SMITH COLUMN: Boys of Summer

Published 9:00 am Thursday, July 7, 2022

Years ago, I enjoyed a nice summer outing in Kansas City working with Tom Watson and his charity golf outing, which raised big dollars for the Children’s Mercy Hospital, a very popular cause in his vibrant community.

For several summers, I would take side trips, after the golf assignment, to spend time with accomplished baseball ole timers in the Midwest.  Mickey Owen, famous for dropping a third strike in the 1941 World Series, lived in his hometown of Springfield and was sheriff of Greene County.  A hundred miles Southeast of Springfield was the town of West Plains where the Dodgers’ crafty left-handed pitcher, Preacher Roe, ran a grocery store.

You could fly into St. Louis and drive 165 miles west to Kansas City, which I did a couple of times which allowed for a visit with Bud Wilkinson whose last coaching stop was with the St. Louis football Cardinals.  Enterprise and a mutual friend brought about a long lunch with Cardinal great Stan Musial.

Joining us for lunch was a minor league owner of favorable repute, who then owned the Cardinals’ minor league team in Springfield, Illinois.  When he found out that my mission was to connect with accomplished ole timers, he said, “Why don’t you come to Springfield and let me introduce you to Satchel Paige, who is one of my coaches?”

On my next trip to Kansas City, I flew to Springfield, Illinois, visited Abraham Lincoln’s tomb and spent the next day with Satchel whose relaxed and unhurried pontifications were unforgettable.  I still have that tape recorded interview.

Taking side trips has always been my modus operandi which has allowed for introductions and interview opportunities that have been fun and illuminating.  I’m still at it, but people, especially more recent sports heroes, are reluctant to talk about their day in the sun.  Not so with the aforementioned.

Those sojourns of the past were relaxed and accompanied by pieces of Americana which still exist even amid unsettled times of fears about nuclear war and mass shootings.

Those ole timers were not set for life when they retired from the games they played.  The pension fund, which now showers big bucks on retirees with longevity—even those with weak batting statistics and high earned run averages, had not been established.   

Still, they made more money than the average Joe and many managed their money well enough to enjoy extra benefits for them and their families.

The saga of Mickey Owen was that his team, the Dodgers, were leading the Yankees at Ebbets Field, 4-3 with the Yankees succumbing to the fastballs and a curve ball that broke as much as six inches from Georgian Hugh Casey.

With two outs in the top of the 9th inning, Casey came with his patented curve ball, the big one that dived off the table.  The batter was Tommy Henrich who missed the pitch “by a foot” but it bounced off the mitt of Owen, and broke open the game as the Yankees rallied to win 7-4 and took a 3-1 lead in the 1941 World Series which they won.

Never has there been a bigger goat in the fall classic, but Owen was never reluctant to talk about the incident and found a way to offer a few wisecracks about his memorable mishap.  After all, it is a game.

Preacher Roe’s time with the Dodgers in the late forties and early fifties were good times for Brooklyn.  He played in three World Series and posted a 2-1 record.  He spent more than an hour talking about the spitball which he was always accused of throwing.  “Preach,” as he was often called, felt that the spitter should be legalized.  He said of his teammate, Jackie Robinson, “he could beat you more ways than any man I have ever seen.”   He was a great admirer of Robinson.

Musial, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, began his career as a pitcher in Donora, Penn.  He fell on his shoulder one day and the resulting injury ended his pitching career.   “That was my big break,” he laughed.  In his development as a hitter, hitting to the opposite field enhanced his career, he said. How did that come about?  He explained that when he was a teenager, the ball field had a short right field fence. If you hit the ball over the fence, it took a long time to retrieve it, so the left-handed players practiced and played gamers by hitting the ball to left field.

Satchel Paige reminisced at length about his baseball career.  He talked about life, also—much kinder to its vicissitudes than they were to him.   He regretted that his Big-League opportunity came late in life but was not bitter.  In fact, he said that if he had a chance to relive his life, he would not hesitate to enjoy the journey a second time around.  “It was just too much fun,” he said. There is a beatitude in there somewhere for this colorful character.