When I was young, I thought the dream of every kid who'd ever climbed a fence to see a baseball game was to be a batboy for his favorite team. I often wondered how those guys were picked.
A boy on the West Side of Chicago, I ate, drank, and slept baseball, and lived and died with the fortunes of the South Side White Sox. I was 15 when the opportunity of my dreams presented itself. The Chicago Daily News announced a contest: "Why I Would Like to Be Batboy for the Chicago White Sox." Would I ever! The two winners would be batboys for that 1947 season.
The first hurdle was an essay.
My mom, glancing at my illegible left-hander's scrawl, said "type it" in her "I work in an office, trust me" voice. Soon my typed letter was dispatched. Weeks went by, and finally a response came: I was a finalist! Ten of us, out of more than 9,000 applicants, would be interviewed by White Sox coaches and players.
I was awestruck when I walked into the offices of the White Sox at Comiskey Park. After a nerve-jangling interview in a conference room near the president's office, we candidates were resummoned one by one.
Eight boys heard that a decision would be announced in about a week. But another boy and I were told, "You won! When you say goodbye to these guys, come back here. And make sure no one follows you."
My heart was thumping, but somehow I feigned nonchalance. An hour later Mom and Dad received my news with applause and hugs. A Daily News reporter and photographer came to our home the following week, and we were on the sports page for all to see.
What sticks in my mind from that 1947 season? Pitcher Dizzy Dean's arm around my shoulder for a publicity shot; feeling goosebumps as I gazed slack-jawed at home-run king Babe Ruth, then long retired, standing at home plate to receive the crowd's ovation; Connie Mack, approaching the end of his long and distinguished career as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, still wearing his trademark suit, still "Mr. Mack" to everyone.
My assignment was to chase bats for the visiting teams. That meant I sat in the dugout with such future Hall-of-Famers as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, and Bob Feller. I worked part-time for my White Sox heroes: shortstop Luke Appling and pitcher Ted Lyons.
That year, on a chilly, overcast May 4, the Sox won both games of a double-header against the Athletics, 8-7 and 1-0, the first on a dramatic grand-slam home run. Forgetting that I was in the "enemy" dugout, I leaped to the bat rack to emit a joyful whoop, but stifled it just in time, sensing the stony silence around me.
Larry Doby, the American League's response to crusader Jackie Robinson, took his first cuts in that old park that year. His appearance attracted an unusually large crowd of admiring black and curious white fans.
On a torrid Sunday in July, the Yankees roared into town in the middle of what would be their record-tying 19-game winning streak. On their way to a world championship, they pounded the Sox 10-3 and 6-4.
Finally, in the waning days of an unspectacular Pale Hose season (they finished sixth), Cleveland's fireballing Bob Feller filled the stadium for a night game. The crowd cheered lustily when Sox veteran Rudy York blasted a towering three-run shot over the left field wall to hand the Sox a thrilling 8-7 victory.
My family, ever proud to see me kneeling near the on-deck circle, used their free passes often. They glowed each time friends complimented me. But taking my own cuts in batting practice convinced me I was not the next Lou Gehrig. That gave me the shove I needed to move on to a happy life in music and teaching.
The souvenir bats and balls I accumulated over that unforgettable summer are long gone. But I still feel a supercharged "being there" thrill when I look at a photograph of a packed Comiskey Park. For a split second I'm 15 again, talking statistics with rookie Yogi Berra and handing baseballs to the home-plate umpire. I'm enjoying my moment in baseball's sun, and I'm dressed in my very own White Sox uniform.