Question of the Week: Hall of Fame Memories
Given the recent spate of Hall of Fame deaths, this week's question focuses on the recently departed, and how any (or all) of these men — Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford or Joe Morgan, or even non Hall-of-Famers like Jay Johnstone, Lou Johnson or Mike McCormick — impacted PBBC authors.
Jay Johnstone was my favorite player when I was a kid. He made everything look like so much fun. Of course, he was a helluva hitter, but for me he didn't have to be — it was his sense of fun that drew me to him. I used to drag my father around Philly whenever I saw that Johnstone was here or there signing autographs. I remember standing in a ridiculously long line in a tire shop waiting for him to sign my program. I think my father was relieved when Johnstone was finally traded to the Yankees; it meant that he could finally have a Saturday to himself.
I was upset when Jay was traded, but thrilled when I tuned into the 1978 season premiere of Saturday Night Live (my favorite non-baseball show), and saw his mug (along with those of a few of his new Yankees teammates) in the opening montage. He became the only Yankee I ever rooted for. Later he went to the Dodgers and became the only Dodger I ever rooted for.
For anyone who grew up in the New York area in the 1970s like I did, Tom Seaver loomed large, regardless of which team you rooted for. The spiteful 1977 trade that sent him to Cincinnati effectively ceded New York to the Yankees for the next decade. The post-Seaver Mets were terrible, of course, and Shea Stadium was too, superseded by the newly renovated, always electric Yankee Stadium. When fate returned Seaver to Queens in 1983, green shoots of optimism seemed to be there for the first time in a long while. I saw him pitch a couple of times that year, a transitional (and interesting) one for the newly relevant Mets.
I watched him pitch one last time, wearing the drab gray road uniform of the Boston Red Sox in September 1986, the second-to-last start of his great career. A knee injury kept him off Boston’s playoff roster, but he did have a close-up of view of the Mets’ improbable World Series victory some six weeks later. This, of course, represents the franchise’s most recent Fall Classic victory. History’s weird juxtapositions fascinate me.
Despite temporary detours to Cincy, Chicago and Boston, Tom Terrific is eternally a Met, “The Franchise” — especially for those of us who saw him in his prime in New York.
I was a Yankees fan growing up in the early 1970s, but who couldn’t marvel at the exploits of crosstown hurler Tom Seaver? Like many baseball fans, I was crushed when he was dealt away in June of 1977. Also like many baseball fans, I was saddened by the news of his battle with dementia and assorted diminishing setbacks. When it was announced in 2019 that Seaver was “retiring from public life,” we all wondered how much time he had left.
In late August of 2020, I started to think about Seaver, wondering how he was doing. I realized that I barely had any of his baseball cards, so I started to aggressively scour eBay for cards from Seaver's first tenure with the Mets. I started buying them on Aug. 31, and by Sept. 2, I had all of his primary Topps cards from 1967 to 1975. On the evening of Sept. 2, it was announced that he'd passed away on ... Aug. 31.
Bob Gibson broke my 12-year-old Yankees-fan heart in Game 7 of the 1964 World Series. Joe Morgan and the Big Red Machine dazzled me when I covered the 1976 World Series. And I will never forget Tom Seaver for two things. The first was watching him come within two outs of a perfect game in 1969 before Cubs outfielder Jimmy Qualls singled to left-center, one of his 31 career hits. Many years later I sat in a New York hotel suite with my good friend Claire Smith and a film screw from Screen Gems, interviewing Seaver for a Fay Vincent-backed project for the Hall of Fame. Seaver talked non-stop for three hours — our time limit — and went on for another 30 minutes, giving Claire and I a master class in pitching and his Hall of Fame career. Seaver, often considered arrogant and difficult by the media, would have talked for another three hours had we let him. His were the best insights into the game I’ve heard in 46 years of interviewing baseball players.
Though I was born into a family of Yankees fans, the Big Red Machine was my favorite team as a kid, and Joe Morgan was my favorite player. I was always the smallest kid in every class and on every team, and Joe was the smallest on the Reds. He was the superstar that even a short, featherweight girl in New Jersey could relate to. I'd pump my back elbow in the batter's box of our backyard. I'd pretend to be him when I practiced my slides. I was a sports columnist in San Francisco when he was on the Giants broadcast team. He was friendly and generous, explaining the mysteries of baseball to me. He was declarative, a straight shooter, but also light-hearted.
Of all my encounters, one stands out. It combined the straight-shooting with the light-heartedness. I ran into him outside the Candlestick press box a few months after I had gotten married. “How’s married life?”' he asked. “Oh, it's wonderful!” I gushed.
Without missing a beat, Joe replied with perhaps the last thing a newlywed wants to hear. “Just wait,” he deadpanned.
Jay Johnstone was a personal friend. He wrote the foreword for several of my books, worked with me as co-host of a proposed radio show called BallTalk, accepted my invitations to join several baseball theme cruises that I organized, and signed autographs at the Livingston, NJ, baseball card shop that I co-owned.
Jay played 21 years and won two World Series, and was a great guy, always laughing and smiling. He was exceptionally personable to everyone he met. He wrote three books about his exploits as a prankster, and may have been the last of a breed. My favorite story of his involves him tying one end of a rope to a palm tree and the other to Tommy Lasorda’s hotel room door, effectively locking the manager in. Johnstone and Jerry Reuss also dressed up as a groundskeepers and helped drag the Dodger Stadium infield during a game.
I was born in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Flatbush, and grew up loving three things: playing hoops at Paerdegat Park (which we called Farragut Park), hanging out with my friends on East 39th Street, and rooting for the Mets and my guy, Tom Seaver. Seaver was more than just my favorite pitcher on my favorite team — he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. His drop-and-drive delivery, which I could never replicate, was a thing of perfection. In 1975, my first real baseball season, he went 22-9 with a 2.38 ERA.
In 1977, with the blessing of Mets chairman M. Donald Grant, Daily News columnist Dick Young decided to focus all of his energy into driving Tom Terrific out of town, and I would never be the same as a baseball fan. For years I yearned for Seaver’s return, never imagining that it could happen. As the Mets reached new lows from 1978 to 1982, I watched from afar as he tossed a no-hitter — his only one — in a Reds uniform.
Then, somehow, we got him back. Opening Day 1983 at Shea Stadium: I remember it as colorfully as the moment when black-and-white Dorothy Gale first peeked at the full-color Land of Oz ... even though I watched it on a 12-inch black-and-white TV my dad had reclaimed on his NYC Department of Sanitation route. I could not truly believe it was happening when PA announcer Jack Franchetti said, “Batting ninth and pitching, now warming up in the bullpen, Number 41.”
Then, as soon as he came, he was gone, lost to the White Sox in the free-agent compensation pool. It was 1977 all over again, and this time it was worse. Seaver would win his 300th game in Yankee Stadium, of all places, wearing a ridiculous White Sox uniform that looked like pajamas.
Years later, I was lucky enough to interview Seaver several times. Ironically, I was 41 the first time I met him. I had been warned that he could be tough on reporters who asked silly questions, especially those who he didn't know. It was intimidating, but during one of those encounters I led off with a question about his time as a U.S. Marine, which he'd always credited for his approach to physical conditioning. It went well.
I've never been a memorabilia person or an autograph seeker, but earlier this year an old friend sent me a Bill Gallo illustration of Seaver, signed by the pitcher himself. When Seaver passed away a few months later, that picture became one of my most prized possessions. I'll always cherish those memories of watching him get that knee dirty on his follow through, and will never forgive the Mets for snubbing their greatest player, The Franchise, while he was still with us.
Mark C. Healey
Did any of these guys have an “impact” on me? Boy oh boy. Mike McCormick started for the Giants in the first big league game I ever attended, and pitched a complete game against the Pirates. To this day I continue to believe, though I know it’s impossible, that starting pitchers should consistently perform with the intelligence, ability and durability that McCormick displayed that afternoon at Candlestick Park in 1969.
All I have to say about Tom Seaver is that he and Juan Marichal are the two best pitchers I’ve ever seen.
Oh, and this: One Saturday about 10 years ago I was diving into my pregame press box routine at then-AT&T Park when a gentleman bearing an unmistakable profile caught my eye as he loitered near the Giants dugout. Tom Seaver. I think he was there to give Randy Johnson, who had recently won his 300th game, a magnum of wine from his vineyard. I was working on an enormous Willie Mays feature at the time, and was quoting anybody I could find. I rushed to the dugout, intercepted Seaver before he vanished, and breathlessly asked for an interview. He was extremely polite. I met him in his luxury box and he fed me a variety of Mays material, including why he never made the mistake of throwing Willie the same pitch twice in a row, and how Mays was the only big leaguer cool enough to get away with leaving the top button of his jersey unbuttoned. He also told me about a play where Mays, running at second base with a teammate on first, slowed way down as he rounded third on a base hit. The Mets on the bench screamed, thinking Mays had lost his mind and was trying to get thrown out. Seaver pointed out — with the benefit of hindsight — that Mays was actually trying to time his arrival at the plate so that he could mow down the catcher, in order to enable the trailing baserunner to score. All of this was accomplished. (James Hirsch detailed this sequence, with names, in his 2011 Mays bio, but this was how Tom Terrific told it to starry-eyed me.)
I wasn’t sure who enthralled me more, the subject of these stories (Mays) or the storyteller (Seaver). At about this point, Nancy Seaver sauntered by and offered me something to drink. Nancy Seaver, as in TomandNancy, baseball’s glamour couple. Good God Almighty. This was like interviewing JFK and having Jackie drop in. I figured I had better give the Seavers their privacy, so I stammered my thanks and departed. Yeah, it’s safe to say that this ranked among my more glorious days as a ball scribe.
I had quite the opposite experience with Whitey Ford. He hung up on me when I asked him why Willie Mays hit him so well.
As for the great Joe Morgan, I saw him engineer a triple-steal. That’s right, a triple-steal. He was the runner at third when the Reds had the bases loaded against the Giants, and he took off for home. Look it up. I had to, to certify that my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. Sept. 14, 1975, first game of a twinbill at Candlestick.
I mentioned Joe Morgan in this space just last week, in a post about our first favorite teams. I expanded upon that notion on Monday, over at The Baseball Codes blog, when I heard that Morgan had died. Here’s a condensed version:
Growing up as a Giants fan in the early 1980s, I got to see up close what a guy like Joe Morgan could do for a foundering ballclub. Morgan joining the team as a free agent in 1981 was awesome for 11-year-old me; I’d been imitating his back-arm batting-stance flap for years, and was excited to see it in orange and black.
In 1982, his second season in San Francisco, Morgan kept the Giants in contention until the schedule’s final week. They wouldn’t win, of course, because back then the Giants never won. The Dodgers — chasing Atlanta for the division lead — closed their season with three games at Candlestick, and all the Giants could hope to do was spoil things.
On the season’s final day, with the Braves losing to San Diego, the Dodgers needed a victory to force a divisional tie. I was 12 years old, at the stadium with my father, sitting in the grandstand along the left field line. I remember how packed Candlestick was — a rare occurrence for a stadium used to hosting fewer than 10,000 fans at a time — and how the energy was downright palpable. It was my first real taste of meaningful baseball, even though, win or lose, San Francisco’s season would end that day.
Somehow, Giants starter Bill Laskey matched Fernando Valenzuela into the sixth, and the teams entered the seventh tied 2-2. This is where the magic happened. This is where Joe Morgan happened.
The inning started hopefully, with Bob Brenly singling and Champ Summers doubling him to third with nobody out. Then Giants closer Greg Minton, batting for himself for some reason, even with the winning run at third, struck out. Of course he struck out. Then Jim Wholford also struck out. It was turning into a very Giants inning in every imaginable way — until Morgan stepped to the plate.
Reliever Terry Forster worked the count to 1-2, and then hung a slider that Morgan pummeled over the right field fence for a three-run homer. We fans at Candlestick lost our damn minds. The lead held up, and San Francisco’s 5-3 victory ended the Dodgers’ season.
That home run — Morgan’s home run — is my first meaningful baseball memory, an event for which I can firmly place the date and situation. It is what I recall first when thinking about prime baseball moments early in my life. It showed me what a truly great player, even one at the end of his career, can bring to a ballclub.
Joe Morgan was only a Giant for two years, but those years were utterly influential in cementing me as a baseball fan, and for that I am grateful.