Curves [Top of the 1st Inning]
The visiting Tigers go 1 – 2 – 3 in the top of the 1st inning. Three batters up; three outs; side retired. Early Wynn, the Sox pitcher, is painting the corners with a nice mix of pitches. Nothing comes right over the plate. His curve ball looks like it’s coming over, but suddenly dips and bends outside, impossible to reach with the bat. “Lay off that curve ball,” the first Detroit batter tells his teammates returning to the dugout after striking out. Early is trying not to throw the ball over the plate!
Detroit’s second batter saunters to the plate and peers down to his third base coach expecting to get the take sign – an order from the manager not to swing at the first pitch. Sherm Lollar, the Sox catcher, anticipates this and gives the sign to Early to throw a fastball over the plate. “Steee-rike one,” says the ump, raising his right hand for the fans to see the call. Before the game Sherm has studied all the habits of the enemy batters and knows which ones are first pitch swingers, which like ‘em high, which like ‘em low, who is a sucker for the curve ball, etc.
Sherm is a hero of mine as well. The ‘59 White Sox were known as “The Hitless Wonders” and Sherm was their only home run hitter, hitting the ball out of the park a modest 22 times in the 154 game season. We’d heard he’d moved into our town. Excitedly, me and some friends bike the six blocks to his house. The mom, I mean Sherm’s wife, answers the door and says Sherm will be home around six. We’re all there when he arrives and he takes the time to sign each of our Sherm Lollar baseball cards as well as ask what positions we play. I tell Sherm I am practicing to be a catcher just like him. When I can’t find anyone to play with, I take my catcher’s mitt, a tennis racquet and a tennis ball out into the street and hit myself pop-ups.
Back at the game with my Dad, there are now two outs and Al Kaline strolls to the plate, one of baseball’s all-time best hitters. Sherm signals for the outside curve. Early shakes him off – it is a pitcher’s prerogative to overrule the catcher’s signal. They both know Al likes to swing at the first pitch, but Early wants to give him one he can actually hit – the curve ball that looks like it’s coming right at you but then breaks across the plate. Al is caught off guard, only gets a piece of the ball, and hits a foul pop behind home plate. Sherm yanks off his mask, looks skyward, sees the ball, and throws his mask in the opposite direction from where he has to run to catch the ball. Just like I do! – only Sherm tosses his mask, not a tennis racquet.