Harvey Frommer & Frederic Frommer

Growing Up Baseball : An Oral History

(Taylor Publishing Company, 2001 Hardcover;  ISBN: 0878331867)

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Excerpt from Growing Up Baseball : An Oral History

BOB FELLER: I was born on November 3, 1918. I grew up on a farm just west of Des Moines, Iowa in a small town named Van Meter. My given name is Robert William Andrew Feller

My sister Marguerite came along when I was 10. I had a great childhood. My father William and my mother Lena Feller gave me time.

My father's dad died when my dad was 9 years old. His mother never re-married. He had four sisters and a sick brother who died at the age of nine. All of that shaped him and his work ethic and how he treated people.

I did not grown up poor during the Depression, the Dust storm era. We always ate, we never missed a meal. My parents had a self sustaining farm of over 700 acres and worked day and night taking care of it. They never took a vacation in 40 years.

My earliest baseball memory was the rubber ball that I'd throw through the door into the living room of our house. My dad would be sitting on the couch in the living room, and would stop the ball with a pillow. I was much too young to even catch the ball so he would roll the ball back to me. When I threw the ball to him, I'd go into a big windup. Sometimes I'd miss the door and hit the wall and knock some of the plaster off or jar the lamp that was attached to the wall. All of that did not make my grandmother too happy or my mother for that matter. But it didn't bother my father too much.

From the age of 5, I started throwing in the barn all winter long. I threw in the pig lot or tossed a ball off the outhouse. I threw in the winter with snow piled high and then dried the balls off in the oven. I brought lights out to the barn and threw in the evening. I played catch in the yard and in the barn in the wintertime. I played ball in the barn all winter. We had a basket there and I would shoot baskets.

We stored the hay and the native lumber up there and some of the grain. Underneath we had the horses and some of the livestock and the straw to bed them down. We milked the cows there in the stanchions.

We used the horses in the field - we had a pair of running horses that we put on a buggy with a sleigh. We always had Belgians and Clydesdales. I curried them and cleaned the barns out every Saturday.

As time went on my dad pitched batting practice to me and hit grounders. Saturday nights we'd go over and take the butter and eggs in and do some shopping and listen to the band and get home early so we could play a ball game on Sunday.

We would go out and play between the out house and the house and there would be snow piled up everywhere except where we shoveled to get a flat surface. We always had about a dozen balls around and if they got wet in the snow we would put them I the wood stove and dry them out. From being batted around the stitches on the balls would break. We would tear off the entire cover and stitch them together with harness thread and curved needles, draw the thread through a big ball of bee's wax. We'd sew them up and use them again. I would do that evening after evening after evening with my father in front of the old pot bellied stove.

I have been told that my story of growing up into baseball is very dramatic. But I really don't think of it that way. I had a mother who was very intelligent and responsible. Both parents were on the school board. My mother was an R.N. My parents let me know where the stakes were set. I never had to ask what to do next. I knew when to clear out the barn, when to play ball, curry the horses. All of that helped me to learn a sense of proportion, build a work ethic, develop stamina, complete my games.

When I was twelve, we built a complete baseball field on our farm. We had a complete diamond with an outfield fence and scoreboard. We fenced the pasture, put up the chicken wire and the benches and even a little grandstand behind first base. We called it Oakview because it was up a hill overlooking the Raccoon River and a beautiful view of a grove of oak trees. We formed our own team and played other teams from around the community on weekends.

We really did have the first Field of Dreams over there on our farm in Iowa. Our Oakview team started playing 57 years before they had the "Field of Dreams" up there in Dyersville. We loaned the uniforms from the school. We were there four years before I started playing for the Farmer's Union team in Des Moines that won the Iowa State Championship.

My heroes growing up were Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth. My first glove was a Rogers Hornsby, the old three-fingered kind. Hornsby was my idol because we could get the Cubs' game on our radio on the farm in Iowa. I even took up second base as my first position because that was where Hornsby played.

All my heroes meant a great deal to me. I followed them very closely and read everything I could in the Des Moines paper, "The Register," the Pink Sheet. My dad bought me all the baseball books and also "The Sporting News"

I guess the farm chore made me strong. My father made a home plate in the yard, and I'd throw to him over it. My dad caught me all the time. He even built me a pitching rubber. At Van Meter High School l I pitched five no-hitters.

I had a live fast ball. I could throw hard. As a kid I was throwing curve balls when I was 8 years old. I had a great curve in high school. I taught myself how to throw it and got better with it through practice.

My windup was geared to get as much speed out of may arm and as much fear out of the batter as possible. I pivoted away, turned my back on the batter and then let it go.

When I was 16, in 1934, I saw the World Series in St. Louis. There were 4 games in Detroit - I saw the three played in St Louis. I saw Dizzy and Paul pitch and School Boy Rowe and Tommy Bridges. Frankie Frisch was the manger of the Cardinals. That was the first time I saw major league baseball. But I saw many major league exhibition games in Des Moines. There was a Cub farm team there - the Des Moines Demons. But the Kansas City Monarchs would play a lot in Des Moines, too. I saw Satchel Paige, and I pitched against him when I was 16 years old. He could throw hard, had great control, had the great motion - he would have been one of the top ten pitchers in history if he had played in the big leagues in his prime. Later when I was on Cleveland he played for us in 1948 when he was 42. He was a great friend of mine - he died at the age of 75. He had a lot of charisma.

The scout who signed me was Cleveland scout Cy Slapnicka, the same scout who signed Mel Harder, Herb Score and Lou Boudreau. He came to Des Moines to sign Claude Passeau for the Cleveland Indians from the Des Moines Demons. He came to see me pitch in an early morning game. I was playing in a tournament - he got to the ball park and he never left. Slapnicka never saw Passaeu. Passaeau went to Pittsburgh; Feller went to Cleveland.

I signed for a dollar bill and an autographed ball, the ball was signed by the 1935 Cleveland Indians. It wasn't even a new baseball. I was very confident that I'd make good and opportunity was more important than security. The contract was written on the back of a piece of hotel stationery. The Indians gave me about $175 a month. But my father had a cancer starting in 1936 and we had big bills at the Mayo Clinic for the radium and x-ray and the Indians took care of -$10,000 that winter. Mayo was about 220 miles from Van Meter. I would drive him up.

I was 16 years old. I was the youngest pitcher to ever win a major league game, also the youngest to ever lose one but not the youngest to ever appear in a game -- in 1944 before Carl Scheib was 16 he pitched one inning for the Connie Mack Athletics and Joe Nuxhall at the age of 15 pitched for Cincinnati.

This was 1936 - - I started playing semi-pro ball for a team called Rosenblooms at 321 Euclid Avenue, a clothing store. I played for six games there. Then I was asked to pitch in an exhibition game for the Indians when the Cardinals came to town on July 6, 1936. I pitched the fourth, fifth and sixth innings against the Gashouse Gang managed by Frankie Frisch. Durocher was my first hitter -- I struck out 8 out of 9 and instead of going to Fargo to start my career they put me on a train to join the Cleveland Indians in Philadelphia. I met Connie Mack there and he became a great friend of mine, I loved him.

I was taken care of very nicely by the Indians - Steve O'Neil, the manager, he was like a father to me. Wally Shank, the coach, who had been a catcher with several teams was a wonderful man and helped me a great deal. He was kind of my buffer and advisor.

Just as Edison said: "Find out what you like to do and you'll never have to work again." I was about nine years old when I started to of being nothing but a major league ball player. IU wasn't a cocky kid, I was very quiet. I just worked at it with my father helping me all the time.

I have been asked what was your greatest moment in baseball. Well, I enjoyed playing catch with my dad. Those were the better days than the days of pitching three no-hitters, 12 one-hitters or striking out 18 men. Those are more important to me.

I did graduate from high school. I took two weeks off in 1937 and had a tutor in spring training in New Orleans where we trained and went to school every day in my room at the Hotel Roosevelt. I went back home, graduated, got my diploma and re-joined the Indians.

At the start I was with the Indians between my junior and senior year. I came back to Van Meter and had a homecoming. I went back to school that winter but could not participate in basketball because I was a professional.

RALPH KINER: I was born October 27, 1922 in Santa Rita, New Mexico My father died of a mastoid infection when I was 4 years old, and my mother moved to Alhambra, California where she had friends. I was an only child.

Alhambra was a small town just outside of LA. The neighbors across the street were involved in baseball. They had a son Robert Bodkin who was about 10 years older than me. His father was involved in semipro ball across the area. They had a Sunday morning team, all men. And I used to be the batboy and hang out with them.

Robert's father used to pitch batting practice to him, and I was the kid just hanging around, shagging balls. This went on for a couple of years. I guess, I was maybe eight or nine years old. Eventually, I got tired of shagging balls and said, "How about giving me a chance to hit?"

I was around 10 or 11 by this time. So they let me hit, and of course I enjoyed that more than shagging balls. Eventually, I was playing on the men's team at the age of 12. I was skinny and fairly tall about 5-10 or something like that. And I always hit the ball well, and through that, I sort of grew up around them playing baseball on Sundays. And of course, pickup baseball with kids in the area. We'd choose up sides and play after school every day.

We played a lot of softball, which was a big thing at that time in the LA area. In grammar school, we had softball and some hardball, but not much. I was always one of the guys who was shagging balls, hitting balls, doing all of those things. And then when baseball season was over, I'd play football in the sandlot, pickup football, and basketball, and track and tennis.

I was raised in the Depression, so there wasn't any money around at all. My mother bought me a glove for Christmas or whatever, so I had a glove and we had the bat and taped up the baseballs. I was very adept at taking balls that were ripped up and sewing them up and making them like regular baseballs.

Then I got on different teams. Semipro teams in the area, I was 12 or 13 or 14. Another boy that was a pal of mine that I roamed around with, his father had been a minor league baseball pitcher. The father and the son were both named Harry Jonston, only they called the son "Lefty" because he was a left-handed pitcher. The father used to haul me and the son around to games.

My first real interest in major league baseball was around 1933 when the Giants played in the World Series against Washington. My favorite team was the 1934 Detroit Tigers. And they played in the World Series that year against the St. Louis Cardinals. I was in the 7th grade at that time, and I could look out the window of my classroom, and this Mrs. Bodkin, the wife of the man who really got me started in baseball, her house was only an eighth of a mile from the school. And she'd come out and signal with her fingers the score of the game. We had a system worked out where I could get the score of that 1934 World Series. My idol back then was Hank Greenberg And why I picked the Tigers, I have no idea. Maybe because of Hank and his fame as a great hitter. He was just starting to become one of the great hitters of the game.

Major League Baseball was broadcast into the area by a guy named Sam Balter. And it was recreated games of Major League Baseball, over the tickertape every Saturday out of a network out of Texas. But actual Major League ball wasn't on the West Coast except during spring training games.

Mr. Jonston used to take us to watch major leaguers in spring training. At one time the Philadelphia Athletics trained in Anaheim. I also saw the White Sox who trained in Pasadena, which is a contiguous town to Alhambra. I also went to Pacific Coast League minor league games.

I was totally involved in sports even though at that time, baseball wasn't considered a great way to make a living. My mother was never really happy with the fact that I was always playing some kind of sport. She never remarried, so she had to work to survive and to raise me. She worked in downtown LA, for the Title Insurance Company, a big company. She was an office nurse and took care of the people that worked there.

I had to do all the things to make money that all kids had to do then. I had to mow lawns, and I had an "LA Times" paper route that I got up for at 3 in the morning. I delivered papers and then went to school. I had about 40 customers, and I got $14 a month, which at that time, was a pretty good amount of spending money. I had to give some to my mother, and the rest I could keep, but whatever it was, it wasn't much.

I also sold magazines around the area, door-to-door, which I hated. I made a penny a magazine, and I had 20 to sell, and I had to go and knock on doors and ask them if they wanted to buy "Colliers" or "Saturday Evening Post" or "Ladies Home Journal" or whatever I was trying to get rid of. I hated to do that because it took away from the time I could play sports. And so I got real smart one time. The magazines sold out for a nickel, and I paid four cents to the guy that was in charge of the route. Rather than pay out 80 cents a week and knock on those doors, I took the magazines and buried them in the backyard, went out and mowed a couple of lawns and gave him the money that he was due for the 20 magazines that I had to sell. That worked out fine until my mother one time discovered that I was burying the magazines in the backyard. She got very unhappy about that and wound up sending me to a military school in Long Beach, California. I was there for a short period of time, six months, I think. I hated that, because it was taking me from all of the kids that I grew up with and knew.

There were also several major league clubs that sponsored teams around the area. I played for a team sponsored by the Yankees - the Yankee Juniors, they called them. We got old uniforms that had been passed through the organization, and they supplied the bats and balls. I played for the Yankee Juniors all through my high school days on Saturday afternoons.

On Sundays, I played on teams like the Alhambra Merchants, that were sponsored by merchants in town. I also played American Legion ball. It was the only organized thing around at that time. There was no Little League or anything like that. And when we didn't have a regularly scheduled game to play in the afternoon, after school days, we'd just go out to a vacant lot and play baseball and choose up sides and play sometimes with five guys on a team, six guys on a team. And if you didn't have nine guys on a team, you couldn't hit to the field where there was no player.

I played on the varsity team at Alhambra High School my sophomore, junior and senior years. Mainly I played shortstop, second base, third base. I also pitched some. I would say over the period of a year, I played somewhere around 250-some baseball games. Of course the weather was conducive to playing all year round in southern California.

A fellow named Dan Krowley ran the Yankee Junior team which was really run by the Yankees and their famous scout, Bill Essick who was the guy who signed up DiMaggio from San Francisco. Of course, when he was around, which was not often, it was a big thing, because I'd say, well I hope I have a good day, because maybe the Yankees will try and sign me. When guys in that time were going to D ball out of high school and making $65 a month, which sounds like nothing, which it was, but at that time, during the Depression, if you've got a job, you had something better than anybody else. The other scouts that were around were Hollis Thurston, who had been a major league pitcher. He scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And there was Babe Herman, who was a great hitter and scout for the Hollywood Stars, a team that was independently-owned and run by the Hollywood ball club of the Pacific Coast Club.

One of the offers I got was from Babe Herman. He offered to give me 50 percent of whatever my sale price to the major leagues would be if I would sign with the Hollywood Stars. An interesting sidelight to all of that is the only time I ever met Babe Ruth was when Babe Herman took me down to meet him when they were filming the moving picture "Pride of the Yankees." That's the only time I ever met Babe Ruth, through Babe Herman, who doubled for Gary Cooper in the movie in the hitting scenes.

There were scouts in the stands wherever we played in a lot of places. One of the scouts that watched me and actually helped me a little bit was Casey Stengel, who then was manager with the Boston Braves. He helped me with outfield play and was very interested. I got to know him well.

We played in ballparks like Griffith Park Playground and a big park in LA, where they had baseball games going on all around in that area. We played all over LA. People were becoming more and interested in me because I was a good player and getting better the more I played.

My mother still thought I was doing the wrong thing. She wanted me to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or something like that.

In 1939, 1940, my senior year of high school I had to either get a job, go to college or go play ball. I had several offers from different clubs to sign up for a small amount of money. Then in 1941, I graduated from high school and things came to a fruition.

It was now a matter of whether I was going to sign and play minor league ball or go to college. The Yankee offered me a chance to play minor league ball or a scholarship to USC. At that time, Hollis Thurston came to me and wanted to sign me for the Pirates. He was a world-renowned baseball scout. His nickname was "sloppy, but he was a meticulously-dressed person, well-dressed, well-educated, intelligent guy.

And so now it really came down to whether I would go to college or sign up. My mother wanted me to go to college. She didn't want any part of anything about signing and going on to play baseball.

At that time, baseball players didn't have any great reputation, certainly they didn't make a whole lot of money. And it was a matter of me going to college or not, and it was her choice. I had no choice in the matter. And Hollis Thurston came to our house. I didn't know a thing about anything at that time. And Harry Jonston, the father of the son who was also named And Harry Johnston was the one who more or less negotiated my deal. I asked him what he thought I should do. He was an executive with a milk company out there. He was a surrogate father to me, he and Mr. Bodkin, the father of the other son who went to Loyola College to play baseball.

It finally came down where Pittsburgh offered me $3,000 in cash to sign, and a contract in A Ball. And his argument was if I signed with the Yankees, I'd be buried in their farm system for a period of seven years, which was about what it took most ballplayers to get through the minor leagues to the majors at that time. The Yankees were an outstanding team at that time. And he prevailed, and I ended up signing up with Pittsburgh. He also promised me but it was not in writing, and technically it was illegal that if I made the major leagues, I would get another $5,000 to sign. Well at that time, that kind of money was unheard of. Nobody had ever gotten a bonus that was that good. And the money, I guess, swayed my mother, the $3,000 of cash in my hand. And she agreed to OK the contract.

The other part was I was to go to spring training with the Pirates in 1941. I graduated in June of 1940. I went to Pasadena Junior College in the winter of that year, which satisfied my mother, she wanted me to get a college education. They had a pretty good athlete on their team, just prior to my signing. His name was Jackie Robinson. And I played softball against Jackie in Pasadena, but he didn't play a whole lot of baseball, although he really a good player. He was renowned as a football player, a basketball player and a track star.

Spring training was in San Bernardino, which was about 60 miles from where I was living in Alhambra. The first game I played was the first game of the spring training season. And in that game, I had two home runs and went four-for-five, and that was really my start in professional baseball. They sent me to Albany, New York, which at that time was a Class A League in the Eastern League. At that time, they had AA, A1 and A, so I started at the third-highest level. I played there for one year, struggled, but did fairly well, and went back again the next year with Albany, led the league in home runs with 14. It was a real tough pitchers league with guys like Warren Spahn in that league.

The next year, the war started to become involved, and I signed up for the cadet program for the Navy to become a flier in 1941, right after Pearl Harbor. From there I went to Toronto for about five weeks, and I was AA, in the highest level you could play. And then I was called into the service, and spent 2 years, and got my wings, and ended up as an officer, and then got released out of the service in 1945, in December.

I went to spring training with the Pirates and had a fantastic spring. I hit something like 11 home runs in spring training. I became Pittsburgh's starting left fielder in 1946.

Looking back, if it wasn't for two surrogate fathers, Mr. Bodkin and Mr. Johnston, I don't know what I would have ended up doing. They helped keep me around baseball all the time. And my ambition, of course, was to play major league ball.

NOLAN RYAN: I was born in Refugio, Texas on January 31, 1947, the youngest of six children, and when I was only six weeks old, the family moved east to Alvin. The oil company my father worked for transferred his job to that area. So that's where we settled, where I grew up, and where I still live today.

My brother Robert was something of a hero to me, being a few years older and more advanced in athletics. I'd hang around with Robert and his friends, shag flies for them, sometimes get into a game when they were shy a player. I'd practice a lot with Robert in our backyard. We would pitch to each other. He'd catch me, and I'd catch him.

Some people claim that I developed my arm throwing the Houston Post. That was not the case. It was a short throw from a car, and I made the throw backhanded with my left hand while I steered my 52 Chevy with my right. But I did develop the knack of being able to roll and tie fifty newspapers in just about five minutes, and that probably helped me develop strong fingers and wrists.

We got our first TV set, a Philco, in 1953, and I remember watching the "Game of the Week" with Dizzy Dean. He was colorful. That was the only baseball we got except what you heard on the radio. Major league baseball was far removed. The only team you could pick up was the St. Louis Cardinals on KMOX.

But when major league baseball came to Houston later on, I really got into the habit of following Colt.45 games. And I would lie in bed on those hot summer nights, listening to the radio and picturing the action. My favorite players at that time though were not on Houston and not pitchers. They were outfielders. Hank Aaron was one of them. I admired him because of his power and his durability. I also especially liked Roberto Clemente. He was what I thought an athlete should be. He was driven and he put every bit of himself into what he was doing.

My first organized sports experience was in Little League. The first field in Alvin was cleared and built by my dad and the other fathers of the kids in the program. I played Little League from the time I was nine years old until I was thirteen. Some of my fondest memories of baseball come from those years.

I had heard that my dad was a pretty fair ballplayer in his time during the Depression. As a Little League parent, he was always there when I needed him. My dad was just interested in my having a good organized sports experience.

Making the Little League team was a thrill for all us kids in Alvin. When we got our caps and uniforms, we'd be so proud we'd wear the caps to school. That was a big deal. We played our games in the Texas heat in those old heavy flannel uniforms, but no one seemed to pay the weather any heed.

I was a good player, not a great player, although I did pitch a no-hitter in Little League and was on the All Star team as an eleven and twelve year old. I didn't develop great pitching velocity until my sophomore year in high school.

One year after our Little League team had been eliminated from tournament play, I remember standing on the field for the closing ceremony. The man who was presenting the awards gave a little talk. "One day," he said, "one of you Little Leaguers will go on to play in the major leagues."

When I heard what he said, it was like a bell went off in my head. I got home and told my mom about the ceremony and what the man said. "Mom," I said, "that man was talking about me."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"It's me that he meant, Mom. I'm sure it was me he was talking about."

There were under six hundred kids in my high school, and you knew almost everyone. All I thought about in high school was basketball, not baseball. I was six foot two, but I was the center on the team because I was a good jumper.

In baseball, they said I could throw a ball through a wall but I had a lot of problems with control. I was so tall and skinny and raw that I didn't pay much attention to being scouted. I had no idea that I could ever play in the big leagues.

One Sunday between my junior and senior years in high school we went to see the Houston Colt 45's play the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sandy Koufax was pitching and I was a big Koufax fan. It was the first time I had a box seat and the first time I had ever seen Sandy pitch. I was truly amazed at how fast he was and how good a curveball he had. I think he was the most overpowering pitcher I have ever seen.

My senior year in high school, 1965, I went to the Astrodome - it was the year it opened. I watched these major leaguers play. They were so much older and more polished than I was . I never considered myself on their level.

Throughout high school I was in my own world, having fun on Friday and Saturday nights playing ball. Going to the majors was not a big item as far as I was concerned. Scouts came through and checked me out and didn't have the interest. There were no radar guns - I didn't know how fast I was. I was so wild. I was just a kid with a great arm. I didn't know what I had.

No one did - only Red Murff who was a scout for the New York Mets then. I was selected in the eighth round of the 1965 free-agent draft, the 295th player taken. I was pretty disappointed. It was like they were sending me a message that 294 high school players had a better chance of making the majors than I did.

My first stop in organized baseball was Marion, Virginia in the Appalachian Rookie League. I was 18 years old and had never been away from home. Some of our trips on those old broken-down buses lasted almost eight hours, and the conditions in some of those ball parks -- awful rough fields, poor lighting, no showers.

The season there began very late so that high school and college players signed after graduation would have a place to play. That summer of 1965, more than 70 players passed through the Marion roster. I lasted the whole season. Pitching in 13 games, I won 3 and lost 6 and struck out 115 batters in 78 innings. In the dim light, to a lot of nervous kids, I guess I was a little dangerous to hit against. I gave up 56 walks and hit 8 batters.

The following spring, 1966, I was assigned to Greenville, South Carolina in the Western Carolina League. I earned six hundred dollars a month there, a hundred dollars more than the year before. The conditions were a bit primitive, cramped, and there were dirty dressing rooms, bus road trips every other day. My wildness was still with me and the word was out that I frightened some batters and catchers alike with my velocity. I wound up with 272 strikeouts, 127 walks, and 17 wins all league highs. I had a great year, losing just two games, the least in the league.

When the season ended I was promoted to Williamsport, Pennsylvania in the AA Eastern League. It was only ten days but a lot happened. I struck out 35 batters in 19 innings. On September 1, 1966, I had the greatest game of my career up to that point in time - striking out 19 batters in nine innings against Pawtucket. I wound up with 21 strikeouts in ten innings but lost the game, 2-1.

I was very excited about what I had accomplished in the minors, but I was even more excited by the thought of pitching in the majors, throwing against major league hitters. I'd been told that I would join the Mets after September 1 - the date major league teams called up prospects from the minors for the final month of the season - -and I was looking forward to trying out my fastball against top hitters.

In my last start for Williamsport I was scheduled to pitch just four innings and then get on a plane and fly to LaGuadia Airport to join theNew York Mets. I had a no-hitter going through four.

When I returned to the dugout my manager Bill Virdon said: "You've got to be going to report to the Mets, but you've given up no hits. Do you want to continue pitching in this game and go for the no-hitter?"

"Mr. Virdon," I told him, "if it's all right with you, I'd just as soon move on to New York City.

I was excited to be in New York City but also a bit awed by the whole thing. I had come all the way from A ball to the major leagues in one season and had attracted a lot of fanfare. Players would say, "Wait till you see this kid Ryan pitch. Wait till you see his arm." And I felt I had to go out there and show everybody how hard I could throw. It was the mentality of the gunfighter, the fastest gun in the west.

I guess it was easy for Wes Westrum the manager of the Mets, to pick all of that up. He told me: "Nolan, you're up here just for us to take a look at you. Your major league future does not depend on how you do. Just do the best you can."

His words helped me relax a little, but only a little. Shea Stadium was a noisy place with jets always roaring overhead from LaGuardia Airport. That was unsettling. The Mets drew about 25,000 a game - - five times more people than lived in my hometown of Alvin. When the games began, I would sit out in the bullpen with the extra catchers and relief pitchers. Sometimes my mind would drift back to thoughts of home.

My first major league appearance was on September 11, 1966 against the Milwaukee Braves. I had a big case of stage fright walking out of the bullpen and stepping on the mound knowing I would be pitching to players like Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews and Joe Torre.

But I got through it, giving up a home run to Joe Torre--- but also getting my first major league strikeout. The batter was Pat Jarvis, a rookie pitcher for Atlanta.

  • That first time on a major league mound was a big learning experience for me. Hank Aaron said I had one of the best fastballs he had ever seen. But one of the best fastballs I'd ever thrown was hit for a home run by Joe Torre. I learned the hard way that it would not be possible to get by in the major leagues with just a fastball, no matter how hard it was thrown.

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