic.
He drove me back across the river, and dropped me off at the garage where mere historians were required to park. Thanking me for making such an effort to discuss his career and inviting me to call him with any follow-up questions, Willie drove away. My sense of indebtedness was immediate. He had made me feel confident in my ability to interact with anybody regardless of their fame or stature. After spending that afternoon with Willie Stargell, I went on to interview Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and just about every great slugger who was still living in the late 20th Century. Without Willie Stargell's kindness, much of that might never have happened.
Baseball Historian (Copyright-2010)