Saturday, October 07, 2006
Me, Al Kaline & 1968 Tigers
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, in the 1960's, I was a huge Washington Senators Fan. The Senators STUNK!!. I knew it, my brother knew it, all our friends knew it. But the Nats (Yes, they were still called THE NATS--even then) poor showmanship on the field didn't keep any of us away from DC Stadium (Now RFK).
As a child, we were very fortunate to have parents of all our childhood friends willingly take all of us to Senators Games. Each baseball season we would average 10 games at the, then, spanking new, World REKNOWN architectural Gem on East Capitol Street. Almost always on the weekends, most always a Day Game. Then came 1968. I was 8 years old.
1968 was a tulmultuous year in The United States of America, and on April 4 of that year, The Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated--rioting erupted all across this country, none more so than Washington, DC. 3 Days of intense rioting, burning and looting, destroyed the U Street corridor. The National Guard, then the US Army patrolled the streets of DC. The Shaw District of the city would take over 30 years to finally recover from it all. And, my parents put us under a strict curfew. We would never be allowed out again after dark, for almost a full year. Never to attend another Senators Night game until their final season in DC--1971.
With that in mind, My brother, Michael, childhood friends, Dave and Tim and I, were thrilled to be allowed to go to DC Stadium on Sunday, May 12th, 1968 (just 5 weeks after King was assassinated) to see our Washington Senators against the Detroit Tigers. The same Tigers that would go on to win the 1968 World Series, coming back from a 3-1 deficit, to beat the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals in 7 thrilling games.
Tim's Father, also a big baseball fan, agreed to take us. My parents allowed us to go, on the condition we stayed with Tim's Father throughout the game, and not run all over the ballpark. My parents knew that the Stadium was huge, and if no fans showed up, you could sit just about anywhere, and as kids, run around to your hearts content. It was well known that there were groups attending some games just looking to fight. We agreed to their terms.
All 5 of us ended up in the very first row of Section 104, down the right field line. As it turned out this was to be a game to remember, for the ages--for something that happened off the field. The Tigers were a talented team. And, on this day, Mickey Lolich, soon to become a World Series Hero, was on the mound for Detroit. Their stacked lineup included Dick McAuliffe, Mickey Stanley, Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, the powerful--Willie Horton, plus, Great Outfielder, and sure bet Hall Of Famer, Al Kaline. The Tigers were a solid team.
But, on this day, The Senators young righthanded phenom, Joe Coleman, was on the mound. Coleman was a terrific talent, (sadly, Joe would be traded in December of 1970, along with starting shortstop Eddie Brinkman and 3rd Baseman, Aurelio Rodriguez--both slick fielders--for the washed up Denny McLain. Arguably, THE WORST TRADE in Baseball History--and the first of the final nails in the coffin for Washington as a Baseball town for next 34 years.) And, in the Senators Starting Lineup that day was MY MAIN MAN!!--Frank "Hondo" Howard.
The Senators would get behind in the 3rd when their Rookie Second Baseman, Rich Coggins, booted a sure double play ball hit by Stanley. Kaline would follow with a run scoring single and Freehan hit into a force play, scoring Stanley. 2-0 Tigers heading to the bottom of the 3rd. It was then, that the true fun began.
Kaline, no longer the young fast moving centerfielder, with terrific range, was on the downside of his career. Today, Number 6 was playing rightfield. As Kaline trotted out to right for the 3rd, my brother, friends and I started to give it to Kaline. "You're not too good" "Frank Howard's a much better player!!" "Hondo's Number 1" "Tigers Suck!!" on and on and on. Kaline looked over at us, nodded his head, laughed, waved and continued on out to his position.
The game continued, and our heckling didn't stop. The Senators would explode for 5 runs in the 6th when Hondo and 3rd Baseman, Ken McMullen would homer off Lolich. Howards blast a MONSTER SHOT into the Upper Deck, Section 447, above where the ChevyFirst.com sign sits on the left field wall today, for Washington Nationals Games.
Kaline received even more from us--"WE TOLD YOU!!" "Hondo can beat you guys with one hand tied behind his back", etc, etc. It didn't stop. Kaline continuing to smile at us.
Hondo was playing first that day, and as he jogged out to his position to start the 7th, we cheered Howard WILDLY!! Enough so, that Number 9 (Big Frank wore Number 9 until Ted Williams came along in 1969--switching to 33)--turned and waved at us--TO OUR GREAT DELIGHT!! "Hondo!!, HONDO!!,HONDO!!" we yelled.
As the game continued, the Tigers jogged onto the field to warmup for the bottom of the 7th, and a moment in time--began. Washington had a young outfielder named, Cap Peterson. A journeyman throughout his brief Major League Career. Peterson was once a highly touted prospect for the San Francisco Giants. Now 25, in 1968--Peterson was struggling to stay in the game for the lowly Senators. On this day, Cap Peterson was Washington's starting Left Fielder.
Kaline was soft tossing with Tigers Centerfielder, Mickey Stanley--and we continued to yell at Al. As he was about to throw a warmup toss back to Stanley, I yelled out "Cap Peterson is a much better player than you will ever be!!" Kaline stopping his throwing motion, in mid arc, dropping the ball, turning and immediately jogs over to us on the railing. Believe it or not, we thought we had done something terribly wrong, especially me, and we were going to be in BIG TROUBLE. Tim's Dad telling us to, please be quiet, don't upset him anymore than we already had.
As Kaline reached the warning track, he was laughing. He jogs right up to me, extending his hand, and says "I'm Al Kaline--and who are you??" "Jeff" I squeezed out-shuddering. Kaline places his right hand on my left shoulder, and says "I love Frank Howard too--he's a terrific ballplayer, worthy of all your support, But CAP PETERSON!!! Sorry Son--Cap Peterson is no where near the player I AM!!" "YES SIR!!" I staggered out. During this entire time, the game is actually being held up. In fact, Umpire Crew Chief, Nestor Chylak, is jogging over to get Kaline back out onto the field.
Number 6 looks at Tim's Dad, asking whether he's the parent with this motley crew, then asks him to bring all 4 of us over to the Detroit Dugout, after the game. OK, we all say, and the game continued. On the very first pitch of that inning, Hondo would CRUSH a Fred Lasher fastball over the left centerfield fence for Howard's second home run of the game and the Nats final score in an eventual 6-3 win. Hondo pointing at us as he rounded first base on the homer, me pointing at Kaline in right. Kaline, glove covering his face, laughing to no end. As an 8 year old baseball fan, it really couldn't get much better--chatting and being involved in a Major League Game with two GREAT STARS! But, it did.
As the game ended, with Kaline in the hole, waiting to bat, we had made our way around the lower bowl to just behind the Tigers Dugout. Kaline walked up out of the dugout, looked around, me yelling "We're right here!!" He motioned for the security guard to allow us down onto the field. Grinning like 4 little kids in a candy shop, we happily walked onto the field, with Tim's Dad, whereupon Kaline escorts us into the Tigers Locker Room.
Immediately upon entering the Detroit Locker Room, Kaline says to Norm Cash--"Cap Peterson a better player than me??" Cash laughs, then on to Willie Horton "Don't even want to hear it? Bill Freehan--"Cap Peterson--Seriously?"
Lolich and McLain would walk over--both laughing to no end. McLain saying: "Are these those hecklers in right field." "Yes" we all reply. My brother, Michael, saying to Lolich--"And Hondo took you deep, out of the park--what do you have to say" Lolich-"you got me there son--Frank can flat out hit--got me bad today."
Kaline then steps in to say, "I loved your enthusiasm today, I only wish Washington had more young fans like you guys. This would be a great baseball town." All four of us were then presented with ACTUAL AUTOGRAPHED TEAM BALLS of the 1968 Detroit Tigers!! We were thrilled to no end. Also, we were given some used, cracked bats, to take home, nail and tape to use in our neighborhood pickup games. I still have my autographed ball today, sitting in a safe deposit box.
It was a unexpected thrilling ending to a rare Senators Win!! As we were escorted into the bowels of the stadium and eventually out to the Lot 8 parking Lot, Kaline shook all our hands, waving as we walked away--saying "CAP PETERSON, I WILL NEVER FORGET IT!!"
In 1982, I worked media for the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Game that was played at RFK, once each year, for 3 seasons. The 1982 game featured the FAMOUS HOME RUN by 75 year old Luke Appling off Warren Spahn. Al Kaline was the starting centerfielder for the American League that night. During pregame batting practice, while doing the many interviews with the stars, I walked over to Al Kaline. As we were shaking hands, I asked whether he remembered the Cap Peterson Incident in this very Stadium--14 years ago.
He looked at me, knowingly remembering right away. I started to laugh and said I was the one who yelled that at him in 1968. Smiling--Kaline responded "You're Jeff! You're Jeff!! I have never forgotten and tell the story often!!"
Kaline gave me a warm embrace--and we chatted amiably for a few moments. A Hall of Famer telling me that for the remainder of his career with the Tigers, whenever he made an error or didn't deliver in the clutch--Norm Cash, Bill Freehan or Mickey Stanley would say "Your're no Cap Peterson!" Or "Cap Peterson would have made that catch!!" It was a running, enjoyable joke--that they all loved.
Never to this day, have I seen him since. But, I know he remembers me-fondly.
By the way--I was crushed when the Tigers came back to beat the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series. I loved Bob Gibson and Lou Brock--hated to see them lose that series to Detroit.