Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you

Today (July 7) is Satchel Paige‘s birthday. It’s a day to honor a man who I wish I had known more about in my youth.

I’ve written before, going all the way back to the first thing I ever put in this space, about the Springfield Redbirds, who were once the triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. When they began playing in my hometown of  Springfield, Illinois in 1978, I was not quite ten years old.

Over the course of the next four seasons, a very high-quality baseball game could regularly be found in the summertime, about 20 minutes away from my house. I didn’t fully appreciate this quite yet, but over time it has come to mean a great deal. Baseball matters to me in a way that no other sport ever has, or ever will. I can only conclude that the Redbirds played a role in this process.

In 1980, the third year that the Redbirds were in town, and the year they won the championship of the American Association, they hired Satchel Paige in the figurehead role of Vice President. By that time he was a Hall of Famer, the highest honor that the majors could bestow on him.

But Paige was also a living legend, having pitched–by his own recordkeeping–for 250 teams, in 2,500 ball games. He claimed to have won 2,000 games, and pitched anywhere from 20 to 100 no-hitters. The barnstorming nature of teams in the pre-integration era didn’t provide accurate records, so the actual numbers probably depended on what mood he was in on any given day. But no one doubts that he was a dominant pitcher, and perhaps the greatest one who ever threw to a hitter from a pitcher’s mound.

I remember going to a game once in 1980 and asking him if he would sign a program for me. He obliged this request, and I kept it with my things at home. It was a special thing to me, but I must admit that, as the years went by and that program somehow vanished. And so it goes.

Satchel Paige made his first big-league appearance at the age of 42, well beyond the age of most productive players. And his final appearance came in 1965, just a few years before I was born. He pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City A’s, at the age of 59. It’s a record that will probably never be broken.

Satchel Paige died in Kansas City in 1982. His Springfield job was the last stop in a professional baseball career that spanned across seven decades. He’s known as perhaps the greatest player, in the most important position, in the best sport that I’ve ever known. I’m happy to have crossed paths, no matter how briefly, with such an important figure in the game’s history. I wish I had held on to that program, though.

A Hall of Famer lived in my neighborhood

When it comes to having a long and storied career, the Cubs don’t have anyone better than Leo Charles “Gabby” Hartnett. He didn’t win a World Series title, but there wasn’t too much that he didn’t accomplish over his career, from winning an MVP to being named a six time All-Star, and from winning four pennants with the Cubs to hitting the most dramatic walk-off home run that anyone had ever seen. I’ll write more about that one later on this month.

When Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 300th career game, Harnett was behind the plate. When Babe Ruth called his shot in 1932 World Series, Hartnett would have caught the pitch if Ruth missed. When Carl Hubbell struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin–all of them Hall of Famers– in succession during the 1934 All-Star game, Hartnett was telling him what pitches to throw. I could go on, but the point about his illustrious career has been made.

Since Hartnett played long before I was born, and retired before baseball games were seen on television, I can’t say that I know as much about him as I do about, say, Johnny Bench, Tom Seaver, or Reggie Jackson. Until Bench came along, Hartnett was generally acknowledged to be the greatest catcher in National League history. And he led the Cubs, on numerous occasions, to baseball’s promised land, the World Series.

My interest in Gabby Hartnett, though, is more personal than that. I recently learned, from a website devoted to the history of my Chicago neighborhood, that Gabby Hartnett owned a house literally around the corner from my house. If I had walked out the front door when you started reading this post, I’d already be at the old Hartnett homestead.

I took a picture of the house when I was out walking the dog a few days ago. It’s an impressive brick house, on a nice corner lot, in a neighborhood that hasn’t changed very much since everything was built in the 1920s and 1930s. I wonder how he got himself to Wrigley Field for the games. Perhaps he drove, or even took a street car in the direction of the ballpark.

I also wonder how he was with the people who lived in the neighborhood back then. Was he a prima donna around those who weren’t bigtime ballplayers, or would he wave and say hello as he walked by? Did he ever walk past my house? Did he know the people who once lived here? The people who would know the answers to those questions, Hartnett included, are all dead by now. Still, it’s interesting to think about these things.

Ballplayers, like everybody else, need a place to lay their head when they sleep at night. The players make so much money these days that it’s hard to imagine the kind of digs Derek Jeter must have, or Alfonso Soriano, or any of the players who made more money in the past six months than I will in my lifetime. But some people are lucky enough to call ballplayers their neighbors. And, years before my father was even born, some of those people lived in the house where I’m now typing this out. For a Cubs fan like me, that’s pretty cool.

I’ll revisit Hartnett’s greatest moment–possibly even the best moment in Cubs’ history–when the regular season ends next week. I hope you’ll come back and read it.