Picture of the Phenom

Local sports collectors have been excited in recent months by the online sale of the photo libraries of Detroit’s once-powerful daily newspapers.
 
For historians or just casual fans, this look into the files of the old Detroit Times, and the Detroit News and Free Press, has been a true revelation.  Some amazing old photos have come up for sale, shots that comprise the pictorial history of our town.  For really cool shots — like game photos from the Detroit Lions and Red Wings glory days of the 1950s — the prices have seemed sky-high, with many photos selling for more than $100.  The same is true for vintage photos of Al Kaline and Gordie Howe in their rookie or early seasons of their legendary careers. 
 
But leave it to me, I was taken aback (and when was the last time you heard anybody admit to that?) to blunder across a vintage Detroit newspaper photo of a guy who temporarily heated up the late summer of 1962 with his exciting outfield play for the Tigers … the inimitable and nearly legendary Purnal Goldy.  And believe me, I was geeked to discover that picture.  Boy, did it hit home.  But I bet it won’t draw five bucks.
 
Purnal Who?, you say.  Well, that’s the problem.  You had to have been around town, and been a maniacal backer of the Bengals in ’62 to recall the name of ol’ Purnal with a bit of a sentimental ache.  Karen Bush wrote an excellent piece on Purn for the Detroit Athletic Co. last summer, recalling his failed flirtation with, well, greatness.  But the very fact that his name today falls on mostly-deaf ears bears testimony to the painful fact that after showing us a seemingly unlimited promise in the late season of 1962, poor Purn was never able to put together a full season in Major League Baseball. 
 
Even I — a major Purnal Goldy fan, kind of an early day Purnal Goldy groupie — have to scratch my head now and wonder what the hey all the excitement was about.  Goldy played in September of ’62 for the Bengals.  I seem to recall that Al Kaline was either injured or being rested by the Tigers at the end of that season, and Purnal — all 6 feet 5′ of him — seemed to shine as his rightfield replacement.  And I remember how his unusual name seemed to trip right off the tongue of Ernie Harwell.  All of 24 during that promising late season, Purnal hit an awfully modest .229, but managed to club three home runs in his Tigers audition and make some heady plays in the field. Not bad, but not much for a genuine phenom.
 
Still, there must have been something about him that got us all so excited.  In my neighborhood, I can still hear the kids yelling “Purnal GOLDY!” when somebody would make a good play in the field, or slug a long fly ball.  I know that sports columnist Joe Falls, whom I knew later at the Free Press, once confessed to having promoted the idea of Goldy as a future Tigers star … if not for his talent then possibly just for the sound of his fairly goofy name.
 
He didn’t have to work hard to sell us, not in our section of town.  We were so starved for some kind of Tigers hope, ANY kind of Tigers hope, that we were fooled into climbing on the Goldy bandwagon.  Cripes, in 1961 our Tigers had won 101 games — 101 in a 162 game campaign! — and still didn’t qualify for the post-season, which went to the Yankees with their 109-victory mark.  We were starving, dying, for some hope for our team.  All we’d had, year after year, was Al Kaline and a group of promising co-stars (Kuenn and Boone in the late ’50s … Colavito and Cash in the early ’60s) who never seemed quite able to get us over the hump.
 
So it was that we believed … we really WANTED to believe … in the legend-in-the-making of Purnal Goldy.  After his late-season fireworks (well, sometimes) we were pumped for Lakeland and the promise Purnal would bring to the ’63 campaign.  The papers said he might play center, or left field, and we could see Goldy and Kaline storming through the season. 
 
Well, some storm.  Some season.  His numbers for 1963, his final MLB campaign, are cold and mocking.  Nine games.  Eight at-bats.  Two hits, all singles, for a .250 average.  The Tigers fell from 85 victories in ’62, to 79 in ’63.  For reasons that nobody in our east side neighborhood could understand — he had seemed SO good last year! — it was the end of Purnal.  And thus did the phenom recede into history.  A guy now remembered for one shining, albeit maybe bogus, trip to the Bigs.  A guy now readily recalled by only those of us who were starving for Tigers glory in 1962 and ’63 for his one moment in the sun … but now only remembered for the goofy sound of his oddball name … Purnal Goldy. 
 
I mean, how many guys have you met named Purnal?  How many have you met named Goldy?
 
Only his picture remains now, and it ain’t talking.  Rising up now, almost mockingly, it brings back the almost-legend of Purnal, the almost glory of the early ’60s Tigers.  Mute testimony to a phenomenon that maybe existed only in our heads.  Purnal Goldy.  The star that never was, on a team that never could…. 

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