Crap I Think of While Mowing the Lawn – #21

(other than This Lawn Looks Like Crap)

Interesting, if not always deep, thoughts often pop into my head while I’m doing battle with my lawn. And yes, I do battle with a non-gas, non-electric, old-fashioned push mower. An actual reel mower. And my mind tends to think of some semi-interesting crap while I push along.

Welcome to Volume 21 of Crap I Think of While Mowing the Lawn.

 

BASEBALL STORIES

I used to do most of my mowing/ruminating on Sundays; now, the inspiration comes, and goes, most any day.

…A man who had read one of my old sports columns had contacted me a while back, asking if I would be willing to contribute a story touching upon a ballpark memory. I replied back then, hadn’t heard anything, and then, he re-contacted me, as the project was now closer to the front burner. I’m not sure if/when/where this book will be published, as it is (for him) a labor of love, but the project did inspire me to look back at the time I attended my first-ever Phillies game.

If you have even a little old-school baseball or old-school Philly in you, please enjoy!

………..

Tony Cloninger and the Parking Lot Attendant

— Matthew J. Goldberg

It was right around my seventh birthday when Dad came home with the exciting news. He had five tickets to a Phillies game—which would be the very first that any of us ever attended. Yes, enough ducats for the whole family to pile into our ’64 Ford Falcon and head to good ol’ Connie Mack Stadium to watch some big-leaguers at play. Baseball has never been considered work to me.

 

Not only would the Phils be hosting the Atlanta Braves, but they would also be facing the legendary Tony Cloninger. Tony Cloning…who? Dad, who was more of a University of Minnesota/Big 10 football fan at heart but did enjoy a little baseball, explained who he was. “Tony Cloninger, a pitcher no less, hit two grand slams in the same game earlier this season!” I knew enough about the rules of baseball to be wowed by that feat. Amazingly, 48 years later as I write, he is still the only Major League Baseball pitcher to ever do so. You can Google it, or better yet, check out the box score on baseballreference.com. I did, and oh, the memories it invoked!

 

Of course, the Braves also had an all-time great in right fielder Henry Aaron. Hammerin’ Hank was by that time already my first sports idol, while my older brothers Dan and Josh chose Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays, respectively, as theirs. Keep in mind that this trio comprised quite the National League All-Star starting outfield for much of the 1950s and 1960s. And yes, I still love, and try to incorporate, the number 44 in day-to-day life in honor of Hank. But, I digress…

 

The year was 1966, and I was just becoming a huge baseball fan. My dad’s Minnesota Twins had been in the previous year’s World Series, losing a tough seven-game classic to the legendary Sandy Koufax and the LA Dodgers. I may have watched a game or two, or even snuck in some radio broadcasts. I do know that I watched at least part of every game of the 1966 World Series (applauding the Orioles’ sweep of the Dodgers, which greatly upset my transplanted-from-LA neighbor, Mrs. Reitz), and have been tuned in to the Fall Classic ever since.

 

As for the 1966 Phillies, they were a decent ballclub, but were already 16 years deep into a 30-year stretch without a single World Series appearance. The 1950 Whiz Kids charmed the locals until getting outclassed and swept by the Yankees. The 1980 bunch, led by Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, finally brought a baseball parade to this uniquely sports-crazed town.

 

1966 was only two years removed from the 1964 Phillies, a year and nickname that carry quite a dubious reputation. That squad went from an underdog feel-good story to the choke artists who blew a 6 ½ game lead with 12 left to play. They lost 10 straight games, and eight games in the standings, over a 10-day period. Yes, I was a little too young to witness this, but it has been hard-wired eternally into my Philly sports DNA.

 

Connie Mack Stadium was located in the rough-and-tumble streets of North Philly, and perhaps, it was good that this was an afternoon game. Our middle-class (if not fancy by any means) suburban New Jersey home was only a half-hour’s drive from the ballpark, but we landed in a different world. Dad parallel parked the Falcon in front of the row homes surrounding 21st and Lehigh, and I recall our being greeted by a youngster not much older than me.  “Watch your car for a quarter,” he said. I thought that was kind of cool, if a little costly. Dad, I believe, thought it was a very good investment. Apparently, the kid did a good job of watching, as we would arrive to a car that was in the same condition as we left it. Now, for the game, itself.

 

We didn’t purchase a program, and it wasn’t until I prepared this piece that I thought to look up the particulars of this August 7th contest between two non-contenders. Baseball reference dot com will tell you that the Goldberg family was joined by only 14,577 other fans that day, and that Tony Cloninger pitched a five-hit shutout. Not only that; this latter-day Babe Ruth also doubled home a run. What of the other big sluggers that I was dying to see? The immortal Hank Aaron and the Phils’ mercurial Richie (later, Dick) Allen went a combined 0-8.

 

What no box score could capture was the impossibly gorgeous expanse of green grass that came to life so beautifully in that North Philly shrine. The late, beloved Hall of Fame player and broadcaster Richie Ashburn once said of Connie Mack Stadium, the former Shibe Park: “It looked like a ballpark. It smelled like a ballpark. It had a feeling and a heartbeat, a personality that was all baseball.” [1]

 

I’m not sure my just-turned-seven year-old self realized just how much personality it had, although I did try to take it all in. I sensed immediately that the ballpark was immense. At that time, it was 447 feet to dead center, and more than 400 to both of the power alleys. While the 3-0 Braves victory featured only one home run (by a fine pure hitter from the Dominican Republic named Rico Carty) and four doubles (including one by Joe Torre), every crack of the bat was impossibly loud and resonant.

 

As I look back, I remember the pure joy of screaming “We want a hit” (and usually not having our request granted) with the other fans, and I do recall being intrigued by the name Woody Woodward. The Braves’ utility man booted two balls at short that day, while his Hall of Fame partner at the hot corner, Eddie Mathews, also kicked one. Cloninger, not content to merely pitch a shutout and stroke an RBI double, also uncorked his 19th and 20th wild pitches of the season on the way to an NL-leading 27. Another wow!

 

So, what became of some of the main characters of this story?

 

Our 1964 Ford Falcon ran another four years until we traded it in for a 1970 American Motors Ambassador. Why would I lie about that?!

 

Hank Aaron? I think you know that the then-34-year-old slugger would, quite remarkably, not only make nine more All-Star Game appearances, but would best Babe Ruth’s iconic 714 homers by another 41. I chose my first sports idol quite well.

 

Tony Cloninger didn’t enjoy nearly the same longevity as Number 44. His last game would be pitched in 1972, just prior to his 32nd birthday. He would finish with a respectable 113-97 career record with a 4.07 ERA, and no doubt, the satisfaction that no pitcher or player will ever break his record of two grand slams in a single game. And if anyone does that, I’d love to be there to see it or write about it.

 

Connie Mack Stadium would make it through the 1970 season, after which the Phillies would move into one of those horrible, cookie-cutter all-purpose, artificial turf stadiums in South Philly. And yes, most of my ballpark memories were realized at The Vet, but what’s intended to be progress often comes at the expense of personality. We wouldn’t catch too many more games at 21st and Lehigh, but I do recall my brothers and I earning some free games there via our school, thanks to our excellent report cards. From one of those games, I recall neighborhood buddy Jackie Carpenter flying a paper airplane onto the field and watching Phils’ southpaw hurler Grant Jackson stuffing it into his back pants pocket.

 

The things one remembers; you can’t Google every fun fact.

 

And what of the kid that did such a great job of watching our Falcon? He only had four more seasons to cash in on parking fees, but was still able to sock away enough money from those rounds to put himself through college and eventually become a renowned multimillionaire businessman who is also a noted philanthropist. How do I know that? Well, I don’t exactly.

 

The beauty of baseball goes beyond runs, hits and errors to fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, and neighbors and friends. It goes to the very heart of dreams and aspirations.

 

A seven-year-old boy could scarcely dream up a ballpark so massive and so uniquely beautiful, servicing a team that never won much of anything. And I’m still thankful that I was there to witness an otherwise meaningless 1966 ballgame, with Tony Cloninger, Hank Aaron, Richie Allen and Johnny Callison. I was there with my brothers, and my parents of blessed memory, indulging an early love affair with a sometimes silly American pastime.

 

Ours is a love affair that has never died, despite all the changes the game has embraced and endured.

……

[1] Leventhal, Josh (2006). Take Me Out to the Ballpark. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers

 

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Who am I? Well, please check out my site. I am an author/speaker/custom writer/coach who loves to inspire people to laugh, smile, learn and achieve more. All those things, and more.

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