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SPRING TRAINING

February 19, 2017

The college baseball season is under way. Major League Baseball’s spring training is about to begin. As a new season begins this week for the Boys of Summer, I have fond memories of a trip I took with my grandfather in 1960.

When I was in the tenth grade, Pappy drove his green Oldsmobile to Spartanburg High School. He blew the car horn repeatedly until Dr. Spencer Rice, the principal, came out to see what all the fuss was about. Of course, Dr. Rice knew my grandfather.

“Mr. Neely, is anything wrong?”

“Nothing wrong.  Send that boy out here.”

“Which boy?” asked Dr. Rice.

“My grandson, Kirk.”

Dr. Rice paged me.  “Please send Kirk Neely to the office.”

That’s the announcement every tenth grader dreads.  I walked slowly to the principal’s office wondering what I had done wrong.

Dr. Rice explained, “Kirk, your grandfather is here.” I was both relieved and worried. I went outside.  Dr. Rice followed.

Pappy had moved over into the passenger’s seat. “Get in here, boy, and drive me.” I got behind the wheel.

“Mr. Neely, are you taking Kirk out of school?” Dr. Rice asked.

“No, I’m not taking him out of school. He needs his education.”

“When can we expect him back?”

“In about a week.”

“Do you have an excuse?”

“No! No excuse. We’re going fishing!”

Pappy turned to me, “Take Highway 56 south toward Augusta.”

In the rearview mirror, I could see that Dr. Rice was stunned. Pappy stunned a lot of people. My mother told me later that she thought that being with Pappy for a week was an educational experience, more valuable than a week of school. She was right.

We did not talk much. We drove to Daytona Beach, Florida, and we fished for a week.

Because he had already suffered two heart attacks and a stroke, Pappy didn’t drive well. In fact, he had relearned to drive using his right foot on the brake pedal and his walking cane on the accelerator. Needless to say, his driving was erratic. When other drivers saw him coming they gave him a wide berth.

I earned my South Carolina motor vehicle license when I was fourteen. After that I became Pappy’s designated driver.

Pappy’s doctor had told him that he could fish only every other day and rest on the days in between.  Pappy chartered a boat for fishing. On the off days, we drove all over Florida, going to spring training camps for major league baseball teams, probably not exactly the rest days Pappy’s doctor had in mind.

Pappy especially wanted to visit Art Fowler, a native of Converse, South Carolina, a regular customer at the lumberyard, and who, at that time, was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their training camp was in Vero Beach, Florida.

We were able to find Holman Stadium near historic Dodgertown. Art, then nearly thirty-eight years old and nearing the end of his career as a player greeted us. After a brief conversation, Pappy and I headed back to Daytona Beach.

Pappy was a true baseball fan. Because he grew up in middle Tennessee, his favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. He had never seen a major league game except on a black-and-white television. Pappy talked about the old time baseball players. Cardinal players like Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Red Schoendienst, Grover Alexander, and Walter Allston who, at the time of our trip, was the manager of the Dodgers. There were other players as well. The Georgia peach, Ty Cobb, who had the sharpest spikes in Major League Baseball, was on Pappy’s list. So, too, were the great Yankee players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

One player on Pappy’s list that surprised me was a shortstop known as The Flying Dutchman. Honus Wagner played in the National League from 1897 to 1917. Though he was noticeably bowlegged, he possessed superior speed on the base paths. Playing in what is referred to as the dead ball era, Wagner was an outstanding hitter. Perhaps his fielding, especially at shortstop, was the reason Ty Cobb called Honus Wagner, “the greatest star ever to take the diamond.”

In 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Wagner as one of the first five members, with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Honus was one of nine children born to German immigrants in Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school when he was twelve to help his father and brothers in the coalmines. In their free time, he and his brothers played sandlot baseball. Four of them would go on to be professionals.

Honus trained to be a barber before becoming successful in baseball. Even after he was a baseball player, he would sometimes give haircuts to his teammates in the clubhouse.

Wagner began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. Legend has it that Ed Barrow, who had watched him throw rocks across a creek, signed him to his first contract.

Honus was a solid hitter from the very beginning of his major league career, hitting .338 in 61 games in his rookie year. By his second season, Wagner was already one of the best hitters in the National League. After the 1899 season, the NL was reduced from twelve to eight teams. Owner Barney Dreyfuss took many of his top players with him to Pittsburgh. Wagner would play the remainder of his career for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, 21 seasons in all.

In 1900, Wagner won his first batting championship with a .381 mark and also led the league in doubles (45), triples (22), and slugging (.573). Wagner played several different positions to keep his potent bat and speed in the lineup. He would eventually play every position except catcher, even making two appearances as a pitcher. But as a shortstop he played his best.

Babe Ruth said, “At short stop there is only one candidate for the greatest player of all time, Honus Wagner. He was just head and shoulders above anyone else in that position. Honus could outplay any other shortstop. He was the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.”

His career totals include a .327 lifetime batting average, 640 doubles, 722 stolen bases, and a career total of 3,415 hits.

The Honus Wagner American Tobacco card is the most famous baseball card ever produced. Known as the Holy Grail and the Mona Lisa among collectors, it is by far the most valuable piece of cardboard in existence. In September of 2007, a private collector paid $2.8 million for a card with the likeness of the famous Pirate’s shortstop printed on it.

Very few of these cards are believed to be in existence. One theory for the card’s scarcity is that Wagner requested the production of this card be halted since it was being sold to market tobacco products. At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, one of the cards is on display. A plaque states that while Wagner was a smoker, he did not want children to buy tobacco products to get his card.

Though the steroid era has tainted the sport, baseball still has a place in the hearts of the American people. One of the reasons is our collective memory of players like Honus Wagner. No wonder Pappy had him on his list of great players.

Former President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, told a story. “When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, a friend and I went fishing. As we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”

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