Thanking Baseball 100 Times

My first crisis in faith as a baseball fan came in 2002. I had survived ugly uniforms, artificial turf and a season with no World Series. But seeing the All-Star Game skid to a 7-7 tied halt pushed me over the brink. Rumors of another strike seemed too much.

I couldn’t change the game on the field. I could preserve the game in my head — and my heart.

I wrote 100 thank-you notes that year. I wrote to the names in MY baseball history. Stars of seemingly-ordinary games that I attended or followed by TV or radio. The outcomes may have been meaningless to the standings, but not to me. Baseball “stars” who may have seen their glimmer fade fast still sparkled in my memory, and I wanted them to know. Other times, I sent overdue gratitude. For instance, I thanked Lulu Harwell for sharing Ernie with the baseball world all those years.

Breaking every rule of autograph collecting, I did not enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for anyone I contacted by U.S. Mail. I was writing my biography as a baseball fan, sharing one page of the story with each member of my personal Hall of Fame.

The phone rang three times. The first call came from Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, astounded at the story of him being the first baseball card I ever found in a pack (1969). Ted “The Famous Chicken” Giannoulas phoned next, commenting on my assessment of the ludicrous lawsuit he faced against a cup-of-coffee pitcher. Most amazing of all, fellow Iowan Bruce Kimm, then-interim manager of the Chicago Cubs, called me from his Wrigley Field office before a game. He said he appreciated the praise I offered for his role in Mark Fidrych’s success. Asking how his team was that day, his cryptic reply sticks with me:

“The Cubs will be fine.”

Other replies thanking me for my appreciation followed by U.S. Mail. I’ll share those in the future. My “success rate” isn’t the important moral of this story. What’s vital to remember is that fans like us matter. Speak up. Speak out. Let those you appreciate hear your cheers once more, even if it’s only inside an envelope.

When Kipper’s Phils Zipped “The Lip”

Before he died in 2006 at age 77, Thornton Kipper gave me a clue of life in 1950s Philadelphia as a post “Whiz Kid.”

The 6-foot-3 righty became an All-American pitcher at the University of Wisconsin. I asked Kipper about being a Wisconsin native in the majors, debuting in 1953. Did anyone he know see him pitch in person? As a Phillies veteran, could he recall the look and feel of Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and its neighborhood? Most of all, did one of his three career victories from 1953 seem ESPN worthy — a moment he was proudest of?

“Kip” replied:

“1. Many times — results were usually good, although I did walk the winning run home in the ninth inning once with 50 relatives and friends in the stands. Also, pitched my first game in the majors (in Milwaukee) – a loss to Warren Spahn.

2. (Regarding Shibe Park) Terrible neighborhood, very dark, dreary atmosphere, and no parking facilities to speak of except one lot and on-street.

3. (His favorite win?) First one — in relief against New York Giants and Leo Durocher.”

Baseball is a game of irony. This career Philadelphia pitcher treasured memories not of Shibe Park, but his real “home” ballpark, County Stadium.

Pirate Tony Bartirome: The Forbes Field Family

Tony Bartirome isn’t the Pirate you might think he is.

I wanted to know about all he experienced as a player and trainer. His short reply contained three surprises.

I wrote to Tony to see beyond the brief bio. Bartirome’s signing by Pittsburgh’s legendary Hall of Famer Pie Traynor and hopeful debut on the opening-day Pittsburgh roster at age 19 for the 1952 Bucs faded fast in a nightmarish year of 112 losses.

The first baseman’s career wasn’t short-circuited by the poor season. Drafted into the Army, his career faced a two-year derailment. After hanging up his glove, Bartirome returned to Pittsburgh again in 1967, beginning a career as head trainer that concluded in 1985. Keeping the ailing Roberto Clemente in the lineup must be one of Bartirome’s enduring accomplishments.

After reading Forbes Field: Essays and Memories of the Pirates’ Historic Ballpark, 1909-1971
I wanted the Bartirome take on the place he played and worked.

Tony’s answers on Forbes Field and more?

“1. I remember the people that worked there. The ushers, ticket takers. They were like our family.

2. Roberto was one of the funniest men and most generous man I ever knew.

3. Two years in the service, never picked up a ball. Got hurt in spring training. Set me back.

Proud to have served -“

Beyond statistics, Tony Bartirome remembers the people. I hope Pirates fans remember him.

Remembering a 1950s knuckleballer

Pitcher Paul LaPalme’s major league career spanned 1951-57, ending
with the Chicago White Sox. When buzz grew for the possible (and
overdue)Hall of Fame induction for Al Lopez, I wrote LaPalme about his
former manager.

His reply, squeezed onto a 3-by-5, was dated 3-15-76.

“Hi, Tom — Al Lopez was a great manager. He was great to play for.
I don’t follow baseball very close now as I am very busy
with my family, golfing in summer and cycling in winter.
Michael, Terry (his children) and myself we cross-country ski and we love it.
We were skiing yesterday in Waterville, N.Y. Best to you, Tom.”

“Lefty” LaPalme passed away on Feb. 7. The former World War II veteran
was 86.

Why did I keep such a chatty family update from a person I’d never met?

He may not have been a star to many. But Paul LaPalme’s family were stars to him.

TTM Autograph Collecting: I Want My Hobby Back!

I wrote my first baseball “fan letters” in 1972. Bob Veale was the first major leaguer who ever signed my self-addressed six-cent government postcard.

I believed that every player sat by his locker waiting for mail from me.

Starting in 1974, I found that fellow Iowan Jack Smalling published his collection of home addresses of former players. Hal Naragon, who caught for Bill Veeck with the 1950s Indians, replied when his former boss reacquired the White Sox.

“Mr. Veeck is a good man for baseball,” Naragon commented. “He treats the players first class and he loves to see the fans have a good time. It is very difficult to say how successful Mr. Veeck will be in Chicago. But he has a good track record for developing winners. I’m in his corner.”

I felt like a smarter fan.

I wrote to Phillies general manager Paul Owens.

“Nice to hear from you. I have a nephew named Tom,” Owens answered. “I appreciate your interest in the Phillies and hope we can meet some day. Hopefully at a World Series game with the Phillies involved. Appreciate your fine comments and hopefully we can do it in 1976.”

Four years early, I knew Philadelphia’s baseball future. I never attended that 1980 Series. I never met “The Pope.” I had something almost as good.

I was a fan who mattered.

Sadly, I joined the ranks of most collectors in recent years. I despaired over “Refused. Return to Sender” rejections. I winced over cup-of-coffee players who demanded cash for their signatures. I stopped trying.

Enough moping on the bench. I’m back on the field. I’m taking my hobby back. I chased signed baseball cards for years. It’s a new season. Now I’m collecting recollections. In the days ahead, I’ll be sharing the baseball memories that are filling my mailbox again.

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