my personal stove recently was a timely Christmas gift:
Ken Burns’ 10-DVD
set titled “Baseball,” the
history of what I still consider the national pastime from
its origins in the 1840s. This was no mere evening’s entertainment,
you should understand. To view it all in one sitting would
take just under 24 hours, and I’ve yet to hear reports
trying to accomplish that extra-inning feat.
Like a big league pitcher needing rest between starts, I worked at it sporadically
until some time last month before hanging up my spikes and heading for the showers.
It gave me a chance to view face to face, so to speak, players who were already
legends when I was young: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner, Napolean Lojoie
(I was a grown man before I learned that was pronounced “Lahjoway” and
not “Lajoey”), Rogers Hornsby, Christy Mattewson, Babe Ruth and all
those other immortals in the Valhalla of the game.
While we had professional baseball in the Sacramento of my youth, it was the
Coast League players with whom we were familiar, not the elite of the majors.
After all, with only 16 teams in the American and National leagues, how many
of those elite athletes were there? No more than 400 at any one time.
So sure, I can say I saw Ted Williams hit home runs and Fred Hutchinson pitch
rather spectacularly, but it was when they were teenagers with San Diego and
My only sight of Honus Wagner was in 1938, when Pittsburgh played an exhibition
game in Sacramento. By that time the Dutchman was 68, and I could only imagine
those gigantic hands at the end of those long, long arms scooping up ground balls.
To my youthful eyes, it seemed his knuckles would drag in the infield dirt.
Paul Waner was also part of the Pirates’ entourage that day, but “Big
Poison’s” days of potency were well past their peak. It was Waner
who once claimed that his nearsightedness aided his hitting because the ball
looked larger coming at him. I still find that hard to believe, being nearsighted
myself. The ball just looked like an indistinct blob of white when it was thrown
Of course, kids don’t have a well-developed sense of history, and in those
days no one took much note of PCL umpire Sam Crawford, except to boo him when
his call went against the Solons. It was only later that I realized this was “Wahoo
Sam” Crawford who, 88 years after his playing career ended, still holds
the major league record for three-base hits with 311. Looking back, I don’t
recall any Bee or Union sports writer ever taking note of this when he was umpiring.
Time is fleeting, and so is fame.
One of my most unforgettable baseball experiences took place, not in the stands,
but in the press room after a game between Sacramento and Oakland. It was in
the late 1940s, when Casey Stengel, the “Old Perfessor,” was managing
Oakland and “Rowdy Richard” Bartell was the Sacramento pilot.
I was there as the guest of Clyde Giraldo, a San Francisco Chronicle scribe who
was covering the Acorns, and it promised to be an interesting affair with the
two mouthy managers on stage. Bartell, however, was uncharacteristically quiet
in the presence of the ever-vocal Casey.
Stengel was a man who acted out his stories, a feat made a bit difficult because
the space he had to maneuver in was about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, but he
did manage to make do. I guess I should add an “and how!” to that.
Casey’s story had to do with a teen-age pitcher he had managed in the majors
in 1943, during World War II. In that circumscribed space, he acted out the story
as he told it, alternately portraying the pitcher, the catcher, the hitter and
the baserunner. It’s a little difficult to describe, but he pitched, swung,
missed; the catcher caught the ball and returned it to the pitcher. Then the
same thing except this time, he pitched to himself, swung the bat, connected
and proceeded to run the bases before managing to tag himself out at home.
The only thing he failed to do was raise an umpiring arm and call himself out.
As for Bartell? In the presence of the master, Rowdy Richard stood transfixed.
And, for once, silent.
There was another noteworthy night back in 1937, when I was just a teenager,
when I was treated to the unique — maybe never before or since in the game’s
long history — sight of an umpire being thrown out of a game and escorted
from the premises by the police. The charge was public drunkenness, and I can’t
think of a more public place than a ballpark.
It wasn’t his gazing fixedly at the moon between innings and trading banter
with the fans behind first base that completely undid Jack Powell, the self-christened “King
of the Diamond” that night.
No, what did him in was calling Solon outfielder Lou Vezilich out at second on
a stolen base attempt when the ball had eluded the shortstop and was sitting
untouched in center field.
Forty years later, I could still get a rise out of Lou by asking, “Do you
really think you were safe at second that night?”
Proving that justice is sometimes blind, Powell, after being suspended for the
balance of the season, regained his job the following spring. But the cold sober
arbiter behind the plate, technically in charge but a rookie without influence
over the league’s umpire-in-chief — Sacramento’s own “Midnight
Mayor,” Faucho Valerio — was not offered a contract for 1938.
retiring from a long and respected career with The Sacramento
Bee, Stan Gilliam found that he just couldn't stop writing. So
his "Stan's Sacramento" column to the Spectrum,
it has been a favorite of readers for 15 years ... and counting.
Focus 55-Plus Aging
TOP | HOME
This page and its contents ©2005 Metropolitan
News Company, Inc.