Boys of summers past: The King of Diamonds
Tuesday, March 14, 2017 6:09 AM
“The one constant through all the years ... has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.” – From “Field of Dreams”
The author is pictured with six-time World Series champion Clyde King in 2007.
Ladies and gentlemen, when I was just a lad, I dreamed of growing up and being a big league ballplayer for the Cincinnati Reds, where people would cheer me on, just like I cheered on the “hometown heroes.”
Turns out, the dream consisted of 31 official at-bats over two seasons for the Hillsboro Indians varsity baseball team more than a quarter of a century ago. I had 12 hits over those two years, and led the team with a .474 batting average my senior season.
The last time I ever wore a batting helmet during a game, the season ended with a scrawny left-handed pinch hitter with eyeglasses standing in the on-deck circle. Despite being a part-time player who spent most of the time sitting on the bench keeping the scorebook or a pitching chart, I look back on that time with fondness.
The Red-and-White No. 8 jersey still hangs in my closet. I bought it for a few bucks when HHS had a sale of old jerseys many moons ago. It still fits.
No, I never made it to the big leagues, but as a longtime journalist, I’ve been fortunate enough to interview and rub elbows with plenty of people who did.
By far, the most famous person I ever had the opportunity to interview is Hank Aaron. However, my favorite interview of all time was the time I spent with the late Clyde King, who once managed “Hammerin’ Hank” and finished his 60-plus year baseball career with six World Series rings. He even let me try on one of his rings.
More than a decade ago, I met Mr. King for the first time when I was covering a baseball banquet in Goldsboro, N.C. It was easy to spot him, as I remembered him as the manager of the New York Yankees in the 1980s.
Clyde Edward King passed away Nov. 2, 2010 at the age of 86, but I still recall the night I met the pitcher, coach, manager, general manager and front office executive. Just before I was able to introduce myself, a youngster stepped up to the plate and asked him for an autograph.
Let’s take a look back in time…
He reaches out and takes a baseball, not unlike the ones he threw until his shoulder told him more than 50 years earlier he couldn’t do it anymore.
He holds it in his hand, much like he did decades ago, waiting on top of a mound as a relief pitcher trotted in from the bullpen.
He pulls out a pen, not unlike the ones he used to use to fill out countless lineup cards, and asks the question he’s asked so many times he’s lost count.
“Who is this for?”
This time, it was for Cody.
“Is that C-O-D-Y?”
The young boy, nearly three quarters of a century his junior, nods his head as a line begins to form.
He turns the baseball to its sweet spot and signs his name, just like he’s done since Franklin D. Roosevelt was president.
Best wishes to Cody,
The next boy steps up to the plate.
By the time King rounds third and heads for home, the former big league pitcher, coach, manager and general manager has sent all the kids away happy.
A couple of weeks later, I’m at the King homestead talking about his life and baseball career.
“I sign every single thing they send me,” says the then 82-year-old King as he sits in his memorabilia room, looking at two photos of a much younger Clyde King, one in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and the other in Cincinnati Reds gear. “These two little pictures I have here, this guy said his dad is a Dodger fan and a Reds fans, and asked if I would send him a couple of pictures.
“I always do it, but I’m running out of stuff to send. It’s all gone. Pretty much all I have left is for my children and grandchildren.”
That includes his six World Series rings. He’s only got two left — he’s given the rest to his three girls.
He wears 1996 and 1999 proudly on each ring finger.
“I’d like to get at least one more,” he laughs.
Clyde King, who was born May 23, 1924, first picked up a baseball when he was 8 — not the sort of ball he would throw in the big leagues a dozen years later.
Growing up during the Great Depression and with seven children in the family, the Kings couldn’t afford baseball equipment.
So they improvised.
The ball was a rock, some twine and black tar tape.
The glove came from an old leather sofa the boys found sitting by the side of the road.
“We got my mother’s scissors that she sewed with and cut some of that leather out. We put some padding in there, I remember it was cotton, and she sewed it up for us and we had gloves.”
Their bat came from a tree limb.
King then found a mentor in Goldsboro resident Pat Crawford, a former big league infielder with the New York Giants, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
“He sort of took me under his wing,” King says. “The first thing I ever learned from him, he said, ‘Clyde, you heard that practice makes perfect. Well, I want to tell you, perfect practice makes perfect.’ That’s stayed with me all these years.”
King followed that advice.
“I enjoyed playing, I used to play until dark,” he says. “I played until we couldn’t see the ball anymore.’”
Let’s pause for now, and we’ll continue next week with the life and times of Clyde King, followed by other boys of summers past…
Steve Roush is a vice president of an international media company and a columnist and contributing writer for The Highland County Press.