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Original Issue

Best Fielder in the Crowd

Back when a lost ball meant the profit on three admissions, it took real skill to grab a foul hit into the grandstand

Baseball historians pride themselves on their thoroughness. But, even during the centennial year of the national pastime, they have left unnoticed and unrecorded one record set in those first 10 decades that still stands today, untarnished by asterisk:

Record: most times outwitted ball chaser (one season)—24. Held by Bud R. 1947. Pueblo (Colo.) Dodgers, Western League.

The year that record was set was the year the Pueblo Dodgers were going to open their first season in Big Ed Johnson's new Western League as a farm club for Branch Rickey's Brooklyn team of the same name. Mr. Rickey had even sent along a young man who he felt someday might become a big league manager, one Walter Alston.

But the Pueblo Dodgers had something else besides a working agreement with the Brooklyn team and Walter Alston. They also had a part-time general manager who was not only a sports enthusiast but also a sound businessman. Neal Hobbs knew that the price of a new baseball cost him about what he took in by selling three general-admission adult tickets, and, if the Pueblo franchise was going to survive, it would do so as a result both of selling tickets and conserving baseballs. He may not have invented the ball chaser, but he sure perfected the profession.

The ball chaser's job was simple. It consisted of chasing all foul balls hit out of the playing field, retrieving them and turning them back into the general manager's office where they could be rubbed down again and given to the umpires to be put back into play. Hobbs had enlisted no less than six ball chasers to patrol the Dodgers' Runyon Field, renamed that year for the journalist who, though he made his mark writing of Broadway, had started his career at the local Pueblo newspaper. It was to this field that Jody, Jack, myself and, of course, record-setting Bud went to challenge them that first week of the inaugural season.

We stood together at the top of the first-base bleachers on the first day, the four of us intent on the action taking place down on the field. But, by the end of the fourth inning. Bud's interest in the ball game had waned. Or, rather, his interest had shifted to another area. He followed each foul ball hit into or over the stands with growing intensity, watched as the blue-jacketed ball chasers trotted out to retrieve it. As the sixth inning ended, Bud walked down to ground level, not saying a word, and took a position at the break of the aisle-way which separated the grandstand from the bleachers, not six feet from one of the ball chasers.

It happened when the second hitter of the inning was at bat. He took one ball, then a called strike. He overswung on the third pitch and lifted a high foul that was coming back over our heads; the catcher did not even remove his mask it was so far out of play. As it reached its peak, the three of us who remained in the stands glanced down as one to see the ball chasers start to trot out toward the parking lot. They never had a chance.

Bud must have broken at the crack of the bat. And, because we had hunted rabbit with him with .22 rifles, we knew what kind of eye he had. But, what he was about to do was even better than all those hunting trips on which he had never failed to bring down a cottontail on the run. Without even looking back he had covered between 30 and 40 yards just as the ball hit an asphalt walkway a few yards ahead of him. It bounced just once high and came down softly in his hands. He hadn't even broken stride. From the top of the bleachers we knew that his next move was critical. If he pulled up now and turned he would see those two ball chasers, both now running at full speed, 10 yards away and closing fast. But Bud didn't even falter. He just ran down the walkway, through the ticket gate and out onto C Street. We had walked up C Street about a block and a half when he stepped out of the shadows, fell right into step beside us and grinned wide as he rubbed that new Spalding for all it was worth.

It was a full week before we went back to Runyon Field on the final night of the Dodgers' first home stand. But it hadn't been a wasted week. We had used it to lay some well-thought-out plans. I was to sit on top of the rail at the back of the third-base bleachers; Jody would cover first base; Jack would be at the rear of the grandstand. Bud himself would stay down below and play the hitters, shifting from the left to the right. He had determined the most foul balls would be hit to the opposite field.

The first batter up, a lefthander, lifted a high foul over my head, just as Bud had said a lefthander should do. I whirled on that rail, grabbing to catch myself from falling over the edge. I looked down and saw the ball hit just inside the fence which separated the back of the bleachers from the railroad yard. Presently, a ball chaser trotted over and picked up the ball. Turning back to the playing field, I could see Bud standing just where he had stood before the ball was hit. He glanced up and nodded his head sideways. It had been unplayable. I admitted to myself that I would have gone for it and, of course, wouldn't have had a chance. But Bud hadn't gone for a bad ball.

He finally picked up another chance in the bottom of the third. This one was hit to Jody's side, but it was falling short. It would land in the stands. Just as it was coming down, and just as two ball chasers were beginning to walk nonchalantly up the stairs of the bleachers and just as the P.A. announcer was getting ready to make his announcement that the person in the stands who came up with the baseball could turn it in to the ball chaser and receive two free tickets to a future Dodger game, just at that moment I glanced and saw Bud slip down underneath the bleachers. The ball came down in the crowd but they all missed it, and after a short hop the people and the chasers looked around. The ball chasers stood there for a moment, turned and trotted back down the stairs and around the side of the bleachers. Just as they went underneath, I could see a stirring in the crowd where the ball had hit. Bud's head materialized first, then his body, and by the time he was walking back up toward Jody, both Jack and I were on our way toward them. Even when we sat down with them, you really had to look to see the bulge under his shirt which he held firmly with his right arm.

Six more weeks. Six more ball games. Six more new Spaldings. But the job got tougher as each week passed. There were still just the six ball chasers, three down each line, but on our eighth visit to Runyon we passed them on the way into the ball park and one nodded toward us as we did. When Bud took his spot down the first-base line, there was not one ball chaser but two posted near him. When he moved toward third, they both followed him. But he came up with a baseball that night despite the fact that they were double-teaming him. It was a brilliant move. A foul in the top of the fifth was hit right into the middle of the parking lot, bouncing off the bumper of a Plymouth. Bud was there just a few steps ahead of the chasers, and he grabbed the ball just as it slid under a pickup truck. Again, someone else might have just picked up the ball and tried to run for it. But Bud had somehow planned on every eventuality, and he just followed the baseball under the truck. The ball chasers were still looking around and at each other when he came up eight cars away. He came up running and was over the fence which surrounded the ball park in a fashion that would make Dick Fosbury proud. He had to go over the fence, because the man at the gate had been told to stop any young boy trying to sneak out of the ball park.

It must have been around the Fourth of July when we started talking in terms of 24 baseballs. From that point it was automatically understood that two dozen was the record that Bud would aim for. He even made preparation. He walked up to the little glass window of the general manager's office and said a few words none of us could hear to the lady inside. She motioned him over to the door and, in a minute, it opened and she handed him two empty boxes. Empty, but very special. They were the boxes that baseballs came in, one dozen to a box. Both were just empty boxes, but at home Bud had enough to fill one of them. By fall the other would be filled.

The Colorado State Fair comes to Pueblo in late August, and even two dozen baseballs couldn't deter any of us from the fun of sneaking into the rodeo that was the highlight of the fair. When you were 10, even if someone could have given you every single ticket for that rodeo you'd turn them all down and still go over the wall. But those rodeos came at a time which would cut Bud's shot at the ball-stealing record very thin.

Bud needed only three more balls to make his record. Three baseballs with five home games left when the rodeo ended. And three of those games were out because school was starting and they were on school nights. The Dodgers would wind up their first season on Friday and Saturday. So that meant three balls in only two games.

The first on Friday night was easy, almost too easy. Second inning. Ball into the stands. A crazy bounce and it landed in Bud's hands. He hadn't moved a step from his usual post. Two to go.

As was the custom, we gathered together after Bud got the easy one and debated for two innings as to whether he should try for another one that night. By the middle of the fifth he had made his decision and we were back in our regular spots. The second hitter up lofted one deep over my head, way back over the bleachers and into the railroad yard. Bud trotted out of the ball park halfheartedly with a couple of the ball chasers. They spent about five minutes poking around in the tall grass which grew around the freight cars which hadn't been moved for months, finally turning and coming back in. Inside the gate he motioned to each of us, and when we joined him he said simply, "It's hidden." No. 23.

We debated about the last one again, finally deciding Bud would leave the last ball for the last day. We were enjoying the ball game in the ninth inning when the P.A. announcer made the announcement which ruined the whole evening for us. The game the next day would be an afternoon game rather than a night game. Some said it was because it was already turning cold in Colorado that September. Others said it was because the Denver Bears had to travel all the way to Omaha for a Sunday game after meeting the Dodgers. We alone knew that they had pulled the whole thing so that Bud would have to go after No. 24 in broad daylight.

Saturday started out to be a miserable day, a steady drizzle falling throughout the morning, and each of us knew what we dreaded, though none would even talk about it. But paid admissions meant even more to the Dodger management than one baseball meant to us that day. Despite the weather the game started at 2 p.m. There weren't more than 200 people in the stands. Not enough cover to give Bud a shot at any ball hit into the stands.

And the ballplayers' moods seemed to match that of most of the spectators. By the start of the sixth inning there hadn't been a single ball hit out of the playing field. By then we were convinced that all the players were in league with the Dodger management in trying to deny Bud his record. We booed every single ball that was hit solidly into the outfield.

But then the bottom of the sixth came. What happened 23 years ago would be called an instant replay if it happened in these days of television. It was a ball hit almost identically to the one with which Bud had begun his career in April. A lazy, pop foul, drifting slowly over the stands, Bud again off at the crack of the bat. The ball chasers had gained a few steps in those five months. Bud didn't have them by more than a couple of yards when he took it on the first bounce. They were closing on him fast, and he couldn't go for the fence or they would have him dead. The ticket gate lay 20 yards away and dead ahead of him, but it wasn't the empty gate of April. From the stands I could see the ticket taker, feet spread in blocking position. Even from a distance he looked at least 10 feet tall.

It had been a long season and a good season, and Bud wasn't going to be denied. He sprinted until he was within five yards of the man at the ticket gate and, in one movement threw the baseball up over the fence, over the ticket booth, and halfway down C Street. In the instant that the man at the gate turned to follow the path of the ball. Bud was past him. Bud kept running, but the others, the chasers and ticketman, stopped dead. Even before Bud reached the ball, which was lying over in the gutter a half a block down the street, the others knew that they had been beaten. No. 24 was where it belonged, and Bud was in the record books.

Or, at any rate, he should be.