A. C. Haeffner
The following is a preface to a novel I'm writing called "The Judge's Game." As you might discern, I approach the subject of baseball seriously, and with great reverence.
By A.C. Haeffner
The seeds of this book were sown in the spring of 1993.
That's when Johnny Mize died. And when I learned of John Selsam's death.
Johnny Mize: power hitter, Big Cat, Hall of Famer.
John Selsam: baseball fan, friend.
I knew Mize's reputation; had heard of his feats. He'd scaled the heights before my time, but baseball legends transcend mere generations. Diamond lore is carried along as effortlessly as clouds by the wind.
Chance placed me next to Mize one afternoon, in the lobby of the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown. It was the year before his death, on his final induction weekend.
Neither of us spoke. We took stock of each other and nodded. Nothing more than that, and yet the moment stuck.
Perhaps it resonated because of John Selsam.
John, through years of bookkeeping service to Little League Baseball, annually obtained credentials that got us into the Otesaga - a stately old structure - throughout induction weekend. The hotel serves as the Hall of Famers' hangout during those festivities.
John grew up worshipping Johnny Mize. Selsam was barely a decade older than me, but in that decade had come of age in Mize's prime, had followed his hero's exploits on radio broadcasts and through the press.
"Ah, the Big Cat," Selsam purred that same weekend, after Mize had passed us in the lobby. "That was a great nickname; it really described him. He was so big, but so agile. You know, I should talk to him. I should tell him how much he meant to me. I want him to know."
And he did. He walked right up to Mize there in the lobby and told him. Shook his hand and told him.
And just in time ... for both men.
By the next induction weekend - the '93 ceremony - both men had been felled.
Johnny Mize. John Selsam. Hero and hero-worshiper. Two more names on the list of baseball deaths that is part of the litany of the annual induction ceremony.
For the Hall of Fame is a club of aging and old men. Death is often just around the horn.
The list that year was a weighty one.
First John Selsam. Then Johnny Mize. Scant weeks after that, it was Brooklyn Dodgers catching great Roy Campanella, a hero of the '50s.
A week later, it was pitcher Don Drysdale, a Dodgers hero of the '60s.
And then ... then I learned that Bubba Phillips had died.
Actually, his demise at age 63 came several days before Campy's, but not being a Hall of Famer, he went unnoticed by the nation's press.
I found the obituary 16 days after his death, along with a picture of one of Bubba's baseball cards, staring at me from a page in a weekly sports-collectibles publication to which I subscribed.
Of those baseball men who died in '93, none left me quite as bereaved as Bubba. John Selsam was a friend. Mize, Campanella and Drysdale were heroes of mythic proportions. But Bubba - here was a man who was both friend and hero.
For a young boy like me growing up in the 1960s, Bubba Phillips was perhaps an unlikely hero - a journeyman ballplayer of average height and modest batting average. He did little in the realm of extraordinary, but I - we - embraced him nonetheless.
I say "we" because he belonged to all the neighborhood kids from the moment he first came to my house in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to visit.
"Hey, Rich (or Don or Chris or whomever I called with the news)! You'll never guess who's over here. Bubba Phillips!"
"Yeah, right. And I'm Rocky Colavito."
The Rock was our hero up to that moment.
"No, no. Really. Honest. My folks met him down South, on a trip, right after the Tigers got him. They're like friends ... and he's over here now. Wanna meet him?"
And of course everyone did.
Third baseman John Melvin "Bubba" Phillips first played for the Detroit Tigers in 1955, and then returned to the Motor City in 1963, staying the final two years of a baseball career that spanned a decade and a half. He had played along the way with six minor league teams, the Chicago White Sox (including their trip to the 1959 World Series) and the Cleveland Indians. His major league service covered 10 seasons.
Right after his trade to Detroit from Cleveland in '63, my parents - while visiting old friends in Laurel, Mississippi (where they had once lived in post-World War II days) - were introduced at a party to Bubba and his wife, Martha, residents of nearby Hattiesburg.
In retrospect, I suspect that knowing someone near his new base of operations meant something substantial to Bubba. It gave him a point of reference outside of the game itself - a haven from the rigors of diamond warfare. And since he was living out of a hotel, it gave him the semblance of a home away from home.
At the time, though, I thought not in terms of his needs - only in terms of his presence. He was 33, I realize now, though such calculations never entered my head back then. He was so many things: he was a Tiger and a hero, yes, but also a play companion when we swam in our small, crater-shaped lake north of Detroit; a foe to be reckoned with when we played ball tag on the neighbor's dock; the source of free tickets to Tigers home games whenever my brother and I wanted them; and the husband of a raven-haired Southern beauty who held a puberty-locked, pimple-marred teen and his equally awkward friends in awe when she would visit my home with Bubba and don a - gulp - form-fitting one-piece swimsuit.
Bubba was also my mentor that first summer, teaching me the finer points of batting, fielding and throwing - an effort crowned by a scheduling quirk that allowed him a night off and a chance to visit on an evening in which my Babe Ruth League team (for which I patrolled left field) was playing a game. As fate would have it, none of the team's handful of pitchers showed up for the game, forcing our manager to turn elsewhere.
"Hey," said a helpful teammate. "Haeffner's pitched before. I caught him a few times in Little League."
"Is that right?" asked the manager, turning toward me with a pleading look. And indeed I had, and with some success - but it was a role I had gladly left behind.
You see, the difference between Little League and Babe Ruth pitching was multi-faceted. Increases in the distance from the mound to home plate and in the elevation of the mound itself were only part of the problem. The intervening years had also added wisdom and knowledge to my limited repertoire of pitches - and hence increased my awareness that there were significant forces (starting with batters and bench jockeys and concluding with my own teen-frail nerves) allied against me.
But circumstance warranted I take the mound that night. I would not have been a true team player if I had refused. Alas, I knew as the first pitch sailed behind the batter's head that I really wasn't meant to toe the pitcher's rubber.
My sense of doom was heightened by the arrival of Bubba just as the game was about to start. Seated along the sidelines, disguised by sunglasses and the anonymity that comes with being a merely average major leaguer, he puffed and then - extinguishing it - chewed on a cigar with increasing agitation as I tried mightily to find the strike zone. The harder I tried, the more I validated the hopelessness of performing for my hero.
"Come on, Chuck baby," he yelled a couple of times. "Hum it, baby. This guy's all yours."
But none of the batters were mine.
The first walked on four pitches.
The second walked on four pitches.
The third walked on four pitches.
I paced, dried my pitching hand on a resin bag, turned 360 degrees to the left for luck, sniffed the leather of my glove for inspiration, looked skyward to the gods, and glanced at Bubba for reassurance.
By that point, though, he was not a reassuring sight. Chewing more and more violently on his cigar, he had worked it down to the final inch; seated on the ground, his arms wrapped around his bent knees, he had started a swaying motion that, with each increasing thrust forward, seemed to be pushing the cigar farther and farther into his mouth.
"Ball!" yelled the umpire as my 13th pitch sailed high and wide. Bubba's head bobbed downward. He was no longer watching.
"Ball!" bellowed the umpire again as the catcher blocked one in the dirt. Bubba's rocking was picking up in tempo.
"Ball!" came the cry again as the batter dove out of the way. This time I didn't look Bubba's way. Concentrate, I told myself. Focus. For Pete's sake, get a strike.
I looked in as though the catcher's sign would make a difference, stretched to hold the runners on, and cut loose with my 16th pitch.
I didn't move from my follow-through position for several seconds, staring at the ground, wondering how I had arrived at this pinpoint of misfortune in a universe full of promise. And why. Especially now, in front of Bubba.
I looked over at him. He had stood, and removed his sunglasses. His head was bowed, but as I watched he lifted it and took a deep breath.
He looks green, I thought, but then dismissed it as a trick of early evening light and the distance between us. But my initial instinct was correct. That last pitch had not only forced in a run, it had forced Bubba into a convulsive gasp that pulled the remainder of his cigar down his throat. He was fighting nausea.
But even as he struggled to regain his composure, Bubba's eyes sought - and found - mine.
And he shrugged. And smiled.
The manager found another body to replace mine on the mound, and I moved to the outfield, atoning at least partially with an assist and a couple of hits. We lost, though, and if there is a scorecard of the game surviving somewhere, it will show me as the pitcher of record.
I seldom replay that game in my mind, however. An 0-1 Babe Ruth League career pitching record is hardly something to haunt me. If anything, I find it amusing. Very few people can miss the plate 16 straight times.
What stays with me is Bubba. I often think of the cigar, and of the shrug, and of the smile.
I had performed poorly, and it had upset Bubba's nerves. But in the end, the performance was of little significance. He held it against me no more than I would hold an 0-for-4 or a throwing error against him. It was part of the game. It was worth a shrug.
But beyond that - beyond the vagaries of a game played by young boys and grown boys, beyond the balls and strikes and wins and losses - Bubba and I had struck a chord had forged a friendship of sorts.
My hero was my friend, a man who could see past my ignominy, and his own nausea, and salve my wounded pride with a shrug and a smile.
By 1993, in an age of fast food joints, video games, action films and cable TV, there were few heroes left.
"Do I have a hero?" my son Jonathan asked in answer to my question. "Nah. I don't think so."
"What about Billy Joel?" his younger brother David prompted helpfully.
"Billy Joel?" said Jonathan, then a budding singer himself at 12. "No. He's not a hero. He's a favorite."
Yes, hero-worship requires more than well-grounded practicality. It requires blind faith, a commodity in short supply.
I don't think there is a youngster of my acquaintance who would, in this era of haste, look to a journeyman baseball player as a hero. To do so requires an appreciation of time measured in pop flies and ground balls and bunt signs and pickoff attempts and stolen bases.
It requires both an appreciation of brief but illustrious individual feats - say a Willie Mays catch of a Vic Wertz drive - and a knowledge of historical footnotes and pennant winners and players' season and career statistics.
Its requires knowing a Dale Long from a Don Mattingly, a Walt Dropo from a Bip Roberts, a Wee Willie Keeler from a Pete Rose.
It requires an appreciation of the flow of time, and of the natural ease with which baseball's measured and modulated pace mirrors it.
Bubba Phillips returned to his beloved South after baseball, and we lost touch with each other, though I heard that he had joined the athletic department at his alma mater, Southern Mississippi.
We did by chance talk once more - on the phone, years later - but little stands out other than the joy I felt in finding that everything was going well for him and Martha. It was the warmth one person feels in the good fortune of a friend.
And so when I read that Bubba had collapsed and died while loading wood onto his pickup truck outside his home in Hattiesburg, I immediately did two things.
First, I gasped.
It was a gut reaction to the shock and, I realized with great fondness, the kind of thing that might have forced a cigar butt down my throat had I been chewing one.
And the second thing I did was, I cried.
And with those tears, the seeds that had been sown with the deaths of Johnny Mize and John Selsam began to grow.
The result is this book - and the fervent hope that somewhere there is a league like the one in this story that caters to the particular talents of the Campanellas and Mizes and Drysdales and Bubbas after they leave this world, and offers a place where lifelong fans like John Selsam can continue to root for their heroes.