Just when you think there will be no let up to the misery brought on by COVID-19, along comes a baseball team to brighten our lives. The standing ovation you hear is for the New York Yankees, who are off to one of the worst starts in their storied history. This a big YEA!! for the Bad Bombers, easily the most despised franchise since time began — unless of course you are a fan of pinstripes. Then you are in a fetal position, in anguish, horrified by what at the moment, if unfortunately not for long, is the worst team money can buy.
This is Volume 51 in our snails-like trek down memory lane: “I Was a Yankee Hater from Day One.”
OK, so we’re exaggerating for effect, although when you grow up in the Big Apple during the 1940s and early 50s — and are cursed by becoming a baseball Giants’ fan … well, not so much. Except on rare occasions, the Yankees have been kings of New York … and aren’t likely to abdicate the throne any time soon. So, for now, we’ll just have to enjoy the latest choke job by Gary Sanchez and friends while we can. How about that, Mel Allen?
Also, here’s hoping the stumbling, blundering, non-hustling men of (manager Aaron) Boone will have a positive medicinal consequence in the recovery of former University of Richmond two-sport star Tom “Red” Booker, 82. On March 14, he suffered a broken hip in a fall at home then, while recovering from that, suffered a heart attack. Now he’s at Lakeside Manor and, we’re told, doing well as he plots his next round of golf … while leaving the other residents knowing it can’t happen too soon.
If you know Booker even a little bit, you know he’s a piece of work, and that’s being kind. What we didn’t know was how he got here — to both delight and confound us — from Louisville, Ky., and later had every reason to think of the Yankees in the worst possible way. Where to start?
How about the beginning? “It all started when [Brooklyn shortstop] ‘Pee Wee’ Reese went to my high school, so I was a Yankee hater from Day 1 … because they beat the Dodgers all the time,” Booker said.
When Boston put its top farm club in Louisville, he became a Red Sox fan. Then, when he got a scholarship to play basketball at Richmond (more on that later), and New York had its Triple-A team here, Booker switched allegiance “and became a Yankees fan. They had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and ...”
The Yankees also had a scout, Johnny Neun, who came to town and signed Benedictine lefthander Frank Carpin then UR catcher Chuck Boone. A year later Neun landed Booker, four-year starter and All-Southern Conference outfielder. (Remember, this was before the MLB draft. You took the best offer.)
“I started working out for teams when I was in high school. So, when I got to Richmond, Neun came to me and said, ‘I’m going to make an offer you can’t refuse. I don’t want you working out with anyone else … Here’s our offer.’ And I took it,” Booker recalled. “Now I’m a Yankee lover.”
He got a $12,000 bonus. He was — at least felt like — a rich man. “The minor league players called me ‘Bonus Baby,’” Booker said. You could tell he liked that.
It might have been — make that was — the highlight of his short-lived professional baseball career. Booker spent his first season in the Class D Florida State League with St. Petersburg. The Cincinnati Reds’ team in Tampa included the legendary Pete Rose. “Right away I knew I was in over my head,” Booker said.
With the possibility of being drafted into the armed services, Booker took the Yankees’ advice and returned to UR, where he helped out as freshman coach. Then, he played again in the Florida State League and won a championship. The following year, at spring training, he told the Yankees if he didn’t make the team in Richmond, “to cut me. I was getting married in June,” Booker went on.
“I didn’t make the AAA [Virginians], so I quit or they released me, whatever. I’m in the clubhouse, packing to go back to Richmond. The Yankees had a team in Shelby, N.C., in the Western Carolinas League. They asked Bill Shantz to manage it … and he comes up to me and says: ‘Listen, I need some help in Shelby. You’ve been around a while, you’ve got some age on ya, come on down and help me.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going home.’
“And he says, ‘Look, you have a college degree, don’t ya? Do you have a job?’ No. ‘Well, the Yankees are willing to pay you … and you can go home in June and get married. Why would you turn that down?’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll go.’ I went there as a player/coach … and got beaned.”
Booker doesn’t remember the game, who the pitcher was or the opponent — and, the way he tells it, never bothered to ask. All he knows for sure he was hit with a pitch on the left side of his face, below the eye … suffered a fractured jaw “ … went numb all the way down to my knee … and was blind in my left eye.”
He was hospitalized three weeks in Shelby. Steve Souchock, a former MLB first baseman and minor-league manager, “came to my room and says, ‘You know your career is over … tough break … but you know the Yankees are world champions. We’re first class … Don’t you worry … We’re going to pay your salary for the rest of the year … We’re paying your hospital bills … and you’ll get working man’s compensation from the state of North Carolina … Go back to Richmond and have a good life.’”
Booker was making $700 a month, which meant the Yankees would pay him about $4,200 in salary. Right? Wrong. Would you believe $0,000.00?
“I came home, got married, and waited. And waited. No checks,” Booker said. “So I called the general manager in Shelby: ‘Where is my money?’ He said, ‘What do you mean? You’re not getting any money.’ But Souchock said ...’ And he said, ‘They released you the second day you were in the hospital.’ ”
Ouch! If anyone has wondered why Booker has reason to be a life-long cynic, now you know. He asked local lawyer and mayor of Richmond, the late Bob Habenicht for legal advice. Sorry, Red, Habenicht said, “’You’re not getting a nickel … minor leaguers don’t have a union, so they [big clubs] can do anything they want to you.’ And I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’” Not hardly, Red. Welcome to the real world!
Fortunately, Booker “ran into [Richmonder] Mel Roach, who was playing for Milwaukee. He hated the Yankees … and told me ‘the only way you’ll get your money … Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball also hates the Yankees … Write him a letter and tell him what happened.’ ”
Talk about good advice. “So I wrote [Frick] … about all those dreams I had as a ball player … and then I said, ‘If the Yankees could give me my left eye back, I’d give them their bonus money back,’” Booker said two days before he fell, breaking his hip.
“Ford Frick got my money for me. I got a check from the Yankees around Christmas. It was a lesson in life. I can tell you that.”
If life hasn’t always been kind to Booker, at the very least it’s provided him with some interesting memories and loads of stories, enough to fill several volumes — if not all fit to print in your friendly, morning newspaper. Consider, for example, how he wound up in Richmond.
His high school team was Kentucky state baseball champion when Booker was a senior. He was sure his next step would be as a professional but first he had a question for Ralph Kimmel, his high school coach who in addition was a scout for the Red Sox: “I asked him why they weren’t giving me a tryout? And he said, ‘… because I think you should go to college.’ Nobody in my family had gone to college,” Booker said. “This was a trade school. I took wood-working. I told him: ‘I can’t get into college.’ ”
Kimmel, it seems, wasn’t kidding. “He said, ‘What if I can get you in … will you go?’ ” Booker said. “So, just to call his bluff, I told him, ‘Sure.’ And the next week I had a full scholarship to Indiana University. So I go down to Bloomington, Ind. … and it was so big … scared the hell out of me.
“I came home. ‘Coach, I can’t go there.’ So then he gets me a full scholarship at the University of Louisville … and a job cutting grass. My dad was an alcoholic, and he said, ‘If you stay and play ball at Louisville, I’ll quit drinking.’
“So I basically signed to go to Louisville. My dad stopped drinking … beat up my mother … and went to jail.”
At that point, Booker knew he had to get out of town, preferably as far away as possible. “So I called [basketball teammate] Terry Litchfield, a 6-10 high school All-American, who always told me he wanted to go to school with me … because he thought I would pass him the ball like I did in high school. He always said he could get me a scholarship because [wherever he signed] they would give him anything he wanted.
“So I dialed him up on the phone: ‘Terry, where are you going to college?’ He said: ‘The University of Richmond.’ I said: ‘Where the hell is that?’ … ‘Richmond, Va.’ … ‘How far is it?’ … ‘Six hundred and fifty one miles’ … ‘Sounds great. Do you think you can get me a scholarship?’
“That night I get a call from [UR coach] Les Hooker. He offers me a scholarship over the phone … He had never met me. I had never been to Richmond … The next week I get in the car with all my stuff … I never went back to Louisville.”
(As for Litchfield … “He got kicked out of school for cheating as a freshman,” Booker said. “[North Carolina State coach] Everett Case got him a full scholarship to San Jacinto in New Mexico where he made junior college All-American then went to N.C. State.”
Litchfield played one season (1960-61) with the Wolfpack (23 games, 4.2 points, 3.0 rebounds) before being directly involved — along with three teammates — in a point-shaving scandal that led to the end of the Dixie Classic preseason tournament in Raleigh.)
In three seasons (1958-61) for Hooker, Booker averaged 13 points a game on some mediocre to poor teams that went 27-43 overall, 13-31 in the Southern Conference. He led the team in scoring (17.7) as a senior. Good in hoops, outstanding with bat and ball.
Under legendary baseball coach Malcolm U. “Mac” Pitt, Booker excelled, starting all but one game (his first) in left field for four years. In those days of long ago, the Spiders played on what now is Robins Stadium. Home plate was south of the west stands, making left field ... “the sun field,” Booker said. “I didn’t start my first game and, after a ball hit off our left fielder’s shoulder, Coach Pitt got [assistant coach] Dick Humbert to hit fly balls to me until I got used to the sun.”
What else? Well, “we had umpires who cheated like crazy for us,” Booker said. “I remember sliding home one time and being out by 10 feet. [The umpire] called me safe and said, ‘Nice slide, Red,’ and he helped me up.”
The Spiders got their bitter taste of homerism on a trip to — say it isn’t so — Morgantown, W.Va. “How bad was it? Bucky Bolyard caught the first game for [the Mountaineers], then pitched the second,” Booker said. “He throws one in the dirt, and it’s called a strike. Who the hell is the umpire? It’s Bucky Bolyard’s daddy. Welcome to West Virginia!”
After baseball, Booker coached at Henrico and Meadowbrook high schools, sold insurance, worked for a trade association as a registered lobbyist in the state General Assembly, was marketing director for Delta Dental Insurance, ran one-day tournaments for the Virginia State Golf Association for 21 years and, lately, sold golf carts for Yamaha.
Oh, did we mention teaming with John Averett as the “Sunshine Boys” once a week for about 25 years on “Big Al” Coleman’s radio talk show? They provided lively exchanges, with Booker — in particular — liable to say most anything.
Come on, old timer, isn’t it time to settle down? (Remember, this was shortly before his body betrayed him twice recently.) “I can’t sit home,” said Booker, who was inducted into the UR Hall of Fame in 2019. “Would you sit home?”
Until next time ...