This was a lucky gem of a find. In 1958, Yankees players Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Bill Skowron appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show along with Jack Norworth, writer of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The group, along with the help of the crowd, sings the baseball anthem, followed up by a few questions from Mr. Sullivan.
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!
Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.
The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America. Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.
It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel. With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever. The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence. “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence. Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer. After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.
Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him. It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced. His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.
We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country. I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees. The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying. Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy. Sadly, we’ll never know. Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.
While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside. Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues. On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake. We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.
The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast. In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans. The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game. These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss. Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting. We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business. Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball. It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.
I always thought that record would stand until it was broken.
You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.
You can’t think and hit at the same time.