I was a young boy who loved playing with a baseball, but who couldn’t understand my dad’s desire to sit and watch so much of it. Then, one day in late 1963 my dad stressed to my mother that he would not go with her where she wanted (I’ve long forgotten where that was) because he was watching the World Series, and that these games were for the world championship. Well, that sounded unusually important, so I sat with him and watched. I didn’t understand much of the real strategies of baseball yet, but I could see that Sandy Koufax was really good and was just mowing down "our" Yankees. Tom Tresh hit a home run late that made me have some hope that the Yankees would come back to win it, but, alas, no.
I watched the rest of the series while the Yankees scored merely two more runs in the next three games. I remember feeling upset that a walk and a wild pitch in the first inning of game three led to a run, and that the run held up for a 1-0 loss. And I remember vividly Mantle’s homer in game four that tied it up in the seventh, a real blast. Then somewhat less vividly I remember the disappointment when that game still went 2-1 against my hometown team, Koufax otherwise being just too good. But along with the disappointment I took away more understanding for baseball, and an admiration for the guys who succeeded: Tresh and Mantle.
In spring of ’64 I went to some field somewhere far away with my dad to watch the Yankees play. Was it an exhibition game? Intrasquad? I don’t recall. I do remember that it was a fun day out, that Tresh made a couple of really nice plays with the glove, and Mickey hit another ball to the moon. I don’t know how well I can fully trust my memory from way back then, but I still wonder if that was the longest ball I’ve ever seen hit. In any case, I was completely in awe of Mickey Mantle from that day on.
I wasn’t yet a big enough fan to listen to the games on radio for very long, but when we could tune in the games on our old b&w tv I would sit and watch (sometimes through heavy snow*) with my dad. Then, one day my dad was talking to one of his friends in my presence and my dad announced, "My son is quite a baseball fan now, too." Half embarrassed I was wondering to myself whether that was true as the guy turned to me and asked, "Really? Who’s your favorite player?" That question was so easy it cut right through my rumination and I replied immediately, "Mickey Mantle, but I like Tom Tresh too." To my shock his answer was, "Really? Would you like to meet them? I can’t promise, but ..."
It turned out that the man was a photographer who had some connection to the teams, such that he photographed the Yankees and Mets with some regularity. He offered to take me with him the next time he went to each team, and of course I begged to my dad until he agreed that I may go. My dad and I joined him shortly thereafter on a nice outing to new Shea Stadium, where I briefly got to shake hands with some of the Mets. However, the individuals mostly weren’t so memorable because I wasn’t a Mets fan and because these weren’t exactly stars. Al Jackson was quite jovial with me, though, and Frank Thomas took a little time showing me how to swing the bat better.
About a week or so later my father couldn’t come to Yankee Stadium due to work, but he allowed me to go with the photographer anyway. I was so excited. I remember walking around on the field, being allowed to run the bases, seeing the monuments, meeting lots of non-players, getting brief hellos and even autographs on photos from quite a few players. Alas, despite multiple attempts we could not get permission to meet Mickey. Once someone told us that we could, but then that proved false. Even worse, I didn’t get to meet Tom Tresh either. So I was far more disappointed than I should have been. In an effort to cheer me up, they took me out to meet Whitey Ford, who was quite nice but obviously uninterested in this young kid. He signed a photo for me and then went about his business.
Then a tall, thin young guy came over to me without being asked. He bent down and started talking without introducing himself. I told him about my disappointment in not meeting Mickey and not even meeting Tresh. He sympathized and ended up offering to throw me a few balls to hit, which sounded like fun. The photog chimed in then and asked me if I recognized Mel Stottlemyre. I admitted that I knew the name, but that I hadn’t recongnized him since Mel was new to the Yankees. Well, Mel threw, really slowly lobbed a few balls for me to hit, gave me a few pointers and some undeserved praise that still made me feel better. Then he chatted for a while longer, then offered to sign a ball and a photograph. Then we left with a warm goodbye from him and his parting words that he hoped to see me come back again some day soon.
I never made it back. I heard that the photog changed jobs or maybe just assignments and began working somewhere else for UPI, so I didn’t get the opportunity to go again. And despite multiple attempts at future Yankee games, I never managed to get Mel’s attention. Further, I soon destroyed the baseball by playing with it. Likewise most of the photos I got that day were lost, torn, or otherwise damaged over the decades. But I kept that photo of Mel, and I still have it to this day. And I kept the memory of how nice Mel was that day. It taught me that players are just like the rest of us: they’re mostly good, hardworking guys who don’t really like to be bothered at work, but some of them take the time to be bothered anyway, because they think about the effect that they are having on others. Even today I can’t say with confidence that I’d behave more as Mel did than as Whitey Ford did, for example. But I think I try harder than I otherwise would have to behave more as Mel did. So maybe Mel Stottlemyre made me a tiny bit better as a person that day. Certainly he made me feel better. And he helped solidify my love for baseball and the Yankees.
*'Snow' was the term for the signal interference that sometimes made television programs look as though it was snowing in the picture.