Saturday, April 6, 2013

A true baseball story

It's early April. The North Texas wind is, as they say, blowing like a bandit. White, fluffy clouds are scooting east fast, and I have that comforting, aching feeling again, the one I've had every March and April of my life in memory.

Soggy dirt, wet grass and chilly afternoons.

Baseball season is back.

Roughly 47 or 48 years ago, when I was a kid of 13 or 14, I spent my summer days on a baseball field on Thomas Drive, one block over from my home with my buddy, Norm Miller. We always got there early and that's where we spent our days.

Sometimes we were eventually joined by other kids. Often we were not. Didn't matter to us. Norm and I would throw baseballs to each other, taking turns swinging for non-existent fences, absorbing imagined cheers from the imagined crowd.

We peopled our fantasy with our Northern California heroes of the early 1960s: Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Marichal and Hart. We gave them reality by batting left or right handed as they did. We announced their advancement to the plate at Candlestick Park:

"The batter, number 12, Jim Davenport!"

That's how Norm and I spent our spring weekends and summer afternoons, in baseball heaven.

Late one afternoon a man wandered up behind the backstop and watched for awhile as I threw slow fastballs and flat curves to Norm, who was always a sucker for any pitch high and away.

Balding, portly and puffing on a cigar the man behind the backstop watched. Norm and I thought nothing of him until he finally hollered, "Hey! Mind if I take a swing?"

In those days it never occurred to any kid to say no to any adult request. It never occurred to us that his request was weird or that we should run for our lives and report the strange, fat, balding cigar sucker as a potential child molestor.

He just wanted to hit a baseball and we said, "Sure".

Together, Norm and I had acquired a kid's treasure trove of baseballs. We had maybe three or four between us. Some of them had their covers taped shut, maybe one had its seams intact. That's the one I picked up as Norm ran out to center field.

Something told me I needed to show this guy my best stuff. I was only 13 or 14 but on that particular day I had never been older and I had never played baseball with an adult.

I concentrated, made my best imitation of scraping my toe at the pitching rubber, peered in at the non-existent sign from non-existent Tom Haller and fired in my best non-existent fast ball.


The fat, bald guy slammed it on a line into centerfield and hadn't missed a puff from his cigar.

Two or three more times I threw baseballs as hard as I could and the old man peppered them around the deepest outfields, left to right. Poor Norm Miller was run ragged shagging them down.

The old man smiled, dropped the cigar on the grass beside him and got down to business.


He slammed everything I had that came anywhere near the plate. A couple of pitches, the ones twelve or fifteen feet away, he let pass, easily ducking the ones that were boring in straight for his head.

It ended when the bat in his hand splintered. You could say it simply gave up, glued, nailed and taped together as it had been to begin with.

And when the old, fat, cigar-chomper came out to the field, grinning from ear to ear and offering to pay for the bat, we asked him -- with the ignorant innocence of youth: "Did you ever play baseball?"

He smiled again and took the wallet out of his back pocket. Then he carefully fished out a yellow newspaper clipping nearly twenty years old.

I'm sorry to say it didn't mean anything to me at the time and I remember nothing about it now. But his wallet also displayed his driver's license, and having never seen one from New York before it caught my attention:

Carl Furillo.


Carl Anthony Furillo (March 8, 1922 – January 21, 1989), nicknamed "The Reading Rifle" and "Skoonj," was a right fielder in Major League Baseball who played his entire career for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. A member of seven National League champions from 1947 to 1959, he batted over .300 five times, winning the 1953 batting title with a .344 average – then the highest by a right-handed Dodger since 1900. Noted for his strong and accurate throwing arm, he recorded 10 or more assists in nine consecutive seasons, leading the league twice, and retired with the fifth most games in right field (1408) in NL history.

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