Bob Usher-ing In Home Run Memories

World War II veteran Bob Usher claimed 18 career homers over a decade of major league service (1946-57). The majority of his playing time came in a Reds uniform.

He swung for the fences in some classic ballparks, but had to play the outfield in one maze known as Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. Between the defensive challenges, did he remember details of any favorite round-trippers?

Usher wrote:

“Tom —

Playing left field with the sloping turf was a REAL chore.

Three (home runs) come to mind:

a) My First home run. Hit it off left-hander Woody Abernathy July 28, 1946 in the N.Y. Polo Grounds.

b) Hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium off Bobby Shantz in 1957.

c) Hitting a game-winning 12th-inning home run on Opening Day 1950 off Johnny Schmitz of the Cubs.

All the Best,
Bob Usher”

The order of details can be telling. Who, where or when? What facts would you deem most important from your baseball milestones?

Bobby Thomson’s First Nickname

Bobby “The Shot Heard Round the World” Thomson owned a nickname even before his pennant-winning home run against the Dodgers in 1951.

An ethnic nickname!

In today’s politically-correct society, speaking of one’s heritage might seem controversial. Some might say offensive. But Thomson, born in Glasgow, Scotland, began sporting the moniker “The Flying Scot” soon after his 1946 debut. In today’s baseball landscape, where colorful nicknames are an endangered species, I had to get Thomson’s take on the title.

He wrote:

“Thank you for writing.

The ‘Flying Scot’ was fine with me. It explained what I was all about — birthplace and moments when I had a chance to use my speed. A sportswriter obviously came up with the name.

Bobby Thomson”

I loved reading about the Scotsman who swatted 264 career home runs in The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round the World (Vintage) and Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard ‘Round the World

One of baseball’s best ambassadors, Thomson savored every game.

And every nickname.

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.

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