HANK AARON, GENE AUTRY AND ME
BY: RALPH GOLDFARB
My earliest recollections of baseball go back to 1956 as I approached my 10th birthday.
Ted Williams was the biggest thing in the Boson Baseball World and Mickey Mantle and the Yankees were the biggest thing in the wider Baseball World. I suddenly comprehended baseball statistics. I knew how to compute earned run averages (earned runs divided by innings pitched multiplied by 9). Wins, losses, batting average, slugging percentage and ERA were all you needed to know and I had figured them all out. No spin rate. No WAR (stupidest statistic in sports history except for Plus/Minus).
But I digress. In 1956, Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown (52 HR, 130 RBI, 353 BA.) Ted, at age 37, batted 345 just missing out on beating Mantle. Painful days for a young Red Sox fan in love with Ted and the numbers. But Ted came back to win the batting title in both 1957 and 1958, at ages 38 and 39, hitting 388 in 1957, the highest average in major league baseball since............(wait for it) Ted himself batted 406 in 1941.
Again, not really the point here but important for you to understand what the CIA would call “Deep Background” In 1957, the Milwaukee Braves won the National League Pennant and beat the hated Yankees in the World Series, winning Game 7 on October 10 1957, my 11th birthday. And then I found out another sad truth.
I already knew about the meanest man in the world, Harry Frazee, the prick that sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees so he could finance a Broadway show (No No Nanette). 1957 is when I learned about the other Boston Strangler, Lou Perini. On March 18, 1953, Lou Perini took our team, the Braves, to Milwaukee. In 1957, I discovered that Boston Baseball fans had Warren Spahn, Lou Burdette, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock and on and on, but, above all, above all, we had Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron. And those Braves won the 1957 World Series, game 7, on my (did I already mention this?) 11th birthday, October 10 1957. Sadly, 11 year old little Ralphie had to adopt the Braves that he should have had as his own. Does 1918 mean anything to you? The Braves made it back to the World Series in 1958 but lost the World Series in 7 games to the despicable, hated Yankees on October 9th 1958 saving our young hero from the ultimate birthday disappointment. But the scars remained until 2004. Fast forward to the summer of 1967, a magic season for long tortured Red Sox fans.
After years of mediocrity followed by putridness, the Red Sox mattered again. Dick Williams (more on him later) was hired as manager and declared “We’ll win more than we lose”. It was a bold prediction at a time of virtual hopelessness for Boston Baseball.
For years, if you wanted to go to a Sox game, you just went. Tickets were not an issue. We jump on the MTA (yes, just MTA. The MBTA was a Johnny come lately marketing idea). From Mattapan, you took a trolley, a train and a trolley to Kenmore Square and baseball paradise. 75 cents for a bleacher seat or 50 cents for kids for the right field grandstand, where you could wait until the 6th inning and then they would open the split and let you move into the infield grandstand seats. The Box Seats were still defended like the Berlin Wall for the entire game. But you couldn’t get from the bleachers into the grandstand until well into this century. So we weren’t idiots. We knew when the split would open. The entire gang of young people would hang out at the split, waiting for the magic moment when we would invade that other world with glee. For another 10 cents, as you passed through Kenmore Square, you could buy a Record American with a score sheet on the back page but you always had to remember to bring your own pencil because they got another nickel for the pencil. And yes, little Ralphie had learned how to score baseball back in the awakening year of 1956.
After a 10 game winning streak that ended on July 23, 1967, surprisingly, the fans met the ball club at the airport to celebrate their success. Everything about Boston Baseball was suddenly and totally changed forever. The Red Sox were so popular from then on that the ball park was packed every night for the rest of the 1967 season. And that popularity continues to continue through 1975, 1986, 2004, 2007, 2013 and 2018 right up to today. All because Dick Williams delivered on that promise, “We’ll win more than we lose”. And they did, winning the 1967 pennant (first since 1946) and taking the National League Champion Cardinals to seven games before the Cardinals prevailed.
The other significant event in the summer of 1967, is that I met your mother. I’ve written that story in great detail, but one important fact to add to that story is that she was a baseball fan. Ever wonder how that happened? Well, way back, actually, way way back, a young boy growing up in an immigrant family discovered his love for baseball.
And his favorite team growing up was none other than the Boston Braves. He was part of a phenomenon from the 30’s and 40’s that came with growing up in the depression era. He was part of the Knot Hole Gang, composed of boys who had no opportunity to pay to see a baseball game so they would go to the field and find holes in the walls so they could watch the game.. Eventually, the Braves turned this into a promotion.
Youngsters received free admission to the left field pavilion in the hope that they would grow up and turn into paying customers. In those days, Braves field was known fondly as the Wigwam (nothing about the Braves was ever politically correct). Braves field is now Boston University’s Nickerson field and the left field pavilion is the only surviving part of the old Braves Field. You’ve probably guessed that the Braves fan was young Christy Lewis, Mom’s Dad. His love for baseball was passed on to his children, as mine has been passed on to you all.
In 1970, Mom and I got married and after our unique “Europe on $5/day” honeymoon trip with 2 of my fraternity buddies, Gideon and Singer, we returned to Boston to start our new lives. As part of this new life, I was introduced to the “Lewis Family Christmas”.
Now you have to understand that I grew up in a traditional religious Jewish family. That meant no Christmas, only Hanukkah, with one present each night, none of which compared to the bikes, train sets, etc. that our Christian friends and neighbors got. We had “Glove night”, Underwear night”, “Hat night”, “Sock night”. You get the idea and there was one pathetic wimpy piece of crap toy or other “treat” that we pretended we liked, all delivered in one paper bag from the grocery store for each of us. Yes all 8 presents in one grocery bag. The Lewis Family Christmas was not 8 wimpy presents in a paper bag, not even close.
We would arrive at the Lewis house on Adams Street to a mountain of wrapped presents under and around the tree, I mean it was a mountain and immediately Mom and her sister go groveling about to see how many presents they each had under the tree. There had to be an equal number for both of them or there was a blood war. While this is going on, Grampa Lewis is barking at them to cut it out while he takes pictures of all the decorations so he can make sure that everything is in exactly the same place for the next year’s Christmas. What followed could only be described as decadent and it helps you understand why your own Christmases followed that same pattern, including Mom making sure everyone got the same number of presents. The opening of the presents was a marathon and Grampa would always save one extravagant gift, usually tickets to something, for last.
All of this brings us to 1974. I had heard of the Baseball Writers Dinner. With a father who was not a sports fan and 2 sisters, I had The Boston Globe Sports pages all to myself from 1956 until, well, today. I still read the Globe Sports, now on line but still the newspaper version so I can page through all of the sports stories just like I have every day for 65 years. The Sunday notes columns are still a treat (except for WAR and Plus/Minus). Every winter, the Boston Baseball Writers (and the writers in every major league city) had a dinner including various baseball personalities and stars, including some national stars. What I never knew was that there were tickets available and that anyone could buy tickets and attend this dinner. So here we are, at the trailing end of the 1974 Christmas Presents Orgy, and Chris, as had become his usual approach —---- now, I have to interrupt the story to tell you that the man was as dry as the Sahara and as cool as the North Pole. I learned to appreciate him so much over the years as he went from being my girlfriend’s intimidating father to one of my best friends who I miss to this day. For years we would go to Pawtucket Red Sox games several times a year, just him and me. We’d go out before the game for beers and food and have a wonderful time. As a result of this, I later took all of you, to games at Pawtucket.—----- So, as was his custom, at the end of the gift orgy, he would hand out envelopes. In 1974, the envelopes for me and my brother in law were tickets to go to the BBWAA Dinner at the Statler Hilton on January 24, 1974, with Chris, and, included a pre-dinner visit and drinks at the Playboy Club in Boston where, yes, Chris was a member. It still makes me smile when I think of him. What a hot shit he was.
The Dinner. It is impossible for me to convey how spectacular this event was for me.
From 1956 on, I was a total, diehard baseball and Red Sox fan. As a kid, I attended Red Sox games at every opportunity. Before we had children, Mom and I went and sat in the bleachers dozens of times. I sucked at playing but I loved everything about it, the statistics, the history, the triumphs, the failures, the connection from Doubleday Field in Cooperstown (where I dragged you all multiple times) to little league games, to games of whiffle ball in the driveway or backyard. Now here I was walking into a Baseball Spectacular. The 3 of us walk into this big hall, full of baseball writers, baseball players, and baseball geeks like me, for a pre-dinner cocktail party. Now I’m pretty sure that I had never been to cocktail party, not a real one. I was a beer guzzling fraternity boy.
We walk into the room and there are 2 large round tables. In one corner, the table was covered with Martinis, straight up. In the other corner, the table was covered with Manhattans, straight up. Chris, without hesitation, goes right to the Manhattan table, and, as a good respectful son-in-law, I followed him to the Manhattan table and had what I am sure was my first ever Manhattan, and no doubt several more quickly followed.
Time stood still while the cocktail party raged on. The famous guests had their own private cocktail party away from us. Sometime later, while I could still stand, we were moved into the dining room and took our seats at our table towards the back of the hall.
The rectangular room was large but not huge and wider than long so we weren’t that far from the head table. Later dinners that I attended were moved to the Sheraton Tara and the hall and crowd size was much larger. This one was sort of small and definitely intimate.
For openers, Curt Gowdy was the Master of ceremonies. Curt Gowdy was a huge broadcasting legend by that time, maybe the biggest. This is the guy who called Red Sox games on TV and Radio for my entire youth. He was The Voice of the Red Sox and taught me so much about baseball and beer drinking. “Hi neighbor, have a Gansett”. By 1974, he had added national broadcasts of many sports for NBC to his repertoire, eventually giving up the Red Sox and becoming the number one national broadcaster, but we always felt he was ours and claimed him as our own.
And that was not all, not by a longshot. The guest list included Joe Cronin, retiring that winter as President of the American League and a Red Sox shortstop, manager, general manager, team president, Hall of Famer and overall baseball legend. Luis Tiant was there and Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Tommy Harper, Earl Weaver, the great Orioles manager. And Dick Williams, the guy who rescued Boston Baseball in 1967 and forever. Dick Williams was and is the only Red Sox manager who escaped the daily criticism myself and my friends have heaped on every other Red Sox Manager before and since. And there were many more famous guests including Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy himself, who owned the Los Angeles Angels at that time.And to close the giant circle, all the way back to little Ralphie in 1956, exulting when he realized how to compute earned run average, there, in front of us, was the biggest star in baseball, former Boston Brave and future all-time home run leader and hall of famer, “Hammerin’ Hank Aaron”. Hank Aaron went on with my help (I shook his hand) to hit number 715 on April 8, 1974, a scant 2 ½ months after I shared DNA with him. I don’t think I washed that hand for weeks after.
Finally, the last speaker of the night was Gene Autry., who was another giant star in my childhood universe. As long as I could remember, I saw his cowboy movies at the Oriental Theater in Mattapan and I watched his show on television. He was a true Hollywood legend, bigger than life. The whole night was massive in so many ways.
Unfortunately for Gene, by the time his turn to speak arrived, he was the only person at the dinner who was drunker than me. He struggled to stand, rambled on incoherently, slurred his words and after a respectful but short time, Gowdy thanked him and they hustled him off the podium.
Except for this, somehow, I still have the program from that night, folded so it would fit in my back pocket. It is complete and authenticate, with the green tassel, the gravy stains and the autographs. It survived and followed me across the United States all these years. I have obviously treasured this memory and taken the time and care to preserve the documentation so I can now share the artifact and the story. I hope you enjoy it as much I have.