People Who Were a Major Influence in My Baseball Life
Players As Heroes: Three Eras
My father introduced me to the game at a very early age and took me to my first game when I was 8 years old. He patiently explained the "entire" game to me on that first visit and continually "explained the game" to me for the next ten years.
He taught me to keep score, to learn/understand the skills that players used at every position, to grasp the concept of teamwork and "game play" and to try and fathom the "rules". By the time I was 11 years old (with three years watching experience) I became quite knowledgeable about the whole game.
At the start of my "playing days" as a 11 y/o I became the "local" expert on "rules", "how to play positions", "play calling" and general "pain in the ass in charge" for most pick up sandlot games. In Junior High School gym class (we had no baseball team) I was almost always chosen by the teacher as one of the captains, because I knew the game quite well. Usually I played Shortstop or Second Base because I was the most skillful of my age group. However, in sandlot games I opted to play Catcher, because that position used my skills (mental and physical) the best.
Throughout this six-year period (age 8-13), I had the constant mentor of my Father both at the Major League Ballpark and at sandlots or in school. Each year I gained a greater appreciation for the game, the skills it took to play it, and something about the history of the sport (before I became involved that is). My status as a Fan grew stronger as the years went by because I learned more about what the game of baseball was all about. Attendance alone at games (regardless of how many games there were) did not make me a fan, but rather my father's tutoring made me more of a fan and one who learned a lot about the whole sport. But, he was not the only influence on my development as a fan because there were the players.
My "Players As Heroes" period can be divided into three eras: (1) Age 8-18 when I lived at home and frequented Briggs Stadium; (2) Age 18-39 when I played the most and seldom attended ballgames but followed the news as an avid reader; and (3) Age 40-present when my playing days subsided and my attendance at ballparks increased. Each ERA had players who influenced me "personally" as a fan.
The First player was a Detroit Tiger bench guy by the name of Frank (Pig) House who played for the Tigers for about 8 years (1950-1957) then moved on to Kansas City and somewhere else before playing his last year back at Detroit. He was an extremely friendly man from the South (Alabama I believe) who didn't mind "small kids" bugging him for free balls, autographs (his and other players). Because my Father's season tickets were right over the Tiger dugout, I could easily "communicate" with the players at every game. Frank House, who was just 20 when he came to the Tigers, was my player who made me an avid fan. I could chit-chat with him, compliment him on good plays, holler at him for bad plays and generally "relate to him" on a day-to-day basis. In addition, he would just walk right over to the visitor's dugout (during batting practice) and get autographs (on baseballs) from the visiting team for "us kids". My collection of Prize Signatures was the result of "Pig" House's efforts and willingness to encourage kids to be fans by being a "true friendly player." He didn't make it to Cooperstown, but for us kids, he belongs there right beside those other guys.
My Second Era of Fan Development was characterized by such players as Johnny Bench and Roberto Clemente. As the intensity of my playing time increased (as a catcher) I appreciated the skill of the Major League catchers and followed baseball through their efforts, rather than any specific team's accomplishments. Johnny Bench (along with Thurman Munson, Pudge Fisk, et al) brought me to the "Numbers In The Game" (BA, HRs, RBI's, etc) where I generally reside today (as a long term Rotisserie Baseball Owner who lives by the numbers year round). Humanitarians and Fan Friendly guys like Roberto Clemente made me appreciate (or severely despise) players who related (or didn't) to the public in positive ways. My one-and-only personal contact with a player during this 20 year stretch was with a retired catcher by the name of Sherm Lollar. I met him at a baseball card show and had a long discussion with him about his "magic moment in baseball lore" which happened on my birthday back in 1955. He was only one of three players in history to collect two hits in an inning twice in the same game (rare double-double) which he did in the Second and Sixth innings on April 23, 1955 when his White Sox beat Kansas City.
The Third Era is marked by the almost total disgust (or so it seems) for fans by the players. As my attendance at games grew in numbers it seems as though the unwillingness of players to "communicate with fans" diminished. It appears as though only the Bullpen and third-stringers will sign autographs or even talk to fans. The few instances that a player relates to a fan is generally a negative event. The only bright spot in this third era was Pitching Coach Ray Miller (of Pittsburgh) who always represented "that kind of guy we had in my youth" and one we no longer have. Sadly, the players (as a whole) by their attitudes and behaviors have had a negative effect on my development as a fan, for I no longer have that driving desire to be at the ballpark. I quietly do my baseball thing by the numbers (Rotisserie), which after all is the only value that most players have today.
The Greenfields Of The Mind by Bart Giamatti says it best: ".... when you need it most, it goes..."