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13 February, 2017

TIGERS VS. INDIANS, 1949, FIRST MAJOR LEAGUE GAME I EVER SAW

A prized gift from one of my daughters.
The administrator of a nostalgic "Baseball 1857 through 1993" web site recently asked followers for memories of the first Major League Baseball game that they ever attended and I could not help but follow up with a brief submission of my own.  For the edification of a number of baseball-follower friends who are in the habit of checking out my ramblings on Facebook and Wrights Lane, I thought that I would elaborate a bit on the first "Big League" game I ever saw in 1949 at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.

I was just 11 years old and I was so taken with all that my wide eyes beheld on that warm July afternoon crowded into the hard green slab bleacher seats along with some 30,000 other screaming fans, that I cannot even remember the final score of the game.  I do remember, however, that Detroit Tigers' lefthander Hal Newhowser was the winning pitcher in the game against American League arch rival Cleveland Indians.  The Indians incidentally, with player/manager Lou Boudreau at the helm, were defending World Series champions.  Red Rolfe was manager of the Tigers.
Tigers owner Walter O. Briggs' pride showed in

his immaculate stadium which opened in 1938.

He installed the most elaborate cast-iron figural

end seats in all of baseball. The rare ornate ends
included the symbol of a tiger as seen above.

I attended the game along with my dad Ken, Dresden Boy Scout Master George Brooker and his son, Donnie. There is a possibility that Bruce Huff also joined us, my memory fails me on that score too but I am sure Huffie will enlighten me in due course if he did in fact tag along (it would be just like him to even remember the score of the game). The Brooker's were like second parents to Bruce in those days.

The highlight of the game had to be a first-inning triple play initiated by Tigers third baseman George Kell.  The Tribe's Joe Gordon scorched a one-hopper to Kell who in one motion stepped on third base to force out Dale Mitchell and got off a perfect throw to Neil Barry at second, doubling off a sliding Boudreau.  Barry's relay to Don Kalloway at first base was in time to beat the speedy Gordon by a step.  It just happened to be the Tigers' 433rd triple play (at the end of the 2016 season, that total had grown to 709).

Kell also connected for several key hits and turned out to be the star of the game. The 1949 season, in fact, was by far and away his best in 15 years in the majors.  He won the AL batting crown with an average of 343, a mere 0002 better than Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox and denying "The Splendid Splinter" his third Triple Crown.

A young catcher, Bob Swift, was Newhowser's battery mate on this particular day.  Other strong arms in the Tigers rotation that season, belonged to Virgil Trucks, Dizzy Trout and Ted Gray. Bullpen stalwarts were Fred Hutchison, Stubby Overmire, Art Houtteman and Marv Grissom.
Tigers' George Kell

Vic Wertz, Hoot Evers, Pat Mullen, Dick Wakefield and rookie Johnny Groth were diligently spotted in the outfield by manager Rolfe.  While he did not figure in the triple play, shortstop Johnny Lipon was the infield cheerleader following the memorable fete by his teammates.

He did not pitch in the game, but I remember being impressed with Indians ace Bob Feller as he ran sprints and did exhausting exercise routines in the outfield during his team's batting practice.  I also got a kick out of watching an aging Satchel Paige, never a fan of physical exertion beyond throwing a baseball, as he sat on the grass watching Feller, occasionally slowly bending forward to touch his toes, then falling back on his elbows in a resting position for long periods of time.

The 1949 Cleveland roster was loaded with excellent hitters to complement a strong pitching staff, in fact a remarkable 11 players from that particular team were destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame, some kind of a major league record I'm sure.  The infield for this particular game included Mickey Vernon, 1b; Joe Gordon, 2b; Boudreau, ss, and Ken Keltner, 3b, with Jim Hegan behind the plate.  Al Rosen, 3b, and Bobby Avila, 2b, also saw frequent infield duty with the Indians that season and were difficult to keep out of the lineup.

Larry Doby, Bob Kennedy, Dale Mitchell, Luke Easter and Minnie Minoso patrolled the outer pasture for the Indians.  In addition to Feller and Paige, stalwarts Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Gene Beardon rounded out the mound corps.

Unable to overtake pennant-winning New York Yankees and runner-up Boston Red Sox, the Indians finished the 1949 AL campaign in third place, just ahead of the Tigers.

On reflection, I was so wrapped up in the Tigers vs. Indians game itself that I do not remember much else about the day and the hour-long trip to Detroit and back.  Little did I know then that in seven years time I would step foot on that same Briggs Stadium turf as a player in a Tigers prospects game. I would return again a decade later as a sports writer conducting on-field Press Day interviews with manager Billy Martin, pitcher Mickey Lolich and Canadian Mike Kilkenny.

Memories, yes I have a few!  I just wish I could remember the score.

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