This is a prelude I wrote to a novel I'm still working on
... and reworking and reworking. It's a sports novel, a tale
about a ballpark on the other side of a portal in the Hall of
Fame, a ballpark populated by the greats and near-greats of the
game after they pass away. The poison in this paradise is a psychotic
woman who creates all sorts of havoc in pursuit of a famous pitcher.
The story is obviously pure fiction, but the prelude is fact.
I've run it on another website along with other sports articles
I've writeen -- a site devoted entirely to baseball. Baseball
fans might want to check out the site: www.baseballguru.com.
It's pretty cool, and pretty extensive.
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
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
"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 had
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 of funerals 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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