The letter written in response to SI's March 23, 1998, baseball preview issue defied time. "I haven't been to a big league baseball game since 1917, at Fenway Park in Boston (no, he didn't hit one out), but I follow baseball," wrote Mal Clarke of Harps-well, Maine. "Your scouting reports were over the plate."
Could it be true? Even if this Mal Clarke character had been plucked straight from the womb and taken to see Babe Ruth—the aforementioned he—and the Red Sox play in 1917, he would be 81 years old. Could there be a citizen of Red Sox Nation still living who had been a Fenway no-show for an even longer stretch than the world championship banner?
I phoned. "Mr. Clarke?"
"Call me Mal," he said. "Only my students call me Mr. Clarke, and I've been retired from teaching since 1963."
"Mal," I tried again, "would you like to go back to Fenway Park?"
"I suppose that would be interesting," he replied matter-of-factly. "O.K., I'll go."
When Mal had most recentiy visited Fenway, one year before the Sox last won the World Series, the Green Monster hadn't been erected. Leftfield yielded to a grass embankment known as Duffy's Cliff (after Boston outfielder Duffy Lewis) upon which fans picnicked under the feet of fielders chasing well-struck balls. Nor were there the rightfield bullpens that would later be dubbed Williamsburg in honor of Ted Williams, who was not yet born.
Mal's memory of his Fenway excursion is sketchy. He's 96 now. How many memories can one mind hold? Even an agile one of a man who taught high school French, Latin and Spanish for 43 years. He does recall being "the worst football player to ever earn a letter at Dartmouth" and losing his spot at left end to Hooky Hackenbuckle in 1921.
He recalls introducing himself to Frances Hudson, the woman to whom he would be married for 63 years (she died in 1994), by asking while they were attending a summer French program together, "Voulez-vous nager avec moi [Do you want to swim with me]?" But a baseball game in 1917, a sporting event that that very summer was eclipsed by—at least in Mal's memory—his winning the New England Juniors Lawn Tennis Championship? The details of that afternoon in Fenway are sketchy.
"I don't remember Ruth hitting one out," says Mal (who wears a rope for a belt) as we take our seats for a Sunday game—another wrinkle, inaugurated at Fenway in 1932—against the New York Yankees. "I don't even recall whom the Red Sox played."