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History was bound to be made that night, and Luke Appling figured he'd be part of it. Here it was, July 19 in Washington D.C.'s R.F.K. Stadium, and the Cracker Jack people had created the greatest old-timers' game ever. Most of these contests are mere preliminaries to regular-season games, but this one stood by itself. It was, as advertised, truly an all-star classic, featuring the likes of Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Warren Spahn for the National League, and Brooks Robinson, Early Wynn, Bob Feller and Al Kaline for the American.
The oldest player was Appling, 75, the White Sox' Hall of Fame shortstop. Just what was a 75-year-old man doing out there, anyway? Joe DiMaggio, 67, suits up, but he stopped playing in old-timers' games several years ago. Appling knew he could bat, but he was concerned about his fielding, because he wears elastic braces on both knees.
Fortunately, no balls came his way in the top of the first. As he stepped to the plate to lead off for the American League, he was given a standing O by the crowd of nearly 30,000. Luke might have expected that; what he didn't anticipate was hitting a shot that would be heard—via ESPN and the Armed Forces Network—around the world.
It happened on the second pitch. Spahn threw a fastball and Appling met it squarely—the replay showed that his form was perfect—and lined it over the leftfield fence 275 feet away. The Americans went on to win the game 7-2, and Appling was the story of the night.
Last Saturday afternoon in Chicago, Appling took part in another such game, as a member of the White Sox Old-Timers who met their Yankee counterparts. As in Washington, when his name was announced last in Comiskey Park, 35,000 fans in his old home park gave him a standing ovation. Then the crowd went nuts a second time when the Sox showed his Washington homer on the message board. Alas, lightning didn't strike again. In the field, Appling fumbled a grounder, and at the plate he grounded into a double play in his lone at bat. Bothered by his knees, he left after the first inning of the three-inning game.
But that astonishing home run he hit in Washington will not soon be forgotten. "Funny thing about that homer," he was saying over breakfast a couple of weeks ago. "I only took three swings in batting practice. First pitch goes off the end of the bat and the next two off the fists. Thought I'd broken my thumb, so I stopped right there. On the pitch from Spahn I was just trying to get the bat out front. I didn't want to hit it off my wrists."
Then the ball went out and there was the instant hero tottering around the bases, Spahn chasing him between first and second, slapping at him with his glove, people standing and screaming. Appling watched the rest of the game from the bench. "I walked into the hotel restaurant and they gave me a standing ovation," he said. "Another one when I left. I got a box full of mail. A TV guy was interviewing me and I said, 'Hey, keep this quiet.' He said, 'Too late. This was shown all over on ESPN. You might as well enjoy it.' "
A scout at a nearby table called over, "Singles and doubles hitter all his life and he don't get no recognition till he hits a homer." Indeed, Appling was a .310 hitter over 20 seasons (1930-50) who won batting titles in 1936 (.388) and 1943 (.328) but hit only 45 homers. He hadn't taken a swing in two years before homering off Spahn.
Appling is bald and a bit on the paunchy side, but his voice is clear and he looks no more than 65. "In Washington the kids tried to get me to take more batting practice," he said. "I said, if you've learned how to handle a bat, you can hit.' Now, it's just as Hank Aaron told me: 'When you go back, you can hold a club over those boys and tell them how to hit.' "
Appling was digesting that very thought with his morning eggs. He was in Anderson, S.C., a mill town of 30,000 in the northwest corner of the state, as the Atlanta Braves' minor league batting instructor, a post he has held for the last six years. The job takes him to Bradenton, Fla. (rookie league); Anderson (low Class A); Durham, N.C. (high Class A); Savannah (Double A); and Richmond (Triple A). Appling had been on the road all but about 14 days since February, and Anderson was one of his favorite stops. "The biggest jump is A to Double A," he said. "If you can hit in Double A you can hit in Triple A. And if you can hit solid in Triple A, you can hit in the majors."