One Highlight and One Lowlight

One Highlight and One Lowlight

Often when I have the opportunity to speak to young people, I use actual real life experiences taken from my baseball career to illustrate particular points.   I speak of both “highlights” and “lowlights” of my career.  I rarely do this in Pitching For The Master, but I am going to write about what is perhaps the greatest highlight of my baseball career, but I will follow this quickly with a lowlight that falls within the same context.  This illustrates perfectly the “ups” and “downs” of baseball, and also of life itself.

My Greatest Highlight

Before I write about the greatest highlight of my career, it is necessary to give a brief  background.  I had just come off of two subpar seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals.  In December of 1962, I was traded to the Cubs along with Larry Jackson, my teammate with the Cardinals for seven years.  In exchange the Cardinals received George Altman and Don Cardwell.  Some baseball experts were saying that my career was basically over.  But to the surprise of the baseball world, and the Cardinals, I made a big comeback in 1963 with the Cubs and won my second “fireman of the year award”.   That year against the Cardinals I pitched 25 innings, giving up no runs, 10 hits and picked up several wins and saves which was a major factor in their failing to win the pennant. 

Because of its spectacular nature, I call this my greatest highlight in baseball, but that may not be strictly true in terms of actual importance.  But it did make big headlines in Chicago and all over the country.   This unusual event occurred on June Sixth, 1963 when I was playing for the Chicago Cubs.  This occurred on a Sunday afternoon and was the last game of a four game series against the San Francisco Giants.  The Giants had won the National League Pennant the year before.  The game was played in historic Wrigley Field.   The Giants came to town leading the league by four games.  The Cubs were in second place at the time.   All four games were played before a packed ballpark.   The Cubs won the first three games of the series.  I picked up a “save” in one of those games.   A “save” is when you come into the game as a relief pitcher with a lead and are able to preserve the win. 

In the fourth game, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, Dick Ellsworth started the game for the Cubs and after 9 innings the score was tied 2 to 2.  In the top of the tenth inning, the Giants had loaded the bases with one out.  This is when I was brought into the game.   After completing my 8 warm-up pitches, the game was resumed.  I took Dick Bertell’s (the catcher) sign from behind the rubber as I would normally do in a full wind up delivery.   Dick flashed me the sign for a pick-off play at second base.  The play works like this.   If Andre Rogers, our short-stop, thinks that he can sneak behind the runner at second,  He gives a sign to the catcher, who then relays the sign to me.   I get the sign with a relaxed stance and act like I am about to go into my normal windup.  Bertell then flops his catcher's mitt down, and I immediately wheel and throw to second.   The catcher does this as soon as he sees daylight between shortstop and the base-runner.   Willie Mays is the runner and is two short steps away from the bag.  The throw caught him totally by surprise and he was tagged for the second out!   He never moved.  The next batter Ed Bailey, hitting from the left side of the plate, struck out swinging on three straight “fork-ball” pitches.   I received my first standing ovation after picking Willie Mays off second base.   I received a second standing ovation when I walked off the mound after striking out Ed Bailey on three pitches.  Of course, I couldn’t do it by myself.  It takes the shortstop, the catcher, and some cooperation from the base-runner. 

I was the lead-off hitter in the bottom of the 10th inning.  With a two ball and one strike count, I hit a slider off of Billy Pierce deep into the left-center field bleachers for a homerun.   The crowd went absolutely wild!  The entire ball club met me at home plate.  We were tied with the Giants for first place!  That was the beginning of the down fall for the Giants and they never recovered from this blow.  The next day the Chicago Tribune newspaper had the entire sequence of my picking Willie Mays off of second base.  The paper stated that Willie had fined himself $500 when he reached the Giant’s dugout.   At the beginning of this article is the photo of my coming to home plate after hitting the home run.   All of this happened in quick succession and took only about 15-20 minutes.  Not a bad afternoon’s work at the “friendly confines of Wrigley Field” as Ernie Banks would call it. For one brief moment all was joy in Chicago land. 

Followed By A Lowlight

A few days later, the Cubs were playing against the Houston Colts, now called the Houston Astros, in Colt Stadium.    I entered the game in the bottom of the nineth inning with score tied, bases loaded and no outs.   The hitter was Bob Aspromonte.  All he had to do was hit a long fly ball, the runner tags up at third and scores for the winning run.  I pitched Bob inside to try to get a pop-up.   He was evidently looking for the pitch inside, for it was just off the strike zone, but he opened up his stance, swung and hit a home run.  Seems like in 1963, the bases were loaded almost every time I entered the game.  That year I gave up three grand slam homeruns and each one was freaky in some way.  I also led the league in relief pitching for the most wins and saves and received the fireman’s award.   But even so, it was strange to give up those three grand slam home runs.  This is how they occurred. 

I gave up one grand slam homerun in Chicago to  Hank Aaron, the great hitter for the Milwaukee Braves.   I remember it well.  Why is it that I always remember such things? I threw him a fast ball low and away which would have been a perfect strike on the corner.   He swung and popped the ball up to Ken Hubs, our second baseman.   It was a very high pop-up.  The second baseman started drifting back on the ball.   The right fielder came slightly in, then floated back, all the way to the outfield wall.  The ball hit the top of the wall and bounced into the right field bleachers for a home run.   Oh, I forgot to tell you one small fact, the wind was blowing 40 miles per hour towards right field!   My wife was sitting behind home plate directly behind Lew Burdette, who was charting the pitches, and the starting Brave pitcher for the next game.  He turned around and said to her, “On some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed . . does it!”  Later Lew Burdette was traded to the Cubs and we had some interesting conversations.  He told me one time that you never really get to know a person until after they are drunk.  That is why it is so hard to use a lot of baseball material in my preaching.  But let me finish my story.

On another occasion that year the Cubs were playing the Mets in the old Polo Grounds in New York.   I was brought into the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with the bases loaded.   There were two outs.  The Cubs had a one run lead.  Jim Hickman, a fellow Oklahoman,  was the batter.   The Met fans were screaming their heads off.   I got to a 3 ball 2 strike count on the hitter.   If I walked the batter, the game would be tied.  The fans were yelling so loud that it was hard to even concentrate.   I threw a fastball inside.   It would have been a ball if the batter had not swung.   But the pitch was too close to take.  In those situations there is as much pressure on the hitter as on the pitcher.  Hickman swung and his bat broke into two pieces.  The ball traveled straight down the left field line.   Billy Williams, our left fielder,  got under the ball and waited for it to come down.   It was a sure out.  In the Polo Grounds, the left field wall was only 252 feet down the line.  Oddly enough the upper deck overhangs the lower stands.  The ball just nicked the lower facing of the upper deck for a grand slam home run!   Another sad day at the old ball park.  Then we had to walk all the way to the clubhouse in center field among all the yelling and screaming.  

Now getting back to the Bob Aspromonte home-run.   In about 2008, I happened to read an article in the Reader’s Digest on Aspromonte and he commented on this same 1963 event.   The article relates a great story about Bob visiting a young man in a hospital.  The young man had a terminal illness and was not expected to live much longer.   The kid was a big Colt 45 (Houston Colts) baseball fan.  He asked Bob to hit a home run for him.   Bob promised that he would try.  That was the home run that he hit off of me!   Now how can I complain about that?  After all those years, I don’t feel nearly so bad about giving up that home run!   I have always said that real life is stranger than fiction and it really is.

Here is a side note about Bob Aspromonte.  As many of you know, my brother Von and I were teammates together with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1957.  After my brother had arm trouble in 1958, he was sent down to the minors where he spend 9 years before retiring.  The closest he got to the Big Leagues again was in 1962 as a third baseman in the Astro organization.  Von was the last man cut from the spring training roster that year.   The player who beat him out was Bob Aspromonte.   Life is really strange.

Folks, this is basically an article about baseball, but in many respects it is also an article about life.  Life has many twists and turns.   Only in your dreams is life smooth and easy.   Life was never intended to be easy, for it is a testing ground. The only way to safely navigate life is to listen to God and trust in Him with all of your heart.   In my next article, I will leave the field of dreams and get back to the full reality of life in Jesus Christ, my #1 interest.    Because, folks, if we don’t get that right, none of the rest is going to matter.
The photo at the beginning of this article was taken on June 6, 1963 as I was touching home plate after hitting the game winning home run.  The entire team met me at home plate.

Special note:  A baseball researcher friend of mine sent me a list of all the home runs I gave up in my career.   There was a list of 172 home runs, with dates, places, teams, hitter, number of men on base, etc.   I am not sure that was a great ego booster!!   Usually those are facts you would rather forget.  But there were some very interesting things about these lists.  Of the 172 home runs, 60% came with the bases empty, 24.5% came with 1 runner on base, 10.2% came with 2 runners on base, and 4.8% came with the bases loaded.    I gave up a total of 8 bases loaded home runs in my career.   So the three bases loaded home runs I gave up in 1963,  which I mention in this article, comprised about 37% of the total number I gave up in 20 years.   And yet I was the most effective relief pitcher in the National League that year.   My friend also informed me that the great Hall of Fame pitcher, Robin Roberts, usually lead the league in homers given up, but most of those were with the bases empty.  I think there must be a pitching theory in there somewhere.   One of these days I will try to explain it.  

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