SI Vault
 
Best Fielder in the Crowd
Tom Edwards
April 27, 1970
Back when a lost ball meant the profit on three admissions, it took real skill to grab a foul hit into the grandstand
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 27, 1970

Best Fielder In The Crowd

Back when a lost ball meant the profit on three admissions, it took real skill to grab a foul hit into the grandstand

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Baseball historians pride themselves on their thoroughness. But, even during the centennial year of the national pastime, they have left unnoticed and unrecorded one record set in those first 10 decades that still stands today, untarnished by asterisk:

Record: most times outwitted ball chaser (one season)—24. Held by Bud R. 1947. Pueblo (Colo.) Dodgers, Western League.

The year that record was set was the year the Pueblo Dodgers were going to open their first season in Big Ed Johnson's new Western League as a farm club for Branch Rickey's Brooklyn team of the same name. Mr. Rickey had even sent along a young man who he felt someday might become a big league manager, one Walter Alston.

But the Pueblo Dodgers had something else besides a working agreement with the Brooklyn team and Walter Alston. They also had a part-time general manager who was not only a sports enthusiast but also a sound businessman. Neal Hobbs knew that the price of a new baseball cost him about what he took in by selling three general-admission adult tickets, and, if the Pueblo franchise was going to survive, it would do so as a result both of selling tickets and conserving baseballs. He may not have invented the ball chaser, but he sure perfected the profession.

The ball chaser's job was simple. It consisted of chasing all foul balls hit out of the playing field, retrieving them and turning them back into the general manager's office where they could be rubbed down again and given to the umpires to be put back into play. Hobbs had enlisted no less than six ball chasers to patrol the Dodgers' Runyon Field, renamed that year for the journalist who, though he made his mark writing of Broadway, had started his career at the local Pueblo newspaper. It was to this field that Jody, Jack, myself and, of course, record-setting Bud went to challenge them that first week of the inaugural season.

We stood together at the top of the first-base bleachers on the first day, the four of us intent on the action taking place down on the field. But, by the end of the fourth inning. Bud's interest in the ball game had waned. Or, rather, his interest had shifted to another area. He followed each foul ball hit into or over the stands with growing intensity, watched as the blue-jacketed ball chasers trotted out to retrieve it. As the sixth inning ended, Bud walked down to ground level, not saying a word, and took a position at the break of the aisle-way which separated the grandstand from the bleachers, not six feet from one of the ball chasers.

It happened when the second hitter of the inning was at bat. He took one ball, then a called strike. He overswung on the third pitch and lifted a high foul that was coming back over our heads; the catcher did not even remove his mask it was so far out of play. As it reached its peak, the three of us who remained in the stands glanced down as one to see the ball chasers start to trot out toward the parking lot. They never had a chance.

Bud must have broken at the crack of the bat. And, because we had hunted rabbit with him with .22 rifles, we knew what kind of eye he had. But, what he was about to do was even better than all those hunting trips on which he had never failed to bring down a cottontail on the run. Without even looking back he had covered between 30 and 40 yards just as the ball hit an asphalt walkway a few yards ahead of him. It bounced just once high and came down softly in his hands. He hadn't even broken stride. From the top of the bleachers we knew that his next move was critical. If he pulled up now and turned he would see those two ball chasers, both now running at full speed, 10 yards away and closing fast. But Bud didn't even falter. He just ran down the walkway, through the ticket gate and out onto C Street. We had walked up C Street about a block and a half when he stepped out of the shadows, fell right into step beside us and grinned wide as he rubbed that new Spalding for all it was worth.

It was a full week before we went back to Runyon Field on the final night of the Dodgers' first home stand. But it hadn't been a wasted week. We had used it to lay some well-thought-out plans. I was to sit on top of the rail at the back of the third-base bleachers; Jody would cover first base; Jack would be at the rear of the grandstand. Bud himself would stay down below and play the hitters, shifting from the left to the right. He had determined the most foul balls would be hit to the opposite field.

The first batter up, a lefthander, lifted a high foul over my head, just as Bud had said a lefthander should do. I whirled on that rail, grabbing to catch myself from falling over the edge. I looked down and saw the ball hit just inside the fence which separated the back of the bleachers from the railroad yard. Presently, a ball chaser trotted over and picked up the ball. Turning back to the playing field, I could see Bud standing just where he had stood before the ball was hit. He glanced up and nodded his head sideways. It had been unplayable. I admitted to myself that I would have gone for it and, of course, wouldn't have had a chance. But Bud hadn't gone for a bad ball.

Continue Story
1 2 3