By Thomas Hauser
In the past, I’ve recounted the memories of boxing notables who spoke fondly of their greatest moment in a sport other than boxing. Since then, I’ve received several emails asking what my own “moment in the sun” was.
Sleepaway camp wasn’t bad. It’s just that I spent most of the summer hoping the place would burn down so I could go home. I was thirteen years old, fat, homesick, and mercilessly picked on. In retrospect, I probably would have picked on me too. The only thing of consequence I could do well was hit a baseball, and that was tempered by my being clumsy and unable to run, field, or throw. So like many boys, I lived vicariously through the exploits of sports heroes.
The year was 1959. Baseball was America’s national pastime and it was an integral part of my life too. I played ball for countless hours after school. Often there were only three of us on a side, and it was necessary to use “imaginary runners.” On many occasions, alone in my backyard, I played with imaginary friends. A twelve-year-old picture of Babe Ruth’s farewell appearance at Yankee Stadium graced my bedroom wall. “You know how bad my voice sounds,” the Babe had told 60,000 fans that afternoon. He’d been dying of cancer. Everyone knew it and they hung on his words: “The only real game in the world is baseball.”
And now, stuck at Camp Winnebago in the wilds of Maine, baseball was my link to home. During the day, I’d search for a newspaper to scour for box scores. After taps, I’d lie awake in bed, hoping that this would be a night when the weather was just right, the Red Sox would be playing, and I could pick up their games from faraway Boston on my counselor’s radio.
It was during those nights as I listened to the radio that Ted Williams rose in my pantheon of gods. 1959 was a bad year for The Splendid Splinter. He was forty years old, and would bat only .254. But the more I learned about his mythic career, the more I felt that, with the possible exception of Babe Ruth, he was the greatest hitter of all time.
Williams made hitting an art and a science. He was even able to estimate that, from the moment a ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, the batter has 1/10th of a second to recognize the pitch, another 15/100th of a second to decide whether to swing, and a final 15/100th of a second to do it. “That’s what you’re working with,” Williams would proclaim. “Four-tenths of a second with a round ball and a round bat.” It was his opinion, often voiced, that hitting a baseball was the hardest thing in sports to do.
But the kids at Camp Kennebec always seemed to do it better than the kids at Winnebago. Kennebec was our arch-rival. It had twice as many campers as we did. They were bigger, tougher; and when it came to intercamp competition, whatever the sport, Kennebec virtually always won. Thus, the Winnebago faithful weren’t particularly optimistic as they gathered for the annual Kennebec baseball game. We were playing at home. At least, the team would be playing. I was a bench-warmer. And the entire camp would be on our side.
I don’t remember much about the first seven-and-a-half innings of the game. I know it was sunny; that Kennebec scored first; that I was rooting hard from the bench; and that Winnebago hung tough. Going into the bottom of the eighth inning, we were behind 7 to 5. The tension mounted as we put a man on base; then another. . . . An out; a walk; another out. . . . Bases loaded. Two men out. Down by two runs.
Coach Amendola, who had been staring toward the plate, turned toward the bench; it seemed in my direction. I waited. He looked back toward the field again. The on-deck batter moved forward.
“Wait a minute,” Coach Amendola said. “I want a pinch-hitter.” Then he walked down the bench, stood over me, and said simply, “I’m counting on you, Tom.”
And my summer at Camp Winnebago turned golden.
The crowd was hushed as I stepped into the batter’s box. Kennebec’s pitcher was bigger than I was. He’d been throwing fastballs for most of the afternoon. The outfield was irregularly shaped, with a leftfield expanse that seemed to go on forever.
The first pitch was a fastball; low and outside.
The bat stayed on my shoulder. “The single most important thing for a hitter is to get a good pitch to hit,” Ted Williams once said. “A good hitter can hit a pitch that’s over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a ball in a tough spot.”
“Ball one,” the umpire said.
Second pitch. Fast ball; down the middle.
I swung. And fifty years later, I can still feel the impact of my bat against the ball. There was a loud crack! The ball rocketed toward left-centerfield. And then, from the crowd, there came a roar; the loudest noise I’d ever heard. I wasn’t at the Polo Grounds in 1951, but I’m sure it’s the sound that Bobby Thomson heard. Carlton Fisk must have heard it too in 1975 World Series; and Kirk Gibson in 1988. The ball landed deep in the gap, and rolled through the grass that stretched forever. Three runners crossed the plate. It would have been four, but I was fat and slow. And discretion being the better part of valour, I stopped at third for a triple. No matter; we were ahead 8 to 7, and I was happier than I’d ever been in my life.
Ted Williams was right: “All great hitters can hit fast balls no matter how fast the pitcher is.”
Kennebec went scoreless in the top of the ninth. After the game, “Uncle Howie” came over and hugged me. Uncle Howie owned Camp Winnebago, and had tried for weeks to make me less homesick. “You’re a hero,” he said. “All boys dream about doing what you just did.”
Years later, I would run into Uncle Howie at a football game in New York. By then, I had grown to six-foot-three, slimmed down, and become more coordinated. Uncle Howie had no idea who I was. I introduced myself, and a broad smile crossed his face. Then he uttered magic words: “The Kennebec game; you hit a home run with the bases loaded.”
“A triple,” I corrected. “But it felt like a homer.”
And it still does. It always will. Many years later, I had dinner with Reggie Jackson. I was interviewing him for a book I was writing. Toward the end of the meal, Jackson began reminiscing about the three home runs he hit in the final game of the 1977 World Series. “You have no idea how good that felt,” he told me.
And all I could think was, “Yes I do, Reggie; I’ve felt it.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. His most recent collection of boxing columns ("The Boxing Scene") has been published by Temple University Press.