By Ken De Laat
In 1962 my Dad took us to see a ballgame.
This was not out of the ordinary. He loved the game and often our vacations included a trip to stadiums along the way in Cleveland, Washington, Chicago (Comiskey, not Wrigley) and of course Detroit. Dad knew the game well and whether a little league game, a high school contest or the pros he had high regard for talented players who made the most out of their skills.
On this trip we experienced something new. Being Tiger fans the games we took in usually involved the team and thus, were exclusively American League contests. This was before interleague play, as well as pre designated hitter (terrible rule) and other anomalies that chagrined traditionalists.
This game was in Milwaukee. County Stadium where the Braves (who had moved there from Boston and were soon to depart for Atlanta) were to take on the Giants. The National League was like a far off land to me. I had read about it in the Sporting News, followed it somewhat in the papers, and watched the occasional offering on the TV Game of the Week (pre cable) but it was still the ‘other’ league and whereas I could recite the standings from 1-10 in the A.L. and tell you who was leading the league in BA, HR’s and RBI’s I barely paid attention to the senior circuit until the World Series.
Side note: It was the expansion year and one of the new teams was the Mets. They ran off 9 straight losses to begin the inaugural season of the franchise and would later lose 18 in a row on their way to the most losses ever (120) a feat of failure nearly matched and overtaken by the woeful ‘03 Tigers had they not won 5 of their last 6 and...
But I digress, so back to Milwaukee.
There's a few things I recall about that day.
My Mom getting a bit miffed when a blot of the mustard from my first bratwurst ever fell unceremoniously onto what she called “one of your good shirts” Apparently I had bad shirts more deserving of yellow stains but who knew?
Snaring a Braves yearbook that may very well still exist somewhere in my office. It’s a bit cluttered but a section of it is designated for such things and one day I may put the effort into combing through it...but I wouldn’t lay odds on today being that day.
And most of all, seeing two of the greatest players of that or any generation on the field at the same time.
The Giants had McCovey, Cepeda, the Alou brothers as well as one of my former Tiger favorites Harvey Keunn. The Braves fielded Eddie Mathews (who would play part of the ‘68 season with the Tig’s), Joe Torre, Joe Adcock and another former Tiger, Frank Bolling.
But there were two who stood out from the rest. Two who sparked excitement when they took the field or dug into the batter's box.
Willie Mays roamed centerfield for San Fran while right field in County Stadium was owned by Hank Aaron. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. They were like baseball gods to me having heard of their exploits since being taught the magic that is baseball.
I vividly remember both homered in that game. I don’t have a clue who won despite knowing it was the year the Giants and Dodgers tied for the pennant and had a best 2 of 3 playoff series, games my friends and I tuned into with our transistor radios at recess.
The Giants took out the Dodgers before falling to the much despised yet screamingly successful Yankees who I hope never win another game and, and...
But again I digress.
While Mays is now 89. this past week Aaron, the best non juiced hitter of all time, has departed at 86.
They were transformative players. While Jackie Robinson broke down the racial barrier, Aaron and Mays took command of the room when they came through that door. They were superstars in one of the truly golden eras of the game.
Both were from Alabama, a state stalwart in its stubborn stance on segregation, but it was beyond those southern borders that the two continued to endure the insults and slurs emanating from benighted beings who couldn’t begin to even dream of approaching their talents.
A lot has been written about what Aaron went through leading up to his historical blast in ‘74 from the same unsavory elements of racism that unfortunately seem to persist among the fearful and unenlightened citizens of this beloved country today.
His primary crime? Busting past the home run record of Babe Ruth.
And while being subject to harassment and even death threats?
He shattered it. Then he added on another 40 dingers for good measure.
Aaron and his colleague Mays were class acts. Great players who knew how to play the game.
I’ve been privileged to attend some memorable baseball games. Among them the ‘71 All Star game in Detroit, the Tigers staving off elimination against the A’s in the ‘72 LCS, watching Mark (the Bird) Fidrych on the mound 3 times during his enchanted ‘76 season, and the ultimate...The final game of the ‘84 Series where Gibby took Gossage downtown and the Tigers won their last World Championship (just the second in my lifetime but also being a Lions fan the expectation bar isn’t exactly set sky high).
Mixed in with those momentous contests is a mid season game in Milwaukee where I watched my Dad’s eyes light up like my own when a pair of legends took the field. It remains one of my personal favorites
Despite the mustard faux pas on one of my ‘good shirts’.
Writer's note: The original text mentioned game 7 of the '84 series. It was indeed the deciding final game but it was the 5th not the 7th as reader Bill Price reminded us. The original also listed Mr. Mays as having passed away. We were informed by reader Drew Sweetman that he is very much alive. Our apologies. As Mark Twain once responded to the rumor he had passed on, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
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