Earl Battey remembers vividly the day in 1960 when he was traded from the Chicago White Sox to the Washington Senators. He was a 25-year-old catcher with five years service in the major leagues and he felt he had just been sentenced to Devil's Island.
"It was more than being traded from a first-place club to a last-place team. The Senators had been in last place for about 14 years," said Battey, who now coaches college baseball in Florida. "You know what they said about Washington: first in war, first in peace and last in the American League."
Battey is back in Washington this week to play baseball. But this time around, he feels lucky to be here and in the company of the 60 other former major leaguers who will take the field at RFK Stadium Monday night for the Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic. With legends like Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn and Willie Mays headlining the show, there will be players on the bench who didn't pick up a splinter during their entire careers.
"I really don't feel like I belong with some of the guys who are coming. I mean those are mostly Hall of Famers," said Bobby Thomson, the former New York Giant outfielder who hit one of the most famous home runs in history. His ninth-inning, three-run "Shot Heard Round the World" in 1951 against the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant for the Giants and a sanctified spot for himself in baseball folklore. Still, when Thomson says his 15-year major league career does not compare to some of the other players invited, he is being only slightly modest.
Promoters have already sold more than 20,000 tickets to see a five-inning game played by men who are middle-aged and older. A few of them couldn't hit a ball to the outfield with a fungo bat. Most couldn't make first string on a decent high school team. But baseball fans who pay to see this game will likely be watching with eyes half glazed in reverie.
"Nostalgia is completely forgiving," said Red Barber, the former radio and TV voice of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees who will be announcing Monday night's game with Jack Brickhouse over WMAL radio. "Fans are quite understanding. When they see a fellow who now is bald-headed with a bay window, who can't bend over for a ground ball and can't run, they still see him with their emotional lives."
Old-timers games have become a common major league promotion, like bat day and beer mug night, in the 40 years since the Yankees packed their stadium for a tribute to Lou Gehrig. There is now a circuit of old-timers games held in major league cities every year.
Gray-haired fans come to be reminded of the glories of younger days. Kids and baseball buffs pay to see what time has done to the faces frozen on their baseball cards. For players, the games are a warm reflection of years spent in the spotlight and a chance to put on a uniform again for fans who will never boo.
"I can still slap the ball around here and there," said Luke Appling, the 75-year-old Hall of Fame shortstop who averaged .310 at the plate in 20 years with the Chicago White Sox. Appling, who was called "Old Aches and Pains" during his career, still works in baseball as a batting coach with the Atlanta Braves and says he keeps "as busy as a snake."
Appling began playing in the major leagues in 1930, before night games, television and air travel. Washington, he says, was one of his favorite American League cities because of Arbaugh's restaurant, a steak and rib place that is still on Connecticut Avenue, and the slope of Griffith Stadium's infield that gave batters the feeling they were hitting downhill.
Johnny Mize, who was called "Big Cat" during his 15 years in the major leagues, has less pleasant memories of Griffith Stadium. He remembers the high, right field wall as a cruel nemesis. It wasn't until 1953, his last year in baseball, that he finally hit a home run in Griffith Stadium and achieved his goal of putting one out of every ball park in both leagues.
Mize is 69 and living in Demarest, Ga., where he was born. He is a calm, slow-talking man until you ask him to compare baseball today with the game during his era. "There's no way you can compare. They have a livelier ball, air-conditioned clubhouses and dugouts. . . When we played, if you didn't win you didn't get any money. Now they get so much money it doesn't matter if you win, lose or draw."
Bob Allison, who will be playing Monday night with half a dozen other former Senators, including Camilo Pascual, Harmon Killebrew and Roy Sievers, says it will be nice to hear some applause in Washington.
"When I was there (1958-1960), there wasn't much to cheer about unless you cheered for 13- and 18-game losing streaks," said Allison, who now works for a soft drink company in Missouri. "I think its safe to say any fans the Senators had in those days had to be loyal fans."
The high point of Sievers' 17-year career occurred as a Senator. In 1957, when the team finished in its customary last place, Sievers hit .301 and won the league home run title with 42. The team awarded Sievers a new station wagon. Vice President Richard Nixon presented Sievers with the keys.
Sievers, who works for a trucking company in Missouri, says he still gets a dozen letters a week from fans asking for his autograph. Like many of the retired players, he also gets regular invitations to old-timers' games and baseball card exhibitions.
"I get more letters now than I did when I was playing," said Enos (Country) Slaughter, who left baseball in 1959 with a .300 batting average over 19 years. Slaughter lives in Roxboro, N.C., where he grows tobacco, tends a garden and waits impatiently to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
"I can recall about anything that happened to me in my career," said the 66-year-old Slaughter. What fans remember most, he says, is the last game of the 1946 World Series when he scored from first on a bloop single to left center to break a tie and help St. Louis win. "I'm getting old and worn out, but they haven't forgotten me yet."
Roy Campanella, a catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers for 10 years until a car accident in 1957 paralyzed him from the waist down, says his most exciting moment in baseball came in the seventh game of the 1955 World Series against the Yankees. Campanella led off the fourth inning with a double and later scored. The Dodgers won the game, 2-0. After an eternity of disappointment, the Dodgers had finally captured a World Series.
"That was the biggest base hit I ever got," said Campanella, who was one of the first blacks to play in the majors. Campanella says he has not forgotten the racial insults he and Jackie Robinson endured, but they were lucky, he says, to have played on the Dodgers. "There wasn't too much you could say about a winning team, thank God."
With some players, there is no need to ask what they remember, or are reminded of most. Don Larsen, for example, would be thought of as only a better than average pitcher if not for the perfect game he pitched for the Yankees in the 1956 World Series. Roger Maris, the former Yankee outfielder, will always be remembered as the man who hit 61 home runs in 1961 to break Babe Ruth's single-season record.