My first spring training with the Athletics, at Bradenton, Fla., was 1963. As a hotshot 21-year-old kid fresh off that fantastic season at Binghamton, I swaggered into the Bradenton ball park ready to bet my salary that I'd be the biggest thing Kansas City baseball had seen since Mickey Mantle played there when it was in the American Association.
The Athletics' manager of the moment was Eddie Lopat, one of a long string of guys hired and fired by Charlie Finley. Lopat was a wonderful guy and a terrible manager. He was too nice to get mad, had no control over his players and didn't know how to run a ball game. I loved him because he was always great to me but, like everybody else, I walked all over him.
I hit the hell out of the ball and thought sure I had it made, in spite of the fact that there were days when I played first base like a clod—like the day when we played the Yankees in their new ball park at Fort Lauderdale. The Yankees were still great, and the prospect of facing them for the first time was a little hairy even to an egocentric like me. They still had Mantle and Roger Maris and Yogi Berra, Bobby Richardson and Elston Howard, and Joe DiMaggio was always there for spring training. During games he sat in a little cage behind the first-base coach's box. I tell you, for a kid to see these guys and play this ball club for the first time, even in an exhibition game, was enough to cause goose pimples. If I ever wanted to make a big impression, that was the day. I'd show these great Yankees a thing or two. And I did.
Richardson, the Yankees' leadoff man, hit an easy bounder down the first-base line. As I reached for it, it caromed off my knee for an error. Tom Tresh flied out or something, then Maris came up. He hit a hard ground ball down the first-base line that went right between my legs for another error. Up came Mantle and he hit a hot shot that would have been a double-play ball if it hadn't bounced off my chest for a third error.
By this time the whole ball park was rocking with wild laughter. DiMaggio screamed gags at me between hee-haws. I could see the Yankees roaring in their dugout behind first base, with Berra actually rolling around the bench, holding his sides. Over on our bench Lopat was laughing so hard he was crying and wiping his face with a towel.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry until Eddie Hurley, the first-base umpire, said, "O.K., Hawk. You've filled the bases. Now you've got them where you want them."
Then I broke up, too.
Joe Pepitone, the next batter, hit one to my left. When it skittered off my glove for another error that let in a run and kept the bases full, I was in shock. Which, I suppose, was why I forgot to cover first base on the next play. Somebody hit a ball down the third-base line, where Ed Charles made a great stop and a perfect throw. The ball flew into right field, and a couple of more runs streamed in.
Now the Yankees had three runs and two men still on base, all because of me with five errors—four that counted and one of omission. On the Yankee bench guys were hanging on to each other and, when I looked at ours, the first person I saw was Lopat, his glasses in one hand and his head between his legs, while his shoulders were shaking.
Even John O'Donoghue, our pitcher, who had been sore at first, was wiping his eyes, laughing so hard he couldn't pitch. When he walked a guy, somebody said, "See? Harrelson isn't the only guy who can fill the bases," and I broke up again. The next guy up hit a grand-slam home run, and the horrible inning still wasn't over. With two out, somebody hit a soft liner right at me, and I nearly loused even that up. The ball popped out of my glove, landing two feet from the bag. As I reached for it I fell on all fours, then crawled on hands and knees to beat the runner to the bag. I just lay there for a minute, laughing so hard I couldn't get up. And when I finally did and ran across the field to our bench, the whole park sounded like a Laurel and Hardy audience.