I was there for Gibson’s home run, for Buckner’s foul and for Fisher’s shot. I have spoken with Ali and Arnie, Wilt and Shoe, Koufax and Wooden, Billie Jean and Mia Hamm. I have been in historic baseball fields, stadiums, arenas, courts and race tracks.
So let me tell you which of my sports memories is my favorite.
It is the night that Billy Grabarkewitz tripped over second base.
I’ve been thinking about it lately. Partly because, as difficult as it is for me to believe, it happened Friday 50 years ago. But also because now is the time when we all think about what makes live sports special and what is missing, until we go back to a ball game.
On May 22, 1970, my parents paid a $ 2.50 seat ticket directly behind the blue level home plate at Dodger Stadium to take me to my first baseball game. That Friday was ball night and the audience was one of the biggest of the season. There were five future Hall of Famers on the rosters (the Dodgers ‘Don Sutton, the Atlanta Braves’ Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro), one in the dugout (Dodgers manager Walter Alston), at least one in the stand (Vin Scully) and at least one in the press box (Ross Newhan).
The run in Braves’ 1-0 victory came home on a third inning single off Aaron’s Sandy Vance, no less. How many fans can say that the first point they ever saw in person was hit by Hank Aaron? Good, a lot of.
At some point in the game, I’m not sure when one of the Braves hit a ball to center or right field. Willie Davis or Willie Crawford threw it in Grabarkewitz, second baseman. The throw came in high and Grabarkewitz had to kick back to mark it. As he did that, a heel hit the bag. He stretched out in the inner field.
Forty-five thousand people laughed at the smallest man on the field and wore the slender No. 1.
For years, I thought I was the only one who remembered this funny, sad moment. But we were two.
“How could I forget? The Herald-Examiner took a six-column photo of it,” Grabarkewitz said when I met him at a Dodgers classic car game over a decade later.
“That was embarrassing,” he said, still done with the self-mocking crack. “But I bet you didn’t know I ever threw on the field.”
The memory of a smiling Grabarkewitz picking himself up, wiping himself and continuing the game summed up his 1970 season and career and made him my first favorite player. Like Charlie Brown had Joe Shlabotnic, I had Billy Grabarkewitz.
In his first full big league season, he posted a Dodgers record 149 times. But he hit .400 in May, heading for leading the team in homeruns with a modest 17, and Grabarkewitz and Claude Osteen became the Dodgers’ representatives in the All-Star Game.
There he became an official footnote to history. Before Pete Rose bent over Ray Fosse to score the winning run in the 12th inning on a single by Jim Hickman, it was Grabarkewitz’s single off Clyde Wright that put Rose in scoring position.
He was 24 and was celebrated as one of the Dodgers’ Mod Squad of good young players. But he never came so close to a great moment. Injuries, which started with a severely broken leg in the minors, never failed him. He was traded to the Angels in 1973 (a deal that also including Frank Robinson, Bill Singer, Bobby Valentine, Ken McMullen and Andy Messersmith). He bounced to the Phillies, Cubs and A’s before retiring in 1975.
“I am X-rayed so often that I glow in the dark,” he once said.
He wiped himself again and built up an insurance business in his native Texas.
As the coronavirus pandemic leaves fans without sports ahead of the return of sports without fans, we are all looking forward to the day when we can safely return to the ballpark and the old pleasures for people on the field and in the stands.
Those could be shared pleasures like LeBron and the Lakers chasing a championship, the Rams and Chargers open a new stadium, and seasonally changing plays. The great pleasures we envision when sports and other entertainment come our way with his basic sales pitch: Everyone watches, so don’t get left out.
But that can also be personal pleasures, the kind not found in a record book, light but meaningful, reminds that most sports are a frustrating pursuit of fleeting glory. The little pleasures that only one or two people remember.
That’s the lesson Billy Grabarkewitz and I came across Friday 50 years ago.