When I was growing up, the year was divided into three seasons, not four; baseball, football and basketball -- and baseball was king. Hard to imagine now,
but baseball really was America’s pastime for decades; nothing else came close.
My high school in small-town New York didn’t even field a six-man football team until 1949. I played all these sports, if not terribly well, and throughout the summer, baseball was what I did -- every day ‘cept Sunday. Games would form
at the school ‘right after lunch’ and last until somebody got mad and went home.
There certainly were no potential big leaguers in our crew, though one of us,
the late Bruce Hoffman, pitched for Hope College in the 1950’s and early 60’s.
But the rest of us probably knew, even as young kids, that we were has-beens before we’d ever been. We also lived a long way from any major league team; our only connection to that world was through the radio. I’d sit on the floor in my house waiting for the first pitch of many a Sunday doubleheader from station WJW in Cleveland. Jimmy Dudley, the broadcaster, was so good that he made even a game with the lowly St. Louis Browns was the World Series.
I’d usually listen for about two innings, and then, if my mother wasn’t looking, sneak out to throw a tennis ball against the garage. But that only lasted until I (inevitably) got caught and my mother called me in to “read a book.” (Must be her fault I never made the big leagues.)
We could hear baseball all the way from Cleveland if the games were played in the afternoon. At night, the broadcast power was turned down, and even in the daytime, there was a lot of static.
This all came back to me because of the gratifying news earlier this month
that pitcher Jim Kaat had finally been elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. When I grew up and became a serious student, my late wife, Suzanne and I transferred to Hope College where I could study chemistry.
Hope is small, but has an amazing track record in producing nationally successful alumni. One thing we had to do at Hope was get admission cards for the classes we would take. This happened in the basement of the Hope College Chapel.
I remember once overhearing a conversation between a big guy and Russ DeVette, the coach of everything at Hope (football, basketball and baseball).
DeVette asked the big guy how he was? “I’m going to spring training with Washington. I’ll probably end up back at Chattanooga,” he said.
Whoa! That would have been the old Washington Senators, a major league
team. By this time, I was bent on becoming an organic chemist, and baseball was
on the back burner. But Jim Kaat’s conversation got my attention. One of my
classmates in chemistry had gone to Zeeland (Mi) High School and knew Kaat
Suddenly, I realized even those godlike major league baseball players of my youth came from someplace and were real people. Who knew?
Though we were only a few months apart in age, I never actually met Kaat when we were fellow students, but saw Jim pitch a few times for real. Early in my academic career I saw him pitch in Kansas City and at Fenway Park in Boston.
Whenever I could, I got to the park early enough to try and talk with him.
Even though I was a graduate fellow at Harvard, it still wasn’t easy for us mortals
to get to a big leaguer. He was gracious but extremely careful with his body, and
who could blame him? After all, he used it to make his living.
Still, there was a part of him that was a regular guy. In the off season he’d visit his parents in Zeeland and play occasionally with the Hope faculty intramural basketball team. By that time, I was back teaching at our alma mater.
When I looked at his extraordinary physical gifts, I knew that choosing organic chemistry as a profession was right for me. For his part, I doubt he even knew the way to the lab.
Kaat, Sue and I were all members of the class of 1960 at Hope, though he was pitching in the major leagues by 1959 and never graduated. Those bards of wisdom we looked up to in college - the professors sitting at that registration table - are all long dead. But that connection, tenuous though it was, helped illustrate and remind me that no matter what the career choice, attention to detail and lots of hard work are usually the key to success.
That was true for Kaat, and was true for me.
Kaat became an announcer after his playing career was over. He was good at it, and also wrote a book, Still Pitching. I don’t know if he took those speech classes mostly reserved for future preachers at Hope. But in any event, he parlayed a successful playing career into an equally successful broadcasting career.
Congratulations to him from all of us wannabes that never got in a major
league dugout. Jim, we look at you with all our best Dutch pride.
Douglas Neckers is Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) at Bowling Green State University, founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences, and former chair of the Board of the Robert H. Jackson Center. 3dscienceblog.com