What do you remember from your childhood? Is there one memory that stands out more than others? Almost all of my childhood memories, now 50 to 60 years later, involve baseball.
Growing up, my favorite major league baseball team was the New York Yankees. Don’t hate on me too much. The local team was the Kansas City Athletics and they were a collection of little known ball players.
Their volatile owner, Charlie Finley, seemed like he couldn’t stand prosperity. It seemed like every time he had a promising player, he would trade that player to the New York Yankees. It was a joke around the major leagues that the A’s was just a farm team of the mighty Yankees.
My heroes were Yogi Berra, the Yankee catcher, Roger Maris, the record setting home run hitter, Whitey Ford, the greatest World Series pitcher that ever lived and Mickey Mantle.
Mantle was special. He was what today we call a five tool player. Mickey could hit for power and hit for average. He could run the bases with the fastest of base stealers. His speed allowed him to be a great center fielder and his throwing arm was seldom tested by the opposition.
Mickey had the innocent face of the Oklahoma boy. He was indeed from Oklahoma, growing up poor in Spavinaw, Oklahoma. Spavinaw is near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. He wore number seven and I demanded to have the same number on my t-shirt jersey.
For a couple of years, Dad would pile my brother Roger and I in a car and off to Kansas City we would go. That car trip was an experience. The interstates hadn’t crossed Nebraska back then, even though President Eisenhower signed a bill that allowed the money for the National Interstate and Defense Highways to be built in 1956.
I’m not sure how long it took us to travel from Southeast Nebraska to Kansas City but it seemed like a journey, not a day trip. We would leave in the early morning with the car windows down. The old Ford didn’t have air conditioning except for the natural wind streaming through the windows.
We would stop for breakfast along the way somewhere in a diner near the Nebraska-Missouri border, probably on Highway 77. About the time the Municipal Stadium gates would open, we would be parking our car in a gas station near the stadium.
The owner of the station was an Army friend of Dad’s. Both had been in the Philippines in World War II. Dad’s Army buddy was black. I had never met a black man in person. I didn’t even know Dad had an Army buddy. It cost us $1 to park at the gas station.
The Athletics would take batting practice first, but hardly anyone paid much attention. That changed when the mighty Yankees came walking out of their locker room to take their practice hacks. I was along the fence begging for autographs. It’s hard to remember who stopped to sign my program, but I am sure Yogi put down his signature.
I remember watching Mickey taking his batting practice. He started with a couple of bunts. It looked like he didn’t take bunting seriously, but each bunt hugged the baseline, perfectly placed.
Mickey was smiling and laughing before stepping to the plate. It seemed so effortless, his swing smooth as silk as the batting practice pitcher threw one meat ball after another. The ball seemed to explode off his bat.
Mickey’s swing looked identical right or left handed. You see, he was a switch hitter. Anyone watching batting practice in the outfield stands was rewarded with baseballs that were smashed over the fence by the great Mantle.
I was sure the Yankees farm club from Kansas City would be crushed by the impressive group of all stars from New York City. I was very wrong. Here is where my memory is absolutely sure it is accurate. I couldn’t make up the downer that followed for me or any Yankee fan.
Bill Fischer was the pitcher for the lowly Athletics. In his entire career, he would win only 45 games. One of those wins for the 6-0 right hander was the afternoon I was sitting in the stands.
Fischer was in control for most of the day. I’m not sure the exact score, but not many runs were scored. I do know the score was tied in the late innings and Fischer was the scheduled batter. The go-ahead run stood at third base with one out.
Kansas City’s manager, Hank Bauer, sent Gino Cimoli to pinch hit for Fischer. There was a low tech message board back then. It announced that Cimoli led the American League in triples. His 15 triples for the season was a league best.
I saw those stats and was very worried that his speed and power would doom my Yankees. If only the Yankee pitcher could keep the ball in the infield. That’s when I learned my first real piece of baseball strategy.
With Clete Boyer, the Yankee third baseman, guarding the line and playing in for the play at the plate, Bauer counted on Cimoli to lay down the perfect bunt. Not only was it a bunt, but it was a suicide squeeze bunt.
The runner at third took off for home as soon as the Yankee pitcher started his motion home. Yet, the Yankees looked ready for the squeeze. However, Cimoli executed the sqeeze play to perfection. Cimoli was thrown out at first but the go-ahead run had crossed the plate and the A’s had taken the lead.
Despite all their fire-power, the Yankees couldn’t muster any offense against the Athletic’s reliever. As we left the ball park, I was stunned that the farm club had beaten the terrifying team from New York. Dad said something that I must have repeated a thousand times over the years, “That’s just baseball.” I’ll never forget it.