The Greatest Baseball Story Ever Told is a Roger Angell Story
Yesterday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Roger Angell, 93, the longtime fiction editor for The New Yorker, who wrote a few baseball essays on the side, was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the Hall’s writing honor. (Spink, in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, was the longtime publisher of The Sporting News; he died in 1962.)
About time, I say. I spent the fall of ’94, our first fall without a World Series since 1903, reading Roger Angell. He was my compensation. I read all of him, chronologically, and there are great baseball stories throughout, but this may be my favorite. It’s from the essay, “Stories for a Rainy Afternoon,” from the book, “Five Seasons,” originally published in the summer of 1976. Our Bicentennial summer.
It’s really Tommy Lasorda’s story but Angell tells it so well. Have I told it before? Here? I tried to find it but couldn’t. So here it is again. Or for the first time.
LaSorda, it can be proved, is a patient sort of man. He grew up in Morristown, Pennsylvania, and became a serious baseball fan at an early age. When he was 12 or 13, he volunteered for duty as a crossing guard at his parochial school because he knew that the reward for this service was a free trip to a big-league baseball game—an event he had yet to witness. The great day came at last, the sun shone, and the party of nuns and junior fuzz repaired to Shibe Park, where the Phillies were playing the Giants. Young Tom LaSorda had a wonderful afternoon, and just before the game ended he and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
“C’n I have your autograph, please, mister?” he said.
“Outta my way, kid,” the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom LaSorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was the first big-league player I’d ever seen up close—the first one I ever dared speak to—and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back—you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it.”
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom LaSorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box.
The park loudspeaker made the introduction: “Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!”
LaSorda was transfixed. “I looked in,” he says, “and it was the same man!”
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the button from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under the Adam’s apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, LaSorda was dressing in the visitor’s locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. “Listen, kid,” he said to LaSorda, “did I ever meet you before?”
“Not exactly,” Tom said.
“Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?”
“Well, why were you tryin’ to take my head off out there?”
LaSorda spread his hands wide. “You didn’t give me your autograph,” he said.
Tom LaSorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. “Always give an autograph when somebody asks you,” he says gravely. “You never can tell. In baseball anything can happen.”