Baseball has seen some pretty awesome nicknames over the years: George “Babe” Ruth; Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra; Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown; Jim “Catfish” Hunter; Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin; Leroy “Satchel” Paige; among others. When I was playing softball through my high school years, I also had a nickname. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to imply that I belong in the same company as these baseball greats. It’s just that, on those rare occasions when I stop to reminisce about it, I can’t help but think that it’s pretty cool to be able to say that I once had a ballplayer nickname.
The summer in between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I was playing ball on a team with the local parks and rec girls’ softball league. In the later half of the season, the coach for one of the other teams in the league approached me and said that he had signed his team up to participate in a tournament outside of the league, and would I be interested in joining their roster for the tournament? It’s one heckuva compliment to have another coach be impressed with you enough to invite you for that kind of thing, so naturally, I was all over it.
I was loaned a uniform, number 16, and my dad came out with me to cheer us on. I don’t recall the exact location of the tournament, only that it was seemingly in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the metropolitan Kansas City area. Nor do I recall how we as a team finished in the tournament, but thinking about it doesn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth, so surely it couldn’t have been awful.
I also don’t recall the exact details of how this one particular play unfolded, only that at one point in the tournament, I found myself rounding third, heading home at full speed in what promised to be a close play at the plate. I reached home at virtually the same moment as the softball. As the catcher was still scrambling to get control of the ball, she was blocking my path to the plate, leaving me no choice but to plow through her to get where I was going.
I slapped home plate, and there was a pause as the umpire tried to locate the ball. The catcher didn’t have it. “Safe!”
There was cheering. There was congratulations. Then eventually, that half-inning came to an end.
Playing shortstop for the team in this tournament was Lauren, who was a couple years older than me, and who also happened to be the shortstop for our high school varsity team. I had spent my freshman season on the JV team, but my goal for my sophomore year was to make varsity, so naturally I admired the girls on the varsity squad. So it was quite an ego boost when Lauren expressed her approval at my base running.
“You know what?” she said as we ran back out onto the field to take our defensive positions. “You’re too tough to be called Precious. From now on, I’m calling you Duke.”
There was a ripple of agreement throughout the field and in the dugout. And the name stuck. For the rest of the summer, whenever I was playing softball, my on-field name was Duke. Then, when the school season began, Lauren ensured the name continued. Even after Lauren graduated, no matter what team I played on, whether it was with the school or on a summer team somewhere, there always seemed to be a parent or a coach or a teammate from a previous team to perpetuate the nickname.
A couple summers after the nickname was bestowed upon me, I was playing ball with a summer competitive team, and we had a tournament up in the Twin Cities area. My parents decided to turn it into a family road trip for that weekend. As we loaded up the SUV with our bags, I discovered that my dad had purchased a glass marker and wrote “DUKE” in big, orange letters across the rear windshield. I have to admit, I was a bit embarrassed by it. But it was also really, really cool.
The summer after high school graduation was my last season of organized ball. Nobody has called me “Duke” since then (and, please, don’t start now). While I don’t necessarily miss being referred to or cheered on as “Duke,” I sometimes do miss just the concept of the whole thing. For four years, I was a ballplayer with a pretty cool nickname, and seemingly everybody knew what it was.
Today marks the five year anniversary of my first post on this blog. While I started this project as a way to stay in touch with the game and to encourage my own continual learning about it, when I reach milestones like this one, I find that it’s kinda fun to share something a bit more personal. A high school softball nickname isn’t something that comes up in everyday conversation, but it does make for a fun story in appropriate circles.
Thank you, my readers, for following along on my blogging journey. That it’s been five full years seems a bit unreal to me, but all the posts are there as proof, even to my own eyes. I look forward to the next five years and hope you’ll continue to hang out with me here as well!
After a long hiatus, due to having to return the series to the library and wait for others to finish their turns with it before having my chance at checking it out again, I have finally made it back around to watching the Ninth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns. This installment in the series covers the time period from 1970 to 1993, the ending representing present day at the time, as the series was originally released in 1994.
The Ninth Inning opens with a baseball game being played between a pair of Dominican teams. A couple players from one of the teams give interviews expressing the importance of baseball to the Dominican culture. “It’s like a religion,” one player says. “There’s never been a revolution or war during baseball season.” Historian Manuel Marquez-Sterling compares baseball to the opera, insisting the two are essentially the same kind of thing.
On this disc we learn about Brooks Robinson leading the Orioles to the 1970 World Series championship against Pete Rose and the Cincinnati Reds. In 1971, the Orioles found themselves on the losing side of the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente of the Pirates made a name for himself during this period. He was an icon for both the black community and for the Puerto Rican community, and he gave back to society as much as he could. On New Years Eve of 1971, however, Clemente’s plane crashed in an effort to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua following an earthquake.
Baseball’s reserve clause met its end during this time period. Curt Flood’s battle in the courts against the clause at the start of the decade came away largely fruitless, though it did serve to bring the issue into the public spotlight. In 1975, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of Marvin Miller, took on the reserve clause by claiming free agency. In the end, the reserve clause was abolished and players were now eligible for free agency after six years. This, as we see through today, resulted in an explosion of baseball salaries. The collusion of baseball owners in the late-1980s threatened this newfound free agent market, in much the same way owners once had observed the “gentleman’s agreement” to never sign a black player. This collusion, however, would soon get exposed and would cost the owners a considerable sum.
The treatment of both Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood highlighted the points made by Jackie Robinson shortly before his death. Certainly, as Buck O’Neil mentions, a lot changed in baseball, and in American society, as a result of Robinson’s role in breaking the color barrier. Nevertheless, baseball still had a long way to go in terms of racial equality. Henry Aaron knew all about this reality, playing for the Braves and chasing Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run record. The hate mail sent to Aaron, some of which gets read in this episode, sends chills down my spine. In 1974, Hank Aaron did break Ruth’s record, and deservedly so. The 1987 interview of Al Campanis regarding the reasons behind a lack of blacks in baseball management drove home the existence of the persisting prejudice.
The Oakland A’s of the 1970s drew attention, not only due to their excellent performance, but also due to the appearance of their players. Players were given bonuses to grow their hair out, and many went on to sport some quite interesting facial hair. Catfish Hunter’s pitching for Oakland was stellar, almost unfair in the eyes of some hitters, who noticed the strike zone seemed to grow larger whenever Hunter took the mound.
The Cincinnati Reds returned to the World Series in 1975, this time against the Boston Red Sox. Not only did the Reds have Pete Rose on their roster, but also boasted of names like Johnny Bench, Ken Griffey, and Joe Morgan. Game 6 of this Series proved one for the history books, featuring Carlton Fisk’s dramatic walk-off home run for Boston in the twelfth inning to tie the Series at three. Cincinnati would win the Series, however, in Game 7. As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the various stories told by pitcher Bill Lee on this disc. The man was certainly a character. He speaks candidly and hilariously about his own experiences, blunders, and shortcomings, and his wild gesturing made it just as fun to watch him speak as it was to listen.
The 1970s saw the rise of George Steinbrenner as owner of the New York Yankees. Free agency worked in Steinbrenner’s favor, and he spent freely to build a winning organization. Though they lost the 1976 World Series, they won it in 1977 and 1978, led by Reggie Jackson. Steinbrenner became notorious for running through managers like a child runs through fads, bolstering his reputation for trying to buy his way to championships.
The 1979 Series featured Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then in 1980, the Philadelphia Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, led by Pete Rose, who had signed with them after becoming a free agent. Rose would return to the Reds later in his career. Nolan Ryan also took advantage of free agency, dominating from the pitcher’s mound with multiple teams. After the collusion among the owners was busted up, baseball contracts exploded, and player after player made headlines as the newest highest paid player.
After this point, the documentary ceased to cover every single World Series championship, but rather focused on the ones that would be deemed “most popular” in baseball history. The 1986 World Series saw a continuation of the Curse of the Bambino. The Boston Red Sox lost the Series in a stunning fashion to the New York Mets. After giving up what seemed like a sure victory in Game 6, the Red Sox also lost Game 7. The 1988 World Series went to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a championship victory that included the unbelievable tale of Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 in spite of his injuries.
In August 1989, Pete Rose was banished from baseball. Bart Giamatti gave the announcement in a press conference, stating that Rose’s involvement in gambling had hurt the game, and that the game must be held to the highest standards. In spite of a depressing end to the 1980s, and in spite of all the scandals and other struggles in baseball, John Thorn and Buck O’Neil exalt the continuing survivalist spirit of baseball. Admittedly, the timing of these statement is a bit ironic, considering that the next World Series after this documentary was released, the 1994 Series, did not get played due to the players’ strike. In spite of that, baseball did come back, and I’d say the fact that so many baseball blogs, such as this one, exist is a testament to the continuing love and wonder that baseball brings.
Here’s a song by the great Bob Dylan about the one and only Catfish Hunter. It’s short and laid back, and the mood of the song fits in well with Hunter’s modest background. The lyrics, however, speak to the acclaim that the right-handed pitcher earned over the course of his career.
On 8 May 1968, twenty-two-year-old Jim “Catfish” Hunter pitched the first perfect game in the American League in forty-six years. In front of a crowd of only 6,298 at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, Hunter led the A’s in a 4-0 victory over the Twins.
The cherry on top of his once-in-a-lifetime pitching performance was Hunter’s performance at the plate. He went 3-for-5 in the game, driving in three of the game’s four runs. Talk about a one-man show!
The box score for the game can be found here.