Whatever Happened to the Ball

I have given a presentation similar to this over the years. And the script has little to do with my book, Summer of Champions, other than some Roswellites are of the opinion that Little League success in 1956 was nurtured by what Joe Bauman accomplished two years earlier. And I really liked Big Joe. I passed his house every day on my way to both elementary school and South Junior High.  

     I have given a portion of this presentation to a class at the University of New Mexico Continuing Education, as a lecture at Oasis, and as a presentation to the Albuquerque chapter of SABR (Society for Advancement of Baseball Research). I've given briefer ones to Rotary clubs in the St. Louis area, Roswell, and Albuquerque. This version, the most comprehensive, was recently given to a Senior Luncheon at Sandia Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque. 

     What originated with me in the presentation is the story about Dale stealing and keeping and having the 72nd ball autographed. All the rest can be found in Albuquerque Journal archives and in the several books about the era. The book Bushleague Boys, by Toby Smith, wasn't published until late in 2014. It includes a great interview with Jim Waldrip that can be read online. Since most of my presentations had come prior to this book, I didn't have the Jimorabilia until recently. DJ

 

Whatever Happened to the Ball?

 

       An interesting story took place in Roswell in the summer of 1954, one that took more than fifty years to unfold to me. The story involves five men of note. One was a thunderous slugger. Another became New Mexico’s longest-serving U.S. Senator. The third, among whose talents was the gift of gab, became one of the first non-professional sports broadcasters. And the other two were pioneers in the business of collecting sports memorabilia.

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       Minor league baseball “went viral” following WWII. Dwindling to no more than 66 teams during the war, by 1949, four years afterward, the minor leagues had grown to 448 teams in about that many towns and cities, whereas the majors still had 16 teams in ten cities. Major league teams liked its fans to sing Take Me Out to The Ballgame; minor league teams brought the ballpark to the fans.    

       Initially, many minor league players were veterans back from the war. And, sure, they played for the love of the game, but they also played for however much money they could make, for the opportunity to make it to the majors, and for the prestige of being recognized as professional baseball players. These veterans were joined on the field by youngsters, players a few years out of high school, who also wanted a paycheck, prestige, and a chance to make it to the majors.     

      The 448 teams of 1949 dwindled over the next few years – most operated on a shoestring – but there were still more than 300 in 1954. My hometown rooted for the Roswell Rockets, a club that had blasted off at the height of minor league expansion, 1949. Named in honor of Dr. Robert Goddard’s pioneering work in rocketry north of town during the 1930s, the team played in 1954 in the Class C Longhorn League with the Artesia Numexers, the Carlsbad Potashers, the Sweetwater Spudders, the Odessa Oilers, the Midland Indians, the San Angelo Colts, Wichita Falls, and the Big Springs Broncs, whose fans, I suppose, perfected the Broncs cheer.  

 

The Slugger

      Joe Posnanski, who wrote a piece for NBC Sports titled, The Homerun Summer of ’54, and whose chronicle informs some of this story, reminds us that Big Joe Bauman was born a few miles from Mickey Mantle’s birthplace, Commerce, Oklahoma. And he was big for the times, a rather lean 6’4”, 250 pounds. He had served four years in the Navy during WWII, and although he had signed a contract to play major league ball prior to the war, he couldn’t make a living in the majors after the war. He was pumping gas during the day and playing semi-pro baseball at night in Oklahoma, when, of all people, a medical doctor from Artesia, NM approached him. We don’t know much about this doctor other than he made house calls in Oklahoma. Also, he prescribed playing baseball in Artesia for whatever ailed Joe. After some negotiation, Joe agreed to move to the Land of Enchantment and play in 1952 for $600/month during the season, (ca. $5500/mo. in today’s dollars), and he could buy back his contract for $250.

       Big Joe thrived in Artesia. He hit 50 homeruns in 1952, and 52 homeruns in 1953, the most of anyone in organized baseball those two years. Artesia loved him, but Big Joe was 32-years old in 1954 and concerned about his future. When a Texaco station went up for sale in Roswell, he bought back his contract, purchased the station, and debated playing the ‘54 season for the Roswell Rockets. The previous two years in Artesia he had had been hampered with injuries. He had obviously played well, 102 homeruns, but he didn’t feel good. Had he felt no better upon his move to Roswell, he would have quit baseball. He signed with the Rockets.

       So, Big Joe was having a go on a different team but still in the same minor league as his prior two seasons, the Longhorn League. After two years of playing against him, some opposing coaches would do almost anything to keep him from hitting. For not only were they tired of watching the ball sail out of the park, his batting average always hovered around .400. Coaches often told their pitchers to throw him junk because Joe didn’t miss when he swung at fastballs.

       Pitchers threw curveballs, sliders, change-ups, knucklers, spitballs, and anything else that moved slow and meandered out of the strike zone. He walked 110 times that summer and could have walked 200 had he not thought that his job was to swing and entertain the crowd with homeruns. Junk balls notwithstanding, Joe hit 10 homeruns the first eleven days of the 1954 season. Roswell fans were excited!  

      The question was, given such an outstanding start, could he beat the record? Babe Ruth had hit the major league homerun record, 60, in 1927. To beat that would be phenomenal, but THE record fans wanted Big Joe to break was the 69 homeruns hit by both Joe Hauser in 1933 for the Minneapolis Millers and Bob Crues in 1948 for the Amarillo Gold Sox. As the 1954 season began, the minor league record was 69 homeruns.

 

One of the Ball Collectors

       San Francisco-based sportswriter and historian Tony Salin was in Roswell in the spring of 2000 promoting his book, Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes. That night he couldn’t sleep – again, this is 46 years after the summer of 1954 – and so Salin drove to Denny’s to have a late-night snack. At the counter he struck up a conversation with a fellow sitting two stools down. Salin mentioned that he was probably the only visitor in town who had come because of baseball rather than aliens. 

       The fellow at the counter put down his spoon and said, “I too am in town because of a baseball.” He then launched into a story about his father, a successful Chicago industrialist named Hans. Hans had grown up in St. Paul, Minnesota and was a teenager when Joe Hauser hit 69 homeruns for Minneapolis. Hans’ dad spoke more German than English, and he would say to Hans, “Gut, Hans. Das ist gut.” Hans certainly knew what that meant, but over time he began thinking of “Gut, Hans” as “Good Hands”. For although he couldn’t hit the baseball worth a flip as a teenager, he caught it as well as anyone playing the game. It became a source of pride to him, and maybe a way of also pleasing his father, to be able to catch a ball barehanded as well as his schoolmates could with a glove. And given his reputation for catching foul balls and homeruns at Minnesota Millers games, it was a personal disappointment that he hadn’t caught Joe Hauser’s record setting 69th homerun in 1933. He had wanted it for his collection, which at the time was almost unheard of. A baseball collection? Why would anyone collect baseballs? 

        As the 1954 season got underway, and sports pages across the country mentioned that Joe Bauman of the Longhorn League was on course to break the record, Hans, by then a well-to-do adult in his late 30s, took notice from his factory in Chicago.  

 

The Slugger Again

       It was a Longhorn League tradition that if a fellow hit a homerun, he would be compensated in addition to his salary by the fans.  No one more so than Big Joe. As he trotted back to the dugout following a home run, fans ran down the aisles from their seats to the edge of the field and stuck rolled-up dollar bills through the chicken wire that separated the field from the grandstand. It was a Longhorn League tradition. Long before Clint Eastwood ever made “Fist Full of Dollars,” Big Joe would have both fists full of dollars by the time he entered the dugout. A bat boy from those days said that Joe never cashed his paychecks until after the season. He hit so many homers and got so much cash shoved through the chicken wire, or “fence money” as he called it, that he had plenty to live on during the season.

       And why was there chicken wire separating much of the grandstand behind home plate from the playing field? One reason, baseballs were relatively expensive. Teams operating on a shoestring didn’t want spectators making off with their baseballs, true even with major league teams. Any ball hit out of a Longhorn League park was still the property of the league. Teenaged ball boys were positioned so that in case a foul ball was popped up over the chicken wire into the grandstand, or a ball hit beyond the outfield fence, they could retrieve it. They were then compensated for each ball returned to play by Richard St. John, who ran the Rockets’ concession stand – candy or a soda or a snow cone. 

       And the fans lived for homeruns! Jim Waldrip, who pitched a couple of seasons for the Roswell Rockets, later a successful Roswell High School baseball coach, is quoted in the book, Bushleague Boys, by Toby Smith, as saying. “For much of the time I played we used a Macgregor and Goldsmith 97 baseball. Fans wanted homeruns, and that ball was hot. Teams could get a cheaper ball made by Worth, but that was a dead ball and pitchers hated it.” 

       It wasn’t just “Take me out to the ballgame.” It was “Take me out so I can see some homers!”

       It is unclear whether Jim Waldrip coined the saying, “Put your facemask back on, Ump! You’re scaring the kids!” or whether he picked it up from other players.

 

The Sportscaster

      Joe Bauman didn’t own the only filling station in Roswell associated with an athlete. Across town was Brookshier’s Mobil, owned by Tommy Brookshier’s dad. Tommy was All-State in three sports at Roswell High and then went to the University of Colorado where he played two, football and baseball. When he graduated from college in the spring of 1953, the Philadelphia Eagles wanted him to play football for them. He said he’d love to, but part of his support at the University of Colorado had come from an ROTC scholarship. He owed Uncle Sam two years in the Air Force.

       The Eagles said let us know when you’re free. He then reported to the Air Force, which, as it turned out, had no record of him. He phoned the Eagles and told them that the Air Force said to go on home and wait until they figured out who he was. The Eagles said, “Then wait here in Philly.” So, Tom Brookshier played his first year of pro football in the fall of 1953. The Eagles paid him $5500 for the season, ($51,200 today), of which he and his wife saved $1200. He had no idea when the Air Force was going to determine his status, but he had to have a job by the summer of 1954. Otherwise, he’d be broke. He and Barbara jumped in their new Mercury and headed for the Southwest, where he hoped to pitch for the Lubbock Hubbers. The Hubbers, though, reneged on a signing bonus, and so he drove on to his hometown and signed on as a pitcher with the Roswell Rockets. 

       It does not appear to have been a coincidence that Tom later became a pioneer football broadcaster, along with his sidekick Pat Sumerall. The man was never at a loss for words. John Shulian, in Twilight of the Longball Gods, writes that Brookshier roomed on the road with Big Joe and said things like, “If I told you that old Joe snored, you wouldn’t get the idea. What he did was he tore the wallpaper off the wall.” And Tom would stay up much of the night on bus trips telling jokes to Cuban ballplayers who didn’t even know English. They’d been sent by the Washington Senators to the Rockets for seasoning.

      Some of Tom’s stories remind us of what times were like in 1954 America. He said that in every town they’d arrive in to play, all up and down Mainstreet there were signs that said, “Closed. Baseball Tonight.” Midland, Texas had high class fans. The men wore both pants and a shirt to the game. In Odessa, the wildcatters wore only pants, and they had the biggest arms he’d ever seen.

       Tom also provided an account of one of Joe Bauman’s most famous homeruns. The Rockets were playing at Fair Park Stadium, which was next to the rodeo grounds in Roswell, although the two facilities did not abut. They kept their distance. One night Big Joe hit a home run that was still rising when it went over the outfield fence. It kept going until rodeo fans saw something bouncing rather than bucking through the rodeo arena, estimated to be 550 feet away. Cowhide was expected that evening, but not in the form of a ball. Still, the fans knew who had hit it. They stood up, waved their cowboy hats in appreciation of Big Joe, and cheered as loudly as the fans at Fair Park Stadium.  

     Tom Brookshier lasted four weeks in Roswell before the Air Force remembered who he was. His pitching philosophy had been, “If I can just hold the other team, Joe will knock in enough runs for the win.” And Joe rarely disappointed. He knocked in 224 that summer. Tom said that his time in Roswell was as much fun as he ever had playing anything. As a pitcher he had seven wins and one loss, which put him on course to pitch 35 wins had he been able to finish the season. But as he said, one day he was waiting for Roswell manager Pat Stasey to point him to the pitcher’s mound, the next he and his wife were throwing all their clothes in the Mercury and headed toward Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy, where the Air Force put him to work as an assistant football coach. It wasn’t until years later that the two realized they had forgotten to take any mementoes of his time as a Roswell Rocket with them. Didn’t even think about it. No photographs, no newspaper clippings, not even a sweat-stained baseball cap. 

      After putting in two years with the Air Force, Tom Brookshier returned to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he put in a total of seven years as a starting defensive back. He was a Pro Bowl selection twice, and the Eagles retired his jersey. He and Pat Summerall then went on to be the first non-professional broadcasters to broadcast professional football games on TV, and arguably the most popular pair of the 1970s.

 

The Senator

       The Roswell Rockets also played teams from other leagues. In July the Albuquerque Dukes journeyed to Roswell. A fellow named Pete Dominici had just graduated from the University of New Mexico and was playing for them. Earlier that spring, Dominici had pitched for the Lobos, going 14-3 and making All-Conference. Pete pitched that night in Roswell, and Big Joe hit two triples off him, knocking a hole in the outfield fence with one. The ball actually went through the fence some 300 feet away! 

      According to sportswriter Toby Smith, the Duke’s manager didn’t like Pete to begin with. Several blocks from the ballpark, he ordered the bus to stop. He stood up and said, “Dominici, here’s a five-dollar bill. Buy a hammer and some nails at that hardware store tomorrow. Then go back and fix that fence.” Pete quit the Dukes when he got back to Albuquerque and started playing for a local semi-pro team. But whereas the Cuban ballplayers, the ones who listened to Tom Brookshier’s jokes, hoped to play later for the Washington Senators, Pete Dominici truly did go on to play six terms with another bunch of Washington senators.

 

The Slugger Again

      On August 10, Big Joe hit his 54th homer, but complained, uncharacteristically, that he hadn’t seen anything but junk balls coming his way in several games. Again, he would have walked almost every time, but he felt that the fans came to see homeruns, and so he swung even at junk. And then, even though fan pressure was mounting for him to set the record, the weather didn’t cooperate. On August 22 he hit three homeruns in one game to tie Babe Ruth’s 60 homeruns. But the next four games were canceled because of rain. And the games weren’t rescheduled. He simply had four less games in which to set the record. As the season wound down, there were twelve games left in which to hit ten homeruns.

     In the next five games he hit four. Then, on August 31, with a huge Roswell crowd in attendance, he hit four in one game, making the total 68. To say that the fans went ballistic is an understatement. They shoved more than $500 through the chicken wire. And with six games left to break the record, people were sure he could do it. Big Joe, though, was not. He wasn’t used to being nervous when playing ball, and he could hardly stand the pressure.  

       The next night, September 1, in front of a charged-up crowd, Joe hit what seemed like a record-tying blast, but it hit the ten-foot wall about six inches from the top and fell back in the ballpark. The fan anguish could be felt all the way to Vaughn, 95 miles north.  The next game, September 2, was the last home game of the season. If Big Joe was going to break the record, he hoped to do it in Roswell, which would require two homers. He hit only one, which tied the record, 69. Still, the papers reported that the cheers could be heard two miles away in downtown Roswell. He received $1,000 fence money that night, ($9260 today), and the team boarded a bus for Big Springs.   

 

The Baseball Collector with the Gut Hans, Again 

     As the minor league season wound down, Hans knew that Big Joe had four more games to hit #70. Already on the road from Chicago, he arrived in Big Spring, Texas in the hopes that he could catch the record ball and take it home for his collection. But the Big Springs coach was determined that Joe wasn’t going to set the record there. The pitchers threw him nothing but garbage. Joe didn’t get even a hit in the first game, and the next day he managed only a single. 

       At that point he had one day left, a doubleheader at his old ballpark in Artesia. He told his teammates not to get excited. He didn’t know if he had a homer in him, the pressure was too intense. But before the game, the Artesia manager, Jimmy Adair, said to him that he’d heard how they pitched to him in Big Springs.  “We’re not like that here in Artesia. We’ll pitch to you. We’re not going to walk you.”

      Thus, according to Hans’ son, as told to baseball historian Tony Salin 46 years later, Hans caught the historic 70th homerun ball on the fly in Artesia, barehanded, that afternoon. Newspaper reporters interviewed him. He was excited. Then he got in his car, and clutching the treasured ball, headed back to Chicago. 

       But he had overlooked one thing. It was a double-header. There was one more game later that night, and in that second game Big Joe hit two more homeruns. Hans got so mad when he realized what had happened that he vowed to never attend another baseball game. The only ball that mattered was the 72nd homerun ball, the record ball, and he didn’t have it. He kept the 70th  ball but let his kids play with it. 

 

A Second Baseball Collector

        What about the 72nd homerun ball?  In 2005, I was at a Christmas party in Albuquerque. It was one of those gatherings in which I didn’t know many more people beyond the hosts. But a fellow knew that I had just published Summer of Champions, a novel set against the background of Roswell winning the Little League World Series in 1956, a victory not unrelated to Big Joe’s performance in 1954.  The man introduced himself as Dale, a semi-retired Albuquerque lawyer. He then said, “I have a baseball story, too, and since it happened more than 50 years ago, I think I can safely tell it to you.” 

       Dale had been a 9th grader in 1954 at Dexter, a town midway between Roswell and Artesia, and in the scramble beyond the Artesia outfield fence to get the homerun ball that last game of the season. Luckily for him there were two. He didn’t get the 71st, but he got the 72nd in spite of the ball boys, who when a homer was likely, raced out ahead of time beyond the outfield fence. There were several other boys out there as well, all who hoped that they could pick up the ball and run away without getting caught by the ball boys. Boys will be boys. 

       Dale was there with a friend of his. Their agreement was that if one of them should get the ball, he would run this way, the other pretend that he’d gotten it and run that way, all this to confuse the ball boys. Sure enough, when Dale scooped up the ball, he went in one direction, his friend pretended he had it and went in the other. But it was so dark beyond the outfield fence that his friend didn’t see a chain hanging between two fence posts. It struck him chest high. As he lay on the ground gasping for air, the ball boys quickly determined that he didn’t have the ball. Dale didn’t have the head start he had hoped for, but he ran as fast as he could, found an abandoned barn, and hid inside for more than two hours until he was sure the ball boys had stopped looking for him. Then he went home. 

     Year later as a lawyer, Dale assumed, worst-case-scenario, that there was a 50-year statute of limitations on the homerun ball. It could still be taken away from him. So he kept the ball for almost fifty-one years without telling anyone but family members. Then in August 2005, four months before he told me this story at the party, he asked a friend of his, Dixie, who had lived in Roswell, to get it autographed. She stopped by Joe Bauman’s house and told him the story. Big Joe was amazed, grinned, and signed the old ball. Two days later, August 11, Joe fell at the ceremony renaming Fair Park Stadium Joe Bauman Stadium and broke his pelvis. He remained hospitalized until he died of pneumonia on September 21. Had Dixie been two days later, there likely would have been no autograph.

      In August of 2006, a year after Big Joe autographed the 72nd homerun ball, the 1956 Roswell Lions Hondo Little League World Series Championship team was honored at an Albuquerque Isotopes game, the fiftieth anniversary of their win in Williamsport. I helped arrange the celebration and was there. After the game, we were at Coach’s Bar & Grill. I told the story of Big Joe autographing the 72nd homerun ball to some of the guys on the team, including Tommy Jordan and his 85-year-old dad, Tom Sr. 

       Tom Jordan Sr. had played catcher for Chicago, Cleveland, and the St. Louis Browns as a young man. New Mexico sports historian, Jim Hulsman, told me that, in his opinion, Tom Sr. was one of the best, if not the best, athletes to ever come out of New Mexico. But because he missed his farm south of Roswell, and because in the 1950s he could make more money managing minor league teams than he could playing ball in the majors, he returned to New Mexico and did just that. 

       So, I’m telling the story about the homerun ball that Big Joe autographed after 51 years, and Tom Sr.’s mouth drops. He looks at me and says, “And Joe believed that cock and bull story? That could have been any old ball!” Tom Jr. then explained to his dad that there probably was a marking on the ball, “Longhorn League”, that proved Dale’s story. Still, Tom Sr. was doubtful. Several at the table wondered what the autographed ball would be worth. 

      Tom Sr. then said “I once played in an All-Star game. I was sitting in a baseball dugout as close as we are here at this table with Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, and Babe Ruth. What if I had asked them to autograph a ball? How much would it be worth?”

       I said to him, “But you would have never thought of it back in those days.” And he wouldn’t have. It was a different world. Sure, there have always been baseball cards, but collecting famous baseballs is said to be how the business of sports memorabilia began. Both Hans and Dale were among the pioneers. Tom Brookshier didn’t even keep his sweat stained cap. Big Joe never sold any of his bats or mitts or the balls that came his way. And Pete Dominici long ago lost the hammer that he used to fix the fence, if he even bought one.

       Where would collectors find balls from the summer of 1954? The Baseball Reliquary has the short-lived record breaking 70th homerun ball, according to Hans’ son. You can see the picture online. The Reliquary affirms that the ball has “Longhorn League” stamped on it. Dale claims to have the 72nd, and it’s autographed by Joe Bauman himself. And the 71st ball? Maybe the ball boys returned it to play, and it got mixed in with all the other Longhorn League balls and used, rather than collected, the next season.

      The only item from Big Joe’s playing days that his widow Dorothy had in her possession was the bat with which he hit most of the homeruns in 1954, including the 72nd. She moved to Denver City, Texas to be with relatives before she died in 2011. I talked to her brother before she died and asked if the family had any desire to donate the bat to the Eastern New Mexico Historical Society or the Roswell Museum. He didn’t think so, but they’d consider it.

 

The Slugger Yet Again

       The story of Joe Bauman breaking the home run record appeared in every newspaper in the country. Reporters beat a path to his door, but Big Joe told them that he had no interest in going anywhere else or doing anything else. He played ball again the next year, 1955, but the pain returned. He hit 46 homers. He wanted to quit but they talked him into coming back in 1956. He played half the season, hitting 17 homers. His life in baseball was over. At 34, he devoted his time to running his Texaco station, and over the years switched to working for a Budweiser beer distributorship. In 1956 the Roswell Rockets folded. 

       Big Joe hit 72 homeruns in a season of 138 games. Today a major league baseball team plays 162. In 1998 a major leaguer finally hit 70 homeruns, Mark McGuire. That ball sold for $3 million. And in 2001 Barry Bonds hit one more than Big Joe, 73. But neither McGuire nor Bonds ever hit the ball through the outfield fence or into a rodeo arena, making Big Joe Bauman, without a doubt, the most exciting homerun hitter in the universe.