Friday, June 6, 2008

A Closer Look: Wade Boggs

A Closer Look: Wade Boggs

Most Hall of Fame players have such obviously superior talents that their path to the major leagues is swift. In fact, you can put together a terrific lineup of Hall of Famers who played regularly in the major leagues while still teenagers:

C: Johnny Bench
1B: Jimmie Foxx
2B: Bill Mazeroski
SS: Robin Yount
3B: Brooks Robinson
OF: Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Al Kaline
P: Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Amos Rusie

Then there is Wade Boggs, who was drafted out of high school by the Red Sox and spent six years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors at age 24. Despite hitting over .300 five straight seasons in the minors and winning two batting titles, Boggs spent much of that time uncertain that he’d even get a chance in the majors. Why?

One factor was scouts’ doubts about his defense. Primarily a third baseman, he played all over the infield and committed 27 errors in his first full season. After that he had to fight a reputation as a shaky fielder. “I don’t know how that started,” said Joe Morgan, his manager at Pawtucket in 1980-81. “He played first and third for me and did the job.” Boggs worked as hard on his fielding as he did on his hitting, and he wound up as a solid major-league third baseman, good enough to win two Gold Gloves.

A bigger obstacle was his notable lack of power. In his first five seasons in the minors, 86% of his hits were singles, and only four of his hits were home runs. “There are a lot of power hitters,” he told a reporter in Bristol, Connecticut in 1979 (where he hit .325 with no home runs), “but I think if I continue to hit for a high average, I’ll get a fairly good shot at the majors.” He added that “I’ve talked to several Red Sox scouts, and they tell me if I continue to hit, the home runs won’t really matter.”

He had only to look at his batting role model, Pete Rose, to have faith in his swing. “I used to watch Rose on TV,” he told a Detroit reporter in 1983, “and just tried to emulate him. It worked pretty well and I stuck with it.” Ted Williams praised his patience and advised him not to change his swing.
Like Rose, Boggs preferred hitting to the opposite field, an approach designed to succeed in Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox. All he had to do was get there.

That wasn’t so easy. In 1980, he reached AAA ball, playing for Pawtucket. He finished second in the International League batting race with a .306 average, but hit only one home run and had a not-so-special .364 slugging percentage. In 1980, the average major-league third baseman hit 14 home runs – against major-league pitching. There was hope for Boggs because even though several third basemen hit a lot of home runs (Mike Schmidt 48, Bob Horner 35, Ron Cey 28, and George Brett 24), there were also a lot of regulars at that position with modest (single-digit) power totals. In Boston, for instance, after Butch Hobson (28 HR in 1979) was injured, Glenn Hoffman played 110 games at third base for the Red Sox in 1980 and hit just four home runs.

Rather than give Boggs a shot, the Red Sox traded Hobson to the Angels for Carney Lansford, who led the American League in batting in 1981 with a .336 average while Boggs hit .335 and won the International League batting title. Reports from Pawtucket indicated that Boggs had realized that a total lack of power might cost him his shot at the majors. When he belted home runs in consecutive games, it was a big deal. He managed to get his home run total up to five in 1981 (ironically, Lansford hit only four in the strike-shortened season), but more importantly doubled his doubles from 21 to 41 and raised his slugging percentage to a respectable .460. Nearly 30% of his hits went for extra bases, a rate he exceeded only once in the majors.

Even though Boggs appeared ready to tackle major-league pitching, there was still the problem of finding a position for him in Boston. Lansford, the defending batting champion, owned third base. Boggs’ other strong position was first base, which had been populated in Boston for the past dozen years by sluggers like Carl Yastrzemski, George Scott, and Cecil Cooper. In 1980, they had imported another future Hall of Famer, Tony Perez, to play first base. In 1981, Perez and Yastrzemski had split the duties there. After that season, Boggs played winter ball in Puerto Rico, and by facing a ton of left-handed pitching there he learned to handle it much better and strengthen his credentials as a bona fide hitter.

Starting 1982, Perez had left and Yaz would be the full-time designated hitter, so did the spot magically open up for Boggs after he hit well during spring training? No. The first base job was handed to Dave Stapleton, who had hit 10 home runs in 1981 as an all-purpose infielder. Boggs took things philosophically, saying later that “I knew my job was going to be on the bench to back up Lansford and Stapleton. . .But it was the place I wanted to be. I had made the big leagues. It would be great to play every day, but as long as I’m in the big leagues, it makes it all worthwhile.” He noted that “I spent my time studying pitchers and opposing players and it more than paid off when my chance came.”

Boggs seldom left the bench during his first two months in the majors. By June 25, he had only 33 at-bats, a .242 average, and two runs batted in. On that date, Lansford sprained his ankle, and Boggs found himself in the lineup. He didn’t leave it until 1999. In his first week as a regular, he went 13-for-28, and he hit .387 for the month of July. Lansford returned, but Stapleton was slumping, and Boggs moved over to first base. “It’s pretty obvious I’ve got to keep him in there,” said Red Sox manager Ralph Houk. “What else can you do when a kid is hitting like that? You’ve got to keep him.” Boggs stayed hot, with a .386 average in August and a 14-game hitting streak in September, finishing the season at .349 in 104 games. He finished third in the balloting for American League Rookie of the Year, behind Cal Ripken and Kent Hrbek.

That winter, Boggs launched a weight-lifting program designed to make him a more powerful hitter. “I want to hit more home runs, knock in more runs, get more doubles, score more runs, and improve in the field,” he told The Sporting News. “I’m not thinking of 20 or 25 [home runs], but I would like to get into double figures. I won’t try to hit them; that would be a mistake. I subscribe to the Charlie Lau theory that if you can hit, the home runs will come. But I want to be a little stronger next year.”

Despite his adherence to the Lau principles, the home runs did not come in 1983. In fact, he didn’t hit one out until July 14, but by that time he had 26 doubles and a .373 average. With Lansford traded to make room for him, he played third base full-time and established himself as one of the best hitters in the league. “Can that guy hit ropes,” marveled Detroit manager Sparky Anderson in September. “He’s one of the best-looking young hitters I’ve ever seen.” Milwaukee manager Harvey Kuenn observed that “He has such good bat control that he knows he can always get a good piece of a pitch. It’s amazing, really. In 10 times at bat, he’ll get good wood on the ball eight or nine times. Some guys are lucky to get good wood three out of 10.”

Consistency was his hallmark; starting in 1983, he had over 200 hits and 100 runs scored seven consecutive seasons. He had over 40 doubles eight of the next nine years, averaged about 70 RBI a year while hitting leadoff much of the time, and walked twice as often as he struck out.

Most significantly, he won five batting titles from 1983 to 1988, with averages of .361 (in that first full year of 1983), .368, .357, .363, and .366. You can’t be more consistent than that. He led the league in on-base percentage six times, played in a dozen straight All-Star games, and won two Gold Gloves after moving to the Yankees in 1993.

In 1985, Boston’s hitting coach (and Lau disciple) Walt Hriniak described what made Boggs so good. “Three things. He’s got a balanced, workable stance. He’s got great discipline for the strike zone. And he lowers his head on the baseball better than anyone else in baseball. He’s not a good hitter, he’s a great hitter. Exceptional. When it’s all done and over with, you’ll see some of the greatest stats of any hitter in the last 30 years.”

When it was done and over with, after the 1999 season, Boggs had a .328 lifetime average (currently 34th all-time), 3,010 hits (23rd), 578 doubles (15th), 4,445 times on base (18th), and a .415 on-base percentage (26th). The totals are remarkable for a player who didn’t get a job in the majors until he was 24 years old – and just right for a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Closer Look: Dick Radatz

NOTE: The following article was written shortly before Dick Radatz's death in 2005.

DICK RADATZ: BASEBALL’S SUPERNOVA

Imagine a 6’6” tall wide-body throwing a 95mph fastball at you from a low-sidearm delivery, and you have an idea of why Dick Radatz terrorized American League batters for several years in the 1960s. Dubbed “The Monster” by Mickey Mantle, Radatz burst upon the scene at a time when the average pitcher was several inches shorter than today’s hurlers. Of the handful of major league pitchers in 1963 who were taller than Radatz, three (Dave DeBusschere, Steve Hamilton, and Gene Conley) were also professional basketball players. His playing weight fluctuated between 235-260 pounds, and with his long stride and bulk dwarfing a release point that sent his fastball and slider homeward at unfamiliar angles, it’s no wonder that he was totally untouchable for large stretches of the four seasons he logged before control woes curtailed his brilliance.

Radatz, a Detroit native, graduated from Michigan State University in 1959, and was a teammate there of another great reliever, Ron Perranoski. Radatz was a starting pitcher in college (with a 1.12 ERA in 1959 and an overall record of 17-4) and remained so for his first two years in the minors. In 1961, at Seattle in the Pacific Coast League, he was shifted to the bullpen by manager Johnny Pesky, who said he’d teach Radatz to pitch every day. At that time, such a move was considered a demotion, and Radatz told writer Bob Cairns (in an excellent oral history of relievers titled PEN MEN), “that year and even the following year when I went to Boston and was Relief Pitcher of the Year, I still didn’t feel like I was a part of the ball club. I felt like an add-on.” He took his frustration out on PCL hitters, striking out more than one batter per inning and posting a 2.28 ERA in 54 games.

That performance earned Radatz a promotion to the Red Sox, where he instantly took the American League by storm. He allowed only one run in his first 16 innings, and later credited his quick success to a tip from Red Sox pitching coach Sal Maglie. Though Radatz had always possessed a good fastball, he didn’t know how to get the maximum velocity until Maglie showed him how to bend his back leg and harness the full power of his weight when pushing off toward the plate. “With just a few words,” Radatz said of Maglie, “he made a great difference in my life.”

From July 3 through August 17, 1962, Radatz put together the first of several extended stretches of ridiculously dominant pitching. In 20 appearances, he logged 42 1/3 innings, surrendered only two runs, and struck out 50 batters. One of those runs came on July 12 at Kansas City, when he pitched five innings to pick up an extra-inning win in the second game of a twi-night doubleheader that ended close to midnight. The next night, the Red Sox tied the Athletics in the top of the 9th, and in came Radatz despite his yeoman work of the night before. No problem. The game lasted 15 innings before the Red Sox won, and Radatz went the distance, seven innings of shutout ball, making a dozen innings of relief work and two wins in less than 24 hours. Let’s see any pitcher, not just a reliever, shoulder a load like that today. “Coming on top of the five innings the night before,” Radatz told “The Sporting News,” “that game gave me the confidence I may not have had before about being able to put two relief jobs together. Those were big games for me. Also when I went nine innings in relief to beat the Yankees.” That was on September 9 at Yankee Stadium, when Radatz allowed the tying run in the 7th but followed with eight shutout innings, striking out nine, before the Red Sox won the game for him in the 16th inning. Radatz pitched 20 innings against the champion Yankees in 1962, giving them only three runs, a stinginess he continue over the next three years.

Radatz carried a 1.96 ERA into his final outing of the season, a four-run disaster which raised his ERA to 2.23. His 9-6 record and 144 strikeouts in 124 2/3 innings pitched earned him recognition as the league’s top reliever. Saves were not an official stat during Radatz’s prime years, but under modern rules he would have had 24 saves in 1962, more than any American League reliever. At age 25, he had arrived on the major league scene in a big way.

“When you get right down to it,” Radatz told Bob Cairns, “I loved embarrassing the hitter.” In 1963, his best season, he embarrassed the whole league, leading Yankees manager Ralph Houk to declare that “for two seasons, I’ve never seen a better pitcher.” His first seven appearances in 1963 included a seven-inning victory, a three-inning/6-strikeout game, and a four-inning/7-strikeout effort. Then he got hot, putting together the longest scoreless streak of his career, 33 innings between May 13 and June 14.

These weren’t jam-packed innings either, they were overpowering performances. In those 33 innings, spread out over 14 games, The Monster yielded only 11 hits and seven walks, and he whiffed 43 helpless hitters. The streak was capped by the two most scintillating outings of his career. Entering the June 9 game at Baltimore in the bottom of the 9th of a 2-2 tie, he struck out the side to send the game into extra innings. Nobody scored until the 14th, when the Red Sox eked out the game-winner. Radatz pitched six innings of two-hit ball. The 18 outs he recorded included 10 strikeouts, five foul pop-ups, a sacrifice bunt, and a caught stealing. The only batter he walked was intentional. Of the 20 batters he faced, only four hit the ball into fair territory! How do you top that?

Radatz topped it, just two nights later at Detroit. Manager Pesky brought him in in the 7th inning with a runner on second, and he gave up a game-tying single. After that it was lights out for the Tigers as the game stretched into extra innings. They got only two more hits off him the rest of the way, which amounted to another eight innings before the Red Sox won it in the 15th. He walked one man and fanned 11 in his 8 2/3 innings of work. Remember this was only two nights after going six innings at Baltimore. Didn’t he get tired? If he did, The Monster had a strange way of showing it. He retired the final dozen Tigers he faced, and struck out six of the last eight. In two games over a 50-hour span, he pitched 14 2/3 scoreless innings, allowed only five hits and two walks, and struck out 21. Eric Gagne puts up the same numbers – in a month!

In July, 1963, Radatz put together another three-week scoreless streak, this one covering 19 2/3 innings with 11 hits and 18 strikeouts. He wound up the season with a 15-6 record, 24 saves, a 1.98 ERA, and 161 strikeouts in 132 innings. “Dick Radatz brings one weapon – a fast ball,” wrote columnist Jim Murray. “It’s like saying all a country brings to a war is an atom bomb.” Even though the Red Sox were a seventh-place club, Radatz left devastation in his wake.

In 1964, he started where he had left off, allowing only three earned runs in his first 15 appearances. That spree covered 30 1/3 innings in which he gave up just 19 hits and struck out 39. This ushered in his most prolific season, with 157 innings pitched in 79 games. He led all major league relievers with 29 saves and 16 wins (against 9 losses), and set a relief record with 181 strikeouts, a record that should stand for a long time. “We’d be dead without him,” said Pesky at the time. Of course, they were dead anyway, finishing eighth that year. Radatz led the team in wins, and his 2.29 ERA was less than half of the figure for the rest of the pitching staff. It seemed that nothing could stop him.

However, one great hitter might have done just that. In a story published in the 1979 Red Sox scorebook, Radatz recalled that in spring training in 1965, none other than Ted Williams convinced him that his sidearm motion made him a great candidate to throw a sinker that would befuddle left-handed hitters even more. “I agreed,” said Radatz, “and worked hard to develop a sinker. I came up with a pretty good one and fell in love with it. The only trouble was that in doing so I lost my fastball. I’d developed a different motion for the sinker, and my fastball wasn’t effective out of that motion.”

He got off to a horrible start in 1965, giving up 21 earned runs in his first 26 innings. For the rest of the season his ERA was a decent 3.03, and he did have flashes of his vintage brilliance. He had a trio of six-inning gems: only one hit by the Orioles, no runs and three hits by the Indians, and a run on two hits by the Yankees. In two games against the Athletics (May 28 and June 5), he struck out 15 of the 21 batters he faced in 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball. He finished the season with 22 saves and a 9-11 record on a dismal team that lost 100 games and finished ninth. His ERA, however, jumped from below 2.30 the previous three seasons to a dangerously mortal 3.92.

“That was the beginning of the end, though,” Radatz said in 1979. “I couldn’t regain my good control, and it got to be a mental thing. I went from an excellent control pitcher to no control at all.” As Jim Murray wrote of Radatz in 1964, “Control is the secret of his sunshine. If his fast ball went any old place—like the other fellow’s bridgework or the backstop—he’d just be another mound moose with an arm that could scatter the third-base customers.” That’s about what happened, as Radatz was traded to the Indians after a slow start in 1966 and spent the next three years bouncing around baseball. He had stints with the Cubs, Tigers, and expansion Expos before calling it quits in 1969. For much of that time he had trouble finding the strike zone, including one nightmarish game in which he threw 24 straight balls.

In Unhittable!, my book on great pitching seasons, I have an appendix about the greatest relievers. I summarized Radatz’s career thusly: “The supernova of relievers, he lit up the sky at Fenway Park for three years before flaring out.” During those years when the Red Sox were mediocre, Radatz elicited more excitement and cheers than anybody. When he ended a game, usually with a strikeout, he would raise his arms above his head exultantly, a trademark gesture that was rare in his time but presaged the triumphant gestures that recent relievers so commonly display. Boston fans loved the way he terrorized and demolished opposing lineups.

So did I, growing up ten miles from Yankee Stadium and watching him mow down the Yankees again and again on television. As a kid, I spent an excessive amount of time playing dice baseball games, sometimes with friends but more often (as an only child) by myself. I am here to confess that Dick Radatz was the only player I cheated for in those games; many times, if the dice showed that he had allowed a three-run home run, I would get temporary amnesia, forget that I had just rolled the dice, and fling them again to give him that rally-killing strikeout I had anticipated and seen so many times in reality.

There was one time, however, when I was totally helpless to prevent him from surrendering a three-run home run. That was the 1964 All-Star Game at Shea Stadium, which I attended with my father. Radatz came in to pitch the 7th inning with a 4-3 lead and promptly got two strikeouts and a fly out. In the 8th, he fanned Bill White and Leo Cardenas and got Billy Williams to ground out. It looked like a repeat of his 1963 All-Star Game outing, when he allowed a run in two innings but struck out five, including Willie Mays, Duke Snider, and Willie McCovey.

Then came the bottom of the 9th, which I still remember vividly in every detail. Still ahead 4-3, Radatz walked Willie Mays leading off. Everyone in the park knew that Mays would steal second, and the chant of “Willie! Willie!” filled Shea. Mays stole second and scored the tying run when Orlando Cepeda blooped a single to short right field which was retrieved by first baseman Joe Pepitone, who threw wildly to the plate. Cepeda went to second on the heave, and Radatz walked the next man intentionally to get to Ron Hunt. Hank Aaron batted for Hunt but Radatz whiffed him, which made the next batter, Johnny Callison, seem less dangerous. Wrong. I still don’t know how Callison got around so quickly on a low fastball that seemed to scrape the ground. For a long time I’ve thought he was prescient, that he decided before Radatz threw the ball that “I’m going to swing as hard as I can eight inches off the ground, and I hope that’s where he throws it.” The result was a low, screaming line drive which cleared the fence in the right field corner for the game-winning three-run home run. As a National League fan, I was supposed to be overjoyed. Instead I was sick; I couldn’t believe I had just witnessed the demise of my favorite reliever. I can still see the wicked low trajectory of Callison’s blast and still feel the sudden shock of Radatz’s joyride ending. In the fantasy world of my dice game, Radatz could remain infallible, but in reality he was as mortal as everybody else. Writing about him has made him mighty again in my consciousness. But maybe it’s time to unleash those dice again.

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!