I've been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember—but I've been only a fan, not a player. In my case fan stands for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the '50s I spent hours starring in imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the rightfielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was 20, an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals and a brief—very brief—chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates' dugout during a game.
In 1961 I had taken a year off from college and was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for The Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February of '62, largely for being a pain in the neck.
Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.
I had read Jack Kerouac's On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventure. I met hundreds of interesting, lonely people, including a couple of gigolos in New Orleans, got run out of a town in Idaho, spent a night or two in jail and talked my way into Disneyland and the Seattle World's Fair. But no memory shines as brightly as spring training of 1962, at Al Lang Field.
Carrying only a sleeping bag and what used to be called a flight bag, dark blue with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Fla., where I knew I'd find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could, in fraternity houses, once in jail in West Memphis, Ark. (my choice, not theirs) and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag. Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.
I walked right in—no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking past me clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.
Suddenly, one of the Cardinals spotted me at the edge of the field. At 6'2" and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, "You're too late, kid. I'm sorry."
I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his arm around my shoulders. "Where'd you come from, kid?" he asked. " Kansas," I answered, and his expression grew sadder. "Jeez, I'm real sorry, but we just finished. It's all over." I didn't say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I'd gotten to St. Pete. Hitched, I told him.
"What position you play?"
Rightfield, I answered truthfully, and third base, I added, not so truthfully, because that was Mathews's position. He squeezed my shoulder. "You look like you can hit the long ball," he said. That didn't seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn't about to tell him the truth.