Despite such conditions Woody was—I batting .296 at Monterrey three days before he was slated to play in the league's All-Star Game. Then he suffered the first of a series of injuries—a broken finger—that would hamper his career for the next 10 years.
The following season Huyke played for the Shreveport, La. and Portsmouth, Va. clubs. He batted .307 at Portsmouth and was looking forward to the 1962 season when he was drafted into the Army. He returned to baseball in the spring of 1963 when the Athletics invited him to their major league camp to help catch batting practice. In three weeks Woody got into only one game, against the Dodgers. He went 3 for 4 off Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax and Ron Perranoski.
"When it came to batting, I thought I could hit anyone," he says. "It was the confidence of youth, I guess. I didn't know any better."
On being shipped to the minor league camp, Huyke was immediately converted into a catcher, which he hated. "All day long they fired balls out of a machine at my shins. But I was too afraid to complain. Eventually I realized I would have a better chance making it as a catcher, and then I actually began to enjoy it."
Huyke started that year at Lewiston, Idaho in the Class B Northwest League. He was hitting .317 in midseason when he was handed a plane ticket and told to fly directly to Binghamton, N.Y. "It seems like a little thing, flying," he says, "but by then I had taken so many trains and buses I felt the organization had no interest in me. Now that they wanted me to fly I felt they must consider me a worthy prospect."
Huyke caught his first game with Binghampton and broke a toe on a foul tip. When he returned to the lineup a month later he promptly hit two home runs. The next week, however, he caught a foul tip on his throwing hand and broke a finger. He was through for the season. The farm director convinced him to play in the Winter Instructional League in Florida. "He said that it would be my big chance to make the majors," says Huyke. "It was the turning point of my career, all right. I threw out my arm one day, and I have never been a prospect since. I was so ashamed at having another injury that I didn't tell the manager. But it was so bad I couldn't even reach the pitcher. The fans used to laugh at me. It was a terrible thing for my pride. Finally the club found out and told me to go home."
In 1964 Huyke was sent to Dallas, where his contract called for him to stay for at least 30 days. After a week he was sent to Birmingham. He couldn't understand why until he was told that Birmingham needed someone to help out with the Spanish and black players who were finding life very rough in the South.
"At first it didn't dawn on me that they were using me as an organization man," says Huyke. "In my own mind I still thought I was a prospect. But it didn't take long. Ever since then I've been too ashamed to ask the front office for a raise no matter what I hit. I have always felt I owed them something for just keeping me each year. After all, I was 27 years old, and they had decided I would never make the majors. Now I realize they were complimenting me by telling me I had other talents besides natural ones. The things I had would never leave me. Lots of guys don't have the temperament or intelligence to be organization men. It makes me feel good to know I can adapt to the facts of life. But at Birmingham in 1964 I thought, like all kids do, that there was no sense playing baseball unless you had a chance to make the bigs. I wonder why I didn't quit. Who knows? Maybe I thought I could prove I was still a prospect. Foolish! But I love baseball too much now ever to quit. I am always grouchy when I don't have a uniform on. I even get imaginary pains. These days just going to any ball park will do. For the home games, I always arrive three hours early and get right into my uniform. It's like a pair of pajamas to me. When I have the uniform on I relax. I guess to be like me you have to be born this way, huh?"
Bruce Kison finishes his pregame warmup and he and Huyke walk back to the dugout as the Elmira Royals take the field. In the dugout Bruce dries his face with a towel and Woody gets a Darvon pill from the Pirate trainer and a fresh supply of Bazooka bubble gum. The gum is to keep his mouth moist and the Darvon is to kill any pain he feels in his chronically sore arm. He has taken a Darvon every playing day since 1964.
It is 8 p.m., twilight and considerably cooler, when Huyke trots out to catch Kison's first warmup pitch in the bottom of the first inning. There is a loud click and the lights go on around the park. A female voice behind the visitors' dugout says, "Look at that pitcher! My oh my, he looks so young."