On that day, 75 years ago, Bob Hudson, then 9 years old, attended his first baseball game.
“It was such a life-changing experience for me,” the boy, now 84, said recently. “I was hooked. Such a gorgeous place. I couldn’t imagine. And all those heroes. Jimmie Foxx! And Lefty Grove! And Buck Newsom beat him!”
Hudson remembers this because we never forget our first time, and he remembers the precise date because it was the day after his ninth birthday, and the image has never left his memory because the first time you walk through that tunnel out into the stands and see that perfect green diamond in front of you has been one of life’s great, universal joys for a century and a half now.
“It’s not that I have a great memory. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday,” he said. “But it’s just that this is important to me. This matters.”
As a sporting public, we are older and more jaded now. But on this day, the 75th anniversary of Hudson’s first game, forget about lockouts and drunk-driving ballplayers, set aside the cynicism engendered by rising salaries and rising ticket prices, and just for a day, remember that time when you were nine years old and your love of sports was still pure and simple.
In Culpeper County, Va., on the morning of May 10, 1936, the car across the street was pulling away. In it were little Bobby Hudson’s uncle and his cousin of the same age. But they must have seen Bobby watching from the window of his house, because before the car’s dust cloud could settle, they were doubling back and pulling into his driveway. They asked Bobby’s mother if he could go with, and then the car was pointed toward Griffith Stadium, some two hours away.
Once the boys collected themselves, after the first transformative sighting of the green grass, and the recognition of those famous ballplayers whose faces they had seen only on baseball cards and newspaper pages, the next thing that amazed Hudson was the ball coming off the bat. Not the long home runs or the sharp line drives.
“The pop flies!” he said. “I couldn’t believe how high they were.”
We’ll have to take Hudson’s word that it happened like that — and that it happened at all — because at age 9, he didn’t have the foresight to hold on to a ticket stub or a program from that fateful day.
But within a year, that sense of history must have taken hold. Because one recent day, in the office of the condo he shares with his wife, Agnes, in the Leisure World retirement community in Silver Spring, Hudson pulled out a file labeled “Very Special Programs.” And on top is a program from the 1937 All-Star Game, held at Griffith Stadium. President Franklin D. Roosevelt gazes out from the cover.
Flip through the pages. A 10-year-old boy’s rudimentary scorekeeping (outs are designated with an “O”) marked the game’s progression on the scorecard page. An ad for Dr. Pepper features an endorsement from Senators icon Walter Johnson (“The ‘Big Train’ says — ‘Dr. Pepper has all the zip and pep of my fastest speed ball.’ ”) In a one-page display ad for the Hall of Fame, there is room to fit the pictures of every Hall of Famer — because there are only eight.
Toward the back of the all-star program is an ad for a new sports team about to start up operations in town later that year: The NFL’s Washington Redskins. “You’ll See More Stars When the Redskins Come to Town!!” it says. Season tickets will set you back just $7.50.
Hudson would become a fan of the Redskins, too, and he was there again at Griffith Stadium in 1943 when quarterback Sammy Baugh threw six touchdown passes. He watched the old Washington Capitals of the Basketball Association of America, whose coach in the late ’40s was Red Auerbach, at the Uline Arena at Third and M streets NE. He was in the gallery at the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club when Ken Venturi fought off heat exhaustion to win by four shots.
That one is also in the Very Special Programs folder.
But his biggest love was, and still is, baseball. He attended every all-star game held in Washington — not just the 1937 one, but also the ones in ’56, ’62 and ’69. When he served in the Army overseas, his mom would clip out Shirley Povich’s columns from The Post and send them to him.
And if you ask, he can give you, off the top of his head, his personal all-star team of Washington ballplayers he has seen with his own eyes: P Early Wynn, C Rick Ferrell, 1B Mickey Vernon, 2B Buddy Myer, 3B Ryan Zimmerman, SS Cecil Travis, LF Roy Sievers, CF Stan Spence, RF Frank Howard.
These days, though still spry and able-bodied at age 84, he takes in only a game or two a year at Nationals Park. Most nights, he watches from his couch, with a bowl of ice cream and Agnes at his side, and when she goes off to bed he watches the rest by himself.
No, he said, he probably won’t do much to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his first game. But he’ll be thinking about it, and he’ll smile at the amassed memories of a lifelong love of the game.
Wait, check that. On second thought, he said in a follow-up e-mail, “Tuesday night as I watch the Nats beat the Braves, I plan to commemorate the diamond anniversary of my first big league game by adding a hot dog to my TV viewing routine. That should intensify the memory!”