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Just a baseball full of memories
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Forsyth County News
It’s just a baseball.

It sits there on the top shelf in the closet, right above the shirts, safely encased inside its glass globe. From that position it is sure to be seen every day, for it’s really more than just a baseball. It’s a reminder of the history, the traditions, and the memories that make baseball unique among our pastimes.

This particular baseball was procured by a good friend who, working his way through law school in the early 80’s, spent his evenings moonlighting as a Braves clubhouse attendant.

In 1982, he managed to obtain a baseball signed by the participants in the Braves Old Timers Day festivities.

What names. What memories.

There’s Johnny Vander Meer, ol’ Double No-Hit himself. On July 15, 1938, he pitched a no-hitter against the Dodgers. That’s a pretty big deal.

But in his previous start, he had no-hit the Boston Bees, as the Braves were then called. Bigger deal. Seventy seasons later, he remains the only pitcher in history to accomplish that miraculous feat.

Vander Meer, a 22-year-old lefthander, stole the show that night. Yes, night: that was the very first night game ever played at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. He thrilled a 500-person contingent attending the game from his hometown of Midland Park, N.J.

The last out was made by Dodger shortstop Leo Durocher. It was a lazy fly to center, caught by Harry Craft. Craft later became the first manager of the Houston Astros, originally known as the Colt .45s.

Another author of no-hitters signed the ball: Hall of Famer Bob Feller. When he retired in 1956, Feller had thrown three no-hitters, a record broken by Sandy Koufax in the 60’s. Feller also hurled an incredible 12 one-hitters.

Feller remains the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter on Opening Day, no-hitting the White Sox on April 16, 1940. The Sox shortstop that day was another Hall of Famer who later called Cumming his home, Luke Appling.

Another Hall of Fame pitcher who signed the ball is Robin Roberts. Roberts led the Whiz Kid Phillies to the 1950 National League pennant, ending decades of futility.

That year, Roberts posted the first of six straight 20-win seasons. If that’s not amazing enough by today’s standards, compare these numbers to those put up by today’s pitchers: in 1953, he started 41 games, completed 33, and threw 346.2 innings.

I remember him mentoring the Baby Birds staff with the Orioles in the early 60s, and finishing up with the Astros and Cubs in 1966.

As he told Paul Domowitz in 1988, “When I was with Houston at the end of my career, Bob Gibson walked up to me one day when I was running in the outfield. He asked me why I didn’t quit, and said what a shame it was that I was ruining a great career by just trying to hang on.

“Years later, I saw Gibson trying to do the same thing.”

Roberts also provided an excellent line about his greatest All-Star game thrill, as told to Sports Illustrated in 1978: “When Mickey Mantle bunted with the wind blowing out in Crosley Field.”

Another pitcher who kept hanging on signed the ball, the Braves own Lew Burdette. Though he won 203 games in an 18-year career, his highlight came in 1957. Burdette delivered Milwaukee’s only World Series championship almost single-handedly.

He beat the Yankees three times — with three complete games. He beat Bobby Shantz, 4-2, in Game 2, and outpitched Yankee ace Whitey Ford in Game 5, 1-0. Then, on two days rest, shut out the Yankees again, 5-0, in Game 7.

The losing pitcher in Game 7 was none other than Don Larsen, who also signed the ball. One year earlier, Larsen became the only man ever to pitch a perfect game in the Series. A more unlikely candidate couldn’t have been found.

Just three days earlier, Larsen lasted only five outs against the Dodgers in a 13-8 loss. The Yankees had staked him to a 6-0 lead, and Larsen still couldn’t make it out of the second inning.

Still, manager Casey Stengel gave him another chance. As Larsen told reporters after the game, “I wanted to win this one for Casey. After what I did in Brooklyn, he could have forgotten about me, and who would blame him? But he gave me another chance, and I’m grateful.”

Stengel gave Larsen several chances. In spring training that year, Larsen managed to violate the Yankees midnight curfew. Detection was easy; he had slammed his car into a tree. As Stengel observed in It Takes Heart by Mel Allen and Frank Graham, Jr., “The man was either out too late, or up too early.”

Larsen was just staying true to form. As Jimmy Dykes, his manager in Baltimore in 1954, recounted in the same book, “The only thing Larsen fears is sleep.”

Larsen spent 14 years in the majors, compiling a mediocre 81-91 record with a 3.78 earned run average. Yet he pitched the greatest game in baseball history. Incredible?

Here’s how Shirley Povich described it in the Washington Post: “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar. Don Larsen today pitched a no-hit, no-run, no-man-reach-first game in a World Series.”

No explanation exists for Larsen’s feat, except for this: that’s baseball.

And that’s just a baseball. And just the pitchers who signed a baseball. And look where it took us.