Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Remembrance of Games Past

One thing I always enjoy at the Hall of Fame library is giving tours. Once or twice a month I get to share parts of the library's wonderful collection with people who act like they're in heaven. I'm in heaven every day I spend there, so why shouldn't other baseball fans get a glimpse?

The tour I give begins in the Giamatti Research Center's public area, where visiting fans, authors, students, and others gather. Then we go upstairs for the "behind the scenes" part of the tour, where they see some of the roughly 25,000 clippings files in our collection, along with some other special archives and collections. One thing that always wows people is the original records kept in the league offices, where some poor drudge had the assignment of taking each game's official scorer's report and entering every possible statistic for every player into a massive bound ledger. The data in these ledgers has long since been transferred to microfilm (known to users as the "day by days") which is utilized by visitors and staff, but it's eyepopping to see those long columns of painstakingly entered statistics which recorded the minutiae of the sport's history. Younger visitors who are used to getting their information from the internet have no concept of how much effort went into preserving historical events until they see these testaments to manual labor.

I'm a microfilm junkie and particularly enjoy showing off the microfilm room. I always point out how we use the microfilm to do one of the most rewarding things we do--namely helping fans connect with their earliest baseball memories. Dozens of times, people have called or come in and said, "I wonder if you could help me find the box score of the first major league game I ever went to." They remember some of the details, or at least they think they do. They do know what ballpark it was and have ideas about the visiting team, the final score, who pitched, who hit home runs, the month (more or less), the year (more or less), and so on.

How do we help them find the box score? The first thing we do these days is go to the best baseball website, www.retrosheet.org, which has game logs (day-by-day scores, opponents, and pitchers) for all major league seasons, along with box scores and batter-by-batter results for nearly every game since 1956. When I started working at the library in 2002, Retrosheet's completed data went back to 1969, but they have now posted the data for 1956-1968. So if the visitor's debut game was in the last half-century, the chances are that we can find it on Retrosheet. But if we can't find the box score, we can at least narrow down the possibilities just by looking at the game logs. If the person went to the game where somebody won his 20th game of the season or hit his 40th home run, we can check the day-by-days, which list players by team and show how they accumulated their statistics over the course of the season. We put the clues together, and even if we only know the two teams and the final score, we can find the dates when they played and look through the box score collection (we have box scores going back to 1876 on microfilm) until we find the right game.

The trick is that usually some of the remembered details are wrong. The other day, someone mentioned going to a game in September, 1961 at Yankee Stadium. He remembered that Frank Lary of the Tigers, "The Yankee-Killer," pitched and that Mickey Mantle hit two homers, that some other Yankees hit homers, but that Roger Maris, who already had 53 homers on the season, got nothing more than a single and was practically booed by the Yankees fans. I went to Retrosheet and found that series between the Tigers and Yankees. There was the game where Mantle blasted two balls out of the park, reaching 50 for the season as he and Maris chased Babe Ruth's record. But Jim Bunning started that game for the Tigers, not Frank Lary. Lary pitched the day before, and gave up a pair of homers to Maris which raised his total to 53. The guy probably went to both games and merged the details in his memory.

The further back you go, the tougher it is to remember details, but it might only take one key detail to pin down a game. About a year ago, I helped a gentleman approaching his 90th birthday who called for help. He was born in Armenia and came to the United States when he was little. He didn't know anything about baseball, but when he was seven or eight years old, someone took him to a game at Yankee Stadium. He didn't know the year but knew it was the late 1920s. All he remembered was that Willie Kamm of the visiting White Sox hit a home run in the ninth inning that tied the game. He may also have remembered the final score, or part of it. Willie Kamm was the key. He didn't hit many homers, and never more than three in a season in the late 1920s. I went to the day-by-days, found the one or two games where he hit a homer against the Yankees, and was able, after some more digging, to pin down the exact date of the first game attended by a young Armenian boy who became a prominent United States citizen and who was thrilled when I mailed him a printed box score of that game, the elusive "Rosebud" of his youth.

A week ago I gave a tour to Dick and Debbie Samuels, college classmates who were in the area for our 35th Colgate reunion. In the microfilm room, I asked Dick to tell me the first game he remembered going to. He mentioned a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium with the Yankees playing the Washington Senators, and what he remembered most was that Mickey Mantle almost hit for the cycle. "Did he go 5-for-5 with two home runs?" I asked. "Yes," said Dick. I told him, "I was there." He couldn't believe it. We discussed more details, and indeed we were both there, a couple of teenagers, one from Long Island, one from New Jersey, a few months away from meeting each other in the same freshman dorm at Colgate.

It was wild enough that we were both there that day, but two things were even more amazing. One was that only a couple of hours earlier, I had written an e-mail about the events of that day, telling Dave Baldwin, a Senators pitcher who didn't pitch in the doubleheader, that I witnessed the hardest-hit ball I've ever seen in person, a ground-rule double by Frank Howard in the nightcap that went from the plate to the outfield grandstand in the blink of an eye. Mantle's last great game as a Yankee was the highlight of the first game; he hit two home runs, two singles and a double, driving in five runs. That was quite a day; you could look it up. It happened on May 30, 1968. That was the other amazing thing: Dick was certain that this event happened when he was no more than 11 or 12 years old. Actually he was almost 17. He conceded that it was the first game he remembers, but probably not the first he attended. It was 40 years ago, and memory plays tricks on us.

I've found first-game box scores for dozens of fans, and it is always a happy occasion. But one person's initial major-league game has eluded me: my own. I'm used to getting one or two pieces of misinformation in the evidence presented to me, but apparently almost everything I remember about my first game is wrong. I am certain that it happened at the Polo Grounds when the New York Giants were still the home team. They left New York when I was six years old, and I don't think my father would have taken me there (or that I would remember it) when I was less than four years old. So it had to be in 1955, 1956, or 1957. There's no way around that. The rest is false memory--even though I can see it in my mind's eye even now. We sat in the second deck, between home plate and third base, facing the triples alley in right-center field. That's exactly where Willie Mays hit the ball. As I remember it, it was the 7th or 8th inning, and the Reds (the team we were rooting for) were leading 3-1. The bases were loaded, and Mays' triple cleared the bases, giving the Giants a 4-3 lead which wound up being the final score. I can see that line drive now, splitting the gap, the Cincinnati outfielders converging but too late to cut the ball off, the ball rolling to the warning track as Giants runners circled the bases, and Mays ending up at third base to the frenzied cheers of an adoring New York crowd that would all too soon be deprived of the joy of watching him play every day.

What a vivid picture! Too bad it never happened. From 1955-57, Willie Mays never hit a three-run triple at the Polo Grounds. In fact, of the 2,685 games for which Retrosheet reports data (nearly 90% of the 2,992 he played in his career), he only hit one bases-loaded triple. That was in 1954, but the Giants had a 2-0 lead in a game they wound up winning 10-0, and I was only three years old. He belted a two-run triple against the Reds on August 26, 1957. Could that be the one I remember? Well, it broke a 1-1 tie in the 3rd inning and the Giants won 17-3. That doesn't sound like it. The only times he drove in three runs in a game at the Polo Grounds that year, it was with home runs. Nope, whatever I saw Mays do, it wasn't a bases-loaded triple.

Maybe it was some other 4-3 game. Memories of final scores are often reliable. As I kept looking through Retrosheet, I hoped to find a 4-3 game where Mays drove in the key runs in a late-inning rally. But no. I found six 4-3 games the Giants won at the Polo Grounds from 1955-57, and none fit the bill. Try these on for size:

1) May 4, 1955: The Giants didn't score more than one run in an inning, and there was no scoring from the 6th inning until the Giants won it in the 11th over the Cubs.

2) April 17, 1956: Tied 2-2 in the 8th inning, Alvin Dark walked for the Giants, Mays doubled him to third, and the winning runs scored on a sacrifice fly and a wild throw on a ground ball. The Pirates got one run back in the 9th inning.

3) June 15, 1956: They did beat the Reds 4-3, in 11 innings, but Mays didn't score or drive in a run, and the winning run scored on a bases-loaded walk.

4) June 12, 1957: Trailing the Cubs 3-0 in the 6th inning, Mays homered with two men on to tie it. The winning run scored in the bottom of the 9th; it was unearned, and Mays scored it.

5) June 16, 1957: Ah, here we go, a 4-3 win over the Reds where the Reds led 3-1 going to the bottom of the 8th and the Giants scored three runs. That's where the similarity ends. Mays led off by making an out (he went hitless that afternoon--oh yeah, I remember it as a night game), and after two singles, pinch-hitter Don Mueller hit a game-winning three-run home run.

6) September 2, 1957: In the second game of a Labor Day doubleheader, Mays hit a two-run home run in the 3rd inning to give the Giants a 2-0 lead. Pitcher Johnny Antonelli added a two-run blast later on that was the game-winner.

That's all there is. As the old Firesign Theater album puts it, everything I know is wrong. Maybe Mays hit a two-run double or a single to win a game, and maybe it was against the Reds, but it was a different score. Or someone else hit a triple to win a game, maybe against the Reds, maybe not. Someday I can try scouring every single box score to look for a circumstance close enough to my memory to make me accept it as the first game I went to. But it still won't be what I remember!

There's another alternative, of course. Maybe Dick Samuels was right. Did I ever tell you about the first game I ever went to? It was at Yankee Stadium, and Mickey Mantle hit this shot into the Yankees bullpen, and then Frank Howard hit this wicked line drive that looked like a rocket ship blasting off to my 11-year-old eyes. Oh man, you should've seen it!

1 comment:

David Philp said...

Dave Baldwin said I should contact you. He liked your review of Snake Jazz. Please check out Jimmy Scott's High & Tight, a website I started where I interview ex-MLB players and discuss their playing and post-playing careers, then put them up as podcasts. http://www.jimmyscottshighandtight.com

Want to cross-link?