Friday, January 25, 2013

The Ball

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, is famous for its plaques bearing the likenesses of hundreds of the greatest players of the game - those deemed worthy of induction into the institution's hallowed halls. Unless you've been there, you may not realize the Hall of Fame is also a baseball museum, and by that I mean literally a museum of baseballs. On display are hundreds of balls that were involved in one significant play or other in the game's history. For the faithful, it is akin to visiting a shrine containing saintly relics. For baseball agnostics, visiting the Hall can be an exercise in the most excruciating tedium, as I learned during my one and only visit with my first wife, the day I learned the literal meaning of the term "bored to tears."

My ex wife was a textile conservator who worked on a wide variety of objects from thousand year old tapestries to contemporary fiber arts pieces. However by far the most valuable objects (at least in terms of insurance value) that she ever worked on, were objects having to do with baseball memorabilia.

As a sport obsessed with its history, anything that has even the most tangential connection to the game at its highest level, is raised to the status of an object of devotion. It's been that way since the game's inception but today, just as the market for actual players has gone through the roof, so has the market for these objects of desire.

What makes the following story so charming, is that it depicts childhood innocence in a simpler time not so long ago, that would be almost unimaginable these days.

In 1960 Andy Jerpe was a fourteen year old ninth grader who lived in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Point Breeze, not far from Forbes Field. On the afternoon of Thursday October 13, on his way home from school, Andy found himself inside that venerable old ballpark as his hometown Pirates just happened to be playing the New York Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series. Now already this story is dated. For one thing, World Series games in our day are never played on weekday afternoons, they're played in prime time to attract the largest number of TV viewers. And today the idea of a kid just wandering into a ballpark during a World Series game seems preposterous.

Anyway that 1960 Series was one of the strangest ever. The Pirates were huge underdogs to the mighty Yankees that year and looking at the overall stats from the Series you could see why. In the three games the Yankees won, they outscored the Pirates 32 to 3. In the whole series they and outscored the Bucs 55 to 27. But the Pirates managed to win three games in more modest fashion, forcing a game seven. The last game in Pittsburgh turned into a slugfest and it seemed unlikely that the Pirates could out-slug Mantle, Maris & Co. The lead seesawed back and forth throughout the last half of the game and wonder of wonders, Pittsburgh found itself tied with New York at nine runs apiece in the bottom of the ninth.

Unfortunately for Andy Jerpe, he couldn't stay to watch, he had to get home to help his mother with dinner. Now just imagine that.

At precisely 3:36 p.m., Andy found himself outside the ballpark in Schenley Park just beyond the left field fence. He heard the crack of a bat and the roar of the crowd. When he looked up he saw the ball that just came off second baseman Bill Mazeroski's bat. Playing left field that day for the Yankees, Yogi Berra stood directly on the other side of the fence from Andy and could only watch helplessly as the ball sailed over his head and into the grove of cherry trees where it landed, about fifteen feet away from the fourteen year old boy.

Now a baseball is an easy thing to take for granted. In our home, the home of a little leaguer, we have dozens of them. Between all the manufacturing steps and curing time, it takes about one week to make a big league baseball. Topping it off, each ball, all 108 stitches of it, is sewn by hand. The Rawlings factory in Costa Rica makes about eight to ten thousand of them in one day. Given that, it's amazing you can still buy the same baseball used by the pros, signature of the president of the league and all, for only about nine bucks. Back in 1960 it might have been two or three. But the ball you buy at the store will never be worth more than nine bucks, and a lot less after you whack it around a few times. A ball that makes its way into the stands at a big league park on the other hand, even if it's only a foul ball, is usually found in a place of honor of someone's home. And a ball that is part of a significant play in a big league game, can be worth serious money.

That point was taken to absurdity in 2003 in Chicago with a ball that was hit during a playoff game. A home town fan reaching for a foul ball headed into the stands, prevented a possible out by deflecting the ball from the home town outfielder who had a chance to catch it. The batter got a second chance and got on base which precipitated a series of events that led to the collapse of the home team which shall remain nameless. The play instantly became notorious and the following year, the owner of a local restaurant paid tens of thousands of dollars for that ball, then staged a public event where he had the unfortunate baseball blown to bits.

The ball that Andy Jerpe picked up that Thursday afternoon in 1960 in Pittsburgh was certainly no ordinary baseball. In fact it was no ordinary home run ball hit in a major league game. Bill Mazeroski had just hit the home run that would win the World Series for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the storied New York Yankees. To this day, decades after the demise of Forbes Field, there is a plaque marking the event on the site where Andy picked up that ball. Every year on October 13th around 3:30 PM, fans gather around the plaque to celebrate the very special event in Pittsburgh sports history that took place over fifty years ago. Bill Mazerowski himself sometimes attends those ceremonies.

But that's not all. In the entire history of baseball, only two World Series were ended by a player on the home team hitting a home run, in baseball parlance, a "walk off" home run. And only one time in history was a decisive seventh game of a World Series settled by a walk off home run. The ball that Andy Jerpe held in his hands was part of the most important if not the most famous* home run in the game's history.

Andy was taken by security into the Pirate clubhouse where grown men were jumping up and down, in Andy's words, acting like children, spraying what Andy thought at the time was water all over themselves. Andy presented the ball to Mazerowski who according to legend told him: "It's OK kid, the memory is enough for me, you can keep the ball." Maz signed the ball and Andy went home.

Andy recalled years later that bringing the trophy home was the event that brought him and his father closer than any other in his young life. Now if this were a movie, the story would have to have a scene where the boy and the ball would become separated. Indeed, one year later that's exactly what happened. One day some friends came over and asked Andy if he wanted to play some ball, but none of his friends actually had a ball. "Hey how 'bout that ball you have in the case in your room?" said one of his friends. "I can't use that ball" said Andy. The friends assured him nothing would happen to his precious trophy. He gave in to peer pressure, pried opened the case he made in shop class and joined his friends across the street. When Andy came up to bat, he fouled off the ball which landed in the tall grass off to his right. Andy and his friends looked for the ball for hours but never came up with it.

In the movie version of our story, years later the ball would turn up in a garage sale, someone would recognize it, and return it to Andy. Andy would then be approached by a collector offering him a fortune for the ball. He'd think about it for a minute then say, no it's too precious, he'd never let go of it again.

Of course that part never happened. The baseball that was hit out of Forbes Field that beautiful fall day in 1960, perhaps the most important baseball of all time, has not been seen since, or so they say. One theory has it that one of Andy's friends pocketed the ball and later sold it to Mazeroski for two cases of beer.

Our movie could never end like that.

As for Andy Jerpe, well he's been told recently the ball that once was his would be worth between $500K and one million dollars. He just shrugs it off. Like his childhood hero Bill Mazeroski, he seems content with the sweet memory, and one hell of a story.

"Would you have sold it" he is constantly asked.

"If the price was right" is his response.

As usual, life does not imitate art.

*Arguably the most famous home run in baseball history took place nine years earlier. It was the "shot heard 'round the world", a walk off home run that Bobby Thompson of the Giants hit off the Brooklyn Dodgers to win a playoff series between the two teams.

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