When people talk baseball, superficial fans talk about superstars and championship teams. More serious patrons of the game recognize that baseball is a complex montage of headliners and journeyman ballplayers, of teams that fans love to hate and teams that they are ashamed to love.
Even Hollywood knows that baseball goes beyond the headlines. Think about it. The films that are blockbusters are the films about the little people of the game – about Roy Hobbs, fighting back from obscurity, about “The Rookie” getting his one shot at professional ball, or about the eternal optimism that keeps aging players and rookies struggling together in the minors in Bull Durham. Field of Dreams has given its name to the American lexicon – and it’s just a story about a guy and his dad and their mutual love for baseball.
Maybe the best thing about talkin’ baseball is the way that a single memory, a single moment on the field, can – at least for a short time – make an entire world come to life. Sometimes it’s a play that, in itself, doesn’t have much meaning. In 1961, the Tiger infield consisted of Norm Cash at first, Jake Wood at second, Steve Boros on third, and Dick McAuliffe at shortstop.
The ’61 club was an interesting mix of rookies and veterans. Player ages ranged from 40 (Jerry Staley) all the way down to 19 (Bill Freehan, who appeared in four games that year). The infield mix leaned toward youth. In fact, to 27-year old left fielder Rocky Colavito, it may occasionally have seemed as if the right side of the infield should still be in diapers.
There was the day that the opposing batter (a Yankee, if memory serves) lobbed a soft fly into short left field. The Rock had the play in front of him. “I got it,” he called. Remember, this is in Tiger Stadium, where even infield chatter could be picked up by the fans. “I GOT IT,” shouted Rocky again, loping in from the outfield with strides the length of which Man-o-War would have envied.
Never underestimate the determination of a 21 year old shortstop – or of 24 year old second and third basemen. Rocky kept coming in, but Jakey and Mac and Steve kept moving out.
“GAWDDAMMIT, I GOT IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” bellowed the Rock in tones that could have been heard all the way to New York State…and the kids ducked out of the way just in time.
It was later that same year that Frank Lary laid down a late-inning, two out, two strike, suicide squeeze in Yankee Stadium and, as Chico Fernandez came roaring down the line from third base, set up a victory for the Tigers. The play was a classic, and did much to illustrate what made that 1961 season one of the Tigers’ best.
In his previous start (against the Senators, “first in war, first in peace and last – perennially – in the American League”), Taters had won his own ball game in significantly different fashion, with a home run. The score in DC had been 2-1, or something close to that. The Yankee game had featured a little more traffic on the bases, as Lary’s famous skill as a Yankee-killer was a bit lacking on this particular trip to New York. So, instead, there he was with the bat, hungry for runs.
Watching Taters swing the bat in a close game was far from being an unusual circumstance. Taters was a savvy base runner and “one of the better-hitting pitchers in the league,” or so George Kell told the listening audience with great regularity. In any case, in 1961 complete games were expected (and counted in the following year’s salary negotiations). Thus it wasn’t exactly de rigueur to pinch hit for one’s pitching ace. Add to this the fact that Lary had enough guts for ten ballplayers and the quickness of mind to see that Clete Boyer was playing deep at third – and it was all that the situation needed. Taters laid one down, Chico came in to score, and the Tigers won one more game behind Frank Lary – doing so against one of the best teams ever to play in the House that Ruth Built.
George Kell, announcing the game on television, never even called the play. He just started yelling, “Ol’ Taters’ll find some way to beatcha! Ol’ Taters’ll find some way to beatcha!”
Yup. One memory, and it conjures up a whole world.