I’ve made over 57 trips around the sun, riding this big, blue rock. I have had memorable birthdays, and not so memorable ones. However, the one that sticks out the most is my 10th. That was the birthday I got to witness history.
I lived in Azusa in 1972. My birthday was a few days away and my mother thought it would be a good gift to, pardon the phrase, take me out to the ball game. I was a Dodger fanatic and had been as long as I could remember. My mother, also a huge fan, would tell me stories of the Dodger greats as well as other legendary ballplayers. Some kids would check out Tom Sawyer when the went to the library. I checked out biographies of Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle (yes, Yankees, but greats nonetheless). I knew who Jackie Robinson was long before April 15 was a national baseball holiday. I knew the Dodger’s 3rd baseman couldn’t throw but he could hit. I knew Willie Davis was the greatest player in baseball (according to one 10-year-old boy). So, we went to the old ball game. June 4, 1972. Two days before my actual birthday.
We were playing the Cardinals, the last game of a weekend series. Claude Osteen, our number two starter, and a salty lefty was on the hill for the Dodgers. Bob Gibson toed the rubber for the birds. But before this matchup, something else was to happen. An Oldtimers Game. Where legends of the game would gather and play a pickup fun game to entertain the crowd. We were in the upper deck in left field but as mom used to say, there are no bad seats in Dodger Stadium. Come to think of it, Dodger Stadium was celebrating its 10th birthday that season as well.
As they introduced the players, mom beamed with joy. The heroes she had watched since becoming a Dodger fan. Old Dodgers, Yankees and one lone Cardinal donned the uniforms once more. The lone Cardinal was not just A man, he was THE man. Stan The Man (Musial for you muggles). And one Yankee, not in uniform, but in a suit and tie. Regal, elegant, dapper, dare I say, jolting. Joe DiMaggio waved at the 55,000 faces staring at him adoringly. I stood there spellbound. It was Joe DiMaggio. In the same building as I was. WOW.
Before the game, a special ceremony was held. Three men gathered at home plate. The names, not etched in Dodger lore, but in baseball itself. Sandy. Campy. Jackie. All three had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and now they were getting another rare honor. There numbers were being retired by the Dodgers. Unlike lesser organizations, only Hall of Famers get their numbers retired by the Los Angeles Dodgers. A 10-year-old is oblivious to many things in moments of life. However, I had a special sense this moment was indeed special.
Roy Campanella was a former negro league player before working his way up to the majors. Campy was a three-time MVP and regarded as one of the greatest catchers of all time. His career was cut short in 1958 when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Sandy Koufax was the greatest left-handed pitcher, ever. EVER. He was an All-Star for six seasons and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1963. He won three Cy Young Awards in 1963, 1965, and 1966, by unanimous votes, making him the first three-time Cy Young winner in baseball history and the only one to win three times when one overall award was given for all of Major League Baseball instead of one award for each league. Koufax also won the NL Triple Crown for pitchers those same three years by leading the NL in wins, strikeouts, and earned run average. Sound familiar? Maybe Kersh is the GOAT. But it was Sandy before him. Oh yeah, 4 no hitters too.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson should be on Mount Rushmore. A veteran. A spectacular college athlete. A remarkable major league baseball player. A hero. The only player whose number is retired by every major league team. And I was there to watch his first retirement. Me. In the same building with Jackie Robinson AND Joe DiMaggio. The story of Jackie has been told so many times. I never get tired of hearing it. He was a gracious, courageous man among men. Branch Rickey was spot on picking Jackie, not for the color of his skin, but the content of his character.
So, they have the Old Timer’s Game. Sandy Koufax pitching to Mickey Mantle. Pee Wee Reese hitting a double. Stan Musial with that gorgeous swing. Drysdale with that big windup. It was a shame they had to play the regular game. Gibson owned the Dodgers that day. He and his catcher, some cat named Joe Torre, both hit two run homers. Gibson was hitting a paltry .045 to add insult to injury. The names that played were legendary. In addition to Gibson and Torre, Lou Brock, Ted Sizemore, Ted Simmons and Dal Maxwell were in the Card lineup. The Dodgers had Bobby Valentine, Bill Buckner, my hero at the time, Willie Davis, Bill Russell, Manny Mota (who pinch hit), Tommy Lasorda coaching third and that 3rd baseman who couldn’t throw. His name was Steve Garvey, my all-time favorite baseball player.
The Dodgers lost 4-0 and it didn’t matter. The Sunday afternoon, sitting in the California sun watching the legends of the greatest game were enough. The best birthday a 10-year-old boy could ask for.