The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

April 7, 2013

It’s howdy duty time

By Gary Grossman
The Daily Item

— The season has begun. Columnists are duty-bound to write about baseball.

Here are all my baseball stories.

I was in Oneonta NY in 1982 when John Elway collected a $140,000 signing bonus from George Steinbrenner and took up position in right field for the short season Single A minor league team at Damaschke Field.

Our sports writer that year was Jim Hone, a short, lean, scraggly-haired, 20-something night-rider who could fly across a keyboard and produce sports pages in mere minutes. Hone took an immediate dislike to the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Adonis from the left coast who, Hone believed – correctly, it turned out – belonged in football.

Elway was a fine young man, a good high school baseball player, but rusty at bat, starting the season with a successful bunt, but then going 2-22 with each at-bat disaster gleefully recounted in rich detail by Hone, whose lifetime paycheck was seriously south of $140,000. Elway closed his professional baseball season with four home runs while hitting better than .300 average, but had enough of baseball, and possibly Jim Hone.

Damaschke was a 1939 baseball field, with covered stands behind the plate, dugouts too small for an entire team, wooden benches along the baselines, active freight train tracks just beyond the fence and a dog pound behind the first base bleachers that lit up in yips and howls every time a foul ball plunked off the roof.

My wife and I and our yet unborn, but growing child watched from that side of the field, getting to know a gaggle of salty-haired old dudes who started a pool on the baby’s delivery date, unanimous in the belief that we would never make it to the playoffs.

Sam Nader, the former, much-respected mayor of Oneonta, ran the ballpark with his family operating the concession stand.  There was no zippy-tron scoreboard or comedic mascot in those days.  Alcohol was prohibited.  Cussing was voluntarily held to a minimum.

“Bullet Bob” Feller (the “Heater from Van Meter" or  "Rapid Robert") would appear once a season as a novelty act and whiz one across home plate for the fans between innings.  There were weekly reports that Mickey Mantle would attend a game. We never saw him.

Oneonta was located in Otsego County, where Cooperstown, renown for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, is the county seat. The 23 miles from Damaschke Field to Cooperstown was a lifetime journey, but a few had made the trip.

Willie McGee, Don Mattingly, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams all played on that field during their careers.

Elway was the biggest celebrity while we were there. But we became steady fans for the Bucky Showalter years, 1985-86, when he led teams to a league championship and 114 victories, an auspicious start that launched him toward New York in 1990 and on to manager of the Yankees 1992-1995. 

Showalter’s New York Yankees included several players we remembered from their opening night at Damaschke, trying to look cool the first time someone asked for an autograph. 

Our little newspaper went all out for Hall of Fame Day with a special section for the induction ceremony and traditional game on Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. Once, in his second term as vice president, George H.W. Bush flew up to toss out the ceremonial pitch, recorded as straight, fast and down the middle.

Lonely Jim Hamilton was the news clerk and obit writer in those days, an indoor guy. Life’s chaos had placed him in a permanent rumple. Wearing inch-thick glasses beneath a long scramble of cyclonic white hair, Hamilton typed with one finger, pressing his nose into the keys so he could accurately sight his bomb run across the alphabet.

Late one day, in pre-Google America, the sports writer who covered the Hall of Fame Game that year shouted, “Babe Ruth’s daughter was in the stands today. Anybody know her name?”

A short pause followed while all pondered why anyone would possibly know the name of Babe Ruth’s daughter. Then, Hamilton replied.

“Babe Ruth’s daughter by his first marriage or his second?”

In that instant, I knew I would never write anything new for a real baseball fan. But duty called.