Tuesday, April 2, 2013



(Sharing Rose's column, Printed April 2011 in Gazette Newspapers of Ohio in honor of Indians Opening Day)
IT WAS THE 1960s, and I had no sports credentials. Imagine my surprise, then, when an editor walked up to my desk at the local paper and handed me a phone number. I was to set up an appointment to interview Indians player Early Wynn and his wife at their baseball-season home in east Lake County.
"I don't know enough about professional baseball to interview this man," I protested. "The sports guys would give their eye teeth for this assignment!" But no, the job was mine; apparently the editors had decided I was the one to meet this Cy Young winner and Baseball Hall of Famer. I made the call, and Mrs. Wynn suggested I come out right away; it would be the best possible timing.
Wynn had been a powerhouse Indians pitcher from '49 to '57, then returned to pitch his 300th game in Cleveland in 1963. But as it turned out, it wouldn't be baseball he and I would talk about; it would be TOMATOES!!
I was forewarned; the rowdy Alabama boy had become a fixture around the local watering holes as an amiable brawler, and their stories made me nervous. But the "brawler" I met that afternoon was working in his garden, where tomato plants and vines were growing everywhere! Apparently the Alabama farm boy hadn't left the farm behind completely.
He wiped the garden dirt off his giant paw and welcomed me with a hearty handshake, and he was approachable and down-to-earth as we joined his wife inside their double-wide trailer. I soon found he was as proud of his tomatoes as he was of his pro-baseball record. I spent the better part of that sunny afternoon drinking iced tea and taste-testing tomatoes at the Wynns' kitchen table. He insisted that I taste and comment honestly on every variety he had brought in from the garden---and he even sent me home with a big bag of favorites for my family.
I had seen a side of Early Wynn that hadn't been shared through the media. Early Wynn the gardener was the Early Wynn I shared with readers, making no pretense about my having any more than surface knowledge of the game. Whatever the sports writers might have thought about my slant on Wynn, the Wynns themselves enjoyed it, and they called to tell me so. From that point on, I focused more on the game and less on the ambiance of that big old Municipal Stadium in which our Indians played
MANY YEARS LATER, in 1998, I interviewed former Indians player, Mel Harder. The very day of my conversation with Harder, he had tossed the opening pitch at a Little League field in Chardon that was being dedicated in his name. He had treated that small-town happening with the respect and enthusiasm of a high-profile national event---even flying family members in from out of town, to tiny Concord Airpark, to ride with him in the parade that honored him.
A quiet and gentlemanly retiree, Harder had pitched the first game in the new Cleveland Municipal Stadium in 1932; he had thrown the ceremonial last pitch when that stadium was closed; and he had also tossed the game-­opening pitch when the new Jacobs Field opened in 1994. 
He had been with the Indians from 1928 (at age 19) to 1947. There he had developed his legendary curve ball; he had earned 223 wins (second most in Indians history at that stadium); and he had played in four All-Star games. When he retired from baseball in 1969, he adopted small-town Chardon as his home.
On Mel Harder Field dedication day, the talk among the star-struck Chardon kids was that Harder might not have made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame, "but he's plenty good enough for us!" Harder had chalked up more wins than 14 other pitchers who made it to the Hall of Fame (and he would continue to be snubbed year after year and finally passed away without ever having been enshrined).
"How disappointed are you?" I asked Harder one year, after yet another Hall of Fame snub. His voice was genuinely joyful as he shared his feelings about the honor he said really counted. "The year that kids' park in Chardon was named after me---being looked up to by those kids and riding in their parade---that was the biggest honor I could ever have, barring none," he declared. (He later put his money where his heart was, setting up a Mel Harder Benefit Golf Outing to raise donations for improvements at the field.)
In a later conversation before his death, I discussed forthrightly with him my growing disappointment with professional sports. It had nothing to do with win or lose, but with the apparent decline in character and values, and the swiftly growing amounts of money involved. Harder listened, and then he smiled and urged me, "Don't give up on baseball. It's still an awful lot of fun; it's still the best there is."
OVER THE YEARS, I began to see opening day as more than a baseball event; I eagerly looked forward to it as a true beginning of springtime after our long Ohio winters. One year, however, I completely forgot about opening day as my husband Bob and I left town to spend April at the beach in Alabama. And I gave no thought to the fact that it was opening day back in Cleveland when Bob and I stopped at Battleship Park at Alabama's Mobile Bay.
We spent hours touring the restored WWII battleship, the USS Alabama, and suddenly the Indians and opening day did come back to me. I had mentioned to a guide that I was from the Cleveland area, and he quickly switched our conversation to Bob Feller, who had a special history with the ship. In World War II, Feller served aboard the Alabama, the guide informed us. In fact, Feller's old cot on the Alabama was still marked!
Feller had interrupted his pro career after hearing the news about Pearl Harbor. Two days after the attack, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy. A private pilot, he had hoped to be chosen for Navy flight training but was rejected after failing the high frequency hearing test. Then he applied to serve aboard the USS Iowa, named for the state in which he had grown up, but the Iowa crew was already filled.
So, as Chief Petty Officer Robert William Andrew Feller, he served aboard "the Mighty A" for 33 months, 1942 to 1945. As an anti-aircraft-gunner crew chief in the Pacific Theater of Operations, he earned five campaign ribbons and eight battle stars. In as fine a form as ever when the war was over, he returned to baseball in Cleveland and picked up where he'd left off.
My husband and I investigated every bit of Feller's old battleship, and then I struck out solo to climb up briefly to the bridge. There I heard an unexpected sound, and I asked a guard, "Do I hear wind chimes?' Shouting through the wind, he answered, "We think so, but we haven't been able to find the source; we don't know where they are or how they got here."
A peaceful sound it was, on this old warship. As Bob and I prepared to leave the ship, I spoke to the guide we had met earlier, and I asked him about the wind chimes. "Maybe it's Feller saying hello to a fellow Clevelander," he said with a hint of a smile. "Do you think a wind chime might be enjoyed by a man who grew up in green Iowa and then settled in green Ohio?" That was a thought I enjoyed.
HARDER, WYNN AND FELLER are gone now, and I'm much older. Today's baseball ticket prices would shock these old-time pros as much as they shock me. But after a long, cold winter, last week's 2011 Indians home opener was a sure and welcome sign of spring. A bubble of sunshine and warming temperatures magically appeared at the field in time for the game, and the pre-game Bob Feller tribute was a class act.
I watched it all on TV as I sat in a sunny window at home, and in my mind, I heard again Mel Harder's words: "Don't give up on baseball. It's still an awful lot of fun; it's still the best there is."

Now it's Indians Season Opener time again!  At last, despite the long and brutal winter, I can feel springtime in the air! PLAAY BALL!!---R.A.T. (Rose About Town)