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While I was growing up, my baseball heroes were Ted Williams and Stan Musial, but the guy I really envied was a pitcher named Paul Pettit who, in a big-league career that lasted only two years, won one game and lost two for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pettit was baseball's first $100,000 bonus player and, when scouts came around to watch us play, that magic figure was on my mind. I thought about it when I went to bed at night, sometimes I dreamed about it and I often talked about it. Yet in my own mind it seemed a pretty wild idea. One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, and after the unhappy Pettit experience I figured big-league ball clubs wouldn't be in a hurry to hand that much out to other untried schoolboys. Anyhow, as a 17-year-old senior at Bridgehampton High, in the spring of 1957 I would have signed for any amount I was offered if it had been up to me.
But, as a minor, it wasn't up to me. I couldn't sign anything. Dad was the boss and behind him Father Joe. Father Joe—his last name was Rapkowski—was more than just a baseball fan. He could have been a professional ballplayer if he hadn't chosen the priesthood. Before going to Bridgehampton he had had a parish in Brooklyn where he was an ardent Dodger fan. He knew several big-league ballplayers well, and was on speaking terms with Gil Hodges. Father Joe knew baseball and how to dicker for a baseball contract. Right from the start Father Joe had told Dad, "Don't sign for less than six figures. He's worth it and you can get it." Dad had no intention of settling for less.
Father Joe hadn't inspired Dad's determination that I go to college, but he heartily approved. He wanted me to go to Notre Dame, and my parents, who insisted on a Catholic education, agreed. Dad had been listening to Notre Dame football games for years and had heard so much about the place he would have wanted me to go there even if I weren't an athlete. The clincher was that Notre Dame had a good ball club, and Father Joe thought he could get me a baseball scholarship. So, even before I graduated from high school, my parents had decided not to accept any big-league baseball offers unless somebody came up with those magic six figures. Nor would my family consider college scholarship offers from anywhere except Notre Dame.
We received some pretty lush offers. Most of the metropolitan New York colleges were willing to give me full scholarships. So were Duke and Miami, and a few other colleges came up with some fantastic packages that included—besides the conventional board, room, tuition, books and laundry—spending money up to $100 a month, a complete new wardrobe, an apartment of my own and a car. I had never owned even a jalopy, never had more than one suit, never slept in a room by myself and, although Dad let me keep what I earned in his potato fields, had never had anywhere near $100 a month to spend.
Not being as fussy about Notre Dame as Mom and Dad, I wanted to grab one of those fancy scholarships.
"What if I don't go to Notre Dame?" I asked Dad. "Why can't I go to the place that offers the most?"
"Because Notre Dame is the best Catholic college in the country and that's where you're going," he said.
"I don't see why I have to go to a Catholic college."
"Well, I do," he said. "So does your mother. And if Father Joe can arrange it, it will be Notre Dame."
In the meantime, as I continued to have a good senior season, big-league scouts were more and more in evidence. Dad knew them all, but I couldn't keep track of them. There were 16 clubs then, and most were represented at practically every game we played. We didn't have a regular pitcher that year. Tony Tiska, a fine outfielder and a consistent .400 hitter who could have signed with the Braves for a good bonus if he had wanted to go into baseball, did some of the pitching and I did the rest. Tony could throw hard, but I must admit I threw harder. I had an overhand fast ball that really dipped and moved around, a pretty good curve and a changeup.