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Ira Vinson "Jack" Birdwhistell

Baseball & Me

Ed: Self-written document on his love of baseball. 



            My life with baseball began when I was about ten years old, living at 564 South Main Street. Gary Gillis’s family moved next door, and immediately softball games began in our back yard, involving boys (and a few girls) from all over Lawrenceburg. The area seems very small today, but often as many as twenty kids played wild games on summer afternoons. I recall Jimmy McBrayer, Sandy and Mac Goodlett, Charlie Cammack, Bob McAnly, Billy Hahn, Glen Baxter, Mark van Tassel, Jewell and Donnie Sutherland, Tom and Sheila Smith. Because of my size and lack of speed, my position was first base. I wasn’t much of a hitter.

            One very vivid memory: the birthday party of my friend Wayne Hanks, held at the Fairgrounds baseball park when I was about ten. I made it to first base, and, when the next batter hit a grounder I took off toward second base. Jimmie (Red) Jeffries, a really superb ballplayer, was playing shortstop for the other team. He fielded the ball, came flying across the bag to make the throw to first, but saw that I was slowly making my way to second, standing straight up. Every good shortstop knows to throw the ball right at the runner’s head to make him get down–‘Red’ did (throw it) and I didn’t (get down). The result–a pair of broken glasses, a cut nose, and one really embarrassed ten-year old. Whenever in my ball playing career that happened again, I would make a hard right turn and head for the outfield to avoid future throws.

            About the same time I became aware of professional baseball. For some reason, my favorite player was Mickey Mantle, my favorite team the Yankees, and my ten year old summer (1956) was the year ‘The Mick’ won the Triple Crown in the American League. In those days there was a daily radio broadcast, the ‘Mutual Radio Game of the Day (always a day game) and on days when no kids showed up to play ball, I’d lie on the floor in our ‘front room’ and keep score of the day’s game–especially if it involved the Yankees. I was vaguely aware there was a team in Cincinnati, but that was about it for the Reds, who in those days hit bunches of home runs but won only about half their games. I do recall, however, standing by my dad in our tiny bathroom while he shaved, listening to Waite Hoyt and Jack Moran call the Reds games on the radio. They were sponsored by Burger Beer, and I’m certain, to my mother’s great displeasure, one of the first songs I learned was the Burger theme song.

            Not long after, we got our first TV, a small black and white Capehart brand. This was the era of the Saturday Game of the Week (some years there was a Sunday game as well). ‘Dizzy’ Dean and ‘Pee Wee’ Reese were the announcers. When CBS bought the Yankees, this became the ‘Yankee Game of the Week,’ which suited me just fine.

            I also became a fanatic collector of Yankees baseball cards, none of which survive, unfortunately. For some reason I recall opening a bubble gum pack at my dad’s old grocery store on Court Street, and finding a Bob Cerv card to complete my Yankee set.

            The summer I turned twelve (1958), there was great excitement among us kids–Little League Baseball was coming to Lawrenceburg! It was really low-budget Little League–we had only caps, no uniforms, and played on a vacant lot near the elementary school on Saffell Street. I’ll always remember the men who gave of their time and effort so we could play ball: ‘Freck’ Sullivan, Pete McDonald, Cecil McFarland, Jim Boyd, Tom Catlett and Jim Catlett (my coaches), Billy Bean, and many more. Since I was the biggest kid on the team, I became the catcher. I had quite a time finding a catcher’s mask to would accommodate my ever present glasses. I wasn’t too bad. I was able to stop most everything, since I wasn’t quick enough to get out of the way! Not much of an arm, though. And if I got a hit it was an accident, because I was leery of the ball and couldn’t see it very well, anyway. One of my most fervent prayers as a twelve-year-old was, ‘Lord, please just let me hit the ball.’

            There were some very fine ball players in our league: Darrell Crawford, Glen Baxter, Gary Samples, Mark van Tassell, Jimmy McBrayer, Jackie Morris (who had the biggest first baseman’s mitt I have ever seen!), Billy Robinson, Johnny Whitehead. At the end of the season we played a couple of All-Star games against a team from Frankfort, which had had Little League for some years. They even had uniforms!

            My first year as a Little Leaguer was also my last, as I had to move on to Pony League (13-15 age group) the next year. I tried to play catcher on a team coached by my neighbor, Willard Gillis, bit there was no way that as a thirteen year old I was ready to catch the pitches fired by fifteen year olds such as ‘Butch’ Morris, a really exceptional baseball talent. Pony League played at the ball park at the Legion Fair Grounds, where in my teenage years there were occasional Blue Grass League games on Sunday afternoons. (Butch Morris, Billy Bryant, and other stalwarts played for Lawrenceburg against teams from nearby towns. I recall watching tobacco farmer ‘Woody’ Fryman pitch for Flemingsburg one Sunday afternoon against the locals–the guys were happy to hit a hard foul off Woody, who went on to pitch several seasons in the major leagues.)

            For reasons known only to basketball coach Charlie Grote, Anderson High did not field baseball teams during my years there, 1960-1964, so my career as a baseball player was brief. 

            As a fan, however, it was just beginning. As sixth and seventh graders in Sunday School at Sand Spring Baptist Church, we were treated to annual trips to Cincinnati to watch a Reds’ game. Our cheerful, fearless driver was Eugene Stratton, our beloved Sunday School teacher. ‘Gene’ would pile us all into his car, and off we would go (this was well before I-75 was built, and before auto air conditioning). These were great ‘boy’ adventures. I seem to recall that my dad was able to join us for one of these trips, even though they always took place on Saturdays, the busiest days of all at his store. How I wish I had kept scorecards or other souvenirs from those trips. At least twice my whole family–mother and father, little brothers, three aunts, one uncle, along with our dear friends the John W. Kruschwitz family (for a Saturday game) joined with other central Kentuckians on a Southern Railway ‘excursion train’ to a weekend Reds’ game. This adventure, organized by WVLK Radio and their irrepressible ‘personality,’ Ted Grizzard, would leave the ramshackle Southern Railway Depot (now gone) on South Broadway in Lexington. The train served food (very expensive) so our second trip we brought our own vittles. The train stopped at the massive Union Depot in Cincinnati, which left quite a walk to old Crosley Field. At least once my mother and brothers took a taxi to and from the ballpark because the weather was so hot. I also seem to recall one or two auto trips to Louisville’s Parkway field for Louisville Colonels’ games–the Colonels, then a Red Sox farm club, played on TV occasionally.

            Meanwhile, as a teenager I was becoming a Reds’ fan. Vada Pinson, their fleet young center fielder, was my favorite player. Imagine my joy during the summer of 1961, when both the Reds and Yankees battled for pennants, eventually meeting in the World Series. This was also the summer that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris both chased Babe Ruth’s home run record. Reading the baseball news in the Lexington paper each day was a pleasure. By this point, occasional Reds’ games were telecast on one of the new-fangled UHF TV stations from Lexington. I seem to recall watching an important Sunday double header the Reds swept from the Milwaukee Braves that summer. Fan favorite first baseman Gordy Coleman hit a memorable home run.

            Back to the playing field--my high school years were the heyday of the Alton Ruritan Summer Softball League, held during the hottest part of the summer on one of the dustiest plots of land known to man. Sand Spring church fielded men’s, boys’, and women’s teams, along with Tyrone, Claylick, Alton, First Baptist, and several other community groups. Night after night we would gather to play on the grassless diamond, surrounded by loyal fans seated on hard wooden bleachers. The Sand Spring team was the best group of athletes I was ever associated with: Don Powers; Frank Stauffer; brothers Billy, Davis, and Larry Briscoe; Johnny Hanks; Ricky Hanks; Jimmy Hanks; and my cousin David Birdwhistell. Since I was tall and could not run a lick, I became the first baseman, where I did a barely adequate job. I distinctly recall driving to Harrodsburg to ‘Aggie’ Sales’ Sporting Goods Store to buy a brand new kangaroo hide ball glove. (Kangaroo hide was famously soft and pliable.) Occasionally pastor Louis Twyman would join us to play a mean second base.

            By 1964 I had entered Georgetown College as a freshman, and when I was able to have a car there, friends and I made many trips up I-75 to watch the Reds play at beaten-up old Crosley Field, which was in a then declining neighborhood. Crowds were generally small and tickets were plentiful–again, I have no souvenirs from those years. I’m certain I saw greats such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Stan Musial, but I don’t recall particular games. College also included occasional intramural softball games for ‘Johnson House’ and ‘Redding House,’ two where I lived as a sophomore and junior.

            Before and during college for a time I became a baseball coach. I first helped Jim Boyd coach a team my brother Ben played for, then took over a brand new ‘minor league’ team of cast-offs known appropriately as the Mets. Kenny Phillips, Billy Robinson, and my brother Ben helped me coach the team over a couple of years. By some quirk, our team ended up with Bobby Cecil Thurman, by far the best pitcher in the league, a shy red-headed kid who could also hit. He was joined by an amazing collection of 8-10 year old boys who were lots of fun. We won the trophy one year, I think. It was one of the favorite things I have ever done in my life.

            For my youngest brother, Mark, it was probably the worst period of his life. Because he was a big kid, I made him play catcher–a dirty, hot, thankless job, especially catching Bobby Cecil Thurman’s fastball! I’m certain he hated every moment of it, but he was a good soldier.

            After I moved to Southern Seminary in Louisville, ‘ball’ became less important. I still followed the Reds and played a little intramural softball--my personal property losses from the tornado of April 3, 1974, included my beloved Nokona kangaroo hide softball glove, along with my well worn baseball ‘spikes,’ which had carried me (slowly, to be sure!) over lots of fields and basepaths.

            My seminary years were the heyday of The Big Red Machine. I recall occasional trips up I-71 to always crowded Riverfront Stadium, one with my college chum, David Wheeler. And, of course, hours of listening to Marty and Joe on the radio. I watched part of the famous sixth game of the 1975 World Series in a lounge area on the Bellarmine College campus, where I was a very part-time campus minister. I don’t think any of the students saw my presence there as a ministry. On another baseball front, I don’t recall many visits to Cardinal Stadium, which had become the home of Louisville’s minor league team.

            In September, 1976, we moved to Drakesboro, just in time for the Reds’ run to the 1976 World Series title. Not much ‘ball’ in Muhlenberg County, just a little church softball and a memorably raucous trip with the church’s RAs to attend a Nashville Sounds ball game–what was I thinking??

            We moved to Georgetown in March, 1980, and suddenly I was in the midst of a nest of Reds’ fans. I played a little faculty intramural softball, but my ‘game’ had gone. On the other hand, Cincinnati was just about an hour away! But the Reds had fallen on hard times. In 1982, even with such stalwarts as Johnny Bench and Davey Concepcion, they managed to lose   Games. I recall trips to Cincinnati with Steve Cook, Wayne Moore, Dick Carlton, and Don Cawthorne, beloved Georgetown colleagues. One trip was to see Pete Rose, then with the Expos, go for his four thousandth hit–he didn’t get it. On another occasion Dad and I went to opening day to see Tom Seaver pitch against Steve Carlton. In 1988 (courtesy of Don Cawthorne) Dr. Horace Hambrick, Dad, Mr. Cawthorne and I attended the All-Star Game at Riverfront Stadium, probably the dullest such game in history. In August, 1984, I had a group of Georgetown BSUers at Ridgecrest, NC, for Student Week. During the day Tony Curnutte ran frantically up to say that Pete Rose would be returning to the Reds as player-manager. What’s more, the game with the Cubs was to be on cable WGN, which was not available anywhere on the Ridgecrest campus. Tony found a small dump of a motel in Black Mountain which got WGN, so, priorities pure, I rented a room there. Gathered in the small room, while other students were praising Jesus at Ridgecrest, we watched Pete hit a triple his first at bat, arriving at third base with a trademark head-first slide. One final memory: I once drove the blue BSU van to Cincinnati to meet Tony Curnutte and to see Pete get his hit #4192. Tony and I were joined by Sam (the Lamb) Oliver, who had no clue about baseball but went along for the ride.