"Everybody has a moment in his lifetime when everything comes together," Walt Dropo says. "You can't measure what happens to you. You can't identify what happens to you. You look at athletes in all sports—there is a time when everything is just right. My time was 1950."
Is it better to be a skyrocket once, amazing the people still standing on the ground, than never to have shot through the sky at all? Forty-three years have passed since this 70-year-old man's magic baseball summer, but it still brings a smile to his face. There was a time, understand. There was this one year....
Walt Dropo was a big man, almost huge for that era, at 6'5", 220 pounds. At 27, he was old for a major league rookie, because his college career at the University of Connecticut had been interrupted by three years of service in Europe during World War II. A three-sport star at UConn, Dropo is still recognized as the school's greatest athlete. He rejected offers from the Chicago Bears and from Providence in the Basketball Association of America to sign with the Boston Red Sox.
"I never thought about basketball." Dropo says. "I really wasn't that good. I was big. That's all you needed then. I couldn't do any of the things they do today. Football, I don't know if I could have made the Bears. I was an end, and they had great ends. My first love, anyway, was baseball."
Dropo struggled in the minors and was left off the Red Sox roster at the beginning of the 1950 season. Called up early in the season when starting first baseman Billy Goodman was injured, Dropo came out swinging and didn't stop until September. He was installed in the middle of the lineup of the last team to hit over .300 for a season (the Red Sox finished with an average of .302); Dropo batted .322 with 180 hits. He tied teammate Vern Stephens as the American League leader with 144 runs batted in. A classic righthanded slugger in a park with a short leftfield wall, Dropo had 34 home runs. The ballot for Rookie of the Year wasn't even close: Dropo collected 15 votes out of 24 to beat out New York Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford. Alas, by the middle of the following June, he was back in the minor leagues. His perfect time had ended.
Over the next 10 years Dropo played for five teams, the highlight coming in 1952 when he tied a major league record with 12 consecutive hits for the Detroit Tigers. "I had a .270 career average, which doesn't look so bad these days," Dropo says. "That's what I was, a .270 hitter with some power. I look at that year, and what I had going for me was I got a lot of good pitches. Our lineup was so strong that pitchers had to challenge the rookie. I got the pitches. I hit them. That was the story."
But not the end of the story. After his playing career Dropo became regional manager of an investment firm, and in 1972 he went to work for the family business, the Washington Fireworks Company, in Washington, D.C. "The excitement of fireworks is like hitting a game-winning home run," Dropo has said.
The fireworks company imported much of its goods from China, so Dropo would travel there occasionally. While he still holds a share of the mark for consecutive hits, Dropo says it is not his only record: He claims he is the only big leaguer ever to hit a baseball over the Great Wall of China.
He is semiretired now and still lives in Boston. Every now and then, on a summer night, he returns to Fenway Park, where it's easy to remember that time when everything was just right.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (NOW)
The Boston rookie sparkled in '50, then fizzled—and later turned to real fireworks.
[See caption above.]