My earliest memory of competing in an athletic contest was running in a foot race at some picnic; I kept running even after I passed the finish line until I came to a fence. Pop managed and played shortstop on a Hughes company softball team. The whole family went to the games which were in the evenings. On Sundays we went to see the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League play double-headers at Wrigley Field. For some reason I don’t know we preferred them to the Hollywood Stars. Gene Mauch played second base for the Angels, and I rooted for Steve Bilko to hit homeruns; one year he hit more than fifty. Before the game I would go down by their dugout to get autographs.
At YMCA camp I learned how to play ping pong. One summer I played Susie Sklarek’s visiting cousin almost every day. We were fiercely competitive. Sometimes when he didn’t return my serve, he would say, “Now you know I wasn’t ready on that one.” Generously I would take it over assuming I could still win. If it was close near the end of the game, I would ask him if he was ready before I served it so that he wouldn’t have an excuse. Mike and I played ping pong a lot. We both liked fruit, and once we put apricots, plums, and peaches on the table, and when we hit one with the ball we got to eat it.
At Rustic Canyon Park they had Best Boy contests. I remember I won a blue ribbon when I was small for hiking a football and knocking a tennis can off a sawhorse. I could hike, because whenever I played football with Pop, Dan, and Tom, I always had to be center. Kids got points for these contests, and at the end of the year the one with the most points was the Best Boy of the Year. I never went to these awards banquets, because I didn’t hang out at the park that much. Besides I resented that they gave points for running errands and doing work around the park. “Best Boy? more like best worker!” I said with contempt. Even this early I resented this kind of “kissing up” and exploitation. I think Mike Thompson won Best Boy one year, and Mark Holmes must have won at least once because he lived across the street from the park and was a great athlete. My earliest memory of Mark is him hanging around the park wearing a sailor cap. One day Mark set a new record in a sit-ups contest by doing more than 2,000!
Of course I played handball and sock-ball in elementary school. By walking to school early my friends and I could be up first in the big work-up sock-ball game joined by lots of kids until the bell rang for school. How exciting it was when a strong player, like Chuckie Sendejas or Rod Edmunds, got up and everyone moved back, and then they socked the ball over their heads and against the building! I played some softball in the Cub Scouts. All I can remember is my family telling me to choke up on the bat so far I was afraid the knob end was going to hit me in the stomach when I swung.
When I was ten I joined the Rustic Canyon Little League. I was on the Angels and wore an orange-and-black rayon shirt. The first day of practice Mr. Burkett put me at second base during batting practice and asked if anyone wanted to play catcher. No one volunteered. After a while I thought to myself, “This is pretty boring at second base. If I played catcher, at least I’d be in the action. Besides it would be a noble thing to do.” I liked to do things that I thought were noble. So I volunteered and put on the “tools of ignorance.” My brother Tom was a catcher and this same year had joined the W. L. A. Pony League.
I couldn’t hit very well that year, but one time with the bases loaded I managed to hit a fly ball to right field. Our little league wasn’t very good, and it was unlikely that anyone relegated to the outfield would catch a fly ball. In addition behind the right fielder the ball would roll down a hill. As I made it to third base the throw to third went wild, and I scampered home. Technically it was a triple and an error, but as far as we all were concerned it was a grand-slam homerun. Our whole team was jumping up and down around me, and our pitcher Robin Thayer said I had tears in my eyes. We won that game 9-8.
We had a good team when Thayer or Steve Hoberg pitched; but when the coach’s son Dick Burkett, who was only ten, pitched, I had to chase the ball all over the backstop. We played the Seals in the championship game. They had a big slow-running left-hander named Satler. He hit a long ball to right field. As Satler lumbered around the bases the ball was finally relayed to our second baseman Howie Reynolds, who threw it to me at the plate. I got the ball just in time to tag Satler out as the big fellow came sliding in to home. Once again I was congratulated, and the game was still tied 3-3, going into extra innings. In the 9th inning Mrs. Hoberg told Steve she would give him $5 if he hit a homerun, and he did! Thayer then hit another homerun, and we won the championship 5-3.
The next year Pop coached the Red Sox, and we got most of my friends on the team---Robert Gottesman at shortstop, Mark Holmes at first base, and Mike Thompson. He picked Barry Sears to pitch, because his father had been an All-American basketball player at USC. Mom told him to pick Brian Cheney because he was a good tennis player, and his mother was a champion. The winner of the first half of the season played the winner of the second half for the championship. We didn’t win either half but ended up winning more games than any other team. One game little Ollie McCann, who had a glass eye, stuck out his glove and caught a fly in center field to save the game. Pop called Ollie the fireman. I hit two homeruns that year and, according to Mom who kept score, batted .455; Robert Gottesman hit .457. I think I might have started pitching a little that year. I threw sidearm, and Pop said I had a crossfire. One time when I went in to pitch I advised the black umpire, “Watch the outside corner, ‘cause I have a crossfire.” He laughed at the precocious 11-year-old.
The next year most of our good players were picked by other teams. Mike and I were the stars of our new Red Sox team, and we alternated with each other pitching and catching. That year I got really mad sometimes when I didn’t pitch well. My batting average was only about .380, but I led the league in homeruns with 5. I remember pitching one game in particular after school when my brother Dan was coaching in place of Pop. I decided to try to relax between each pitch by looking at the oak trees in order to improve my concentration. Mike asked me not to take so long, and the other team naturally gave me a hard time; but Dan just asked me why I took so long and patiently accepted my explanation. It was really selfish and stupid to slow the game down so much; we had to stop at dark after a few innings with the score tied 2-2. Nevertheless I think that was my first attempt at meditation in this life.
Our whole family followed sports, especially baseball, football, and basketball. We would watch the games on TV or listen to them on the radio. From about 1956 we went to every Rams football game and some UCLA games. We joined crowds that sometimes exceeded 100,000 people in the Roman-like Coliseum. For several years we all sat in general admission; then my parents got two season tickets for themselves, and I would take a friend with me in general admission. Things like this changed as my parents got older and more prosperous. At first we parked on the street and had to walk sometimes as far as a mile. Later we just paid to park in the lot. In 1958 when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, that was a timely change. Soon the basketball Lakers came from Minneapolis, and Los Angeles was a major league city. In our house all these games were heard on the radio or seen on TV, and often we went in person. We saw Sandy Koufax pitch a no-hitter against the Giants.
Many of the earliest books I read were about sports—Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Casey Stengel, Warren Spahn, Johnny Unitas, etc. These were my heroes. I read Pitching to Win by Bob Feller. With nails and string I put a strike zone on our garage door with a 4-inch square in each corner of the rectangle. Using a board dug into the grass as a pitching rubber I threw a tennis ball at the target. That’s how I developed my curve ball. I was trying to throw a knuckle ball with my first two knuckles, and I noticed that the ball curved. Feller’s book had taught me how to twist my elbow and wrist and then snap it off, but this knuckle ball was curving by itself. With a hardball when I was 14, I learned how to use just the knuckle of my index finger to facilitate the snapping off of the curve. I knew that if people found out I held my curve ball this way, they might be able to “read” my pitches; so I didn’t tell anyone about this grip—not my parents nor my brothers nor my teammates nor my coaches, no one until I quit baseball for good. Only once was it in danger of being discovered. I was pitching in high school, and the third-base coach called out, “Knuckle ball!” Of course I broke off a big curve, and our catcher Wally Rosvall put him down by saying, “Nice call, coach.” Following Feller I also tied a ten-pound weight by a rope to a broom stick and would wind it up and down to strengthen my wrists and forearms.
My friends and I liked to play all kinds of baseball games. Once we started making a miniature baseball diamond in the back lot, but David and Mike balked at the work. My idea was that we would run around on our knees; but when we tried it on the lawn first, it turned out to be a bad idea—too hard on the knees. We did build a crude 9-hole miniature golf course though for croquet balls. This reminds me of another incident in the back lot when I was walking on the large branches of a fallen oak. Mike warned me that the wood might not hold me. Just as I said, “I’ve been walking on this log for five years,” it cracked and broke under my weight. I only fell a couple feet and landed on my feet, but Mike had a good laugh.
We played a game called All-Star Baseball in which we had circular players cards that we put on a spinner for batting. The circle was divided into fourteen numbers which gave the result, but there was no allowance for pitching or fielding. I read about a scientific baseball game called APBA Baseball, which could be ordered through the mail. My parents wouldn’t let me order it; but when I saw it come in the mail before Christmas I was especially good until Christmas Day that year. It was based on the statistics of the 1957 season. Pitchers were graded A, B, C, or D and modifications were made for more or less walks and strikeouts. Fielding was rated by the team’s total on fielding points, the more important positions like shortstop, second base, and catcher being worth more points. Two different-colored dice were used for batting in order to use the 36 equal combinations instead of adding the dice together. We got to manage the teams by choosing the lineup and the pitchers; we could call for steals, hit and run, and sacrifice bunts. Scoresheets were provided to keep records for statistics. By laying the cards out and not recording put-outs and assists I got so that I could play an entire game in about 20 minutes. One summer Mark Holmes and I used to play in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon; he got the 1958 season. I also got APBA Football. Later I ordered the baseball seasons of 1960, 1961, 1962, and some all-time great teams like the 1927 and 1937 Yankees, 1911 and 1931 Athletics, 1911 Giants, 1909 Tigers, 1920 Browns, and 1934 Cardinals. I spent many hours sitting at my desk rolling dice and marking score sheets while I sang along with my records.
I got a subscription to Sport Magazine and later the St. Louis Sporting News. I covered the walls of my room with pictures of baseball and football stars. Once when my parents had company for dinner, someone asked me if I wanted to do this when I grew up. Playing coy and not wanting to admit I would like to be a major league pitcher I replied, “What, you mean put up pictures?” I realized that my chances of making it as a professional athlete were small. For a while I thought I might like to be an announcer like Vin Scully who did such a good job for the Dodgers.
Even though it was farther away than the Palisades League I tried out for the W. L. A. Pony League when I was 13. They had eight teams, a good field with a fence around it, and even a public address announcer and a refreshment stand. Teams could carry over their 13-year-olds to the next year. Managers drafter their players until they had fifteen on each team. Since my brother Tom had been a catcher on the Red Sox, somehow a secret arrangement was made by my parents and the Red Sox manager that I would try out for the infield so that he wouldn’t have to expend too many points on me in the draft for a catcher. Naively I went along with this arrangement without questioning it. At school Mike Silverberg asked me why I tried out for the infield when I had said I was a catcher; I didn’t have an answer.
The Red Sox had won the championship the year before and lost all their good players except two. So that first year we had a young team that did rather badly. I did a little catching, played the outfield some, and got to pitch a little in relief at the end of the season. My statistics were horrible. As a pitcher I think I lost four without a win. As I recall in about 20 innings or so I pitched that year our team never got a run for me, which made it technically impossible for me to win a game. My friends laughed at me at school, because the official statistics showed that I had not gotten any hits in about 30 at-bats; but I know I got at least two hits batting left-handed. I was switch-hitting, and I had a clean hit up the middle and a drag-bunt single. In one of our last games I pitched about 4 or 5 innings in relief and did very well, but we still lost. After the game when I met my parents, I said, “I really wanted to win that one” and couldn’t help crying. They consoled me saying I had done well. Indeed some of our players were looking forward to next year saying I was going to be a good pitcher. In one game that year I accidentally broke an opposing catcher’s arm. I was batting with two outs and two strikes when Rusty Thaw, who was on third base, decided he was going to try to steal home. As he was running toward me I had to swing at the pitch, or else I would have struck out to end the inning; but as I did the catcher was moving up to tag him out, and my bat hit his arm. The umpire called catcher’s interference and awarded me first base.
The reason I wasn’t a good hitter was because my reactions didn’t seem to be quick enough to decide to swing in time or not. This also affected my trying to catch a fast pitcher. Once I was picked up by a carload of kids for a game over by the Mormon Temple so that I could catch Rick Cordova. The first warm-up pitch hit the back of left hand, and I complained I couldn’t catch him. So I switched positions with the shortstop, and Cordova was such a good pitcher that I fortunately didn’t have a fielding chance the whole game. So at the age of 13 I gave up catching. Once the next year I caught a few warm-up pitches from our other pitcher, and I asked our catcher Bobby Eyer if I was that fast; he said I was faster. If such a thing were possible, I wouldn’t have been able to catch myself.
Between my two Pony League seasons, many of the players on our team went to the field on Sundays for an informal game. In southern California we could play comfortably all year round. Our new manager was going to be Doug Sorensen’s divorced father, a rather obnoxious insurance salesman. To fill out the teams in these Sunday games, some of the fathers played, including Sorensen and Pop. I loved it because I got to pitch the whole game every Sunday. One time when I was in the middle of my wind-up, Mr. Sorensen called time-out. I stopped for a moment and then decided to complete the pitch. He stepped back in and hit the ball over the fence. He started running around the bases, and I yelled, “You called time out. That doesn’t count.” We had no umpire to settle it. He kept running, and as he rounded first base I threw my glove at him. Finally he agreed to take it over. I was so angry; I threw the next pitches really hard. After that he often referred to that incident to try to get me to throw harder. While we were arguing, Pop ran in from center field, and I asked him sharply what he was doing in the discussion. He snapped back that he was my father.
We had a good team when I was 14. Bobby Eyer’s older brother David had been in the movie Friendly Persuasion, but Bobby was more spirited and an excellent catcher, especially for a 13-year-old. It wasn’t until just recently that I learned Bobby was a movie star then too and had been in Dark at the Top of the Stairs. One can tell from the names what a melting-pot team we had—Mike Sargent at first base, Jamie Mazzotta at second, Tony Parisi at short, Reinschmidt at third. Doug Sorensen was a good centerfielder, and we picked up two Japanese-Americans that year, Terry Tekuda and a very short kid who often walked.
Like my brothers at that age I started becoming nearsighted. I got some glasses so that I could read the blackboard at school. The first game I wore them batting I hit a homerun. A left-hander was pitching, and it was a hit-and-run play. That meant I had to swing no matter what to protect the runner. I connected, and the ball disappeared behind the left-field fence.
Our main competition in the first half was the Orioles who had John Fischer, Wally Rosvall, Bill Brunsten, and Alan Bellanca. In the first game I pitched against Fischer I was just getting over a cold, but that was probably the best game I ever pitched. We won 5-0 on a two-hit shutout. Bellanca and Brunsten each got singles. I knew Brunsten was a good curve-ball hitter. After getting two strikes on him with fast balls I decided to throw a curve ankle-high and six inches outside the plate, and I did; but he still managed to hit a ground ball right past me. In our next game with the Orioles I pitched again, and we won 4-1. Nevertheless we were tied at the end of the first half, and they scheduled a playoff game for the morning after grad night. Again I pitched against Fischer, and we won 3-2.
That season I won ten and lost three. We played the Cardinals in the championship game. I usually pitched three-quarter, which is half-way between overhand and sidearm, but sometimes I would come sidearm or overhand with a fast ball or a curve. In the championship game Mr. Sorensen wanted to use a pencil to signal me to pitch an overhand curve on certain occasions. My overhand curve looked good from the dugout, because it broke mostly down. I liked to use it against left-handed hitters and the other curves against right-handers because they would break away from right-handers. Johnny Holland was a strong right-hand hitter for the Cardinals. I was doing well against him with my three-quarter curve ball, but with two strikes Mr. Sorensen gave the pencil signal with great emphasis. I didn’t want to throw him that pitch but did against my better judgment. It didn’t break off right and came in high; Holland slugged it for a two-run homerun to win the game for them 3-2. I think I learned from that experience to listen to my own guidance rather than the pressure of others.
I was picked for the all-star team that would play in a tournament against other leagues. Somehow they left off my friend Alan Bellanca even though he had the third highest batting average. Since the Cardinals won the championship, their coaches ran the all-star team. They wanted to make Holland a pitcher because he had a strong back; they even pitched Fischer even though he had a sore arm. I was called in to relieve him; but it was too late, and we lost.
I started playing football with my family in the street. I joined the flag football league at Rustic Canyon Park. At first I was an end, but later I became a tailback. I would pass the ball to Mark Holmes at end, and he would run for a touchdown, like magic. Our coach taught me to spin around so that with my back turned I would either hand off to our running back Stuart Slavin or fake a hand-off and roll out to the right and then either pass or run, which really kept the defense off balance.
In junior high school I played in after-school sports, but that was only once a week. We could also play some during lunch each day. In the eighth grade my daily lunch was jello so that I could play, and it also enabled me to save most of my lunch money. The bigger kids played in one game, and I played in another. In the A9-B9 football game I was a flanker and put deep on the kickoff because of my running ability; but the kickoff didn’t reach me, and the passer wasn’t used to passing to me even though I was open. In softball I got to pitch for the A9 team against the faculty.
My high school career began with B football. The B classification was based on height, weight, and age. The week before school began we had two practices each day with the coaches. That first season Pali High didn’t have any showers or locker room. We dressed in a small store-room. The first week or two of football in early September always seemed to be the hottest time of the year with temperatures reaching 100 degrees. At first we had four quarterbacks, but Rod Edmunds switched to varsity basketball and Steve Helsley moved to the weak varsity team. Scot Carter and I laughed how Helsley went from fourth string on the B team to second string on the varsity. Coach Stanfield seemed to think Carter was a better passer, but I was definitely a better runner. He alternated us at quarterback. Once against University High our center was pushed back so that he stepped on my foot; as I was falling back I still was able to pass it right into the hands of our slanting end, but he dropped it. Stanfield sarcastically commented that I had tripped over a heavy chalk line. That was the game our ends seemed to drop most of the passes. Steve Duke put so much “stick-’em” on his hands I don’t think he could feel anything. I threw six passes and completed two, but three were dropped. In the second game I was tackled on the first-down chains after a quarterback roll-out. The cartilage of my knee was torn, and I was out for the year. I became a kind of coach’s assistant and charted the games on a clipboard.
In the spring I pitched on the junior varsity baseball team for Mr. North. Like many coaches Mr. North suffered from the tendency toward sarcasm and an overly serious attitude. If we lost he didn’t want anyone smiling or talking on the bus. I went along, because I was very serious about baseball. I eagerly ran the laps and wind-sprints he required of his pitchers. Once when I was pitching batting practice, Rick Cordova threw a ball in from the varsity side of the field, hitting me in the back of the head. He and Tommy Hudson not only didn’t apologize but were laughing about it. Later when I was running wind-sprints in my red jacket I finally discovered that the liquid coming out of my nose was red. Mr. North said I could stop and go home. I guess I lost some brain cells on that one.
I only got to start one game, against Westchester; I pitched the whole game, but we lost 6-3. Mom commented that Westchester had the best hitters. Mostly I was used as a relief pitcher. It seemed like we could never get runs when I was pitching, or we were ruined by errors. In one game at Fairfax Pop noticed that when I came in I threw 8 straight strikes. Some of them were hit for ground balls. The shortstop David Weston made two errors in a row. On the third one he made a good throw to first base; but Dave Cochrane dropped the ball, and the game was over. At the awards banquet I was given the most-valuable-player award.
In the fall Mr. North suggested I take a weight-training class first period, and I signed up for drama last period. The first week in drama the teacher was busy, and we just talked among ourselves. I was a complete neophyte in drama and was given the small part of Witherspoon in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” About this time I was on the sidelines with the first-down markers for the first B football game. My friend Mark Holmes was the quarterback, but the main offense was Silverberg running the ball almost every play. Mark was passing poorly that day, and I thought I could do much better. I thought it would be a noble thing to join the team, and the new coaches commented somewhat sarcastically that I intended to save them. I dropped drama for football and kept weight training first period. It was against the rules to have more than one physical education class; so the weight training was called study hall. Trying to gain weight I ate three full meals and a glass of milk with protein powder in it twice a day for three months. My weight went from 125 to 126. I guess weight training in the morning and football practice in the afternoon balanced out the extra calories. I became the back-up quarterback, occasionally put in to try to save the game with long passes. Mostly I gained experience during practice, especially playing each opponent’s offense with the second string against our defense. Once coach Thomas put me back on a punt with Silverberg, but when I saw the football high in the night sky and near where Venice’s players were running toward me, I didn’t know whether to catch it and run or make a fair catch; I ended up letting it bounce. Silverberg chased it down, and I lost that assignment. I lacked the confidence, because I had practically no experience fielding punts.
In my junior year of baseball I started on the JV but was moved to the varsity midway, because I wasn’t getting a chance to pitch much anyway. I guess they figured I might as well be a relief pitcher on the varsity. I was brought in to pitch at University High, and Jim Bellanca saved me with a fabulous catch in centerfield; he turned his back and ran directly away from homeplate and reached out to catch it as it came down over his head.
That spring I also competed in B track for coach Paul Thomas. I played baseball Monday through Thursday and did the long jump only at the meets on Friday. I was consistent though, and against six other schools in our league I won four firsts, a second, and a third. Except at home where I had to jump against the wind, I usually jumped 19 feet 9 1/2 inches. Once at Fairfax I told my friend Scott Tepper to take a picture with his camera because I was going to go twenty feet that time. It was the only time I ever did, and the school paper had a picture of me setting the school B long jump record of 20 feet 1/2 inch. However, in the league finals several kids were exceeding twenty feet, and I didn’t even make the finals. They had improved, while I had already reached my potential. At one meet I entered the 220 yard dash even though I never ran it before. Silverberg told me he never saw someone so far behind. Once during baseball I ran the 50 yard dash on the football field in 6.0 seconds wearing baseball cleats. After baseball season at school I worked with coach Thomas on spring football in anticipation of being the quarterback the next season. We even set up an informal summer league of touch football, and I had fun running that pass-run option play. I preferred touch football, because I hated the blocking and tackling.
During the summers when I was 15 and 16 I played in the Colt League at Venice High. Pop helped with the league administration the first year. He praised the work of the new president Mr. Cohn until at the end of the year Cohn insisted that his son be put on the all-star team even though he was a mediocre third baseman. At the try-outs I connected and hit what some said was the longest hit. Mr. Sorensen, who was managing the Angels, had to use a lot of points to pick me in the draft. I think this was in recompense for the deception in the Pony League try-outs. We didn’t have a very good team that year, and I had a dismal season. Once I even tripped over my own cleats and fell flat on my face trying to field a bunt; it was that kind of a year. I told Sorensen that the major league pitching distance was six and a half feet farther than I had thrown the year before. We had a good catcher named Shafer who was a Don Juan. Corky Clarke, our best pitcher, and I once picked him up on a Saturday morning from the apartment of two girls. Mom said he even flirted with her in the stands. Ironically Alan Bellanca made the all-star team as a 15-year-old. We got Brunsten on the Angels; but his arm went bad, and he had to play second base instead of shortstop.
After that bad season I joined the Palisades Senior League on the Optimist Club team which still had several games to go. This league was not nearly as good, and I wanted to work out my pitching problems if I could. The actor Harry Morgan’s twin sons Danny and Paul were on this team. They were really nice kids. Paul was a pretty good pitcher, but he modestly said that they wouldn’t be needing him so much now that I had joined the team. In retrospect I think I must have been insensitive to his situation. Sports competition often had its frustrations and painful moments. Yet often jobs and opportunities in life favor some and disappoint others. Little did I know then that after I was 16, the rest of my baseball career would be filled with the frustration of not getting enough chances to pitch.
The next year we had a good team. We picked up a good 15-year-old catcher from Fairfax named Mike Minster and Richard Jaeckel, the son of the actor, at shortstop. Burt Lancaster’s son Billy had played in our Pony League. He had a club foot but could hit like hell. He would slam line drives and then hobble down to first base; he also played first base. Years later I think he wrote the screenplay for the movie “Bad News Bears.” He seemed like a terrific kid, and I wish I could have known him better.
The Colt League had only four teams, and that year we seemed to be evenly matched. The Stars won the first half, and the second half ended in a three-way tie between the Angels, Mounties, and Padres. A coin toss determined that we would play the Mounties, the Padres to play the winner on the same day. Our other pitcher was no longer available because his family from Beverly Hills was away on a holday trip. The league rules wouldn’t allow me to pitch more than seven innings. Sorensen let me decide if I wanted to pitch the first game or wait and hope we made the playoff. I chose to pitch against the Mounties, and we won; but we had to try pitching Jaeckel against the Padres, and we lost.
All through the season I was competing with Sandy Marx of the Mounties for the lowest earned run average. At the end I think mine was 1.18 to his 1.19, and I won the trophy for best pitcher. However, because Padres manager Benny Garcia said I hadn’t beaten their team he wouldn’t vote for me for the all-star team. I can only remember pitching against them once. That game started 20 minutes late, because the Padres weren’t ready in time. I yelled, “Benny, let’s go!” to no avail. I had warmed up for the usual prompt start and was frustrated by the delay. My arm must have gotten cold, because I walked the first two batters who scored their only earned runs of the game, and we lost 3-2. As a control pitcher I rarely gave up bases on balls. By squeezing the ball my fast ball would sink. I would keep it low so that it would be hit on the ground. Sandy Marx, who had a sailing fast ball, could never understand how he missed my pitches. He was swinging over them and at best would foul off the top of the ball. Also before the season at the tryouts I was trying to assist Alan Bellanca in learning how to pitch with the things North would tell me, like “bend your back,” “follow through,” or “push off.” Benny Garcia gave Bellanca more comprehensive pitching lessons. In a league where one quarter of the players made the all-star team it was rather absurd that one adult could keep the best pitcher off the team, but it’s just another example of how adults can spoil kids’ sports. Perhaps they were paying back my father, because they thought he had gone along with putting Cohn on the all-stars the year before.
That was the first year we had black players in that league. Wendell Cotton, a serious kid with glasses, played centerfield for us. One of our players quit and was replaced by another black named Joe Glenn. Joe was a modest kid and a terrific hitter. Before the awards banquet our players were discussing who on our team would be selected for the sportsmanship award. Joe said he thought I would win. I replied, “Me? I’m voting for you!” I overheard someone say that that had changed everything. I was very glad to see Joe Glenn win that sportsmanship trophy. When I went up to receive the trophy for the lowest earned run average in the league, the applause sounded especially loud to me.
When I weighed in for football my senior year, I weighed less than I had two years before and was still a B. We won our first game against Chatsworth 12-0; but it was embarrassing for me, because I kept dropping the snap and would have to fall on it. Again my slow reactions were working against me, and our center was rather erratic. The next week coach Thomas changed centers and the method of exchange to the way the pros do it; after that we didn’t have that trouble. I did throw a long pass for a touchdown to our flanker Pat Manaugh in the closing seconds of the first half.
In our first league game against Westchester I had an off-night. I twisted passes, and they tumbled end over end; some were intercepted. On a pitch-out play our pulling tackle got between me and the halfback, so I carried the ball myself. The next thing I knew I was running without the ball. They had a very good defensive player who had taken the ball right out of my hands. Needless to say, we lost.
The next week I found myself demoted to second string and replaced at quarterback by our star safety David Weston. He started the game against Fairfax; but after our first touchdown, I got to go in. I had a really good game, an.d I think we won something like 56-0. We lost to Venice but beat Hollywood. We won easily against Bell Gardens in another non-league game in which I rolled out for a touchdown and threw a touchdown pass to Sal Sendejas, because like Johnny Unitas, I wanted to keep alive my short string of consecutive games in which I had thrown a touchdown pass.
The game against our arch-rival University High was very tense. The game was tied at 14 as we marched to inside the ten yard line. We thought the clock was stopped with time for one more play, and I was going to pass to Manaugh in the end zone on a corner pattern. However, the official clock had run out, and the referee declared that the game was over. We never got to know what would have happened on that play. A few years later I heard that Pat Manaugh had died in a fire.
Our last game was at Hamilton. Our strategy was to run the ball as long as we could keep making first downs. I kept handing off to Bob Bayer and Roger McGrath, and we had the ball for the entire first quarter. Each time I came up to the line I would look back to see that our halfback was on the correct side. Then I would call the defense, whether it was head-on (“pro”) or gap. After I called it, Hamilton was shifting over half a man toward our halfback’s side, and I would have to call it again. The only play we had to run back to the other side was a scissor play. We won the game, but afterwards some of their players told me they were keying on which way I was looking. I said I looked to both sides; so I think their keying had to do with the position of our halfback. Overall we won five lost two and tied one, and I was voted the second-team all-league quarterback.
I liked Coach Thomas. He was intelligent and not over-bearing. I think many people underestimated him, because he was cross-eyed, having one blue eye and one brown eye. I helped him coach spring football at the end of my senior year, and he asked me to informally coach the B football players the last two weeks of summer before official practices began with the coaches. I had a good time doing that the next two Augusts before I went off to college.
My senior year I earned my only varsity letter in baseball. I was used as a relief pitcher and never got to start a game. I think coach Marvin respected me as a person if not as an athlete. He once asked me to take a windbreaker to his attractive wife in the stands on a cold day. During second period I tried to convince him that I deserved a chance to start. Once he agreed to pitch Duke and me in an intra-squad game, and whoever did better would start the next game. I think I pitched better than Duke in that practice, but he started Duke anyway.
That summer and the next I played on the Palisades American Legion team at the Sawtelle baseball field near UCLA. Somehow those games were not memorable for me. I can only recall one time when I fooled the batter with a knuckle ball, and one of our coaches wise-cracked that I should throw my glove at him. This was getting to be fairly big-time amateur baseball, but I guess I was just an average player.
The summer of 1966 I worked at Hughes Aircraft and played on their team with my brother Dan who was the shortstop. Once I thought of picking off the runner on second and changed my mind, balking. Dan asked me if I knew what I had done; I said yes, and he let it go at that. When it came to sports, Dan had the attitude of a pro.
At the huge University of California at Berkeley I played some intramural sports in the fall semesters of my first three years. As a freshman our little Herrick Manor boardinghouse did not have very good teams, although in football early in the season we almost beat the team drawn from the thousands of commuter-independents, losing only 13-7. I played tailback, running and passing. However, since direct runs were not allowed, I had to receive a hand-off before I could do the pass-run option. Against one of the commuters’ hot-shot quarterbacks I intercepted a sideline pass but didn’t quite make a touchdown. In defending against the pass I always believed that I had just as much a right to catch the ball as the offensive player. In high school football it was the brutality of the blocking and tackling that I hated; but as I always liked the passing and open-field running, touch football was really my game. I also played on the basketball team, but we did rather badly.
The next two years I played for my dormitory Norton Hall. After a while I replaced the tailback who had been running the team the year before. I think I played end before I took over at tailback. My junior year as tailback I was the generally acknowledged team leader. In one game I was going to intercept a long pass by Tim Washburn whom I had known on the Frosh baseball team, but my little finger jammed into the ball. The last joint was bent back the wrong direction. I went to the university hospital for treatment, and I was late to a rehearsal for my first play, “Cyclops” by Euripides.
I also played on the basketball team, but my roommate Mike Thompson was a much better basketball player than I. His senior year he played on the Pali High team that placed third in the Los Angeles city schools basketball tournament at the Sports Arena. He and I also learned how to play squash and did well on our three-man team.
In the fall semesters I also took a class in basketball Tuesdays and Thursdays, but being overly ambitious I signed up for intermediate-advanced my freshman year. After one of my passes was intercepted, one guy told me I couldn’t play guard if I couldn’t handle the ball better. I was too small to play anything else. For me basketball was a fun way to get some good exercise. I’ve probably spent as much time playing basketball as baseball—in the backyard at first, then at the high school gym on weekends and vacations and then occasional games with friends. I tried a little tennis too and liked to use both hands, using backhand only when it was hit right at me on the serve; this gave me the chance to develop my left hand. I consider myself ambidextrous.
My brother Tom had played on the freshman baseball team at Berkeley, and I followed in his footsteps. A bus took us from the gym up to Strawberry Canyon. We played other freshman teams in the bay area and local high schools, winning most of our games. I pitched several games in relief and got to start one game at San Jose State in very hot weather. I pitched the whole game, but we lost 2-0. I even got a hit, a line drive down the right-field line. I was thinking it could be a double; but as I rounded first the right-fielder threw the ball to the first baseman, and I was called out sliding back in. I argued briefly with the umpire, partly because it was a close call and partly because I was upset and embarrassed for being picked off; it was a way to save face a little. My inexperience on the basepaths had nullified my hit. We had a pick-off play which worked once. I saw the man on second had a large lead. I looked at our shortstop Ted Parks, and he changed the glove on his knee to the signal for a pickoff. We each silently counted to three; then at the same moment I whirled around and threw the ball to him as he ran to the base, and we got him. That was the kind of teamwork that made team sports a real thrill. Trying to be as dedicated and noble as possible I told our coach Al Kyte that if he needed me I could pitch again in the second half of our double-header at San Jose State. He smiled and said he thought we had enough pitchers. Mr. Kyte was an excellent coach and unusually humble. He once told us how in college when he finally got a chance to play he tried to steal second while the bases were loaded. It shows how competitive I was that I still didn’t take it easy even after pitching a complete game. I did relax before pitching though by laying on my back on the grass in the shade of a tree. This incident also foreshadowed my later meditation which I usually do in that position. I kept a record of my statistics that year; I gave up only two earned runs in 22 innings, and in batting I was one for three or .333.
The next year I played on the junior varsity, working out with the varsity on the large baseball field. I liked running wind-sprints with senior Rich Nye, an engineering student. Nye was about 6 ft. 4 but only weighed about 190. Baseball players are always trying to be witty. He said the best one he heard was once when he was pitching on a very cold day, and an opposing player noticing his skinny ankles shouted from the dugout to Nye on the mound, “Hey Nye, do your legs always swell up in the heat?” I don’t think I pitched at all that year in a game even on the junior varsity. Our varsity had the best pitching staff in the nation, but not much hitting. Nye was our third-best pitcher, but that summer he pitched fairly well for the Chicago Cubs. Our second-best pitcher was junior Andy Messersmith who had a tremendously strong back; he also signed a major league contract at the end of the year and had a pretty good career. Our best pitcher was Bill Frost who was at his peak as a junior, making first-team all-American and signing with the Giants for $100,000, which was a lot in 1966. In 20 league games coach Wolfman never once used a relief pitcher; they were all complete games by one of those three pitchers.
The next season offered a little more hope, but at 130 pounds I wasn’t given much of a chance. I remember pitching two innings in an intra-squad game with Wolfman standing behind me calling balls and strikes. I faced only six batters, striking out four. One hit a slow roller which Ted Parks ran in and picked up off the infield grass and throwing it as he did in a fine play. The other batter, left-handed Reboshatis, did the best he could on a knee-high sinking fast ball on the outside corner by hitting a line drive right at me. I knocked it down with my glove and threw him out. In two innings I had pitched perfectly, no one even hitting the ball more than a hundred feet, but all Wolfman could remember was that line drive coming right at him (at me actually) which seemed to scare him half to death. He was the oldest coach I ever played under. That junior year the university had shifted from semesters to the quarter system. I was cut from the baseball team at the end of the winter quarter. Sports, which was the pastime of my teenage years, had begun when I was ten and ended abruptly with my twentieth birthday.