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The Greatest Catch

June 2024
2min read

It was a beautiful day in northern Virginia. A great day for a baseball game, even if you were in the Army, as I was on that day in the summer of 1953. I wasn’t a very talented baseball player, but I was a scrapper, the kind of guy who ran out every ground ball to the shortstop no matter how certain it was that I would be thrown out easily at first base. I was “Charlie Hustle” long before Pete Rose came alone.

I was stationed at an Army Security Agency base near Warrenton, Virginia, and a baseball team from Fort Myer, just across the Potomac River from Washington. D.C., came down to play us. Being up there so close to the Pentagon and all the brass, the Fort Myer team had more than its share of really good baseball players, even some major-leaguers who were subject to the military draft in force at that time. We were more like the ragtag and bobtail of the military diamond.

But we played a good game that day, and when I came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, our team was trailing by just a run. We had the bases loaded with two out. The Fort Myer manager strolled confidently from the visitor’s dugout, called time, and waved in his ace reliever from the bullpen. He was a fireballing right-hander who delivered a wicked snake of a sidearm pitch, much like the former Cincinnati Reds great Ewell Blackwell. I must admit my knees were knocking as I dug in at the batter’s box while the outfielders moved in for the weak hitter.

The pitcher curled two quick called strikes on me as his curve ball seemed to leave his hand somewhere in the vicinity of third base. I figured, “O.K., so you’ve set me up with curve balls. Now you’ll want to burn a fastball right down the middle and get out of here.” And I was right. There it came, right down the pipe, and I hit it square on with everything I had. All I needed was a single to tie the game or maybe to win it, but I had visions of a grand-slam home run as I sped down the line toward first base.

I saw the Fort Myer center fielder turn his back on the ball and start running toward the deepest part of the park. He was running even faster than I was. And he ran and ran. When he finally caught up with the ball, he made a spectacular catch going away in full stride. I was crushed. I just stood there at second base in disbelief as he came jogging in, still holding the ball in his glove. As he ran past me on the way to the dugout, he slowed just a bit, smiled graciously, and said, “That sure was some poke, Shorty.” It was the only time in my life I ever met Willie Mays.

A year later he made the same kind of catch in the first game of the 1954 World Series in Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, robbing Vic Wertz of an extra-base hit. Baseball analysts have called that the greatest catch in the history of the sport. I call it the second greatest.

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