My Turn: This foul ball is a home run
When I was younger, I was lucky to have caught two balls while sitting in the stands. The more recent story has a sad ending to it, so I will tell that one first.
When I was a student at Northeastern University in Boston, one of my dormitory brothers asked me to go to a Boston Patriots-Houston Oilers football game at Fenway Park. This was in 1967, when these two teams were still part of the American Football League.
We could only afford the cheapest seats, which put us behind one of the goalposts. If we were lucky, some of the play would occur at our end of the field.
This particular game was an offensive battle, ending in a 42-42 tie. That means that there were 12 balls kicked for PATs (points after touchdown). This was before they installed the end zone nets to stop the balls from going into the stands.
After one of the last touchdowns had been scored, I hopped over a fence and stood on the bullpen roof in front of quite a few big guys. The plan was for me to catch a ball and throw it to one of my friends who were sitting about 15 rows back.
It seemed like a slow-motion dream as I caught the ball, spun around and heaved it to my buddy. Who could have imagined that George Blanda, the Houston kicker, would go on to be the National Football League's all-time leading scorer?
When we got back to the dorm, I wrote the date and score on the ball, and on my first trip back to Long Island, I stashed the ball in my bedroom closet.
Years later, I ran over my nephew's football. He started crying and I went home, got the George Blanda ball and gave it to him. Never realizing its value, he and his two brothers played with the ball, and it disappeared from my life, forever.
But years earlier, there was a much happier ending to another sports memory.
On Oct. 12, 1958, my father took me to a postseason Mickey Mantle / Willie Mays Charity All-Star baseball game. All of the kids in my neighborhood had favorite players; mine was Mickey Mantle. In Little League that year, I even got to wear uniform No. 7, Mickey's number.
We had good seats at Yankee Stadium, about 10 rows behind third base. I got what I thought would be the biggest thrill of my life, catching a foul ball during batting practice.
My father had played semipro baseball with Frank Sollazzo, the third-base umpire. Dad asked me for the ball, which I reluctantly gave him, and he called out, "Hey, Slats," Sollazzo's nickname when they were kids.
When he heard my father's voice, the umpire waved my father over to the third-base railing to shake hands. After a quick hello, my father asked Sollazzo if he could get me an autograph on the ball I caught. I watched as the ump put the ball in his pocket.
As the third or fourth inning ended, I watched Sollazzo hand the ball to Frank Thomas, who was playing third base for Willie Mays' team. Thomas took the ball into the dugout, and the following inning he handed the ball back to the ump.
After the fifth or sixth inning ended, Sollazzo gave the ball to Frank Malzone, the third baseman for Mickey Mantle's team. Malzone took the ball into the dugout and, after that half of the inning ended, brought the ball back and handed it back to the ump. I was so excited I could barely watch the game.
As the game ended, Sollazzo called my father over to the railing and handed him the ball. On the ball were the signatures of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Gil Hodges, Rocky Colavito, Nellie Fox, Jim Gilliam, Ernie Banks and 10 other All-Stars.
My father knew better than to let me have the ball when I was 12 years old. He stashed it away in a hiding place where it would be safe from me until I was old enough to know what I had.
It must have been more than 10 years -- long after I had forgotten about the ball -- when he took it out of hiding. Dad was right: This baseball became one of my most valuable possessions. It is hard to believe that I have had this treasure for almost 53 years. Whenever I look at the ball, it brings back the memory of one of the best days of my life.