Wednesday, May 3, 2017

My dad's best baseball day

My dad's baseball team during his senior year at Louisville High School.
 By Robert Richter

“Shortly after being signed by Canton of the Tri-State League in 1890, the 23-year-old Denton True Young was spotted warming up against a wooden fence on a farm in Ohio. The ensuing damage to the barrier, as legend has it, was likened to that of a cyclone hitting a wall. An enterprising sportswriter shortened 'cyclone' to 'Cy,' and Young would never again be known by any other name during his professional career.”
 – Cooperstown: Hall of Fame Players, 2001

Kenny Pugh was no Cy Young, whose 511 major league victories established a record that will never be broken. But he was like Cy: a big Ohio farm boy who could hurl a baseball through a backstop. I've wondered over the years what Kenny might have done if he had dedicated himself to baseball.

I've benefited from every teammate, co-worker, mentor or friend I've had over the years, but none of them had a greater heart than Kenneth Pugh. He was not a lifelong buddy, like so many of my favorite characters. He and I were friends for only four months in the spring of 1964 when he was a pitcher and I was a catcher for the Louisville High School Leopards. I base my contention about the strength of Ken's heart on a single event: his stupendous, remarkable, Herculean performance on a hard-scrabble baseball diamond in our hometown, Louisville, Ohio, one warm spring afternoon in 1964. It is the greatest athletic fete I have participated in my lifetime.

My dad's senior class picture
To this day in the spring of 2015 – a few months after Ken's death and 51 years since the story which follows occurred – I still can hardly believe what happened in that Saturday afternoon between double-header between Louisville and West Branch high schools.

First, some background: 1964 was Ken Pugh's only season on the LHS baseball team (I don't know why). He was a good-natured boy giant – tall, rawboned, long arms, big hands and a large head. In fact, when LHS baseball coach Ray Bellisari passed out caps that spring, not a one was large enough for Ken (I think his hat size was 8), so coach special-ordered one. The special-order was Louisville blue and had an 'L' above the bill, but it was a flat hat – not crowned like the caps the rest of us wore – and it hugged Ken's head. David Boyle, my lifelong friend who also pitched on that LHS team, calls it a “retro” hat, like the ones Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Cy Young wore. “Ken was a caricature for pitchers in the early 1900s,” David said, and that was the look our big hurler projected to the West Branch nine as he took the mound that day.

Ken had a wicked fastball; no doubt about that. If he had a curveball, a slider or a change-up, I don't remember calling for it. But the fastball was scary, and Ken just reared back and let 'er rip. Every pitch was a mystery. It might go inside, outside, right at the batter, up high, down in the dirt. Some pitches were strikes and some were balls, but he just kept on throwing. I always liked and respected Ken as a teammate, but he was wild. And, as his catcher in both games that day in '64 – yes, he pitched both games of the doubleheader! -- he wore me out just trying to catch what he was throwing.

Bob's junior class picture
A half-century later, I've forgotten much of what occurred. Officially, there is no record that I know of – no news clippings, no scorebook, no box scores. I don't even remember there being a lot of discussion about the West Branch games back then, nor does Boyle. I don't remember why Kenny pitched in both games. We had other good pitchers (Boyle, a junior, seniors  Dave Howell and Jack Moser and freshman Dick Kuhn, who, incidentally, tossed a no-hitter that spring). Had they been excused for some academic competition? Were they injured? Regardless, to the best of my ability, here are the bare essentials of the donnybrook that unfolded:

Ken relieved in one game and started the other. He probably worked nine or 10 innings total. There was no deception in his delivery. He just wound up and fired the fastball. While I can't prove it, I believe Ken walked 15 or 20 West Branch batters in the two games and fanned 15 or 20 others, maybe more. Unbelievable statistics, but this was an unbelievable game.

I observed that most West Branch hitters entered the batter's box nervously. Who wouldn't? Ken's wildness was a weapon. As a batter, your options were few: take a pitch, whether it was a strike or a ball; close your eyes and swing; duck as the ball soared over your head to the backstop; or take a fastball in the ribs or an ankle. Suffice to say, Ken put a lot of guys on base, but few scored because – amazingly – he blew away batters when he had to. It helped that I had a career day behind the plate throwing out baserunners trying to steal. In telling this story over the years, I've boasted that I threw out 14. That's what someone told me back then, so I'll stick with 14.

A typical inning saw Ken walk two or three West Branch batters and strike out a like number. For each batter who walked or got hit by a pitch, he'd respond with a  string of strikeouts. For each runner who moved up on a wild pitch, I'd cut down one trying to steal, or our defense made a play. But the bases always seemed to be loaded and we were always in trouble. It was a terrible strain, but Ken had a knack that day of pitching well when he had to.

As the temperature rose, Ken labored, his retro cap soaked with sweat and painted with  dirt and resin, his face absent its usual easy grin. At the end of the day, he must have thrown 200 pitches, perhaps more. I caught many of them and scrambled after some I didn't catch. West Branch batters nicked a few pitches and grubbed out some hits, but mostly they were overmatched, taking pitches they knew they couldn't hit or swinging at pitches that were already in my mitt. Ken and I must have been a few pitches short of  a heat stroke. Nowadays, coaches don't let a kid throw more than 100 pitches or pitch both games of a double-header. But, bottom line, Louisville won both games.

Neither Kenny nor I were stars on the Louisville nine in 1964, but each of us had our career day that day. Ken Pugh graduated that spring and if he ever pitched in another game, I don't remember it. Eventually, I moved to Texas and became a newspaperman. Ken became a Baptist preacher. We didn't see each other for decades.

I wondered as the years went by if Ken reminisced as I did about the 1964 twinbill. In 2005, I traveled to Louisville for my 40th class reunion, and dropped by Ken's First Baptist Church Sunday morning. As I waited for the pastor to arrive I chatted with some of Ken's flock, telling them I was his catcher in his high school and assumed they had heard the story about the double-header. They hadn't, which made me wonder if he would remember me. I didn't have to wait long. Soon, the front door opened and in walked my old friend, accompanied by a small entourage of worshipers. In fact, the Rev. Kenneth Pugh filled that doorway, literally and figuratively. He had gained a few pounds over the years and lost most of his hair, but he still had a smile that lit up the room.

Here is what he said to me (approximately): “That day? Remember? You were my catcher. I'll never forget it.” I realized in that mini-minute that Ken cared as much as I did and we embraced as warriors might have at the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg or D-Day. That, of course, makes more of this game of baseball than it deserves, but whether you're on a battlefield or a baseball field, you draw conclusions about your teammates, based on how they deal with a tough situation. Ken was still a warrior; he had just switched teams.

He also cleared up one the little details which I had forgotten: why Coach Bellisari pulled him out late in the second game of the double-header. My recollection had always been that coach made the slow walk to the mound to take Ken out of the game because the bases were loaded and his pitcher was exhausted. But it was worse than that.

“Don't you remember,” Ken recalled in 2005, “Bellisari was complaining, telling me to bear down and throw strikes, and you said, 'But coach, look at his hand.' I had a blister on every finger.”

It was like he'd turned on a light in the darkness of my brain. I remembered those blisters on his big right hand, some of them already popped open, some bulging with pus. Imagine the pain. As brave as he was, and as much as he wanted to finish that game, Ken didn't argue when coach asked him for the ball. And whoever replaced him finished the game with little drama. End of story.

I e-mailed Ken's son, Chris, a few months after I'd heard about his father's death, and asked Chris if his dad had ever mentioned that bizarre 1964 double-header. Chris replied that his dad hadn't talked much about being a pitcher, but that he would like to hear more about it.

In June 2014 I put a photo of me and my beautiful girlfriend Judy Scott on my Facebook page, to which the Rev. Pugh commented: “So this is where my catcher went!!! And I replied: “You'll be in my memoirs if I ever write them … that was the greatest performance by a pitcher I've ever seen – and I was lucky enough to catch you.”

It took Ken's death to remind me of that promise. I wish I could have shared it with him before he died. For the record, I want to inform Ken's family, their friends and the many people who loved him and worshiped in his churches for some 40 years that he had a life before them. And, as I've reported above, he was quite wild. But as far as one-day wonders go, Ken's gutsy performance in 1964 was the most courageous I ever saw on a baseball diamond. He was a good man and a helluva pitcher. God bless him.

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