Monday, February 14, 2011

A Batter's Eye View

By Rich Marazzi

It’s not unusual for guys my age to have a bucket list. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was to catch batting practice at Yankee Stadium – or any major league park for that matter. Since teams no longer have batting practice catchers, and my life is in fast forward, chances of me fulfilling my fantasy are slim-to-none.

I recently read an article about former St. Louis Browns bat boy and batting practice catcher Bill Purdy in Pop Flies, the official magazine of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society. Batting practice catcher? Before you could say Clint Courtney, I did my best Sherlock Holmes imitation and tracked him down. (Click on Photo to Enlarge)

Purdy, a retired high school principal and educator in St. Louis, grew up a serious Browns fan despite suffering through a dismal but colorful period in team history. A Knothole Gang member who often went to Browns’ games on weekends, he was one of the 18,369 fans in attendance at Sportsman’s Park on Aug. 19, 1951, when owner Bill Veeck employed Eddie Gaedel, the 3-foot-7-inch midget. It is perhaps baseball’s most notorious stunt that will certainly be resurrected in this 60th anniversary year.

“I was sitting on the third base side in the upper deck with a friend,” recalled Purdy. “Between games of a doubleheader against the Tigers, they wheeled a cake onto the field and out of the cake jumped Gaedel. The crowd was astounded. Frank Saucier, who was considered a rookie phenom at the time, was announced to be in the starting lineup, and I was excited about this. He was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the first and play right field. But when he came to bat, manager Zack Taylor pinch-hit Gaedel for Saucier.”

Tigers’ pitcher Bob Cain threw four “balls” while laughing through the burlesque. After Gaedel waddled down to first base wearing elf’s shoes and uniform No. 1/8, he was replaced by Jim Delsing, and Gaedel’s one at-bat big league career came to an abrupt end.

When the Browns last won a pennant (1944) Purdy was only 7 years old. The Cardinals, with marquee names like Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst and Marty Marion, owned the city. So how did he develop an affinity toward the Brownies?

“We used to play step ball,” he explained “We would use a tennis ball and throw it off the concrete steps. If you caught the ball, you stayed in the game. I used to pretend that I was George McQuinn, the former Browns first baseman.”

Born and raised in St. Louis, Purdy was a standout catcher from Little League through his days at Southwest High School. He hit like Johnny Bench but ran like Ernie Lombardi – maybe a little faster. He then played one year of baseball for Washington University in St. Louis before transferring to Southeast Missouri State College where the school did not have a baseball program.

Bat boy and bullpen catcher

Veeck, who purchased an 80 percent stake in the Browns in 1951, worked endlessly to promote his anemic franchise. After all, he had to compete with “Stan the Man’s” Cardinals who were tenants in the same ballpark.

In 1952, Veeck held a promotional essay contest in search of a bat boy for the St. Louis Browns. The winner was 14-year-old Bill Purdy. Not only was he selected to be the club’s bat boy, he won $500 and his parents were given a season pass. And in classic Veeckian style, any of the 2,500 students at Southwest High School could attend one game for free on May 17. Those who did attend saw the Browns rally for two runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat Mel Parnell and the Red Sox 2-1.

Purdy now had rock star status among his peers. Like the movie title that year starring Dan Dailey, Dizzy Dean and Joanne Dru, he was “The Pride of St. Louis” among his classmates. And thanks to an understanding school principal who was a baseball fan, he was able to get out of school for the few day games that were played.

The year 1952 was an unforgettable one for the 14-year-old bat boy and batting practice catcher. It was the beginning of the Eisenhower years, Kay Starr sang “Wheel of Fortune” and Topps printed its Cadillac 407-card set.

“My first year I was a bat boy and batting practice catcher,” said Purdy. “In ’53, the final season for the Browns in St. Louis, I was exclusively a batting practice and bullpen catcher.

“I assume the regular catchers, Les Moss and Clint Courtney, didn’t want to do it. Catching was a tough job and the St. Louis heat can take a lot out of you. Coaches Bob Scheffing and Bill Norman were very good to me. I remember Eddie Olsen, who played hockey for the St. Louis Flyers minor league team, often threw batting practice. In the bullpen, I warmed-up legends like Satchel Paige, Virgil Trucks, Harry “The Cat” Brecheen, Don Larsen, Bob Turley, Ned Garver and Tommy Byrne. I had no problem catching them.”

Veeck had a penchant for signing former Cardinals. Brecheen, who spent most of his prominent 133-92 career with the Redbirds, beat the Red Sox three times in the 1946 World Series. He pitched the final season of his career for the Browns. “The Cat” made 16 starts and came out of the bullpen 10 times, going 5-13. And would you believe his favorite bullpen catcher was the young Purdy?

“For whatever reason, one day I warmed up Harry before a game and he won,” Purdy said. “After that he wouldn’t allow any one else to warm him up.”

Purdy was especially close to Paige, the ageless Hall of Fame right-hander who spent most of his career in the Negro leagues.

“He lived in the Adams Hotel at the corner of Pendleton and Olive Streets,” Purdy said.“It was a segregated hotel about two blocks from my father’s restaurant, The Rex Café. My father would pick us up after a road trip and Satchel would often dine there. This was a time when many restaurants and hotels were segregated. My dad’s place was opened 24/7 to everyone, and celebrities such as President Harry Truman, Jimmy Durante, Jane Wyman, Kirk Douglas, wrestler “Gorgeous George,” Harry Caray and others ate there. Part of the movie The Glass Menagerie was filmed outside the restaurant.”

Purdy’s friendship with Paige grew from all this. Their close relationship would impact Purdy’s life.

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