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The Boys on the Bus
Franz Lidz
July 03, 1989
The team bus—long an unavoidable fact of American sporting life—offers a teeth-rattling rite of passage for young athletes that no train or plane could match
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July 03, 1989

The Boys On The Bus

The team bus—long an unavoidable fact of American sporting life—offers a teeth-rattling rite of passage for young athletes that no train or plane could match

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In the stone age of American sport, when basketball still had a set shot and ballplayers wore baggy pants and metal spikes, buses rattled through every tank town in the heartland of the nation. They hauled hopeful young athletes across the cracked plains to Beatrice in the Nebraska State League and aging veterans down the long, straight roads to Keokuk in the Mississippi Valley League. The buses had names like Yellow Z and White 54 and Mack BC and Flxible Airway and Beck Steeliner. But lots of people called them Iron Lungs.

Riding the team bus was a rite of passage, a form of dues paying as well as an inspiration to play better. "You'd sit in the bus for seven or eight hours," recalls Bob Lemon, the Hall of Fame pitcher. "You'd arrive at dawn, try in vain to get some sleep, then make it to the game just in time to put your uniform on. My goal was to make the Southern Association, because they took the railroad."

"Every athlete should spend a few years taking all-day bus trips," says Larry Andersen of the Houston Astros, who bus-whacked through the bushes for parts of 12 seasons. "It makes you a lot more appreciative of what you have. Buses put a permanent note in your head that you've been through some rough times."

The team bus is a self-enclosed world. "You can curse all you want, walk around in your underwear, throw bran muffins at teammates," says Tom Martin, the only hockey player ever traded for a bus (more on that later). "You don't get that kind of camaraderie on trains or planes."

HUB KITTLE AND THE SLEEPLESS HOUSE

Spread out on the kitchen table in Hub Kittle's home in Yakima, Wash., the memorabilia of his life have the oddly disconnected quality of pages torn at random from a diary. But the grand array is dazzling: autographed bats and balls, clippings of ancient box scores, frayed photos, souvenirs, plaques, the bric-a-brac of six decades in baseball. Kittle hunches over this accumulation, his face a road map of dead ends and dry gulches. The crinkly curve of the forehead, the steady eye and the tight mouth are not so different from those in the 1938 photo of the young Hub Kittle in a wrinkled Ponca City Angels uniform. "I've played for or managed or general managed everywhere from Klamath Falls to Jersey City," he says in his booming rasp of a voice. "And more often than not, I drove the bus, too."

He's 73 now, affable and profane, full of energy and packed with an endless supply of stories. He tells them more or less nonstop for nine hours, pausing only to fix his visitor a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. There's the tale about the peg-legged bus driver in Venezuela, the night-blind bussy in the Dominican Republic and bussy manqu� Nick Rosenhoffer, who turned a straying heifer into ground beef. "Holy cow!" Kittle says. "Nick comes screaming over the crest of a hill and hits that calf dead-on. He just keeps on going. Funniest looking hood ornament I ever saw.

The passengers on Kittle's buses were often as colorful as the drivers: Dick Descalso, a pitcher afraid to let go of the ball; Arlo Engle, the game's greatest "two o'clock hitter," meaning he could hit like a maniac before the game but nary a lick after it began at 2 p.m.; and Lou Novikoff, a stat freak who wrote his batting average on his sleeve after every at bat. "Pat House was the best bus-riding pitcher I ever had," says Kittle. "Never slept before a start. Had a system: He wanted to pitch the opening game of every road series. He figured after seven hours in a bus, the guys are loose and ready to hit the hell out of the ball. And he was right. They did score a lot of runs for him. Of course, the game after that, bus lag would set in and they couldn't hit worth——. But, hell, I've got lots of better bus stories than that."

THE ROUTE OF ALL EVEL

Evel Knievel carefully unscrewed the gold, diamond-encrusted clasp of his cane and poured himself a Montana Mary—a lethal mix of Wild Turkey, vodka, tomato juice and beer. "Sure I have a death wish," he deadpanned to the British press. "I want to die in bed with Elizabeth Taylor when I'm 108."

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