BY JIM RAFTUS
The bright orange roof of the Howard Johnson’s was a benchmark. This particular Ho-Jo filled the triangle formed by the merging of Routes 1 and 1A in North Attleboro. Even at 11, I knew if we were driving this far north of our Pawtucket life, we were heading for Fenway Park! The Green Monster, the CITGO sign, sausage grinders from the street vendors, but, best of all, Ted Williams at the plate.
We’d drive past Ratty’s Car Hop where, if Dad was feeling flush and the Sox won, we might stop on the way home for the world’s best burgers on buttered and grilled rolls. Your order was taken, and your food even brought to your car, by achingly pretty teenage girls gliding on roller skates!
Dad’s hulking green Hudson maneuvered its way through the curves of the VFW Parkway like an armadillo on a mission. Duct tape, secured by faith, held the tailpipe in place. We’d be fine until we hit the rotaries in Brookline, where Dad always managed to exit either one spoke too soon or one spoke too late. Never mind batting practice, we rarely managed to see the first inning.
On this day, July 20, 1958 — 55 years ago today — the Detroit Tigers, my favorite team after the Sox, were in town.
We finally arrived, parked the beast somewhere illegal and scurried down Lansdowne Street. A loud roar poured out of the old brick ball yard as we turned toward the entrance.
“I bet Williams hit one out!” I pouted angrily.
But the crowd noise was unusual. It didn’t quickly spike then fade. Rather, it lingered punctuated with new passion then ebbing away only to reverberate again. This one mystified me. My father, brother and I pushed through the turnstiles and jogged up the tilted, zigzag ramp toward our first base side grandstand seats. The noise was over by the time we shot through the tunnel and finally looked onto the diamond. Umpires were concluding a huddled conference as we found our seats.
“What happened? What happened?” I pestered the man in the seat in front of mine.
“Billy Martin spiked Runnels sliding into second base. All hell broke loose,” he replied.
We had missed a real baseball rhubarb! A bench-clearing, infield-dust-swirling wrestling match. I consoled myself by rationalizing that the donnybrook had delayed the game some, so we’d missed less of the actual action.
The ball-filled afternoon then spun itself out on a tradition-laden web of hot shots to third, 6-4-3 double plays and the rhythmic “We want a hit” chanting and clapping.
Too many decades and too many ballgames have passed for me to recall all the details of the game. However, the final out in the bottom of the ninth is etched as clearly as Catechism lessons in my mind.
Jim Bunning, long and lean, was on the hill for the Tigers. He was one of the best hurlers of his time and I secretly admired him even though he played for Detroit. Heck, in those days, the Red Sox never had any pitchers to root for. Bunning was on top of his game that day, literally unhittable, carrying a no-hitter into the final inning.
If this game had been proposed as a Hollywood script, and the writer cajoled the action into having Ted Williams stride to the plate with two outs, some editor would have red lined it as too clichéd.
But, that’s how it happened, Ted taking languorously smooth half swings for practice as he headed for the left-handed batter’s box. (He would hit .328 that year, with 26 home runs and 85 runs batted in, in 129 games.) I froze, paralyzed by torn emotions, my devoted loyalty to Number 9 punctured by my wanting to see Bunning succeed.
The two baseball icons dueled for a couple of pitches, I think, but can’t swear. Bunning whirled and tried to sneak a fastball over the inside corner past Ted. Williams uncoiled, powerful hips turning into the swing.
“Crack!” The ball resonated off Ted’s Louisville Slugger. From our first base side seats we had the perfect spot to watch the flight of the ball.
I didn’t, couldn’t, cheer. The crowd didn’t cheer. It was eerily hushed as the ball started on its parabolic flight toward right field. Al Kaline, the Tiger’s brilliant right fielder, started drifting back. The ball reached its highest trajectory and began the slow descent as Kaline backpedaled onto the narrow warning track. Did it have enough distance to reach the Tiger bullpen?
Kaline casually lifted his Spalding glove and the ball settled in the pocket. I swear I could hear the “plop” as horsehide met leather. Ted had hit it too far down on the handle. Bunning had “fisted” him just enough. After a moment’s hesitation, the Beantown fans, still standing, started a long ovation for Bunning.
The Howard Johnson’s is gone, Ratty’s has been boarded up for decades, and my father passed away 16 years ago, but I can still instantly recall the triangle of Hall of Famers — Kaline, Bunning and Williams — and that final notation in my scorebook: F-9, which in baseball scoring means fly out to right field.
Jim Raftus, of Cumberland, is a retired marketing executive.