Readers of this site know I am a huge baseball fan. Now that Spring Training has officially begun, and the exhibition games will thus begin in a matter of days, spring is truly near. For people in the Midwest this really gives us hope after a long and brutal winter this year. Something happens in me this time each year that brings back the past and renews hope about the future. It reminds me of my mom and dad, who both loved baseball, and of the bonds of love we shared as a family, which included this game. The sound of the bat hitting the ball is magic to the real fan. To others it is just a slow and boring game. (You do not know what you are missing!)
I am sometimes asked, "How did you get hooked on baseball?" The answer is simple really. The 1950s were simpler time with less to compete with for a kid’s interest and time. I loved to pitch and catch with my dad. I loved to watch the Nashville Vols play in the old Southern League as much as my dad would take me. When the Yankees made the World Series in 1957 it was nothing to celebrate in my young life. The Yanks won almost every year. I was not a Yankees fan, that much I knew. (I think my rooting for underdogs goes way back into my psyche!) And the Yankees had fans everywhere it seemed, even in the South. I began to follow the game that summer and eventually took a real liking to the Milwaukee Braves, who won the pennant in the National League for the first time in their new Wisconsin home. (They had been in Boston since the 19th century until they moved in 1953.) All of baseball was talking about these Braves stars and their chances by October.
Led by their young hitting star Hank Aaron the Braves were formidable. The great Henry Aaron later wrote of himself:"When I was in a ballpark, I felt . . . like I was surrounded by angels and I had God’s hand on my shoulder." Born February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, Aaron was only six feet tall and weighed a mere 190 pounds. He was a right-handed hitter who first learned to bat in the wrong way, cross-handed. (Which means he gripped the bat in the wrong way.)
Aaron eventually became one of the greatest players of all-time, a real legend. That summer he won the MVP Award in the NL. He still holds major league records for the most home runs with one club (Braves, 733), RBIs (2,297), total bases (6,856), most games played (3,298) and many others. He was a tower of consistency and did it all legally, hitting 20 or more home runs for 20 consecutive seasons (1955-1974). He was, amazingly, named to 24 All Star games, he also won three Gold Glove awards, 1958, 1959, 1960. On the first ballot he was named to Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1982. His record of 755 home runs would still stand if one Barry Bonds had not had an advantage that is now at the center of a controversy. (I believe the Bond’s record will fall in the next two decades, first to Alex Rodriguez if he stays healthy, and then who knows who breaks it once again.) The longer you watch this great game the more you have to love Hank Aaron. He played the game the right way and endured incredible racial abuse in the process. He was, and still is at age 74, a class act! I count it a real joy to have met him on several occasions.
Then in 1957 there was Warren Spahn, the greatest left handed pitcher in the game’s history. Spahn was amazing. He kept winning past age 40 and without any steroids to help him. Spahn died in 2003, at the age of 82. He was a hero to me as well. When I met him as a kid of 14 it was on an elevator in a Cincinnati hotel. I was so stunned I couldn’t speak. My mom said, "Don’t you want to talk to him?" I am sure glad she bailed me out. He signed everything I had. What a gentleman but what a fierce competitor.
My favorite hitter on that team was Eddie Mathews. The left-handed batter was a great power hitter. With Mathews and Aaron in the middle of that lineup the Braves were tough to hold scoreless. I also met Mathews in 1963 and sat and talked to him in the hotel. In those days people did not hold up in hotels looking for autographs so it was pretty free and easy.
I sat in the lobby and carried on conversations with many Braves players. I still recall Joe Adcock saying, "Hey kid, why does it take longer to go fro second to third than from first to second?" I said, "Beats me Mr. Adcock." He answered, "Because there is a shortstop between second and third." Those were the days. There were no scandals and very few big shots like today. These guys had fun, loved the game and talked to kids.
In 1957 the star of stars on the Braves was Lew Burdette, who died last February at age 80. Burdette did something almost unheard of by winning three games in one World Series, thus becoming the
MVP and leading the Braves to a 4-3 series win over the vaunted Yanks! I was hooked. I loved the game from then on. Still do, controversies and all. In a few weeks I will be at Spring Training again and start all over. Now my daughter and her husband share the fun too. (Stacy and Jason gave me a DVD of the 1957 World Series for a Christmas present. It is a hoot to enjoy it and go back down memory lane now and then.) Even my son, who did not grow up a fan, has taken more interest as he has gotten older.
One of my first dates with Anita was to a baseball game just to make sure she could handle my passion. She could, though my yelling at the television still makes her think the neighbors might think that I am yelling at her when I say things like, "Get out of here you bum!" (When the windows are open I try to be more restrained.)
For all of you real fans a great source for baseball information online is at Baseball Almanac. Check it out. You will enjoy all the resources you find there.
I remain a Braves fan to this day so last year celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Milwaukee Braves wining it all. I even bought a poster in Wisconsin for the celebration. (They came so close again in 1958 but blew a 3-2 games lead and lost two straight to the Yankees to fall short.)
Then in 1959 they blew the pennant to the Dodgers on the last day of the season. It was a good run and it made me a lifetime Braves fan. This is why 1995 was so sweet with David Justice and the Braves. And this is why I am glad to see Tom Glavine back in Atlanta where he ought to finish his Hall of Fame career. The Braves will have two Hall of Fame pitchers this year: Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Then there is a real chance Chipper Jones might make it as well, if he stays healthy for four or more seasons and is really productive. Throw in a few young guys (Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer) who have amazing potential and who knows? I will always be a Braves fan. Now you know why. I am loyal to my friends and my teams. It is just a part of who I am as a person. This greatest of all games became a part of my life early on and now you know why I love it.
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Great post, John. I grew up with the Giants and “Swinging A’s”. The A’s won those 3 world titles in the early 70’s. What a great way to raise a kid. My favorite was Willie McCovey. It must have been awesome to follow Aaron, Matthews and Spahn. I visited County Stadium back in the 80’s and I could feel their ghosts still haunting the place.
Of course, my Giants and your Braves are no strangers to pennant races with each other. I’ll probably be a Giants fan for life, unless they move to Buffalo or something.
I remember watching the Asheville Tourists play back in the 60s. I’ve always enjoyed minor league ball more than the majors, because you’re closer to the action and it just seems more real to me.
Ahhh, John. Thanks for the Tommy Lasorda autographed baseball from last year’s spring training game! I should send you with some baseballs this year and we can save some money!
And the Dodgers went on in ’59 to beat the White Sox for their first World Series title in LA!
By the way, do you know how many World Series titles the Giants have since they moved to SF? Hold up both hands and put up all your fingers…now take all your fingers down and close your hands. Right! Zero! The curse of Juan Marichal for beating Johnny Roseboro over the head with his bat!
I’ll never forget sitting in my den in Bolingbrook watching the Dodgers and Braves on cable! Thanks for that!
Dave, you would have to remind us about the Giants number of titles. Ouch. The Giants won their last in ’54 and the Dodgers their first the very next year in ’55. The Giants have had the greatest group of sluggers in baseball since then (Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Clark, Mitchell, Williams, Bonds), while the Dodgers have had the best pitching (Koufax, Drysdale, Sutton, Valenzuela, Hershiser, etc.). I guess great pitching really does beat great hitting. I wish the Giants would realize that.
Steve, You might very well be the best Giants fan I have ever met! My favorite cousin is a Giants fan and he can’t even discuss Giants/Dodgers history without completely going off on me! He even thinks Bonds didn’t use steroids! But I have a confession to make…and this might make Armstrong mad at me…but my favorite player of all time is Willie Mays and I think he was the greatest all around baseball player of all time! Yes, better than Aaron.