It’s fitting that the dog days of summer come on the heels of Father’s Day. May and Mother’s Day mean spring and flowers and color. June and Father’s Day mean a hot sun, a cold drink and watching from splintered bleachers with a couple of other dads as the kids play ball.
Being a baseball fan for more than 50 years now, I’m often asked who was the greatest player I ever saw. It’s a tough one. I almost got a stiff neck watching a monstrous home run by Mickey Mantle sail over my head at Yankee Stadium.
I saw Stan Musial and Hank Aaron play at the Polo Grounds. And Yogi Berra catching Whitey Ford. I saw Harmon Killebrew. And Warren Spahn. I was too young to ever see Joe DiMaggio play, but I saw Ted Williams. And Tom Seaver just missing a no-hitter with the Mets. And Willie Mays at Shea Stadium.
A digression: When I was a kid, I played organized football in a league in North Yonkers. The players ranged from ages 9 to 13, but the league was divided by weight, not by age — all kids below 70 pounds in one league, all kids above in the other.
At the beginning of seventh grade I was barely 65 pounds. So, I played with the smaller kids, even though all of my buddies were in the bigger league.
Because I had done most of my football playing with the big guys, I did pretty well with the smaller guys. So well that the Old Man had taken to bragging about me.
He was describing my abilities to one guy the day of a game who finally said, “I’m sick of hearing about this kid. Let’s go see what he’s got.” The Old Man drove him over to the game and on the second play I had about a 40-yard run from scrimmage.
“That’s enough,” the guy said. “Let’s go.”
The Old Man loved that story. He must have told it to me at least a hundred times over the years, even though that season was my only glimpse of football glory. The run became 60, 70, 80 yards over the years; the cutbacks and broken tackles ever more dramatic. But the ending always remained the same.
The very last time I spoke with him — a few days before he died — he told the story again, 35 years later. And we laughed as we always did. Our final laugh.
The greatest baseball player I ever saw also made the greatest play I ever saw. Like Enos Slaughter trying to score from first on a single in the last game of the 1946 World series, the play started with my hero on first after a hit.
The next batter singled and, taking off on the pitch, the runner tore around second and headed right through the hold signal at third for the plate.
But unlike “Country” Slaughter, this guy was dead meat. A little less than two-thirds home and the catcher was already fielding the throw and lowering the glove to tag the runner. But instead of sliding, he leapt at the last second over the bending catcher, somehow flipped in midair, and reached back to touch the plate. Safe.
The catcher looked as if the runner had simply disappeared right in front of his eyes.
That was the greatest play I ever saw by the greatest player I ever saw. It was 20 years ago, and I remember it like it was yesterday. And I’ve told it a hundred times since. Because I still like to brag about my son.
I know that Father’s Day is weeks past. We live in an age where it seems having a father — and being a father — are social anachronisms at best. There are actually souls who shy away from using the term “God the Father,” thinking it is somehow offensive.
Fatherhood is the kind of love that cherishes long-ago football games and base-running feats. It is good to remember how much fatherhood can be God’s blessing in a human life. A blessing never forgotten.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.