AUGUSTA, Ga. – My friend Buck O’Neil, the great player, manager and spokesman of the Negro Leagues, would always ask strangers a question to break the ice: “What was the first baseball game you ever attended?” It was a fantastic question, and it always inspired huge smiles and great stories. See, almost everyone remembers something about their first baseball game. But it’s usually just that: You remember something.
I remember three things from my first baseball game:
1. Gaylord Perry started the game.
2. Don Hood picked off somebody.
3. Oscar Gamble hit a home run.
I have had a very hard time locating that game … as it turns out, this is because it was two games. I should have guessed. My dad, being, uh, let’s go with “frugal,” believed strongly in the doubleheader. It was two games for the price of one. Why would you EVER go to just a single game?
Quickly (because you don’t care about my first game), Gaylord Perry started the first game of a May 4 doubleheader at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and got utterly lit up in an 11-1 loss to Baltimore. That tracks both with my memory and my history as a sports fan – OF COURSE my team lost 11-1 in the first game I ever saw. Don Hood did pick off Ken Singleton in the second game and Oscar Gamble homered as Cleveland won 4-3.
The point is that my first game did not MATTER except to me. I suspect none of the PLAYERS who were in that game remember it. There was nothing great about it. That’s how it almost always goes. I just asked Paul Arnett, sports editor of the Honolulu paper, if he remembered his first game – he remembered that it was 1964, he was 9 years old, and that his hero, Mickey Mantle, went 0-for-5.
This is fun: I just asked legendary sportswriter Dave Kindred if he remembered his first baseball game – he told a story of going to Sportsman’s Park in 1951. Then I asked Associated Press columnist Jim Litke, and he remembered going to Wrigley Field when he was 9, and it was all but empty and all he really remembers was one of his friends yelling at Cubs middle infielder Jimmy Stewart, “You play like a girl.” Nine-year-olds were just as witty in 1964 as they are now.
And so on. Nobody’s first game ever MEANS anything.
Then there’s Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game.
Nicklaus was talking about his first baseball game Thursday morning just after he and Gary Player ceremoniously teed off the Masters while Arnold Palmer watched. The ceremonial tee shot is one of the cooler things in sports. It’s nostalgic for those of us old enough to have watched those guys play, but it’s also very cool for kids who have only heard stories about Nicklaus. Someone asked Nicklaus if he could relate to the feelings of those kids who watch him hit.
“Oh sure, absolutely, of course you do,” Nicklaus said. And then he told the story of his first game. In many ways, Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game tells you everything you need to know about his golfing life.
Nicklaus grew up in Columbus, Ohio, of course, but he was visiting cousins in New York when they decided to go to Yankee Stadium for a ballgame. It was July 22, 1948, a Thursday night and Cleveland was in town.
Something crazy happened between the Yankees and Cleveland in 1948 – the two teams played 17 dates (including five doubleheaders) and drew almost 900,000 fans, an average of more than 52,500 per game. This was at a time when average attendance across baseball (not counting Cleveland and New York) was less than 15,000 per game. Those Yankees-Indians games were the biggest thing in American sports in 1948, and an 8-year-old Nicklaus got to go to one of those games.
But he did not go to just ANY of those Cleveland-New York games. Young Jack Nicklaus went to an all-time classic. Hall of Famer Bob Feller started for Cleveland and the Indians had three Hall of Famers in their lineup – Joe Gordon, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby. The Yankees also had three future Hall of Famers in their lineup – Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio.
Cleveland took a 2-0 lead, but Feller gave it back when he allowed a two-run homer to a fantastic player named Tommy Heinrich. Cleveland took a 3-2 lead into fifth when Feller gave up a leadoff single to Snuffy Stirnweiss and back-to-back walks to Heinrich and King Kong Keller. That loaded the bases for DiMaggio, who mashed a grand slam. Feller, the newspapers reported, was roundly booed.
And as if that’s not enough – Bob Feller pitching, Joe DiMaggio slam, Yogi Berra behind the plate – the greatest thing of all happened next. Satchel Paige came into the game for Cleveland. He had been signed just two weeks earlier after becoming a legend in the Negro Leagues. He pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out Joe DiMaggio. The Yankees held on to win 6-5.
It’s hard to imagine a more iconic regular season game in baseball history.
So, OF COURSE that was Jack Nicklaus’ first baseball game. Because that’s Nicklaus. His greatness as a golfer is not easily defined. Yes, in his prime, he hit the ball higher and farther than anybody else. Yes, he was a spectacular clutch putter who never seemed to miss the important ones. Yes, Nicklaus was the smartest golfer, the one who never seemed to make a strategic mistake.
But there was also something charmed about Nicklaus, something the legendary writer Dan Jenkins put like so: “You can’t compare Jack with anyone else. It was almost as if he felt it was his birthright to win major championships.” Nicklaus so deeply believed in his destiny … and why not? Look: In his first game, he saw Joe DiMaggio hit a grand slam off Bob Feller in his very first baseball game, then saw Satchel Paige strike out DiMaggio in the same game.
First game. After that, how can you not believe that you are meant for something great?