Along about noon, the news came over the radio that Luke Appling had died at 83. Then it was added that "and Luke Appling will probably be best remembered for the home run he hit off Warren Spahn in that old-timers game at RFK Stadium." The local sportscaster who delivered that belief must now himself be best remembered as a total idiot with bollixed priorities. A nincompoop.
Anyway, let's reconstruct that RFK scene: The stadium was rigged for the old-timers' frolic, with all fields shortened so that the likes of 75-year-old Appling could hit one into the seats; especially with the fun-loving Spahn tossing up the melons he likes to throw in old-timers games. Appling laughed his way around the bases.
Appling, the near-immortal, best remembered for something like that? Luke Appling, who may have been the most famous shortstop in the 90 years of the American League -- twice its batting champion, seven times a leader in assists -- who was swept into Cooperstown with 84 percent of the vote; whose .388 batting average in 1936 was unmatched by any other shortstop, living or otherwise?
To honor Luke Appling most for hitting an old-timers home run is equivalent to saying six-time AL batting champion Ted Williams was distinguished mostly for his dislike of bunting, or that Joe DiMaggio was famous for failing to hit safely in that 57th game, or that the Johnstown flood could, indeed, be attributed to a leaky toilet in Altoona. What blather.
Sixty years ago when he came up to the White Sox as a kid shortstop, it wasn't immediately apparent Luke Appling belonged in the big leagues. He immediately fumbled his way into such notoriety that Chicago fans dubbed him "Kid Boots" and screamed for his removal from the lineup.
What a turnaround it became. The rookie who batted only .232 would, a couple of years later, launch a .300-plus batting career for the next 16 seasons and play in more games, 2,599, than any other shortstop in history.
For the jittery rookie shortstop with a undependable arm and fumbling habit, the renaissance occurred when the veteran Jimmy Dykes joined the Sox as their third baseman. Appling said Dykes steadied him. He remembered a day in St. Louis when, with the bases full in the ninth, he booted a groundball that lost the game, and then later moaned to Dykes: "Why did they have to hit one to me in that spot?" Appling said that's when Dykes told him: "You gotta change your attitude. In a spot like that, get yourself to wanting them to hit it to you."
When Appling retired in 1950, his baseball age was a number at which Luke and his friends had been winking for years. Luke said his draft card exposed him as two years older. "Couldn't lie to the government," he said. "Maybe they wouldn't like it." (The Baseball Encyclopedia says he was 81, so we'll never be sure exactly how old he was.)
Among Appling's nonadmirers were the AL pitchers. In his own way, he wore them out. In addition to his career .310 batting average, Appling was the game's most famed specialist at fouling off pitches, especially when the count reached three and two. Appling said: "Put it this way. When I saw a pitch I didn't like, I just fouled it off. It was easy." Ted Lyons, the Chicago manager, vowed he once saw Appling foul off 14 straight pitches against Red Ruffing.
And he always fouled to right field. Appling explained this in his direct way. "In my first two seasons, when I didn't hit .300, I was a straightaway hitter, so I decided to change directions."
Around the league, they also knew him as the AL's greatest moaner, constantly complaining of some illness or injury. "Old Aches and Pains" they called him when Appling spoke of his lameness or fractures or conjunctivitis, or other ills. A Chicago writer once wrote: "An unhealthy Appling is the best thing the Sox have going for them."
How did Appling get to the big leagues? Well, it might be said he was a timely hitter. His Oglethorpe College team was playing Mercer on a day when an Atlanta scout was in the stands, and Luke simply picked that day to hit four home runs. Atlanta signed him and sold him to the White Sox for $25,000.
In later years, it was during a debate about the comparative speeds of newcomer Bob Feller and Lefty Grove that Appling delivered an opinion agreeing with that of Walter Johnson. "I think Grove was a mite faster," he said. Having faced both of them numerous times, he could be considered an informed source.
After two years at Oglethorpe, Appling took early retirement to try his luck at baseball. At a class reunion many years later, they presented him with a plaque that may not have been overstated when it pronounced him "the South's greatest ballplayer since Ty Cobb." Seems he was famous for something else besides hitting an old-timers game home run.