My First Baseball Game: July 31, 1965
Most people are fond of memories, especially if it is a first. Such as a first kiss, first bicycle, or the first time you drove a car, etc…
My first love was the first baseball game I remember going to.
I can remember the game, how it opened in front of my eyes as I walked down the steep steps of the bleachers at Connie Mack Stadium. Slipping out of the shadows, I found my seat and became in awe of the glorious sight, the green manicured blanket of grass, the echoes of baseballs as they made contact with wooden bats, the aroma of hotdogs and popcorn, the sound of vendors hawking peanuts and cracker jacks. Much like the Shoeless Joe Jackson character in “A Field of Dreams”, I asked, “Is this Heaven?”
I was an eight-year old and at my first baseball game. My grandfather took me; we rode to Philadelphia in an old yellow school bus. I don’t believe my Pop Pop was a big baseball fan, but was a big fan of his oldest grandson. Besides that, he loved to ride in buses. He drove one in his younger days.
Before I start my special day, I need to introduce Barney Neesen. This was a man who was very special in my life, as well as the lives of others. This man was the proprietor of the local toy store in Bridgewater. Barney’s Toy Store was more than an ordinary store, sure it provided toys, it distributed dreams. That is because Barney was a “dream weaver.” When I see someone wearing the t-shirt, “Life is Baseball”, I see this Barney Neeson. Like Ray Kinsella, when Barney learned about a lack of fields for the kids to play on, he cleared out the woods in his backyard and built a field. Not JUST a ball field. No, his field was a miniature version of his beloved Ebbets Field. There was a large, hand-operated scoreboard in center field, cinder block dugouts, an outfield fence painted with advertisements and a clubhouse with a loudspeaker system. Its speakers spouted a very scratchy version of the Star Spangled Banner before the start of every game. Many of us claim to love this game, Barney Neesen lived his love.
One of the think that Barney liked to do was run a bus trip to watch a major league baseball game. He would take all of the kids that played for him, his treat. Barney’s Toy Center had two teams, so it made a nice dent in his wallet. I think that he coordinated these trips so that all us boys would be able to say we say a big league game. Sometimes, when I think real hard, I can remember waiting to board the bus for Philadelphia. My grandfather and I stood in the parking lot of the local Shop Rite grocery store. I wore my faded green t-shirt with “Barney’s Toy Center” printed on the front of it. Even now, my stomach bubbles over the thrill I got to see the Mets play the Phillies at Connie Mack Stadium. My mother was not enthralled about me going. I was still her baby and this was my first trip without her. But since I was with my grandfather, she let me go.
At eight years old, I was just starting to understand the game. I had been playing for a couple of years and started to collect baseball cards. Since my Dad was from Pittsburgh, I was born a Pirate fan, but because of where we lived, I knew more about the Mets and Phillies. I relied on the back of my cards for information about the players. I did not learn to dissect box scores yet. So in a way, seeing them in person was like knowing them personally. And why not, I became a part of their life like they became a part of mine. I can remember having cards for some of the players I saw that day. Players like Jack Fisher, Ron Swoboda, Roy McMillan, Johnny Lewis, Jerry Grote for the Mets and Chris Short, Cookie Rojas, Richie Allen and Clay Darymple of the Phils.
In fact, I still remember the pitching match up that day. It was Jack Fisher, the Mets ace versus Chris Short, the Phils very good lefty. I also saw Richie Allen play third base and Tony Taylor hitting a home run. I also watched two of my favorites Ron Swoboda and Jim Hickman. On top of that, the Mets won. Now I’m not sure about the score but I do know that Jack Fisher was the winning pitcher.
Over twenty years ago, I was playing in a men’s softball league in Palmer Pennsylvania. The team patronized a local watering hole called “Fat Jack’s”. After one game, a bunch of us were sitting around a table in the back, drinking pitchers of beer. When the subject came up, “what was the first baseball game that you went to?”
Eventually it was my turn, I proudly reminisced about seeing the Mets and Phillies at Ol’ Connie Mack Stadium and how Jack Fisher beat Chris Short.
Then heard the voice of one of my teammates, “Why don’t you tell him?”
I replied indignantly, “Tell who?”
“Jack Fisher, who do you think owns this place? That’s him over at the bar.”
I could not believe it. Jack Fisher, the man who won the first game that I ever went to was in the same bar as me. Sure, I’ll go over and talk to him. I had lost count of how many beers I had, so what the heck, what pitcher doesn’t like to hear about a game that he pitched and won.
I walked up to Jack Fisher and blurted out, “You pitched against Chris Short in the first game that I ever went to.”
Good old’ Jack turned around; he was a lot heavier than his playing days. I guess that is why he was known as Fat Jack?
“Oh yeah, did I win?”
Well, you never have seen such a smile. “Well that’s a rarity.”
Wow! I met Jack Fisher, the man who won the first game that I ever attended. How many people get that opportunity?
So you are probably thinking that the story ends now, right? I mean, I even have a personally signed ball from Jack Fisher to acknowledge the encounter. And when people come to my house and see that ball, I proudly tell them that Jack Fisher won the first game that I ever saw played. How cool is that?
Well, that might have been the end of the story, except when I decided to write and article about it, I researched the Internet and looked it up.
Well, I soon learned not everything was exactly the way I remembered. First off, the game was played in 1965, not 1964. Although I was right that Jack Fisher faced Chris Short, and I did see Richie Allen (this was before he went by Dick Allen) but Tony Taylor did not hit a homerun, Tony did not even play that day. For years, I claimed to have seen Johnny Callison play right field at Connie Mack but Wes Covington manned right field on July 31, 1965.
After locating some newspapers with the box score, I learned the following about the game played on July 31, 1965:
Chris Short spotted the Mets three runs in the first via Charlie Smith’s three run blast. Smith would hit 16 that year after hitting 20 in 1964, but then Short pitched shutout ball the rest of the game until lifted for a pinch hitter in the ninth.
Jack Fisher (8-24 in 1965) would also pitch nine innings. He gave up a run in the first, second, and the fourth, one being a solo shot by Dick Stuart. Unfortunately, Fisher was not the winner of the game, as I misinformed him that night at his bar.
Nope, the winner was Gary Kroll. He pitched a scoreless tenth inning; the Mets would score a run in the top of the eleventh. Pinch hitter Johnny Stephenson doubled home Johnny Lewis from second with two out. Stephenson would come to bat only 126 times that year, accumulating 26 hits, five of them being doubles. His game-winning hit was off of Jack Baldschum, the same pitcher he hit another game winning single on July 23rd.
I learned that while Jack Fisher did not win the first game I went to, his ball still belongs in my display case. He was the pitcher who gave up Ted Williams last hit, a homerun in 1960. He would also surrender Roger Maris’ 60th homerun in 1961.
Now Gary Kroll, who did win the first game I attended, that game would also be the last game he won in the major leagues. He would finish 1965 with a 6-6 record. He was traded to Mets from the Phillies for a friend of mine, Frank Thomas. He now lives in Tulsa, OK where one of my sister in-laws live.
So now that Jack Fisher did not win the first game I ever went to, I needed to get an autographed ball from the man who did.
I wrote a letter to Gary Kroll, explained my dilemma and asked if he’d autograph a ball from me?
He sent me back a note on a postcard with a picture of him from his playing days. It read:
Thanks for writing to me. It’s always great to hear from a baseball lifer. It sounds like we were like the same person at age eight. Connie Mack Stadium, the crack of the ball hitting the bat, the fans, I remember.
I go out to watch a few innings of the Tulsa Double A team once in a while. The things I remember now are when I see a player throw a ball. I remember the feel of the ball rolling off my fingers. When I see a player running, I remember the feel of my spikes digging into the earth. I remember the feel of the bat hitting the ball…wonderful memories.
Send the Ball.”
Now my story does not end here either. Sure I sent Gary a ball. I sent one that the Little League team I coached played with. Well sure enough, a week latter, a package arrived marked Tulsa, Oklahoma. I opened it up to find the ball signed by Gary:
“Connie Mack Stadium, Mets vs. Phillies, July 31st, 1965, Gary Kroll.”
That was simply wonderful! Once again, I could display a ball signed by the winning pitcher of the first baseball game I attended.
Then something struck me odd about the ball. It was not the one I sent to Gary. No, the one I now had was a MLB ball. Gary kept the Little League ball I sent and signed a major league one.
I guess he realized how special it was to me (and to him).