Sharing with you things that are on my mind...Maybe yours too. Come back to Wrights Lane for a visit anytime!

09 February, 2010

MY "BEST" SPORTS MEMORIES

The Russan scoreboard said it all.
My friend Larry S. Balkwill in Chatham has asked me to list  my "10 best sporting memories and the five best involving me".  That was quite a challenge, but here goes. 

1. Team Canada's 6-5 defeat of the Russians in the final game of the world hockey summit classic in 1972.  The Canadian side staged a remarkable come-from-behind victory on the strength of Paul Henderson's goal with 34 seconds remaining in the championship game played on Russian ice.  The jubilation that erupted coast-to-coast in Canada was unprecedented and has never been equalled.

2. New York Yankee's Don Larsen pitching a perfect game (27 up, 27 down) in the World Series of 1956.  Larsen, never a standout, bested mound opponent Sal Maglie of the New York Giants by a score of 2-0. I will never forget seeing the game in black and white on TV and sitting spell-bound as catcher Yogi Berra lept into Larsen's arms at the conclusion of the game.  A once-in-a-liftetime experience, for sure.

3. Bobby Thompson's "shot that was heard around the world".  Thompson homered off Brooklyn Dodgers' Ralph Branca in a game played at the old Polo Grounds in 1951 to give the New York Giants the National League pennant, two games to one.  The blast is still thought of as the most dramatic in the history of major league baseball.  The Giants went on to face the New York Yankees in the World Series and I am the proud possessor of an official scorebook from  that "subway" series, a collector's item if there ever was one.

4. England's Roger Bannister running the world's first four-minute mile, May 6, 1954, on a track at Oxford University.  Roger's time of three minutes, 54.4 seconds was soon eclipsed by Aussie John Landry but nothing could exceed the excitement of that first four-minute mile that for generations was thought to be humanly impossible.

5. "Broadway" Joe Namath quarterbacking the New York Jets to a stunning 16-7 upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in 1968.  Even more remarkable was the fact that against all odds Namath "guaranteed" the victory in an interview the day before the big game.  I always enjoy underdog upset stories and this is one of the best for me.

6. Following close behind the story of Namath and his Giants is the tale of the "Miracle" New York Mets of 1969 who prevailed over the Baltimore Orioles in five games to accomplish one of the greatest upsets in World Series history.  The Orioles that year were considered to be one of the finest baseball teams ever while the Gil Hodges-managed Mets had risen from the depth of mediocrity to finish with the team's first-ever winning season.  They still talk about them Mets.

7.  The Dave Dravecki Story, simply because it epitomizes bravery and sheer will in the face of personal hardship.  The story of this promising San Francisco Giants pitcher stands out as one of the great sports comebacks of all time.  When his doctors removed a cancerous tumor from his pitching arm in October of 1988, they removed muscle as well and gave him zero chances of pitching again.  On August 10, 1989, he pitched again and won  -- a shutout against the Cincinnati Reds.  Five days later, he pitched again and won, but in the process broke the understandably weakened arm.  I remember watching the game on television and hearing the sickening "pop" of Dave's arm as he delivered a fastball in the sixth inning of a game against the Montreal Expos.  He was determined to stay in baseball but after two subsequent surgeries his left pitching arm continued to deteriorate and was eventually amputated along with a portion of his shoulder. 

Through all of the hardship, Dave was as determined to talk about his Christian faith as he was to overcome his injuries.  "It's been such an exciting experience -- being able to tell what God has done in my life through this ordeal," he has been quoted as saying.  Never has there been a story of such determination and faith in the face of diversity.  Dave Dravecky has become a rallying symbol for cancer patients as well as young and old alike, baseball fans or not.
Sorry Larry, I just can't come up with any other memories to equal those.  Everything else seems to pale by comparison.

As for sports memories involving me, I guess I could say that (1) winning Ontario Baseball Association championships in 1953, 1967 and 1969 would rank very high on the list as would (2) interviewing Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin and pitcher Mickey Lolich in the span of a half hour during a media day in 1969.  Also had a memorable interview with Punch Imlach of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1964 just after he had lifted one of his frequent press bans and another with Andy Bathgate following the Leafs' Stanley Cup victory that same year. (Andy had just invested in an apartment building in Brampton, soon to be named "Maple Leaf Towers".) 

I remember too, (3) hitting a two-run home run in Tiger Stadium during a prospects game in 1957 and (4) pitching to Mickey Mantle in a 1956 spring training exhibition game between Washington Senators  and New York Yankees "B" teams.  Mickey was recovering from a shoulder injury that spring and came in to pinch-hit in the fifth inning.  He hit a towering foul ball that was eventually caught by my catcher.  In the vernacular of the day, his popup "would have been a homerun in an elevator shaft".  Certainly qualifies as one of my claims to fame. 

Then there was the time (5) in 1966 when I drank orange juice with Bobby Orr, then 19, in the lounge of the Holiday Inn, Brantford, while other dignitaries downed cocktails prior to a Sports Celebrity Banquet.  Bobby talked about how awkward he felt as a minor in the many social events he was required to attend but alluded to his ease in the dressing room of the Boston Bruins with such established teammate veterans as Johnny Bucyk, Glen Sather, Ted Green, Ed Westfall and Ron Stewart, all of whom went out of their way to make him feel comfortable in his first season in the NHL.  

One of my "best" sports memories (6) is somewhat bittersweet.  In 1962 Jackie Gordon, then general manager of the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League, asked me to cover his fall training camp in St. Thomas for the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.  My special memory came when I accompanied Jackie and Barons Coach Fred Glover on a trip to Windsor for an exhibition game.  Enroute, we picked up a young player prospect at the London Airport by the name of Bill Mastertson.

Mastertson, as it turned out, had led the University of Denver Pioneers to NCAA titles in 1960 and '61 and the game in Windsor would be his first as a professional.  He immediately impressed me as down-to-earth, clean-cut and very articulate. 

Bill turned in an impressive 62-63 season with the Barons in the AHL but applied for amateur status the following year in order to join the American Olympic hockey team.  An up-and-coming business executive with a masters degree, he returned to pro ranks after NHL expansion and as a 29-year-old rookie centre with Minnesota North Stars on January 15, 1968, he fell backward after a check in a game against the Oakland Seals, striking his head on the ice. He died of his injury in hospital the next day.  The hockey world was in total shock. Bill's untimely death however, gave impetus to the hockey helmet lobby.

In recognition of his impeccable character, the NHL was quick to introduce the Bill Mastertson Trophy.  It is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverence, sportsmanship and dedication and is often given to a player who has made a comeback from a serious illness or injury. 

It was an honor for me to have met Bill Mastertson and to have chatted with him for a couple of hours in the back seat of Jackie Gordon's car on the way to a hockey game in Windsor almost 50 years ago.

So there you have it Larry, for what it's worth.

2 comments:

Joe said...

Well done Dick! Really liked reading that, especially enjoyed the account of your personal stories. I'm really happy Larry requested that of you, it was truly an enjoyable read, and now I'm further enlightened about your past. Thanks for that!

Michael Langlois said...

Dick, it would take a long time to write enough to do justice to this post. Wonderful stuff, from Bannister to Dravecky, the Amazing Mets and Broadway Joe, not to mention interviweing some baseball greats. Hitting a home run at Tiger Stadium had to be a thrill (I'n guessing you didn't clear the rook in left field!). Pitching to "The Mick", what a memory! And touching reflection on meeting Bill Masterton. Great piece. Thanks. Michael Langlois, Vintage Leaf, http://vintageleafmemories.blogspot.com