In the My Favorite Player series, writers reflect back on the player they admire most and share what it is about them that has captured their loyalty and admiration.
Anytime I hear Judy Garland sing “Meet Me in St. Louis,” I think of the first Major League baseball game I saw. And I think of how the kindness of a St. Louis native who was one of the game’s brightest stars at the time made that game unforgettable.
It was April 1959. I was a third grader at Richfield School in Richfield, North Carolina, where all 12 grades and 320 or so students were housed in the same 1920s-vintage redbrick building.
I was born on July 14, 1973. Al Kaline’s last game as a Major Leaguer came on October 2, 1974. While it’s possible that I sat in a bassinet as Ernie Harwell’s voice could be heard giving the play-by-play in the background some time in those 14 and a half intervening months, I never once saw Kaline play a Major League game. So how on earth could he be my favorite player?
In 1982, I was given a copy of the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia for my 14th birthday. The weighty tome was like nothing else at the time. In those dark days before the Internet, before we could instantly look up Justin Verlander’s career WHIP on our smartphones, the Baseball Encyclopedia was the statistical reference of choice. With career numbers for every Major League player going back to the 1800s, World Series and All-Star Game records, and annual team lineups, it must have tipped the scales at 10 pounds and easily reached 3,000 pages.
Throughout the city of Chicago, boys of the late 1950s raced home from school on spring and early fall afternoons, hoping to catch the last few innings of that day’s Cubs game at Wrigley Field. It was an experience virtually unique to Chicago, since few other teams televised any of their home games, and those that did rarely played in the sunshine.
In the summer of 1988, as a 12-year-old boy, I had a magical baseball summer. Over the course of a few short weeks, my grandfather introduced me to Vin Scully, Dodger Dogs, the LA Times’ Jim Murray, and Orel Hershiser. The timing was perfect. In 1988, the Dodgers raced to the NL Pennant and a World Series victory over the seemingly invincible Oakland A’s. The Dodgers’ ace, Hershiser, ripped off a string of dominant performances and scoreless innings that defied all explanations. I have never loved baseball as much as I did that summer.
I first covered baseball in the mid-1980s for The San Francisco Examiner. The Giants and the Athletics were both contenders, due to meet in the “Battle of the Bay” World Series in 1989, and those squads had plenty of stellar often-colorful ballplayers.
I don’t remember exactly when I became somewhat obsessed with knuckleball pitchers. I do remember taking some interest in Wilbur Wood’s exploits with the White Sox in the early 1970s. A few years later, I read Jim Bouton’s Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues. I might have realized, then, that without the mysterious and unpredictable knuckleball, the most important book in baseball history almost certainly wouldn’t have existed. Maybe that should have been enough to spur my interest.
Early on the morning of May 3, 1967, I was born in Brookline Hospital, the same hospital in which my father was born, the doctor having been assisted by the same nurse who helped deliver my dad 22 years before. So it’s no wonder that we shared a love for the same baseball player—Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.