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The Mets were playing the Braves in Atlanta that night, and the game was not on television. I was listening to Lindsey Nelson, the Mets' wonderful radio play-by-play announcer, who informed us of what had just happened in Philadelphia. "He tied a record, folks," Nelson said. "Think of the thousands of young men who've played this game, and only two have homered in their first two at bats."
The Cubs chased Humphries in the sixth, and the Phillies brought in a middle reliever, a righthander named Tip Gallagher. When Joe left the on-deck circle in the top of the seventh, the score was tied 4--4, and the Phillies fans, always vocal, were silent. There was no applause, just curiosity. To their surprise, Joe dug in from the left side. Since there was no scouting report, the Phillies did not know he was a switch-hitter. No one had bothered to notice him during batting practice. He looked at a curveball low, then fouled off the next two fastballs. With two strikes, he shortened his stance and choked up three inches on the bat. The previous season he had led the Texas League with the lowest strikeout percentage of any hitter. Joe Castle was at his most dangerous with two strikes.
A slider missed low, then Gallagher came with a fastball away. Joe went with the pitch and slapped it hard to left center, a line drive that kept rising until it cleared the wall by five feet. As he circled the bases for the third consecutive time, he did so with a record that seemed untouchable. No rookie had ever homered in his first three at bats.
JOE CASTLE was from Calico Rock, Ark., a tiny, picturesque village on a bluff above the White River, on the eastern edge of the Ozark Mountains. It was Cardinals country, and had been since the days of Dizzy Dean, an Arkansas farm boy and leader of St. Louis's infamous Gashouse Gang in the 1930s. His brother Paul, nicknamed Daffy, was also a pitcher on the same team. With a radio on every front porch, Calico Rock, like countless other towns in the Midwest and the Deep South, followed the beloved Cardinals with a passion during the long, hot summer nights. KMOX out of St. Louis carried the games, and the familiar voices of Harry Caray and Jack Buck could be heard on every street and in every car.
On July 12, though, the dials in Calico Rock had been switched to WGN out of Chicago, and Joe's friends and family were hanging on every pitch. The Cardinals-Cubs rivalry was the greatest in the National League, and though many in Calico Rock found it difficult to believe they were rooting for the hated Cubs, they were suddenly doing so, and with a fervor. After the first home run, a crowd quickly gathered outside Evans Drug Store on Main Street. The second home run sent them into a giddy celebration, and the crowd continued to grow. When Joe's parents, two brothers, their wives and their small children showed up to join the party, they were greeted with bear hugs and cheers.
The third home run sent the entire town into orbit. They were also celebrating in the streets and pubs of Chicago.
AS STUNNING as his first three at bats had been, Joe's fourth would endear him to baseball purists forever. Top of the ninth, score tied 6--6, two outs, Kessinger standing on third, a tough righthander named Ed Ramon on the mound. Ramon's first pitch was a fastball on the outside part of the plate. Joe waited, then whipped his bat like a broomstick, crushing the ball and lining it a few inches outside the bag at first base, a foul ball but an impressive one. Ernie Banks, the Cubs' first base coach, did not have time to react, and if the ball had hit him, he would have been seriously maimed. Willie Montanez, the Phillies' first baseman, took two steps back. Joe noticed this and changed his plans. The second pitch was a changeup, high. With the count 1 and 1, Ramon tried another fastball. As soon as he released it, Joe hesitated a split second, then broke for first base with his bat trailing. It tapped the ball and sent it dribbling toward the second baseman, Denny Doyle, who was as startled as everyone else in the stadium. By the time Doyle got to the ball, or the ball got to Doyle, Joe was 10 feet past first base and slowing down along the rightfield foul line. Kessinger walked home with the eventual winning run.
The crowd sat in stunned silence. Players from both teams looked on in disbelief. With a chance to hit four home runs in a game—a feat baseball had seen only nine times in 100 years—the kid chose to lay down a perfect drag bunt to score the go-ahead run.
The Cubs' announcers, Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, had been plowing through the record book during the game and were certain that they had their facts straight. Three home runs in the first game of a career was a first. Four consecutive hits in a debut game tied a modern-day record, though some rookie had five straight hits back in 1894.
Chicago won 7--6, and by the time the game ended virtually every Cubs fan was tuned in. Boudreau promised his listeners that he would soon have Joe wired up for a postgame interview. A half hour after the game was over, Boudreau's voice came across the radio with, "I'm in the visitors' locker room with Joe Castle, who, as you might guess, is surrounded by reporters. Here he is."