"Who Was Your Favorite Player Growing Up?"
Part One of a Three-Part Series
The first of my favorite players when I was growing up was a relatively obscure player by the name of Bob Lillis. My attraction with Lillis began in 1960 or 1961 when I set eyes upon his Bell Brand potato chip baseball card. It was from a regional set featuring the Los Angeles Dodgers. The card itself was very colorful, especially for that era.
The photo was taken at spring training in Vero Beach the previous year. I can still picture Lillis straddling second base, holding his glove out awaiting a throw with a beautiful blue background that is as vivid today in my mind as it was 45 years ago. I loved the card so much that the two of us became inseparable. Me and my Bob Lillis card. Well, that's the way things were at least for a while.
You see, I lost that very card waving it outside the backseat window of the family car while my Mom was driving us to and fro. When I let out a cry, my Mom looked back and asked me what was the matter. I told her that the wind blew the card out of my hand. Like the good Mom she was (and still is), she pulled the car over to the side of the road so that we could retrieve it. However, the card was never to be found again. Well, maybe it was but not by a member of the Lederer clan.
My liking Lillis only deepened after he was traded by the Dodgers to the St. Louis Cardinals and then selected by the Houston Colt .45s in the 1961 expansion draft. Why? Knowing how much Lillis meant to me, my Dad took me into the visitors' locker room to meet the player who became the team's Most Valuable Player in its inaugural season in 1962. The handsome shortstop shook my hand, introduced me to several other players, and gave me a tour of the clubhouse.
Lillis sent me birthday cards and autographed photos with handwritten greetings on the back the next two years. Although I went on to favor Tommy Davis and Sandy Koufax during the mid-1960s, I always had a soft spot in my heart for the man whose baseball card I once latched onto and then lost.
When I interviewed Joe Posnanski (Kansas City Star) last month and learned that his favorite player growing up was another relatively inept infielder (Duane Kuiper), I began to wonder if it was more the rule than the exception to favor lesser-known players as opposed to stars. Who better to ask than a group of my favorite baseball writers?
Fifteen of the 38 respondents told me their favorite player growing up was someone who went on to become a Hall of Famer. One of those players was listed five times. Willie Mays? No. Mickey Mantle? Nope. Nolan Ryan, Johnny Bench, or Mike Schmidt? Not a single vote for any of them. The winner of the "Who was your favorite player growing up?" award is none other than Carl Yastrzemski. Dave Albee (Marin Independent Journal), Jim Baker (Baseball Prospectus), Jim Callis (Baseball America), Jon Daly (Baseball Think Factory), and Alan Schwarz (Baseball America) each named Yaz as their favorite player growing up.
I asked a talented group of writers, analysts, and baseball executives the following questions:
1. Who was your favorite player when you were growing up?
3. What do you most remember about that player?
4. Did you ever come into contact with him?
5. Do you have any special memorabilia (baseball card, autograph, etc.)?
Today, in the first of a three-part special, I am going to provide the responses in alphabetical order -- starting from the top with the letter "A" as in Albee.
Albee: "Grew up in Maine. Huge Red Sox fan. Carl Yastrzemski won the Triple crown in 1967. Red Sox fans still romanticize about that season. Yaz probably had the greatest September of anyone ever to win MVP. Lived about a 6-hour drive from Fenway so I never went to a game that season but everyone listened to games on radio. You could walk down a street and hear the game without missing a beat.
"I finally met him in 1981 when I was a sportswriter for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star and I went to a Red Sox-Brewers game in Milwaukee. I was so excited at the prospect of meeting him that I hardly slept the night before. I was 27 years old at the the time. Well, I approached him right after batting practice on the field at County Stadium and asked if I could speak with him -- and he walked right past me. Blew me off. Said he had to go inside and get ready for the game. I was crushed. That was my first introduction to big-time athlete looking down on small-time sportswriter. I didn't hate him for it. But I got a quick lesson in understanding how my business works.
"Don't have any baseball cards of him. All my cards wound up with clothespins being pinned to the spokes of my bike. Oh, well. They smelled good and they sounded good but they ultimately wound up in a landfill in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine."
Baker: "Carl Yastrzemski. My mother's friend was the executive secretary for Robert Lehman of Lehman Brothers and famous people were always walking past her desk. This would sometimes have benefits for me. For instance, she got me Eddie Rickenbacker's autograph. Rickenbacker's name doesn't resonate today but there was a time when he was probably one of the five most-famous Americans alive. Another autograph she got me was Carl Yastrzemski's. His business manager or something knew Lehman. It was on a paper placemat from a Boston Restaurant called "The Fens" if I'm not mistaken. It was personalized, so you can imagine the impact that had on a seven year-old. It made me a Red Sox fan.
"My first trip to Yankee Stadium was also courtesy of my mother's friend. She hooked us up with the Lehman box, which, as you can imagine, was very close to the field. So, she got me the autograph and then, the following season, put me in a seat about 20 feet from the Red Sox on-deck circle where I could see him up close. It's possible I would have ended up loving baseball just as much if these things hadn't happened, but you have to wonder. That was very powerful, formative stuff for someone that age."
Baker remembers Yaz's batting stance the most. "He would hold the bat up very high like Craig Counsell does only Yaz would get results. As I recall, several teammates emulated him: Reggie Smith and Joe Lahoud -- at least for a while. I didn't grow up in New England, but I would bet you there were countless Little Leaguers there who tried that stance and were chided for it by their coaches."
Jim never came into contact with his favorite player nor does he have any special memorabilia of him. "I have lots of collections of things but, after seeing pictures of Barry Halper's collection, decided that it was absolutely futile to even consider collecting baseball stuff."
Alex Belth, Bronx Banter: "My favorite player growing up was Reggie Jackson. He was so dramatic. There was such an element of excitement each time he came to bat, the feeling was almost tangible. He gave me the feeling that magic could happen with one swing of the bat. It was either ultimate success or fantastic failure -- as he lunged after strike three, twisting himself into a pretzel."
Belth remembers "the controversy" surrounding Reggie the most. "I remember feeling a strong need to defend him all of the time. I was really too young to remember the three home-run game in the '77 series, but I do vividly recall his return to the Stadium as an Angel. Ron Guidry was pitching for the Yanks, and I think Jackson had singled and grounded out in his first two at bats before smacking a dinger off Guidry. The entire stadium rocked, chanting, 'Steinbrenner sucks.' I was watching on our 10-inch Sony Trinitron at home, running around the apartment like it was the best thing that had ever happened."
Alex never came in contact with his man. "My mom took my friends and me to the bleachers for a day game one year for my birthday. My friend Michael wrote a nasty placard about Jackson. He kept yelling at Reggie during warm-ups, and Jackson finally looked up, acknowledged the sign and adjusted his cup. That's as close as I've ever come. A dubious encounter indeed.
"I have some of Reggie's cards, none in decent shape. I have a baseball with Reggie, Dave Winfield and Bucky Dent's autographs that I won at a camp raffle one year. My favorite book as a kid was 'The Reggie Jackson Scrapbook.' It's long gone now, but one of those things that I keep on the lookout for when I'm in used bookstores. That was probably my most prized book of my childhood."
Tyler Bleszinski, Athletics Nation: "I'm not just saying it because he's been in the news, but it was Jose Canseco. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit that now, but what does a teenager know about steroid use and domestic violence? He hit mammoth, massive home runs. His swing was violent, his speed was remarkable, and he was a dynamic athlete in a sport that isn't always renowned for athleticism. Sadly, we all know why those home runs were so mammoth now. It makes me feel like I worshipped a false god or something."
Blez would like to remember "the home run he mashed that almost made it out of the Skydome or his 40/40 season" the most but realizes "it will probably be steroid use now. Or the headbutt home run. He perfected that move."
Tyler never met Canseco. "Probably a good thing. He might've asked me to juice in the bathroom." Blez doesn't have any memorabilia of Canseco, but he has "a ton of Athletics memorabilia, from autographed baseballs to pretty much every stadium giveaway bobblehead they've had."
Craig Burley, Batter's Box: "My favorite player when I was growing up was Tim Raines. Three things stick out in my first memories of him -- he came up to the Expos in a significant way when I was eight, in 1981, during my first season as a fan. The first was that he was an otherworldly base-stealer (71 in 88 games) and just phenomenally fast. Andre Dawson, who played next to him in the outfield, was very fast, but Raines had about two gears above him and yet another one that he used to get his incredibly quick starts between first and second.
"The second was that he was a bundle of energy in the field and at the plate. He was a very hyper player and seemed much more athletic than some of the other Expos. The last reason, maybe the most important, was that Raines was a very small man. I was a small kid,
usually one of the shortest in my class, and Raines' success meant a lot to me. As time went on, and I stayed relatively small, it meant all the more, especially as he became one of the game's more feared hitters.
"I never really understood the drugs things until much later (I was a fairly naive kid in some ways). By the time I did understand what had happened, I was old enough -- and it was far enough in the past -- that I was able to forgive him. I have never met Tim Raines -- though one day I still hope to -- to tell him what he meant to me as a kid growing up. As for mementos, I have a few favoured baseball cards (especially his first "Rock Raines" card) and a little folded poster that came in a pack of O-Pee-Chee trading cards. But nothing else; I'm not a collector of anything except memories, I guess."
Callis: "Carl Yastrzemski. I was a Red Sox fan, and I remember getting a Kellogg's card of him in the mid-1970s, and the type was real small because he had played for so long. That fascinated me. I was also fascinated by him winning the Triple Crown and his 1967 performance and, of course, his unique batting stance."
As far as whether Jim ever had contact with Yaz, he recalls having "interviewed him once when I was doing a story on Red Sox prospect Jeff McNeely, and Yaz was a guest instructor in spring training." Callis has no special memorabilia "though I still have all my baseball cards from when I was a kid (unless my mom has thrown them out)."
Three for six so far for Yaz. Sounds like 1967 all over again.
Jim Caple, ESPN Page 2: "Willie Mays." As far as why, "Like you need a reason to root for Willie Mays? Well, because he played for the Giants, who were my favorite team and he was the best player in the game."
Jim remembers Willie's "basket catch" the most. "And this amazing catch he had against the Reds on Game of the Week when he crashed into Bobby Bonds. And how he homered in each of the first four games of the 1971 season. And how sad I was when the Giants traded him.
"I've often heard he's a miserable old man so I've limited my exposure. I've done some group interviews with him. I remember seeing him in the Giants clubhouse last spring or the spring before in Scottsdale and he was in such a foul mood that he gave an absolutely unapproachable aura. I remember thinking, how could this man I idolized possibly feel so miserable?
"My best friend gave me a baseball that Mays and Willie McCovey signed for him decades ago. It's one of the few baseballs I have signed by any player. But it wasn't signed for me, it was signed for someone else."
Will Carroll, Baseball Prospectus: "Ryne Sandberg. He was new to the Cubs the year I first started watching them on cable and something just 'clicked.' He was having a nice season and was always solid and steady, even then. Ryne always showed up and played consistently. He was quiet and even aloof, but when he was on the field, his bat and glove did all the talking.
"I was standing on the field with Jon Sciambi, Len Kasper, and Al Leiter at Game 6 of the '03 NLCS (The Bartman Game) when someone walked up next to me. I did the little 'Oh, who's this' glance and it was Sandberg. Sciambi says I went white as a ghost and I know I didn't say anything."
Regarding special memorabilia, Will has "some cards, a jersey, and home run ball #201, signed."
Alex Ciepley, The Cub Reporter: "I cycled through several players when I was young. Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, Danny Tartabull. All these players fell by the wayside, though, when the unlikeliest of guys was called up from the Cubs farm system. Damon Berryhill! I have little idea why, but he instantly became my favorite player. I just thought Damon was the coolest.
As far as memories go, Alex asks, "Damon Berryhill? Did he have many great moments? I guess he had a good at-bat in some random playoff game with the Braves, but otherwise nothing stands out. I do remember his stance, though. He had a fat ass.
"I didn't come into contact with him in person but through letters. I wrote a bit about it in a blog entry a long time ago. In summary: I sent him a few hand-drawn portraits to have signed (I was generally too cheap to send cards), and he always sent them back with an autograph. Once he included a nice note, which was one of the highlights of my youth. My favorite pic of him was actually a three-portrait card I drew with Mark Grace and Rafael Palmeiro on the same page. One of these days I hope to track down Palmeiro and get his signature to finish the card."
From the obscure (Berryhill and Lillis) to the famous (Mays and Yastrzemski) to the controversial (Canseco and Jackson), when it comes to your favorite player, there is a place for them all.
Who was your favorite player growing up?
Tomorrow (Part Two): Fred Claire, Jon Daly, Walt Davis, Sean Forman, Peter Gammons, Brian Gunn, Jay Jaffe, Bill James, Jonah Keri, Mitchel Lichtman, Doug Miller, Eric Neel, Rob Neyer, Jeff Peek, Dayn Perry, and David Pinto.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]