Most of Bruce Springsteen's fans know that the Boss is a baseball fan. Springsteen sprinkles his concerts with amusing anecdotes that link the mythology of baseball to the tradition of rock-'n'-roll. The cover of his latest album, Born in the U.S.A., shows a bright-red baseball cap poking out of the back pocket of the singer's blue jeans. And the narrator of Glory Days, one of the songs on the album, tells of his chance encounter in a local bar with an old buddy who played baseball in high school. But few Springsteen fans have ever seen the Boss play his favorite sport, and fewer still have played against him.
Ten years ago I was a general assignment reporter for the States-Item, an afternoon daily in New Orleans. Although I spent most of my days chasing fire trucks and talking to city planners, my city editor also let me write a weekly rock column for the Saturday tab. No one else at the paper wanted to do it.
My first rock review was a 10-page rave of Springsteen's Sept. 6, 1975 New Orleans debut, early in his "Born to Run" tour, not long before both TIME and Newsweek put him on their Oct. 27, 1975 covers.
After the show, I tracked Springsteen down at a small club in uptown New Orleans. He was shy and told me he didn't give interviews. So I put my notepad away, and we chatted for a while before I rushed home to write my review.
Seven months later, in April 1976, the show's promoter, Bill Johnston, called to tell me that Springsteen would be back in New Orleans in May. That was good news, but Johnston's next words were even better.
"Now that spring is here," he said, "Bruce and the band have been playing softball. Bruce wants me to arrange a game with the local media. Would you like to be captain of the team?" Naturally, I said yes. If there's one thing in life I enjoy as much as rock-'n'-roll, it's playing softball. For a rock-'n'-roll-softball junkie like me a game with Springsteen would be pretty hard to beat.
Because Springsteen's return concert was scheduled for Thursday, he decided to hold the softball game on Friday afternoon. Local rock stations mentioned the game, and more than 500 fans showed up at the Audubon Park levee to watch. Many unpacked picnic lunches of fried chicken or crawfish and Dixie beer, a local favorite.
I met Johnston at the park at about 3:30, and he introduced me to my "team"—four or five hung-over deejays, several women who worked on the promoter's staff and some local rock critics, most of whom didn't like each other very much.
Springsteen's tour bus pulled up and parked on a lot at the edge of the field, and the band members climbed out. They were dressed in "uniforms" of blue-and-white sleeveless basketball shirts that read E STREET KINGS. Their gloves were still shiny, their rubber cleats new. Springsteen wore reflecting shades and his trademark Our Gang hat, which flopped rakishly over his curly hair. He seemed slightly uncomfortable.
Johnston introduced us at the pitcher's mound. Springsteen acknowledged that we had met once before, but it didn't make him any more forthcoming. Perhaps he was put off by my own sartorial choices. Like the band members, I wore a basketball tank top. But my headgear, a wide-brimmed plantation hat, was every bit as untraditional for a baseball diamond as Springsteen's—although it was perfect for the stifling weather.