The other night, talking to my wife, Betsy Anne, I made passing reference to the time I was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals to sign with their Columbus, Ga. farm team. I reckon I've told that story 300 or 400 times, and 10 seconds after I made the remark, I realized what a lie it was.
The only thing is, I'm not sure how big a lie it was on account of Duane Dean's daddy's 1948 Mercury. Now that may seem a little obscure, but it has to do with why I've felt entitled to tell that lie all these years.
Back in the early '50s I was a senior in high school in Bay City, Texas and the starting third baseman and leadoff hitter for the baseball team. I was told, on a number of occasions, that I was the slickest-fielding infielder that the school had ever had and, on general principles, I agreed with that assessment. The fact that Coach Don Haley seemed to disagree in no way made me believe less of myself. He once told me, "Son, I think I'll just stick up a post down there by third base. That way the ball has a chance of hitting it and might stop. At least the post won't jump out of the way."
But to get back to the Cardinals and the contract and Duane Dean's daddy's 1948 Mercury. We were headed for a baseball tournament in Cuero, Texas and we had word that an actual scout for the Cardinals was going to be there. Well, I don't know where you grew up, or where you played your ball (if you did, I bet you hit .190 and couldn't have gotten around second base if you were riding a Cushman motor scooter), but in my part of Texas the thought that there was going to be a Cardinal scout at a tournament you were playing in was enough to cause you to give up girls and Hershey bars for a solid week.
There was also word around that the scout was going to be looking especially hard at the Bay City team, which automatically convinced me he was really interested in its premier third baseman. Coach Haley's opinion notwithstanding, besides being a good fielder, I was a good hitter. By that point in the season I was hitting pretty close to .400 and I could run. I had gone to the state meet in the high hurdles and had run at least one wind-aided 100-yard dash just a tad under 10 flat. And I could slide.
Even Coach Haley agreed with me on that. We were playing the Wharton High School team and he was talking to their coach while I was standing nearby. He said, "Yeah, I only got one guy who can slide"—and he jerked his thumb at me—"but he can't get on base."
Which wasn't true. Coach Haley was always riding me, trying to unnerve me and shake my confidence. It never worked, though, because I knew the coach knew that I had the talent to make it big. The constant teasing and derision was just to keep me from getting a swelled head and to keep me on my toes. So I couldn't agree with something he subsequently said. I got on base a lot by getting hit with pitched balls, and Coach Haley made the remark that, while my ability to get hit in the head by a pitched ball and take my base helped the team, it certainly did nothing for my scholastic record. He even went on to say that he figured if I got hit in the head by enough pitched balls I'd make an excellent politician. Which was a lie. I've never been elected to a single office in my life.
But that was Coach Haley for you.
And when I tell you what he did to me when we were going to that tournament in Cuero, you'll understand how he could have made those other unkind remarks about me.
The team traveled on a bus, but Coach Haley always drove his car and he usually picked out two or three of the players to go with him. For some reason he very often picked me to go in his car.
The trip to Cuero was no exception.
It wasn't so bad for most of the way. Our really good catcher, Duane Dean, was in the front seat, and me and the shortstop, Buddy Barrett, were in back. About 10 miles from Cuero, Coach Haley looked in the rearview mirror and said, "Son, I think I'm going to play you in right-field."
I didn't say a word because I figured he was talking to Barrett. But then Barrett didn't say anything, so I said, "Sir?"
And he said, "Yeah, and I'm going to hit you eighth in the lineup."
The man was actually talking to me. And he was talking about putting the slickest-fielding infielder in Bay City High School history in rightfield.
He was actually talking about putting the fastest man on the team in the lowest spot in the lineup—with a St. Louis Cardinal scout in the stands.
Good God, if we hadn't been going 60 miles an hour I'd of bailed out right there and hitchhiked home.
Well, he carried me along with that story right up until he made out the lineup card, which was where I saw I'd been restored to my rightful position. I challenged him right then: I said, "Why'd you tell me you wasn't going to start me at third base?"
He said, "I wasn't. But the post didn't show up and I didn't have nobody else."
Well, it don't matter how I did during the tournament. You wouldn't believe me anyway if I told you how good I played. But after the last game we were in the dressing room, and Coach Haley come up and said, "I don't know why anybody would want to see you two mud-heads, but there's a man in my office wants to talk to you."
He was speaking to me and Duane Dean, who'd also had a pretty good tournament.
Well, we went to the office in the high school gymnasium and there was a guy wearing a white shirt, with a cigar stuck between his teeth. He said, "Hello, boys, I'm a scout for the St. Louis Cardinal organization and we'd like to invite you to Houston for a tryout."
Well, good grief, I know how blasè athletes are today, but that was back when every high school ballplayer could tell you Ted Williams' and Stan Musial's and even Junior Gilliam's batting average. I mean, the man had just said a tryout, a real tryout, with the St. Louis Cardinal organization.
We drove back to Bay City in a slight state of euphoria. Or at least me and Duane Dean did. Barrett wasn't saying anything because he hadn't been offered a tryout with the Cardinals, and Coach Haley just kept shaking his head and making remarks about what the state of professional baseball had finally come to.
That tryout camp was about a month off, and I reckon that was the longest month I've ever spent in my life. I fielded ground balls and line drives and pop-ups during, before and after practice. I practiced as long as the light held out and as long as I could find somebody to hit to me.
Man, I was ready. I even went to bed every night with a ball tied up in my glove to try to improve the pocket.
Well, the day finally came, and me and Duane loaded up his daddy's 1948 Mercury and set off for Houston. We were going to stay with my Aunt Sylvia during the three days of the tryout (they hadn't offered us any expense money), which was to be at old Buff stadium, the home of the world-famous Houston Buffaloes, winners of the 1947 Dixie Series.
I want to state here and now that I'm not going to tell you much about that tryout. The reason I'm not is that some of the details are still a little too painful. There must've been about 100 guys who showed up the first day. The coaches in charge put us through timed sprints and infield drills and controlled batting practice and all that sort of stuff.
There I was standing on the same infield where Tommy Glaviano and Billy Costa and Solly Hemus had played, and in the outfield had been Eddie Knoblauch and Hal Epps. It hadn't been much more than five years since I'd sat up in those very stands, eating hot dogs and hamburgers and watching those same ballplayers on the very field I was standing on. I mean, my spikes were sunk in the very same dirt theirs had been.
Well, I survived that first day. The way they did it was to post a list of the players they wanted back the next day and, when the list was posted, my name was still among those 30-odd players they were inviting back.
Heck, I was on Easy Street that night in my Aunt Sylvia's house. I could already see myself wearing that Cardinal uniform and maybe giving fielding tips to Marty Marion. The only thing in my way was a little bit of time.
Now, at this point, I got to tell you about one slight defect I had as a player: I didn't really have the great arm. Coach Haley and I were in agreement on that point.
In fact, he was once so unkind as to ask me why I didn't go ahead and donate it to the Salvation Army. I asked him what he meant, and he said, "Ain't you ever seen those donation boxes? That's where you're supposed to put your old rags."
But he said something worse to me. One time we were taking infield practice and I'd just made a throw to first base when he come walking onto the field shaking his head and saying, "No, no, no." He come up to me and took me by the shoulder and said, "Son, don't throw the ball to first base. Carry it over there. That way it'll get there sooner and we can be sure it will arrive. It will also be a lot less dangerous for the people in the stands behind first base."
Which was a damn lie, because I'd never hit anybody in those stands yet.
But this time I was determined. I wasn't just snapping my wrist on those infield throws, I was snapping my ankles. I'd figured I didn't have a thing to lose; that this time it was do or die and I wasn't saving anything back. I wasn't just putting myself behind those throws, I was putting my parents and my grandparents and their parents before them.
I remember that, at the end of the workout on the second day, they were having us bring it home. Duane Dean was the catcher because by then he'd established himself as the premier athlete on the field, which he was. Well, I was socking that ball in there. I made four throws in a row at ankle height without Duane having to move his glove an inch. But I damn near threw my back out in the process.
Anyway, I thought I was a made man. At that point I was figuring on a year in the minors at the very most.
Then I read the board. And my name wasn't on it. I wasn't being invited back another day. I was through.
Duane Dean couldn't believe it. I told him I'd go ahead and take the bus back to Bay City. I didn't want to stick around and be humiliated any worse. He insisted, however, on the two of us talking to one of the coaches who was running the camp. Well, I was kind of embarrassed, but we went on over and talked to this coach who was leaning up against the wall in front of the box seats. Old Duane wanted to know why I'd been cut. He claimed I'd fielded and hit and run about as well as anyone. But the coach said they were worried about my arm, that I didn't really have the great arm. Well, Duane protested that, pointing out those great throws I'd made to home plate. The coach kind of glanced at me and then he put his arm around Duane's shoulders and they walked away a few feet. I reckoned they was trying to get to where I couldn't hear them, but that wasn't the way it worked out. The coach said, "Son, the reason we cut him is that we don't need no one-armed in-fielders in the St. Louis Cardinal chain."
And Duane said, "What are you talking about?"
The coach said, "What I mean is, if he keeps throwing like he throws now it ain't going to be too long until he's got just that one arm."
Which wound up my tryout with the Cardinals.
But I've got a point to make. As we get older we tend to remember how much faster we ran the 100-yard dash and how many more touchdowns we scored in the big game or how many hits we got in a season.
So old age is creeping up on all of us. And none of us can run a 9.6 hundred anymore, or catch three touchdown passes from W.C. Gosling anymore. Or remember all the fights we thought we'd won in all those tin-roofed dance halls we were in when we were rodeoing.
Or all those contracts we signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.
But I want to ask for a fair assessment of the lie I've been telling for 28 years. It is a fact that Duane Dean and I were invited to the Cardinal tryout camp. And it's a fact that, out of the 100 players invited. Duane Dean did get offered a contract by the Cardinals, even though he threw it over for a college scholarship.
I didn't get offered a contract. I got cut on the second day.
But I did ride down to that tryout camp in Duane Dean's daddy's 1948 Mercury. And we did stay at my Aunt Sylvia's house during those tryouts.
And, not only that, I rode back to Bay City, Texas in the same 1948 Mercury that I'd come up there in, and the guy who was driving it had a signed offer in his pocket from the St. Louis Cardinals.
If that, right there, don't entitle you to go around lying the rest of your life that you were offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals, then there is something wrong with this democracy!
You can't get much closer.