As serious Fantasy Baseball aficionados, we should never reveal that we really like a particular player. Otherwise, some culprit will try to use that information against us at the draft table. We all, however, have a favorite player from your youth and it is that link to baseball that ties us together. People who are not true fans can never understand what our childhood memories mean to us and how this wonderful game finds a way to take us back to those innocent days.
Earlier this week, PBS screened the latest episode of their “American Masters” documentary series by honoring Ted Williams as we approach the 100th anniversary of his birth (8/30/1918). For me, it seems like the right opportunity to help all those unfortunate soles who question our love of the game. This is the piece you need to share with your friends who always look at you quizzically when you try to explain Rotisserie Baseball or how much the sport means to you.
The following request was sent to the multi-generational members of my two home leagues – “Please take a moment and let me know who was your favorite player from your childhood. You can just send back a name or feel free to add a sentence or two with any comments about your choice.” Here are some of the responses…
> Age 30 – “I’m from a different generation, but for me it was Mike Piazza. It took me until I was about 10 years old before I learned that Catchers weren’t supposed to bounce the ball to 2B.”
> Age 62 – “Willie Mays (what a great player) and Hal Lanier (I caught a foul ball off his bat).”
> Age 65 – “Of course, it’s a Twin – Harmon Killebrew. As a kid listening on the radio, I loved hearing that he hit another long one. The longest one is still marked on the wall at Mall of America.”
> Age 49 – “Growing up in San Diego in the 70’s, there was one superstar on our team we could root for day in and day out – Dave Winfield. When my Mom took us to the Padres’ games, we would actually walk through the player’s parking lot to the entrance gate each time. On one trip, we actually crossed his path after the game and he was very gracious to my family and signed a couple of things for me. I still have the 1978 Topps card he signed that night”.
Age 75 – “Ted Kluszewski – The Big Klu. He looked like a baseball player and was the only one to have his photo (from Sport Magazine) on my wall in the 50’s. I gave away a lot of Yankees (Berra, Ford, etc.) to get his bubble gum cards. No bicycle spokes for me, I carried his card in my back pocket so I wouldn’t lose it. No, I did not know where Cincinnati was except that it was east of Oakland. And the final reason I was a Kluszewski fan (aside from being the only kid in my elementary school who could spell his name) was that my best friend was a Mantle fan, so it was easy to trade baseball cards with him. A ’52 Mantle for a ’52 Big Klu…I thought I was taking him to the cleaners”.
> Age 73 – “My favorite player when I was growing up was Mickey Mantle. I tried to copy his swing and the way he ran, especially when he would lay down a drag bunt and beat the throw to 1B.”
> Age 62 – “Sandy Koufax! Remember when Koufax & Don Drysdale ‘held out’ for new contracts, asking $100,000 each? Not close to the major league minimum now, but it was a lot of money back in the 60’s”.
> Age 35 – “Greg Maddux! I was always amazed at how a Pitcher throwing less than 90 mph could make the best hitters look silly…and it helped that his games were on TBS”.
> Age 59 – “Pete Rose, Phil Garner, Catfish Hunter & Bill Buckner. As a player, I tried to play the game like these guys and as a coach, I appreciated their work ethic. Notice that none of them were considered five-tool guys, but all were All-Stars.”
> Age 37 – “My favorite player has always been the despised one, Barry Bonds. It started with the infatuation of the Pirates from my Grandfather and continued with the cocky confidence he displayed early in his career. In the later years, when he was hated, I really loved the guy. I admired how someone could see the baseball so well that even though he’d be lucky to see one good pitch an at-bat, he would still crush it. The ball he hit against the Angels in the World Series still hasn’t landed!”
> Age 74 – “Growing up in New York, Mickey Mantle was my baseball idol. He could hit it farther and run faster than any other player of his time and he was the greatest switch-hitter. I particularly remember watching two of his home runs on TV…one left-handed that hit the facade in right field and the other right-handed (off a change-up) that went over the center field fence at the 461 foot marker.”
> Age 46 – “My favorite player was Dwight Gooden during his first two years. That was the apex of my baseball collecting times and he was the man on fire. The Mets games were on WOR and I wouldn’t miss a game that he was pitching”
> Age 60 – Growing up in L.A., “Big D” was by far my favorite player. I’ve always loved great pitching and Don Drysdale was the guy.”
> Age 71 – “It’s Edwin Donald ‘Duke’ Snider. I lived in Brooklyn four blocks from Ebbets Field and they would let you in the ballpark after the 7th inning. There was also a gap between the left field wall and a metal gate, so earlier in the game, you would take turns with your friends to watch. When we would flip our baseball cards, you always wanted to win when Duke was in the pot…not so much Mantle or Mays.”
Other players on the list included Ozzie Smith, Boog Powell, Steve Garvey, Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson & Warren Spahn.
For me, of course it was Ted Williams. Spending my early years in the stands at Fenway Park gave me a unique perspective on the skills of baseball’s greatest hitter. Even after all these years, I can remember vivid moments when he came to the plate and the world seemed to stand still. Conversations stopped, vendors ceased their hawking and the hair stood up on your arms. A baseball writer once asked a blind fan why he came to the game instead of just listening to the radio at home and he replied, “I love the sounds of the game when Ted comes up”. It was magical and unforgettable for that youngster in the stands.
Only later in life, did I truly begin to understand the complete story of “Teddy Ballgame”. From his impoverished background to his military service to his charitable work for children and yes, all the flaws too. The most comprehensive biography of Williams was published a few years ago and at 800 pages, it is an amazing book. “The Kid”. Written by Ben Bradlee Jr. after ten years of research and interviews, it will be the standard other baseball historians have to meet. Just like me, Bradlee grew up outside Boston in the mid-1950’s and Ted Williams was his hero. On the first page of the book, he recalls getting Ted’s autograph outside the player’s parking lot at Fenway Park and comments that he still has the ball, the ink on the signature now fading badly with the passage of more than fifty years. If he were to visit my home, he would see a similar ball, signed at Fenway Park during batting practice one day for a certain 12 year-old boy. The ink may fade, the memory never will.