Even though I had been a pitcher during my professional baseball career, when I was invited to play in an Equitable Old-Timers' game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium last summer, the fantasies I began to have were about hitting. I would dig in at the plate, getting ready to face big, bad Bob Gibson. The bases would be jammed, with the game on the line. In the stands 50,000 fans would be screaming, stomping, going nuts.
My one game in the big leagues, with the Phillies in 1968 (two innings, 4.50 ERA), hardly made me a household word around Philadelphia. So for me, merely stepping on the field with such Hall of Famers as Gibson, Willie Mays, Eddie Mathews, Ernie Banks, Bob Feller, Bobby Doerr, Enos Slaughter and Robin Roberts would be the highlight of my baseball career. Getting into the game would be a bonus.
I had been asked to participate in the three-inning game not because I had played 15 minutes in the majors, but because I had written a story for this magazine about the Baseball Alumni Team (BAT), a nonprofit foundation underwritten by the Equitable Old-Timers Series, which provides emergency financial assistance to former major leaguers. I had been invited to play with the Phillies Old-Timers against the Equitable Old-Timers, a team of former major league All-Stars.
When the big day arrived and I walked into the clubhouse—filled with more than 30 stars from the last 57 years—I felt slightly out of place, like a high school tuba player invited to sit in with the Boston Pops. Still, I felt privileged—and thrilled.
It was as if nothing had changed over the years for these men, except perhaps their belt sizes. I listened carefully as Luke Appling and Lou Boudreau swapped Chicago stories. Mathews, tattoos and all, sat in front of his locker, loosening up with a cigarette and a beer. Banks, with a smile that stretched from here to Wrigley Field, was telling anyone who would listen that it was a great day to play two. And across the room, sitting next to Curt Flood and Jim Maloney, and looking just as formidable as he had in my fantasy, was Bob Gibson. Unlike most of the Old-Timers, he had a waistline the same size as he had in his playing days.
A few minutes later I headed down the tunnel for the start of batting practice. After shagging flies in the outfield for a while, I started easing my way to the cage. I figured that if by some miracle I actually got up against Gibson, it might be helpful if I had at least a couple of practice rips. I had been a centerfielder at the University of California and I had always thought of myself as a pretty decent lefthanded hitter in the minors, even pinch-hitting on occasion. In my one game in the majors, manager Gene Mauch had the temerity to pinch-hit for me before I ever got a chance to show him what I could do with the stick. But all that was in the '60s. I had played some softball since then, but I had not taken so much as a swing at a baseball.
I managed to sneak into the batting cage for five cuts, even nailing a couple of line drives, but they weren't enough to impress Andy Seminick, the manager of the Phillies Old-Timers. When the game started, Roberts was on the mound, Richie Ashburn was in center and I was on the bench.
The Equitable Old-Timers roughed up Roberts for eight runs in the top of the first, including a huff-n-puff inside-the-park homer by Minnie Minoso and a triple by Flood that Ashburn kicked halfway to Delaware. So when Ashburn led off the bottom of the inning against Gibson, he was hoping to redeem himself. Keep in mind that the pitcher's objective in an Old-Timers' game is to let the batter hit the ball.
Gibson did just that on his first two pitches to Ashburn, serving it up right down the middle with nothing on it. Ashburn fouled off both pitches. With the count no balls and two strikes, Gibson suddenly reached back and fired a 90-mile-per-hour fastball, low and away. Stunned, Ashburn took a feeble cut at the ball, which by then was deep in catcher Mike Shannon's glove. Shaking his head, Ashburn turned and walked back to the dugout. He took a seat next to me, put his hand on my knee and said, "Larry, take over for me in center next inning."
I felt like I had just been told that I had won the lottery. Not only was I going to get to play, I was going in for the great Richie Ashburn. I was halfway to my fantasy.