Sunday, January 21, 2007
My First Major League Game Memories
The date was May 30th--Memorial Day, in the year 1966, I was 6 years old. With my oldest brother Milton (20 Years my senior), and sibling brother, Michael (8 years old) in tow--I would attend my very first Washington Senators Games. As it turned out, a doubleheader, against the New York Yankees at DC Stadium (now RFK).
The Yankees, Mickey Mantle, was the ultimate superstar at the time, along with San Francisco Giant, Willie Mays (unquestionably, THE GREATEST PLAYER OF MY YOUTH!). When kids talked about pitchers--everyone wanted to be The Dodgers, Sandy Koufax. Playing tee ball on a vacant lot next to our house, we would constantly re-enact players batting stances, swings and trots around the bases. Michael could mimic a mean Willie McCovey. McCovey had tremendous power--holding his wrist down low in his stance, but his bat speed was so fast--McCovey would tomahawk the ball. When Willie hit it well, no one wanted to stand in the way of his screamers. Michael could flat out slam the ball, just like McCovey. We kids had so much fun watching Michael "McCovey". When Mantle hit a homer, he always ran with his shoulders shrugged and head tilted down low--I always copied that head tilt, throughout my baseball career--in remembrance of my childhood enjoyment.
After an injury ended his professional football career, Milton was now in the Air Force Reserve, a pilot, flying cargo missions in and out of Saigon, South Vietnam. On leave and home for the holiday--Milton wanted to go see The Washington Senators. Michael and I had never been. We barely knew who the players were. Our oldest brother convinced our Dad to let us go to our first professional games with him. Dad agreed. When Milton told us we were going to the Senators Game, you've never seen two kids jump up and down like us. We were beaming in excitement.
At the time, The Yankees were two years removed from their impressive 16 year run of superiority in Major League Baseball. Mantle was well over the hill and on downward slope of his career. The Yankees Sucked!! The rest of baseball BASKED IN THAT GLORY!!.
The Senators were a struggling expansion team--Frank Howard was their star player, but, he would not reach the pinnacle of his career for another 2 seasons. Gil Hodges was the Manager, and, like Frank Robinson with our Inaugural Nationals, was THE FACE OF THE FRANCHISE.
Game time was 1PM, Michael and I wanted to go see batting practice. Milton agreed and we headed off to DC Stadium in my Dad's, beat up & tan 1962 Studebaker. I swear to this day, that car (lovingly known to us as "STUPIDBAKER" for eternity), came off the New Car Assembly Line broken down, trashed and smashed. But, it was the vehicle my dad used, everyday, to go to work as a Train Engineer at Potomac Yards for The Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad.
Dad worked there for 45 years, after WWII, retiring in 1990. RF&P, at one time, the richest railroad in America, became a land baron in Northern Virginia, selling off its entire system to developers. Where once stood a proud rail yard, now sits a Target, Shoppers Food Warehouse and Best Buy, among others. Potomac Yards is a strip mall today on Route 1 in Alexandria--just another sign of the homogenization of America.
In 1966, we lived at 2413 Duke Street, next to The George Washington Masonic Temple (King Street Metro Today), right at Telegraph Road, an address that does not exist today. Less than one month after this ball game trip, we were forced out of our house by The Commonwealth of Virginia, so The State and Federal Government could build, what is now, the Telegraph Road Interchange with The Beltway. If you have ever driven on the looping road to get onto Duke Street, or onto The Beltway there, you drove right through my first childhood home.
There was no I-395 then, the road didn't exist. So taking the short trip across the 14th Bridge, from Alexandria, was impossible in those days. Instead, Milton crossed the NEW Woodrow Wilson Bridge into Maryland, then drove along the Anacostia Freeway to Benning Road, driving into Lot 7 at Oklahoma Avenue--where we parked. I believe parking cost $3 then, but I am not sure.
DC Stadium was HUGE!! The biggest building I ever had seen at the time. And, there were plenty of people. 31,764 would attend this doubleheader. May 30, 1966 was a series of first: "ScoreCARD!! GET YA SCORECARD HERE!!"," Red Hots, RED HOTS!!" " Pennants!, Senators Pennants, Yankee Pennants, waddya want, I got em all!" The sounds of baseball that are soothing to my mind, even today.
The ticket kiosk at RFK today, were actually in use back then. Milton bought, what are now Upper Deck Lower View MVP Seats, front row, right behind the 3rd base dugout. Total cost--$12. Excitedly, we walked into the stadium. The ticket taker tearing our tickets in half, leaving us with the rain check stubs (the ticket shown is from another game).
Milton bought me a Program, with little red Senators Engraved Pencil, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard," the hawker told me. Then, it was on to the Pennants. Milton bought, both Michael and I, Yankees and Senators Pennants. Navy Blue Yankees with "Uncle Sam" standing tall over Yankee Stadium; The Red Senators Pennant in the Classic Pitcher pose about to deliver the ball, in front of the Capitol Dome. I am proud to say I still have those items. Bashed and well used, but they mean more to me, today, than just about anything else I have acquired, during my baseball life.
From there it was on to the Upper Deck. As we walked the wide walkways, you could hear the stadium organ playing, the sound of bat whacking the ball, but I had not yet, seen the field. Between levels, for the very first time, I caught a glimpse of the playing field. And, just stopped, in AWE! I had never seen so much green grass in my short life. What a fabulous site to behold. Mesmorized, I didn't move for about one minute, until Milton convinced me, I would see the entire field very soon, if I just started walking. "Oh yeah," I remember saying, Milton laughed. I moved, and he was right.
Our seats were Section 319, row 1, seats 5 through 7, overlooking the 3rd baseline. The Senators were just finishing up batting practice, it was 12 Noon. As the Senators (wearing their home White with Navy Pinstripe Uniforms, Red Script Senators with Blue Cap, Curly W, Red Stripes) trotted, walked and jogged off the field to the first base dugout, up stepped The New York Yankees (in classic Grey Away, Basic New York across the jersey, NY Logo on their caps), and just like today, many in the crowd erupted in joy over a NEW YORK TEAM taking the field in Washington. Bobby Richardson, Elston Howard, Joe Pepitone, Tom Tresh--all names I recognized. Not so with Clete Boyer, Roger Repoz or Jake Gibbs. Batting practice went on, and I just sat there intently watching and taking in everything (Milton would tell me, some 20 years later, in a conversation, that my attention to every detail was stunning that May, 1966 day. He said, I was like watching a computer, sucking in all the information for digestion later--My observations of all things baseball made the day very exciting for him).
Then, Number 7--Mickey Mantle came to the plate for batting practice. Mantle stepped into the batting cage, swinging lefthanded. After a few bunts, began to hit away. It did not take him long to jack some out of the park. Two in a row to the Longines Clock in Right Center, then another down the right field line. Finally a MONSTER SHOT into the Upper Deck in right, Section 464, of what are now the Pink Seats. Its was impressive, and just like I copied on our sandlot field, when Mantle hit that last shot into the upper deck, finishing his turn at the plate, he slowly trotted around the bases, head tilted low, shoulders shrugged--I smiled knowingly the entire time. Michael slapped me on the back, excited too. There were no HIGH FIVES, then.
On a beautiful late spring day, the game would begin on time. The Senators would field a starting nine including not only Howard, Ken McMullen and Eddie Brinkman--players I would come to know and love in the five years to follow, but also, Bob Saverine, Fred Valentine, Ken Hamlin and Doug Camilli. I guess you can figure out, right now, why The Senators were not too good. Mike McCormick (who would go on to win The Cy Young Award in 1967 for San Francisco) would get the start for Washington. Al Downing (The Pitcher of Hank Aaron's famous 715th Home Run) would get the nod for New York.
As far as games go, it was nothing special--The Yankees would score 3, two unearned on a Camilli Error in the first. Soon to become My Favorite Player Of All Time, Frank Howard, would single, to right, in his first appearance before me. But, I would never forget "Hondo's" huge Size 44 Bat that he twirled around at the plate like a toothpick. There were no Home Runs in this one, but just looking down on that field, for 2 Hours 30 Minutes watching Professional Baseball, before my very own little eyes was thrilling. I can remember just about everything about this game, and if you have read any of my detailed Nationals Game Reviews, you can now understand where it all started, right here, at DC Stadium, on that very same day.
What always stood out for me, during that game, was THE ROAR OF THE CROWD. As I previously posted, RFK Stadium traps all the crowd noise inside and reverberates the sounds. There is very little like it, left, in baseball today. When the Senators first scored in the bottom of the second after consecutive singles by Howard and McMullen, with a Sacrifice Fly by Camilli--DC Stadium ROCK!! You could FEEL THE ROAR & THE EXCITEMENT. To date, it was the most REFRESHING NEW FEELING I ever experienced in sport. And, I relish every last one of those stadium roars, as we head to the final season, ever, of baseball on East Capitol Street, with Our Washington Nationals.
The Yankees would go on to win my very first Major League Game, 4-2. As the field was being prepared for the second game, I was looking at the Senators Game Program, perusing the scorecard with pitcher numbers of every single player in the Majors. Over 5 years attending games at DC Stadium, as a child, I always got a kick out of looking at the "Out Of Town" Scoreboard in rightfield, looking at what pitchers number was next to the team's name, then searching the scorecard for the corresponding player. It was the first of many opportunities, understanding the pitching rotation, and why certain players came to the mound, at certain times. Later, Milton told me, I must have asked "a million" questions that day.
Then, surprisingly, Milton told Michael & I to get up, and follow him. "Where're we going?", I asked. Big Brother told us its a surprise. The next thing we know, we are back on the lower level, near Gate B. "Are we leaving?" Michael and I asked, "We want to see the next game, too!!" "Don't worry,", Milton responded, "calm down". As we are standing there, a door opens, the very same grey double doors that exists there today, that allows you to walk down into the bowels of the stadium. Out steps a man in Washington Senators Full Uniform, older man, smiling broadly and greeting Milton. They chit chat for a few moments, until this man says "Are these your sons?" We all start laughing, as Milton explains that we are brothers--Mom & Dad are working miracles, at both ends of the timeline. The Man turns to us, shakes our hands strongly, saying: "I'm Gil Hodges, Manager of The Washington Senators, and very proud to meet both of you."
"Wow!!, REALLY!!", I remember saying. Sure enough, it was. Gil Hodges had met Milton in New York, during Milton's aborted professional football career. Milton was a huge fan of The Brooklyn Dodgers growing up. Hodges had followed my brother's career at The University Of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill. Fate, brought them together. Hodges was extremely kind and interested in both Michael & I. He then told us to follow him downstairs, which we did, right into The Senators Locker Room. I remember meeting Frank Howard for the first time, wondering how someone can be THAT BIG!!, along with Ken McMullen, Eddie Brinkman, Casey Cox and Don Lock. It was brief, but, a TOTAL RUSH!!. That's about all the time we had, as Game Two was about to begin.
Hodges thanked us for stopping by, gave Milton a nice hug, then presented Michael & I, with Gil Hodges autographed baseballs!! We thanked him tremendously. At our very first Major League Game ever, we got to go into My Washington Senators Team Locker Room. I remember asking Milton, if we can do this at every game here. He laughed, "Don't bet on it!!"
Returning to our seats in Section 319, we stopped by the concessions, to pick up some popcorn, so, I could turn the popcorn holder into a MEGAPHONE--its was white with red/blue stripes and The Senators Logo with Pitcher & Capitol Dome printed on it. Sadly, I don't have that item, still today. It was that day, I began chanting, cheering and yelling for my home team and its players. A ritual continued to this day, by me, along now with about 30 others, in the fan friendly confines of what has become known as SECTION 320, enjoying Our Washington Nationals!
The second game was a well played, a swift moving game of the times, barely lasting two hours (Remember--No DH, it was like a National League Game today). Jim Bouton, subsequent famous Author for his book "Ball Four" was on the mound for the Yankees. The Senators countered with Diego Sequi (The father of one time Oriole--David Sequi).
The Senators would manufacture a run in the 7th on a Single by Dick Nen, walk to Don Lock and single by Fred Valentine.
Jake Gibbs, Roger Maris and Bobby Richardson would walk, single, single to tie it up in the Top of the 8th.
As the bottom of the 8th started, Milton told me to look at the, now, portly tall righthander jogging out to the mound, to pitch for New York. "He was a fine pitcher for the Original Senators in the 1950's." I didn't recognize his name at the time. He was none other than Pedro Ramos--Cuban junk pitcher, who, if he had ever played on some good teams during the prime of his life, would have, most likely been an All-Star, more than once.
But, Ramos was near the end of his career now, and he didn't have it. Big Bob Chance batted for Sequi and doubled to right center. The Senators pinch ran for Chance with Pitcher, Pete Richart (who would go on to be a mainstay of The Baltimore Orioles Dynasty in the late 60's, early 70's). Richart would advance to 3rd on a ground out by Don Blasingame, and score the eventual game winning run on a slap single to right, by Bob Saverine, just over the head of Bobby Richardson at second. 2-1 Senators.
AND THE CROWD ROARED ITS APPROVAL!! I drank in every moment of it!!--LOVING THE NOISE!!
Gil Hodges would send Dick Lines to the mound for Washington to close it out. Joe Pepitone greeted him with a lead off single to right. But, after striking out Tom Tresh, Hodges came to the mound to replace Lines with Ron Kline. Kline was one of the better closers of the day, well before "SAVES" first became official in 1969.
On 4 pitches, Kline would retire Elston Howard on a pop to first and Clete Boyer on a deep fly to centerfield, hauled in by Don Lock to end the game and finish off my first Major League Games EVER!! And, very first SENATORS WIN!! We had been at the ballpark now for over 6 hours and I really didn't want to leave. Milton told us we could all come back, anytime he's in town. Michael and I CHEERED WITH GUSTO!! Proudly, we walked out of the stadium, with me walking backwards, not wanting to lose sight of The Stadium--anytime soon.
Over the next 5 seasons, I was fortunate to attend a total of 10 doubleheaders at DC/RFK Stadium with My Washington Senators. If it was a weekend, a doubleheader planned, with a chaperone to drive--I was there. I couldn't get enough of it. Until the death of My Senators, I would be privileged to post up at 60 games, at DC/RFK Stadium. And, I have every single ticket (Stan Kasten loved me telling him that fact two weeks ago)!! I am proud of every single one of those games, but nothing is more special than THE VERY FIRST TIME!! NOTHING LIKE IT!!
And, the very next time I stepped to the plate on the sandlots of Alexandria, you can bet, I was swinging the biggest oversized bat available, mimicking, BIG FRANK HOWARD!! My Lovefest with "Hondo" was just beginning.
May 30, 1966, My Very First Major League Game Memories--I will remember, until the day I pass.