Nothing like the death of a baseball star from your youth to make you reflect on your own mortality and what you wished would have been.
Ray Sadecki died Nov. 17 at 73. He won 20 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, when the Cardinals won in the World Series—and the British Invasion began. And I was 12.
He died from complications of blood cancer. I’m being treated for prostate cancer.
But he also had a ballplayer’s name. A real baseball player’s name. Made me think back on Harmon Killebrew, who died back in 2011, or Henry Aaron, who’s still alive.
Playing center field and batting cleanup, No 44, Henry Aaron…AARON.
Hank Aaron. Like I said, a real baseball player’s name, like Harmon Killebrew. Both were really special, on and off the field.
Killebrew’s death brought forth a slew of nostalgic reminiscences from Facebook friends and tributes from sportswriters everywhere. I, too, got into the act, with a piece I wrote for examiner.com, in which I noted that as great a hitter as he was, he was apparently as great a human being. Phil Mushnick, the great sportswriter for The New York Post, picked up on both aspects in his tribute: “Was there ever a man with a more appropriate name than Harmon Killebrew? A fellow named Harmon Killebrew could not have been a spray hitter or middle reliever. He could only have been a big, bald, friendly guy from Payette, Idaho, who hit 573 home runs. And Killebrew didn’t use steroids or HGH, just a bat.”
But the death of Killebrew evoked deeper emotions in those of us who were kids when he was at the height of his career. The death of any boyhood hero will have an effect on the boy who still resides inside the man.
Playing first base, No. 9, Joe Adcock…ADCOCK.
Joe Adcock was first baseman for the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, the only Milwaukee Braves team to win the World Series. I was five-years-old in Milwaukee, but his, Aaron’s and so many other names (Eddie Mathews…MATHEWS, Warren Spahn…SPAHN, Lou Burdette…BURDETTE, Andy Pafko…PAFKO, Del Crandall…CRANDALL, Billy Bruton…BRUTON) are indelibly etched in boyhood memory from hearing the County Stadium announcer repeat each name twice–then reading about what they all did that night in the next day’s papers.
Then there was Earl Gillespie. The voice of the Braves from 1953 to 1963, Gillespie was an excitable radio sportscaster who drove my father crazy with his theatrics–which I loved. He always used to shout “Holy cow!” whenever there was a spike in the action (this carried into his broadcasts of University of Wisconsin-Madison football games, i.e., “Holy cow! What a boot!” to make vivid a long punt). His signature home run call went something like this: “Here’s the pitch to Henry Aaron. [Excitedly] It’s a swing and a drive way back into center field! This could be…IT IS! A home run for Henry Aaron!”
Other things I think I remember but I’m not sure. I think we had the great Braves reliever Don McMahon come visit us once at an Indian Guides meeting (the Indian Guides were a father-son YMCA program for kindergarten through third grade) but it might have been a different Brave. But I’m certain I saw Sandy Koufax hit his first homer–he only hit two–off Spahn at County Stadium in 1962, beating the Braves 2-1 (he laughed as he rounded the bases, like he couldn’t believe that he did it and was embarrassed, as he was a terrible hitter); I also remember seeing the Chicago White Sox’ Nellie Fox hit two homers in one game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and remember seeing someone hit an inside-the-park home run (I think it was the Cubs’ George Altman).
But what I really remember is fantasizing Earl Gillespie reading my name off a Braves’ lineup–Jim Bessman…BESSMAN–and feeling an awful letdown. Bessman…BESSMAN just didn’t have the authentic baseball ring of Aaron…AARON, Adcock…ADCOCK or Bruton…BRUTON. And besides, I sucked at baseball. To this day I’m haunted by my ineptness.
I couldn’t hit worth a shit. Invariably struck out. Dropped fly balls, that is, if I got anywhere near them. Grounders went through my legs. Never got any better at sports.
But now and then I can hit a fairly decent golf ball–when I don’t slice it into the next fairway. Talk about finding water, I once found water playing in the desert in Scottsdale!
But what always bothered me is I could never hit it very far–seeing as though I’m a good 20-30-40 pounds overweight at close to 200. God knows I’m heavy enough to hit a baseball out of the park.
It must be a wonderful thing, hitting a home run. That’s why all these contemporary players just stand there and admire themselves while they watch their drive way back into center field invariably hit the wall–if it goes that far–and then they’re stuck with a single when if they’d run it out, like they did back in Killebrew’s day, like any kid knows how to do, they’d have made second, easy.
God, I’d love to see if I could do it.
Some years ago I walked the field of the Tulsa Drillers minor league ballpark when I was there for a Beach Boys concert. Tried to figure if I could hit one out. Didn’t think I could.
I mentioned this to my old music business friend Steve in Nashville. Steve’s tall and lanky, a great athlete, who played college ball and earned a tryout with a minor league team, until he got busted for pot–cruelly ending his big league ball dreams. Now he was playing in some serious summer leagues and coaching his son’s little league team (“Shake a hand, make a friend,” he instructed his kids, as they shook hands with the opposing team after every game. How quaint!).
“We have a game tomorrow afternoon,” Steve said one day in June when I was in town on country music business. “Come on down and I’ll pitch to you.”
Okay. It was a just a little league park. But it had a fence and everything. It was the chance I’d been dreaming of for some 40 years, probably.
Now Steve had long explained to me that weight has little to do with home run power. It’s bat speed, really–in golf, club head speed. It’s a simple matter of physics–if physics is a simple matter. Steve also tried to explain that the way a power hitter swings the bat is that one hand pulls, the other pushes, and there’s a real snap to it. Of course I had no idea what he was talking about and was going to have to just swing a bat stupidly with both hands.
At least I remembered to step into it. But I hadn’t swung a baseball bat since I started wearing glasses–and that felt odd. But, hey, this was my big chance.
I also hadn’t taken into account my hands blistering, and even though I train in Filipino stick fighting, my hands swelled up and tore up pretty quick. I was making solid contact, but mostly line drives and grounders. But I finally got one up and away, way back, and IT WAS! A home run for Jim Bessman…BESSMAN! And yes, it was the thrill of this boy’s lifetime.
We ended on that high note, and Steve asked me to throw a few to him. He hadn’t hit in a while, and I hadn’t thrown in a lot longer and could barely get it anywhere near the plate–let alone in Steve’s strike zone, big as it is.
I don’t know what’s harder, hitting a ball or throwing one, but I finally served up one that Steve could chase down, lean over, and essentially scoop up and launch like a rock out of a catapult over the fence, over a building, on and on until it soared out of sight. I’m not sure that it ever came down. My mouth is gaping open now just remembering it.
The glory of sports. The joy.
That’s how I remember Harmon Killebrew. Hank Aaron.
The 1960s Green Bay Packers. And as he slows down to his inevitable stop, Muhammad Ali.
Thanks for the memories, Ray Sadecki.