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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Mudcat, Maris, and Memory
By Lorie Roth

On Friday, August 18, 1961, I entered Cleveland's Municipal Stadium to see my first Major League Baseball game. I left three hours later a fan for life.

I had been seasoned for the trip to the ballpark by one summer of pickup softball games, played in a mowed cornfield, with a ragtag band of neighborhood kids who pretended to be Tito Francona, Woodie Held, and Bubba Phillips.

But nothing in the cornfield had prepared me for the moment I walked through Cleveland Stadium's cavernous tunnels, stepped out of the darkness and into the ballpark, and gazed onto the playing field. In that moment, night was transformed into day by megawatts of electricity. The grass was greener, the diamond more precise and symmetrical, the players' uniforms whiter, the crowd bigger and noisier than anything ever before conjured up in the limited imagination of a ten-year-old girl from small-town Ohio.

In the company of my parents and younger sister and brother, I took my seat high up in the stands between home plate and first base, where large pole supports partially blocked the view. There were no hot dogs, peanuts, or crackerjacks for us. We were too poor for pricey stadium food and had eaten homemade baloney sandwiches in our motel room before the game. Dressed to ward off the stiff breezes blowing a Lake Erie chill into Municipal Stadium, we were bundled in undershirts, long-sleeved jerseys, jackets—and proceeded to roast in the humid, still August night.

But nothing cooled my ardor for the game ahead: It was my team, the Cleveland Indians, versus the New York Yankees, the best team in baseball. It was Jim "Mudcat" Grant versus Yankees pitcher Jim Coates and his supporting cast of Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Cletis Boyer, and Tony Kubek. It was Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on a quest to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record. It was the gods at play.

The presence of future Hall of Famers, the rituals of the beer men, the sprawling dimensions of the stadium—all these were staggering enough, yet the small human dramas loomed as large.

In the bullpen was a shiny brown station wagon, which, the announcer said, some lucky fan (it could be me!) would win in a drawing at the end of the game—further proof that this was a momentous and extraordinary night.

In the stands were other bewildering spectacles. Four rows ahead of me sat a burly man with a loud baritone. He talked noisily with his friends until Maris approached the plate for his first at bat. Then the burly man bellowed, with the penetrating sound of a foghorn, "Hey, Rog! Hey, Rog! Hey, Rog, gonna hit one today? Hey, Rog, ya gonna hit one?" His catcalls were incessant, booming, and I was embarrassed, mortified.

The second time Maris came up, the burly man resumed his loud taunts. My shame at his boorish behavior was excruciating. It seemed a defilement of the game, and his antics threatened to curdle a wondrous Friday night.

The third time Maris took his place in the batter's box, the booming voice started up again: "Hey, Rog! Hey, Rog! Hey, ya gonna hit one? Hey, Rog! Gonna hit one?" Maris took a strike. The booming voice, more strident than ever, repeated the litany.

Then, while taking a few practice swings, Maris—to my astonishment—stopped, turned, lifted his face toward us, and looked right at the large man.

The big man with the booming voice rose from his seat and flung a smart-alecky salute at the ballplayer, as if to say, "Yeah, I'm the one."

After the staredown, Maris stepped to the plate, and the burly man resumed his seat. The heckler was silent for the rest of the game, even during Maris's final at bat.

How you pick a voice, and then after the voice, the exact individual out of a crowd of 37,840—and look him in the eye—I don't know. But that's exactly what the soon-to-be home run king did.

About the game itself, I remember only this: that the Indians played masterfully; that Mudcat Grant pitched magisterially; and that the mighty Yankees, cloaked in a golden aura perceptible even to a young girl, were vanquished.

I have carried these images and memories into middle age and burnished them so much over the years that it seemed I no longer knew what was fact, what was dross, and what was nostalgia-induced gilt. Ultimately I resolved, after forty baseball seasons had come and gone, to find out what really happened that night. Was the game actually played in 1961? Was it a Friday night? Mudcat Grant versus Jim Coates?

My quest sent me to a university library, and reels of microfilm finally led me to the New York Times edition of August 18, 1961. The headline on the sports page reads: "Yankees Bow to Indians Before 37,840 Fans as Mantle and Maris Go Hitless; Grant Wins, 5–1, with a 3-Hitter; Indians Score Three Runs in First Inning and Top Yankees in Cleveland."

After reading the press coverage in the New York Times as well as in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, I expected that a torrent of long-buried memories would burst forth. But they didn't.

I didn't remember that Jim Piersall's back-to-the-wall leaping catch had robbed Mickey Mantle of a home run. I didn't remember the scoreboard pyrotechnics when Indians third baseman Bubba Phillips did hit one. I didn't remember that Grant finished the ninth inning by striking out Maris and getting Mantle on a soft fly.

I did remember that the baseball announcer, at the conclusion of the game, said that we should give the shiny brown station wagon to Mudcat Grant. I remembered thinking that this was a swell idea.

The press clippings gave me the box scores, the at bats, the facts and figures and numbers and statistics, as well as the old-fashioned, somewhat flowery prose of the sports writers. Yet all these failed to conjure up the heroic plays and grand gestures on the playing field. I'll have to find an old newsreel for that.

What I have remembered for forty years, however, and will remember for many more, is this: That night can be transformed into day. That an ordinary team (like the Indians, who finished the season thirty games behind the Yankees) can beat the best team in baseball. That a former mill hand from LaCoochee, Florida, can humble the most powerful sluggers in the world. That a stalwart man in pinstripes can subdue a loudmouth bully. And that on any given night in a ballpark, miracles can happen. —EFQ

A lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, LORIE ROTH currently serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at California State University.


© 2002 Lorie Roth

 

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