Back home in Indiana for the first time in a long while, I got to spend a few days with my dad. We cut the grass, raided the ice box, fixed the oven door and watched ball games on cable TV. One night we got to talking about his baseball career, which we hadn't done for years. This led us to the basement, where Dad's scrapbook was stashed in a plastic trash bag.
Dad was a crafty lefthander who played in the minors from 1944 to 1952. I knew a few details of his career: that he had given up a home run to Ted Kluszewski, which Dad claimed was still in the air, and that the crook in the little finger on his pitching hand was the result of a line drive back to the box. I also knew he had won 21 games once, had hurt his arm and then had come home to teach, coach, raise a family and fight a long battle against water in the basement. He had been winning the battle lately, which is why the scrapbook was smelly but dry.
One early entry was a Birmingham newspaper clipping from 1944. On the left-hand side of the page was a picture of Pete Gray, the one-armed St. Louis Browns outfielder whose life story was told in a recent TV movie. In Dad's scrapbook, Gray is a Memphis Chick, waving a bat in his left hand, his right sleeve empty. On the right-hand side of the page is a picture of Art Cook—not yet known as Dad—wearing a cap with a B for the Birmingham Barons.
"You faced Pete Gray?" I asked. "How'd you do against him?"
"Got him out," Dad said.
According to the game story, Gray—who stole 68 bases that year, hit .333 and was the Southern Association's MVP—went 1 for 2 in the first game of a double-header against the Barons, hitting a single off Dick Kraft. Dad entered the game in the third and pitched 4? innings of one-run ball. He retired Gray once; the next time, knowing what he was up against. Gray sacrificed, COOK DOES OKEH reads a subhead on the story.
Paging through the clippings, I remembered the long home runs Dad used to hit in father-son games and also the five-dollar bill he slipped under my bedroom door after he hit one off me. I remembered his quick swing, a little creaky by the time he was 40 and I was 10, and the way he'd break off a screwball that I couldn't catch. I remembered him showing me this scrapbook when I was 16 or so, but I hadn't paid much attention then. At 16, girls meant more to me than box scores. I didn't know then that fielding a Pete Gray sacrifice was a bigger deal than taking Vicki Rumford to the prom. Now, at 29, my head is on a bit straighter.
We brought the book up from the basement, opened a couple of beers and perused the faded clips from newspapers in Birmingham, Kingston, Ont., Ogdensburg, N.Y., Union City, Tenn., and Indianapolis. Dad was a good-looking dude. He looked something like I do now, only handsomer and cockier. He looked like the kind of guy who might refuse to pitch around Kluszewski, get burned, then dust off the next two hitters.
On page 10 of a 1948 edition of the Kingston Whig-Standard are two headlines. The first tells of a Joe DiMaggio grand slam. Next to it is a photograph of Dad and the headline: ART COOK WINS 21ST GAME—GREAT LEFTHANDER HURLS DOUBLE BILL; PEREZ, MEARA, COOK RECEIVE WATCHES. According to the story, "Art Cook, greatest lefthander in the Border League, turned in his 21st victory of the season when the [Kingston] Ponies blanked the Ogdensburg Maples.... Cook's brilliant shutout effort in the opener and the courage he exhibited in the next game were highlights of the show. In winning 21 games he performed a remarkable feat and it was fitting that during the intermission he was given a watch."
In the course of the 100 or so pages in the scrapbook, I found Dad scattering footnotes to baseball history. He gave up that homer to Kluszewski, which I had heard was airborne ever after, but which the beat reporter consigned to another element, describing it as "hit into deep water." He warmed a roster spot for a sorearmed 17-year-old named Camilo Pascual, who would go on to play 18 years in the majors. And he was released to make room for a demoted Joe Nuxhall, who would pitch in 16 big league seasons. Larry Pennell, who later gained trivia status as Dash Riprock on The Beverly Hillbillies, was a teammate on the Evansville Braves. Twice in one year Dad pulled off the Iron Man stunt, winning both ends of a doubleheader, and the year he went 21-9 for Kingston, he pitched 21 complete games. He surrendered a hit to Gil Hodges in an exhibition game, and shut out an Ottawa team managed by Daffy Dean. And in 1942, Warren Spahn, another obscure lefty in the Boston Braves organization, was called up to the majors instead of Dad—perhaps because "Cook and Sain and two days of rain" was not euphonious.