Love of baseball grows in spring
By Jeff Idelson
Just back to Cooperstown after a nine-day road trip to Los Angeles, for the WBC; Phoenix, to meet with a couple of owners; and Florida, for some fundraising initiatives. My trip home from Florida on Sunday was fine, though my string of six straight Southwest flights in seat 11C – exit row aisle – came to an end. Hey, at least I got an aisle seat.
The main thrust of my visit to Florida was our annual Hall of Fame Champions Grapefruit League trip. We have a great circle of Champions - individuals and couples who support the Hall of Fame at $5,000 or more. In return for supporting our educational mission, Champions receive invitations to events across the country with Hall of Famers, spring training games in Florida and Arizona, exhibit openings, Hall of Fame Weekend and the Hall of Fame Classic, all with exclusive access.
Two weeks ago we were in Arizona to see the A’s and Mariners play. A’s General Manager Billy Beane joined us for a while before the game, and we had dinner with Hall of Famer Billy Williams.
For our Grapefruit League endeavor, we headed for Ft. Myers. Hall of Fame Vice President and Chief Curator Ted Spencer, named after Ted Williams, Senior Development Director Ken Meifert, whose heart belongs to the Indians, and I, were joined by Hall of Famer Robin Roberts.
We picked up the Hall of Fame right-hander at his home outside Tampa. ”The Rays are selling out every game this spring,” beamed the longtime Phillie, about his hometown Tampa Bay Rays.
We headed south to Naples, where I talked to Robin about his career. “Sure I met Cy Young. I asked him how he won all those games and he told me he held the ball way back in his hand. I met Cobb too. He told me, ‘I wish I had a few less hits and a few more friends.’”
In Napes, we met Champion Jay Baker for lunch. Jay is a long-time Yankees fan and history buff, and along with his wife Patty, an ardent supporter of many philanthropic causes, such as the Hall of Fame.
Over lunch, I asked Robin if he had ever been in a movie. “No, but Ashburn and I met Spencer Tracy when he was filming Judgment at Nuremberg,” he said. ”What a nice man.”
Robin then quipped, “I was on television once, on What’s My Line (YouTube clip of Robin). The panel had to try and guess my off-season job, which was with the Neptunalia Seafood Company. I was president of Gold King and we sold frozen shrimp. No one could figure out what I did, but they sure came close.”
“I was on Murphy Brown,” quipped Baker. ”If you watch carefully, you can see me. I was so smooth we did it on one take,” he laughed.
We spent the afternoon seeing two impressive private baseball collections – Jay’s and the one of another area Champion, Don Gunther. Both are wonderful examples of how the game means so much to people personally. They are both inspired by their love of the game and its history, akin to what happens to visitors every day in Cooperstown.
Jay and Patty generously hosted a Champions recruiting dinner that evening in Naples. There were 24 dinner guests, including former major leaguer Sterling Hitchcock, and we spent the evening all sharing personal stories about what the game means to each of us.
Robin reminisced about meeting Grover Cleveland Alexander in grade school in Springfield, Illinois. ”We had a two-room school house for 8 grades. Alexander was the special guest one day when I was in the eighth grade. He told us, ‘Baseball is a great game. Don’t drink. Look what it did to me.’ Sad, but true.”
Hitchcock recounted how he grew up unhappy with George Brett who once refused to sign an autograph for him as a high school student. He told his fiancée (who became his wife) that if he ever made the majors, he would hit Brett with a pitch.
Not too many years later, making his major league debut at Yankee Stadium, Hitchcock hit Brett on the elbow, very much by mistake. The phone rang that night, and Sterling’s mother-in-law, who was watching the game, remembered the story and thought he had done it on purpose. ”Of course, I hadn’t, nor would I ever do that” said Hitchcock, laughing.
The dinner conversation was delightful, with everyone sharing childhood memories of how they first fell in love with the game.
Jim Collias, a retired neurosurgeon from Yale-New Haven Medical Center, recalled growing up in Boston’s South End. ”Mr. Yawkey gave a bunch of us jobs working in the clubhouse during the Depression. I have fond memories of being in Fenway Park and Mr. Yawkey was a nice man. We also were sent to the train station to get the players’ bags when the team arrived in town. We all got very excited to welcome the Yankees, though Joe DiMaggio would never let us carry his bag. He would just shake his head, ‘No.’”
Saturday was spent in City of Palms Park, home to the Red Sox, who played the Twins. Brad Penny and Francisco Liriano pitched, and – aided by some serious wind blowing out to left field - Rocco Baldelli, Big Papi and Jason Bay all hit home runs in a Red Sox victory.
Thanks to the generosity of the Red Sox, we enjoyed the afternoon from the owners’ suite. A number of our Champions and recruits enjoyed the beautiful weather and the pristine ballpark while talking baseball all afternoon.
Cincinnati-based champion Buck Newsome and his wife Robin traveled in for the game with Robin keeping a detailed scorebook. “This book’s only for spring training,” she explained to me “and I like this style scorebook, because it allows me to count pitches.” The Newsomes are my kind of people — ones who adore the game.
Robin (the pitcher, not the scorekeeper) and I were on the field before the game and we spoke with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “Things sure have changed in pitching,” said Robin to Ron. “My pitching coach and mentor, Cy Perkins’, instruction to me was pretty simple. He said, ‘Kid, you can really pitch, keep it up; stay ahead of the batter, and; don’t get past 2-2 on a hitter.’ That was it.”
After the game, we headed north to Sarasota to have dinner with Reds’ owner Bob Castellini and his wife, Susie, along with their son Bob, Jr., team general manager Walt Jocketty and Hall of Fame champion Bob Crotty. The dinner was wonderful. We talked to the Castellinis about the Hall of Fame and its programs and shared a lot of laughs.
On the way back to Tampa, I asked Robin about how he developed such an effective curveball. ”Sal Maglie,” said Robin. ”I pitched against ‘The Barber’ on opening day in 1952 and watched how he really shortened up his delivery with the curveball. So, I copied it, won 28 games that year, and never told him.”
We dropped Robin off at home around 11:30 pm, concluding a great couple of days with a group of friends who truly love the game of baseball.
Jeff Idelson is the president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.