IN THE SUMMER OF 1973, the country was slowly emerging from the trauma of Vietnam. Spiro Agnew was in trouble and would eventually go down. Watergate was getting hot, with much more to come. I was 11 years old and slightly aware of what was happening out there in the real world, but I was wonderfully unburdened by it. Baseball was my world, and little else mattered. My father, Warren Tracey, pitched for the New York Mets, and I lived and died with each game. I pitched too, for the Scrappers in the White Plains Little League, and because my father was who he was, great things were expected of me. I rarely met those expectations, but there were moments of promise.
By early July, the pennant race in the National League East had settled into a bland contest. All six teams—Mets, Pirates, Cardinals, Phillies, Cubs and Expos—were hovering around .500 and showing little enthusiasm for making a run. In the West, the Reds and the Dodgers were pulling away. In the American League, the Oakland A's, with their swagger and colorful uniforms and long hair, were looking to repeat their championship of 1972.
My buddies and I followed the game religiously. We knew each player and every statistic. We checked every box score, then replayed the games on the sandlots of White Plains. Life at home was not always pleasant, and my escape was on the field. Baseball was my best friend, and in mid-July 1973 the game was about to be electrified like never before.
IT BEGAN QUIETLY enough with a pulled hamstring. The first baseman for the Cubs' Triple A affiliate in Wichita went down as he rounded third and headed for home. The next day, Jim Hickman, the first baseman for the Cubs, injured his back. The team suddenly needed someone to play first, so it reached down to its Double A club in Midland, Texas, and called up a 21-year-old named Joe Castle. At the time, Castle was hitting .395 with 20 home runs, 50 RBIs, 40 stolen bases and only one error at first base. He was the hottest player in Double A and was creating a buzz.
As the story goes, Castle was asleep in the cheap apartment he shared with four other minor leaguers when the call came from Chicago. A coach drove him to the airport in Midland, and he caught a flight to Houston, where he waited two hours for a flight to Philadelphia. While he waited, he called his family in Arkansas with the thrilling news. When he arrived in Philadelphia, a cab delivered him to Veterans Stadium, where he was quickly fitted for a uniform, given number 42 and hustled onto the field. The Cubs were already taking batting practice. Understandably, he was nervous, thrilled, almost bewildered, and when the manager, Whitey Lockman, said, "Get loose. You're starting at first and hitting seventh," Castle had trouble gripping his brand-new bat. In his first round of major league batting practice, he swung at the first two pitches and missed.
In the dugout before the game, Castle huddled with Don Kessinger, the Cubs' veteran shortstop and another Arkansas boy. Kessinger was outgoing and laid-back. He managed to keep the kid loose. His only advice was, "Go up there swinging." The Cubs' centerfielder was Rick Monday, another veteran, who had been born in Batesville, Ark., just down the White River from Joe's hometown. Between Kessinger and Monday, Joe managed to survive the worst case of pregame jitters a player could imagine.
It was Thursday, July 12, a day baseball would remember for a long time.
The Phillies' pitcher was a lefty, Benny Humphries, a wild fastballer who walked as many as he struck out. As Joe strolled to the plate in the second inning, he gritted his teeth and told himself to swing at the first pitch, wherever it happened to be. Humphries thought the rookie should get introduced to major league heat and unloaded everything he had. Joe, from the right side, guessed fastball, made perfect contact and hit a shot that landed 20 rows back in left centerfield. He sprinted around the bases, much too excited for any kind of victory trot, and was in the dugout being congratulated before he caught his breath.
He was not the first major leaguer to homer on the first pitch he saw. Forty-six had now homered in their first at bat, and 11 had done it on the first pitch. Nonetheless, his name was in the record book. It was now open, and Joe Castle wasn't finished with it.
In the fifth inning Humphries started off with a fastball high and tight, a brushback meant as a warning, but Joe didn't get the message. He worked the count to 3 and 1, then yanked a fastball down the leftfield line, where it scraped the inside of the foul pole. The third base umpire was quick to twirl his right index finger, signaling a home run. Joe, who was rounding first and following the ball, kicked into a sprint and slowed slightly as he neared home plate. Now a record belonged only to him and one other. In 1951, Bob Nieman of the St. Louis Browns also homered in his first two major league at bats.