Monday, March 16, 2015

Back When I Met Mickie Mantle by Dennis Perry

Well, you already know how I got my name, Busher, from hanging around my father during his minor league career, how all the guys called me “Busher” which means a real minor league guy, like Pop, so they just kept calling me that right along and I loved it. Pop was in the Brooklyn organization. This is back when the Brooklyns were in Brooklyn.

Then I told you how I went right out of high school into pro ball, following Pop’s footsteps, as I was put in to the Red Sox chain after one year of independent ball out in Nebraska where the league was of the same name as the state. After the Red Sox had seen enough of me to get as good an opinion of me as they could,  I went to the Cubs organization.

But then you asked, did I play with, or meet, any of the famous players, so I have to answer you. 

Back when I played in the 60s, I batted off the great Marichal out in the desert, with the Cubs, and of course I knew Banks and Williams and all of them from spring training, and then, right up to ’68 which at that current time I was trying out for the Detroits, and in spring training we happened to meet up with the New York A.L. club, playing them in Lakeland, and I met the great Mantle. New York by-God Yankees. Mickey by-God Mantle.

Now, before that game, I have to tell you I was in the clubhouse  reading a letter from a high school player back in my hometown of Campovilla, Illinois, and he was saying how he wasn’t sure he was going to go out for the high school team this year, on account of he didn’t have much fun the previous season, being mostly on the bench, but he was taking kind of an inspiration from me as he mentioned  I’d been in the minor leagues eight years of  negative successful playing, and he wondered should he go on or was he making a mistake? I was making a note of the address, to maybe send the kid a few words, with a stub of a pencil I kept at the locker, usually which I used it to mark down notes after the game, recalling the pitcher’s name and what I did and all that. 

Now it also occurred that I was going to be at first base that day, against the New Yorks. That’s because of what happened the day before. I had been playing in the outfield against the Washingtons, and I had a little problem with a ball hit way up in the sky – and you know that Florida sky, that particular time of the year – it’s not the right sky. Well, what with not catching the ball successful, and even though I have a cannon out there, this Washington guy just put himself in gear and was able to get to second for a routine double, but then after the game old white-haired Mayo, our manager, pulled me over to the side as a couple of the fellows were walking by, and he said that I had to buckle  down, maybe I had to play my other position, first base, the next day, and then they’d see about St. Petersburg. I asked at that time, “Where is St. Petersburg?” and one of those walking-by fellows, maybe Oyler, says it’s in Russia, which then I think I recalled that from school, maybe so, and I was grateful for his reminder. I also have to explain to you that the ballplayers have their own kind words which are not the regular kind of words.

What they probably meant was that just like Russia, where people get sent away all the time, well, baseball could be like Russia and if something happened to another ball out there wrong, I’d probably be put back into the minors, no chance of making this club, which at the time I was trying to prove I belonged to. So, I didn’t want to go to Russia, meaning St. Petersburg.

But, because every day is a new day in baseball, I had another chance. Now, I also have to say this is my first game at first base that spring, although I was a natural over there, sort of like my outfield work, which was now proved, being a first-rate ballhawk. I guess they needed to see my work at first, just to give them another way they could get my bat, which I called Old Thunder, in the lineup, should the need arise.   

I was thinking about that as I went on out to the field, to warm up, and in the course of doing so, I stuck that little pencil in my back pocket and while the New Yorks were taking batting practice, out of nowhere I was called over to the batting cage by Mayo, him saying, “Here’s a fellow I’d like you to meet”, and of course it’s the great Mantle he was speaking of, who at that particular time was leaning on a bat watching the balls being smacked out by his teammate in the cage.  And of course he leaned on that bat greater than others could lean on a bat.  
My first thought was, there he is, looking a little bigger than he did on the gum cards I had back home, in ashoebox. He had big arm muscles, and blond hair sticking out the back of his cap. His face looked a little rounder than the pictures I’d seen, but he had a nice comfortable smile.

Mayo says, “Mickey, this here is Busher,”  - or some such, I can’t recall exact – “and Busher is one of my minor league guys trying to make the club. He’s got a good stick generally…” and he said some other stuff about my overall abilities.

Now, right here I have to add that I am generally known as a heady player with a lot of savvy. The reason most players don’t stick in the big leagues is because they have a lot of skills in other areas such as hitting and fielding, but they don’t have that brain power. Guy like me, by the time I get the acquired skills, what with my savvy, I’d be the complete guy every team needs. Of course you could say that it helps a team to have a guy or two to blam the ball out of the park, and a quality pitcher or two helps a lot, but you got to have the smarts to bring it all together.  And I’ve always been told that I think about the game different from most of the other guys. A lot of people have said it, and I take pride in it. So, today wouldn’t be any different, from my perspective. 

I told Mick I was pleased to make his acquaintance, but that I had never seen him play, my interests being with the Cubs and the National League mostly, but I had heard of him, I explained.

“That so?” he said, the words dripping out with that familiar-on-the-radio Oklahoma voice. I said, well it was so, and of course I immediately went in to how I thought the league would play out, once league play started up next month, figuring he’d appreciate my general knowledge, such as others have done. I said I thought the New Yorks were a little thin, and wouldn’t figure in the pennant for that go around, and Mick nodded, - I could tell he was registering the way I’d sized things up – looked away a little bit, and said, “Well, Mayo, I guess I should just rest up, my body sure could use it, not even play this season.”  To that, I thought, well, he probably didn’t mean it. I told him he should play, even though it was hopeless for his club. Mayo was smiling, knowing how I could figure things out.

I started to say something else which I now cannot recall, and Mick just jumped in and started talking about how he wasn’t feeling all that good, what with a knee that was balking, a sore wrist, sore back, a couple eyeballs tore up or whatever, stuff out of whack, a sprain here and there on his various fingers and other parts which were generally busted.  Anyone would assume he was not fit for play, but being a big star such as he was, that list of body ailments wouldn’t keep him out of the lineup. He looked fresh, and I said he looked okay, maybe not so hot, but okay to me, should anyone ask. I said also maybe one of the things I noticed was that he might be a little too heavy, and all he had to do was check himself a little bit in that chow line and he’d be back in his playing trim.  Again, Mayo had to smile at my figuring out overall observation powers. 

But, Mickey said was going to play, busted up and not in the greatest shape, but playing all busted up was just one reason he was such a big well-known star. Anybody knew, if you said “New York Yankees” you immediately thought of Mickey Mantle. 

Mickey sort of coughed, and said there was a doctor in Dallas who had come up with a new medicine which if he took it, might allow him to play till he was fifty. This medicine would fix up his general body, but I asked if it would fix that bum knee, or some other part that was really busted which he’d mentioned, but which I couldn’t specify on the spur of the moment, and Mick allowed that it would not fix those things, just sort of make his body feel better as to the energy and what all he might have, such as getting his veins going and other parts lined up the way he wanted, the way I recall it

I had to think for a minute or so, then I said if it wasn’t going to fix those busted things, then I didn’t think he should take it. He asked why, and I said, well, if he couldn’t put up the stats such as he was accustomed to doing, pretty soon the New Yorks would get to thinking of him as being a regular player, and the fans would recall how he used to put up the stats, which would’ve put him in the lore of the game, and if he just bumped along at a low level, pretty soon he wouldn’t be the great Mantle any more, and besides him the fans themselves would be upset. To say nothing of the manager. Old Mayo had to smile again at my savvy,and he told Mick I’d be at first base today, just like Mick was for them.

I took the occasion to mention to him that with his legs shot, and so his speed being shot, it was natural for him to be over at first base, and to not feel bad about being taken out of the outfield which had happened to him last year. This news wasn’t that new, having been in the Sporting News and all, but I figured he’d catch on to how I was on top of things. Mick just shook his head which I knew he was saying how I was right. “Something to think about, for sure,” he drawled that friendly way again, and he was looking at me keenly.In fact, all of it,” he finished up.

Now, right then, Mick had to leave, he said, and he limped on over by the fence, where he started signing scorecards and autograph books for a whole bunch of fans clumped by the New York dugout. 

I was watching those fans, and boy were they happy! Here was the old Mick, that great figure of New York, and he made so many of them happy, what with the smile and autographs and some small talk, and all of them were walking away smiling and all of that. 
 And Mickey had that big old Mickey smile himself.

Pretty soon the game started up, and there I was, stationed at first. I recall it being a warm day, even for Florida at that time of year, which I’ve only been there in spring training, always in March, so I assume I am knowledgeable as to spring training type of weather, which is usually sunny and warmer than other parts of the country which are known for being colder.

A lefthander, Warden, was pitching for us and he got the first two out, then Mick came up, being a switch hitter he was hitting righthanded against our lefty. The crowd sort of had a buzz to it and everyone watched close as he fouled a couple back, took a ball, then Warden gave him a low, slow one, and Mick lunged out and missed it, striking out. This was a great strikeout, all the air seeming to go out of the park

Even striking out, Mick had a special quality about himself. I figured no one could strike out like Mick, and I had seen a lot of people strike out over the years, such as my own self.

I came up in the last of the second, hitting seventh, against a tall righthander, Bahnsen, and he fooled me with a fast one on the outside, which I managed to get the end of the bat on.  The ball went on out to Mick, I think it must’ve been pretty hot, though the next day the paper called it a dribbler, but anyway, Mick came in, seemed to trap it, then couldn’t pick it up clean, then grabbed it, then Bahnsen came over for the toss.

Of course, all this time, I’m blazing my way down there – I think people always knew I had that good speed, back then - so I was going to be safe, most probably, which is likely why Mick was rushing and causing himself to bobble that ball. Once he got it to Bahnsen, he bobbled it too, then picked it up, then fumbled for the bag, then I beat it in there by a hair. That’s one thing about the kind of speed I had, you cannot teach it. Just a gift. 

So as he was getting his breath, hunched over in the holding-on position at first, I says, “Well, Mick, you can’t be blamed for kicking around my hot one, you being not all that familiar around first base and all.” And he says, “Well, it’s the Busher!” and a big smile hit his face. “You sure did get me with that one, he admitted.

The inning soon ended with no further advance by me, then later, Mick came up again, facing a young tall boy we had that year. Name was Patterson and I think he was from California or at least someplace like that. When Mickey stepped in, being the switch-hitter he was, now batting left handed, I called time and told Patterson that Warden had got Mick with a slow one, early on, just as a suggestion, which he didn’t acknowledge right off but I knew he had taken in because he burned in four or five in a row to Mick, just keeping that slow one in his back pocket just in case, so Mick couldn’t get comfortable about it. It’s just one of those normal things of baseball the average fan can’t know right off, but it’s part of the savvy I possess that is natural for me. 

Now I have to interrupt. One of my duties as first baseman of course is to roll out the practice ground balls to the infielders as the pitcher warms up before the inning starts up, and funny thing, that inning, no one seemed to be paying attention in the dugout for me to throw the ball in, as I shuffled around with my glove off and held the ball in my left hand,  so I stuffed it into my back pocket figuring no harm, and I put the glove back on my left hand, on account of we were now ready to play.

Well, right at that time, with Mickey there, I’m thinking Patterson would’ve been successful with that slow one, for sure, but before he had a chance to throw it, Mick lined one of the fast ones out there to right field for a single. The ball just fizzed off his bat, making a strange zzzzng sound. Anyone could see he was a real star by that fizz. 

Mick sort of smiled at me once he got to first, and he must’ve noticed  my back pocket, as he said, “Say, what’ve you got there, going to try a hidden ball trick or something?”  Well, I reached back into my right hand pocket, being as I had the glove on my left hand, so only the right one was available, and I felt thatlittle stub of a pencil, which I at that time recalled I must’ve left it there from the clubhouse

Actually, sort of funny, Mick was pointing out the ball I had in my other pocket, not the pencil.

Oh, sure, I mean, it’s just the old infield ball, Mick!” and then I put two and two together, quick. I took my glove off, pulled the ball out, and the pencil, and I says, “Hey Mick, how about scratching your John Hancock on the old ball here, it would be a big deal to me?” See, I was remembering how he was signing all those scorecards and everything before the game, so I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunityto get his autograph, being as he wouldn’t be about to sign in a regular season game, to say nothing of how I might not actually be on the club once they headed north for the season. 

I thought this was pretty smart but the ump, Honochick, an older guy, bellowed out right away, loud enough to hear in Russia, “Time! Hey, Busher, you can’t do that! Get that ball outa here!” This had the effect of causing embarrassment to me, and pretty much to Mick too, as he had his head down low, and his hands on his knees.

Old Mayo came running out and there was some jabbering going on, and I was instructed to give the ball to Mayo as he returned to the dugout, sort of shaking his head, walking slow, probably figuring Patterson should’ve given Mickey the slow one which he couldn’t do any damage with.

We got out of there with no runs, and I came up again the next inning, this time I hit a ball dead on the nose, nobody could hit a ball harder, right on the best part of the bat, but I didn’t get any liftage so the ball just sort of lined straight out to the leftfielder. So there I was, thinking another one of those odd things about baseball. Hit that one down to Mickey earlier, get on base. Nail this one hard, should’ve been a home run, no liftage, it goes for an out. As you can see, there’s no fairness to the game, mostly. And good pitching will usually beat good hitting, except as the vice versa.

Well, we ended up winning that gameMickey had been taken out about halfway through and me right after that scorcher I hit, probably so I could rest up, and I didn’t think any more about that game till the next day when I was in the clubhouse getting a few things together for the bus ride over to Tampa Saint Pete, where we were going to take on the Mets, and I had been informed by Mr. Mayo to go on ahead and get ready to play first again.  

Just before the clubhouse guy says to get my stuff on the bus, he stops and says, “Hey Busher! The Yankees sent a little package over for you, I forgot to give it to you last night.” And he tosses me a little cardboard box.

Inside that box was a brand new official league ball, with the blue-green writing on the front of it - “Official American League Baseball” and on the other side of the ball, in the narrow space between the two red seams, there was a signature: “Mickey Mantle”.  I noticed right off in the “U” part of the ball, the fatter part, just above his name, he’d written, “The game needs more stars like you”. 

I felt like a million bucks, you can be sure of that! Mickey, taking time out for me!  I figured to hold on to this ball for the rest of my life. 

Then I thought of something else, and wrote a little note on some paper I had in the locker, with that same stub of a pencil. I found another ball box, got a paper bag, wrapped it all up, found the letter from yesterday from the kid back home, put the kid’s address on my package which I’d taped up together, and took it all to the clubhouse man. Without me saying anything, the clubhouse guy said he’d be glad to.  

This is Dennis' second short story fiction to be posted on this site. This story was one of many featuring the character, "Busher." Unfortunately, they were also written prior to mass sale of computers and thus part of someone else's collection somewhere. 

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