Author Bill Palmer’s Reflections on the Game of Baseball

This is my first article for Baseball Reflections and I’m very happy to be here.

What a great name for the site.

It got me thinking about my personal baseball reflections.

I’ve always thought memories are a lot like reflections, especially when it comes to baseball memories. Sometimes, but not often enough, the memory is like a reflection in a modern-high tech bathroom mirror. Crisp and clear enough to count your nose hairs.

Other memories are way out of whack. Like those distorted surreal images you see reflected in those old-school amusement park funhouse mirrors.

A lot of my baseball memories from my childhood fall into a third category. These are more like the cloudy, out-of-focus reflections you see when you look into one of those greasy metal mirrors you might find in a gas station men’s room mirror in a bad neighborhood.

It gets even trickier when the reflection is coming off a rearview mirror.

Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about:

There was the time I saw the great Enos Slaughter when he played for Yankees hit a ball so hard it splintered a seat in Comiskey Park’s left field bleachers.  Slaughter’s ninth inning home run broke a 1-1 tie and the White Sox lost a heartbreaker 2-1.  I’ve probably told variations of this story hundreds of times. Like any time I sit in the leftfield bleachers at any park.  Or any time a player hits a shot that gets out of the yard on the line and in a hurry, you can count on me to say something like, “Yeah, but me and my dad and uncle once saw Enos Slaughter hit a ball so hard…” I’ve even done that at Little League games; once when my own son drilled one out on the line and down the line that went over the fence 180 feet away and busted up some sunflowers.  My brother-in-law said something like, “Wow, he really hit the snot out of that one and I started the Enos Slaughter story. But did the Slaughter shot really splinter a seat or is this one of those gas station or funhouse mirror memories?

There’s also the story I tell every time I see a guy pitch a great game. This one is about the time me and my dad saw Billy Pierce of the White Sox shut out the Red Sox 4-0 and strike out Ted Williams four times. Again, I’ve told this story at games I’ve attended at all levels with the exception of tee-ball games where there wasn’t any pitching to get me started.  But did little Billy really strike out the great Williams four times on the same night? It seems hard to believe when I really think about it. But that’s the reflection I have burnt onto my brain.

Other memories and stories go beyond single moments and single games. Like the story I tell based on my belief that I personally started or at least was there at the beginning of the Chicago Cubs‘ epic 1969 collapse.  I tell the story of how I went to my first-ever Cub game not as a Cub fan but more to see for myself what the hell was going on. The Cubs had a commanding lead and the Mets were in town so I go to the game and Bill Hands pitches a nice game for the Cubs but nothing much else happens and the Cubs lose 1-0. The Mets go on to sweep the series then go on a tear, catch the Cubs and eventually finish eight games ahead of them and win the World Series.

As often as I’ve told these tales, no one has ever questioned their veracity. Maybe this is because I’ve polished them over the years but more likely because I think the best baseball stories can take on mythological proportions.  That is, if they could have happened and ring a bit true who cares if they aren’t 100 percent verifiable or accurate? I mean, does it really matter whether or not Babe Ruth actually called his shot in the 1932 Series at Wrigley Field?

But I’m a curious guy so I decided to put my reflections to the test.

I started by checking out my Cubs collapse story.  I found the season schedule and box score of the game I was looking for online courtesy of Baseball Almanac.  It was played July 14, 1969 and the score was as I remembered it, 1-0.  I was also right about nothing much happening; only one extra base hit. And Bill Hands did pitch a nice game: 8 2/3 innings allowing only 6 hits.

But I had a couple of things wrong. It was the Cubs that won, not the Mets. And even though the Cubs did drop the next two games, the schedule reveals that that series really wasn’t the beginning of the Cubs’ catastrophic collapse.

Actually, the Cubs extended their lead after July 14.  By August 16, they were 75-44, up by a season-high nine games over the Mets. By September 2, they were 84-52 but their lead over the Mets had fallen to five games. It was from there that the Mets went on a tear, going 23-7 to finish the season while the Cubs lost 17 of their last 25 games.

So how did this reflection get so distorted? I think it was guilt.

See if you were born Catholic in the South Side neighborhood when and where I was, you were baptized a White Sox fan. You were taught to hate the Yankees. But you were allowed to talk about the Yankees as in “Damn Yankees,” or “I hate the$*&^#% Yankees.”  But you were not allowed to discuss the Cubs. Better to talk about cannibalism at the dinner table or get caught telling fart jokes in church than get caught talking about the Cubs. I think the reasoning was that talking about the Cubs would be like acknowledging the Cubs were a Major League team when in fact the only Major League team in Chicago was the White Sox.

So that morning when my mom asked me what I had planned for the day and I told her I was going to check out the Cubs, she was beyond horrified.  It didn’t matter to her that I was a week away from my 21st birthday, a few months away from an Army discharge, and had been to Vietnam and Hong Kong and all over the southern states.  To her knowledge, her little boy had never been to the “other side” of town.  (Not exactly true. I had made several clandestine trips to the Riverview – the notorious north side amusement park before it closed in 1967.) She wasn’t afraid for my life or anything but afraid of what the neighbors would think should any of them ever find out.  I also think me being 20 made my plan even more heartbreaking for her. I mean here I was after a lifetime of doing things that neighbors didn’t always approve of, now finally on the verge of respectability but about to disgrace the family yet again. But despite her whining and crying, I went to the game and I swear she looked sadder than the day I left for the Army.

I lived with the dark secret of my trip to the “friendly confines” for over a year. But I confessed to my friends the next time I visited Wrigley.  It was the following fall and we went to see the Bears play the Lions.  One of the guys I was with became suspicious because I seemed to know my way around the joint more than I should have.  Sometime during the 3rd quarter, he smacked me in the back of the head and said, “You been here before, you piece of @#&%.” So I confessed; confessed that I had gone that Monday to put an end to the Cubs’ season.  I’d gone to lay a South Side curse on the Cubs and I’d succeeded. Then, over the years I apparently started to believe my own BS and once inter-league play began and it was okay to go to Wrigley to see the Sox beat the Cubs, I repeated and sharpened it.

But enough Cub talk. Still brings on a guilt trip.

What about the Enos Slaughter shot?  I found the box score of the game I’m talking about online. August 21, 1957. The Yankees did beat the Sox. Slaughter’s home run was the winning run. But he hit it in the 11th inning, not the ninth.  Now I also remember that was my first extra-inning game. The box score also reminds me that “Tricky Dick” Donovan pitched all 11 innings for the Sox.  But the box score won’t tell me if Slaughter’s shot splintered a seat in the left field bleachers. So I investigate further and pull up some Enos Slaughter bio sites.  I mean if Slaughter really did splinter that seat, it must be mentioned somewhere.  I should also point out that all this research would not be necessary if I had access to the extensive records I kept of everything White Sox when I was a kid. However, my boxes and piles of score cards, news clippings, scrapbooks, and several vintage men’s adventure magazines were allegedly destroyed by a basement flood of biblical proportions that occurred sometime in 1968 while I was overseas. I say allegedly because when the flood waters receded apparently my folks were forced to tile the floor, put up that cheap fake wood paneling and install a suspended ceiling made of those asbestos panels  hung at  a toxically low level and put in a wet bar in the corner where I kept my Sox stuff. I also question the flood story because I was never told about it until I got home. When I asked my parents why they didn’t write me with the bad news, they said they felt I had enough to worry about over there and didn’t want to further traumatize me. This despite weekly letters often full of bad news like my dog developing diabetes, relatives with tumors, strokes, heart attacks, my dog going blind and even a murder and suicide involving a former coach.  But all that is another story.

Researching Slaughter, I find no mention of a seat-busting bash and, worse yet, discovered he was a left-handed hitter and his power seemed to be diminished in 1957. He would only hit five homers that year.  Not very likely he shattered a seat going to the opposite field and, besides, now I’m clearly remembering a right-handed hitter slamming that shot.  I go back to the box score. Hank Baur also homered in that game but in the 3rd inning.  It had to be Baur.  So I go check some Baur bios looking for a line about seat busting and wondering how I could have gotten it so wrong.

I come across a photo of Baur and I know.  It was because I was a kid and the guy scared the crap out of me.  Baur was a bad ass, an ex-Marine hero. He had a permanently damaged nose. Tommy Lasorda described Baur like this, “This guy’s tough. He had a face that looked like it’d hold two days of rain.”

Tommy was being kind. Now I can remember that face staring at me as he rounded third base that night. I remember the nightmares.  My fuzzy reflection isn’t the product of declining mental capacity. I’ve merely been suppressing severe childhood trauma.

I move on to happier times. All this looking back is making my memories clearer.  Like I’ve just done a Windex job on my rearview mirror. I remember it was the next year, I saw Billy Pierce strike out Ted Williams four times.  I easily find the box score I’m looking for, June 17th, 1958. White Sox 4, Boston 0. Just like I remember and there it is, Williams was 0-4.  The only thing that maybe bothers me a bit is Billy only struck out four that night. Is it possible all four Ks were Williams? I figure I could go rummage through the Chicago Tribune archives or something and find out for sure. I could also maybe find out if Baur really blew up that seat. But I won’t. Both things could have happened and that’s enough for me.

I think baseball historian Jim Beady put his finger on the way I feel about it when he was asked whether or not the Babe really called his shot in the 1932 Series.  Beady said:

“I’ll go to my grave not knowing for sure, but frankly not giving a damn. I am glad the legend exists, of that I am sure.”

I’m thankful for my legends, too, regardless of the quality of the reflection.

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