Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My first ballgame

Technicolor could not even do justice to how green
Candlestick Park's carpet was that day. Willie McCovey
launched the world's highest popup that day.
By miracle of the Internets, I know nearly every detail of my first professional baseball game, 40 years ago this summer.

The only factors not recorded for posterity (at least not online) are how vividly green the grass glowed at first sight (I've heard this many times from others recalling their first Major League game, even when the grass is fake, as it was in 1972 at Candlestick Park); and how bored I was by the third inning of the doubleheader. That's the inalienable truth we ignore about baseball; it can drag on, until our own lives slow to its pace around adulthood, when we can finally withstand weaving it into our daily lives over the radio.

Without the computer as crutch, I can remember:

• I went with my dad (and we went with some other people, but I can't remember who; since my aunt was the only reason we'd visit the Bay Area, maybe it was some of my cousins and her second husband)

(We took our kids to their first game, also at Candlestick, a story that merits its own post; our son's birthday is today.)

• The San Francisco Giants hosted the Chicago Cubs for a doubleheader (which seemed like a good idea at the time; if one game is good, how much better should two games be? Ask any 10-year old.)

• Juan Marichal started for the Giants against Bill Hands in the first game. I had heard of Marichal before I got to the park, either because my dad told me or he was one of those players whose names transcended baseball, like Willie Mays.

• Game 2 was a blur of nothing.

• Ron Santo played third for the Cubs. I had his baseball card. I also had cards for Bobby Bonds, the Giants' rightfielder (and Barry Bonds' dad) and catcher Dave Rader.

• Willie Mays was gone by 1972, traded to the New York Mets by Giants owner Horace Stoneham, who supposedly traded Mays for cash and then gave the money to Mays, because Stoneham couldn't afford to give the great Mays the money he deserved. I had come in hopes of seeing Mays, and didn't realize until that he reached the ballpark that he was no longer a Giant. Though I liked baseball, I wasn't paying careful attention.

• Willie McCovey, the first baseman and eventual Hall of Famer whom people called Stretch, hit a ball so high into the air, twice as high as the lip of the stadium, I felt the adrenaline rollercoaster ride of being one of the few fans who would see this man hit a ball clear out of vast Candlestick Park. The headlines the next day of this amazing feat: Imagine! It became a routine popup instead (to the shortstop in the bottom of the seventh in the first game, exacting detail courtesy of www.baseball-reference.com). Nothing new under the sun.

• Giants Manager Charlie Fox got mad at an umpire's call (not sure which call; the exhaustive statistics fail my curiosity here) and told the umpire so, body shaking, arms wheeling, prompting his rejection from the game. In revenge Fox took advantage of the artificial turf, smooth as a billiard table, and threw several buckets of baseballs onto the field, where they rolled wherever the field was green, and then a couple of armfuls of bats, which arced this way and that as if free of gravity. I cheered with the crowd: A grown man having a child's tantrum! Who'da thought?

• The $1 program held me transfixed, especially the pencil drawings of selected players. They helped inspire me to draw, in the same way that Bernie Fuchs and Leroy Neiman and Mort Drucker did. It kills me I can't find the program, which I know I kept. It's somewhere in my series of godawful messes or (better) I gave it to my son. I'll post some of the work if I find it soon.

• One of the drawings was of the Giants' young infielder, Chris Speier, a wiry spider of a player who with second baseman Tito Fuentes were known as the Keystone Kids, turning double plays. I became an instant fan of Speier.

Here's what the comprehensive stats tell me:

• It was Sunday, June 11, 1972 (I missed the 40th anniversary by almost a month); the first game started at 1 p.m. under sunny skies, 70 degrees at Candlestick Point. In addition to me, 21,728 other people also paid to sit in the stands. The summary doesn't indicate whether the stiff wind was blowing, but it probably was. Almost always did.

• A legend, Leo "The Lip" Durocher, was the Cubs' manager.

• The Giants were not good, not like the year before, when they had won the National League West division. Two months into the season and they were already 16 1/2 games behind first place, with 18 wins and 38 losses. They weren't contenders like today, when they're leading the division. They had lost seven straight and would lose that game too, getting shut out 4-0. They rallied to win the second game 3-1. I didn't really care about any of this.

• It was not the great Juan Marichal's day. The Hall of Famer would lose, and would also commit two throwing errors in the same inning trying to pick off runners at first.

• Catcher Fran Healy and a sometime shortstop named Damaso Blanco drove in the go-ahead runs for the Giants in the second game. Ron Bryant got the win for the Giants. Burt Hooton started for the Cubs; Hooton threw a no-hitter his first year in baseball, but was really more known later as a solid Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher.

Forty years later, Hooton is still in baseball, a pitching coach for the Houston Astros' Triple-A ballclub. Chris Speier is bench coach for the Cincinnati Reds; he and his team were just in San Francisco to split a four-game series with the Giants, and I got to hear a lengthy radio interview with him over the weekend. Tito Fuentes is a Spanish-language radio broadcaster for the Giants. Willie McCovey is an almost daily presence at AT&T Park, where he sponsors Junior Giants youth baseball. Willie Mays is also a constant, long since returned to baseball's good graces after he and Mickey Mantle were shunned for being greeters at Las Vegas casinos. Marichal is still revered in these parts.

And each and every day this time of year, kids' hearts thump extra hard when they first catch sight of the glowing green grass of a Major League ballpark.


  1. Hey Shawn,
    great Blog BTW,
    What a coincidence, I went to a game that same day.
    Saw the Yankees in Kansas City, didn't remember much of the game except it was Cap Day, and I got razzed for buying a Baltimore Orioles Pennant.
    Took until the Internets that I was able to remember the Royals won 1-0, and the most amazing thing was there was only 1 pitching change, and the game took 2 hours from first pitch to last.
    Seemed Longer,

    Frank Drackman, 80'

    1. cool! are you from kansas city, frank? what's the connection to the orioles, or were you a fan of brooks robinson and boog powell like i was?

  2. Shawn, it was my first major-league game too. One detail you might remember - it was Giants caps day - each one in attendance received a free felt Giants cap. I was a kid from Louisiana, where there was no MLB, and I was thrilled to be there.

    1. wow, francis, you're right! thanks for jogging my memory! i can smell the cap now, the plastic-y hat liner and all! wow, that's great we shared that so long ago!