RIP Jimmy, Tom and Al


Will O'Toole
April 12, 2020

Three ball players passed away in the last few weeks. Players who were a part of every school boy’s ports world if they grew up in the 1960S and 1970s playing football and baseball in the parks, schoolyards or one’s backyard.

None were high-octane celebrity superstars hosting infomercials, guesting on the late night tv circuit, ranting on their own sports program or touting the latest energy drink filled with all kinds of chemicals and vitamins unpronounceable and frequently misspelled.

They all seemed like “regular joes”, fathers one would see in the neighborhood, who during the week, were ordinary blue collar guys. On weekends they would be tinkering on their cars, mowing their lawns or brushing touchups on front door all the while listening to the game on the radio.

They didn’t obsess over their four -wheeled toys, their Tara-like spread or their Windsor Castle property either.

When they tinkered with the car, it was an automobile of practicality not sophisticated luxury. They opened the hood, plucked out the dip stick and poured a quart of 10/40l into the engine. They didn’t fixate applying Turtle Wax polishing the hood as well as the door with the “wax on wax off “ movements of the Karate Kid so that their would be the same amount of polish on every inch of metal to battle Mother Nature’s worst: sun, salt and water.

They mowed the grass because it grew too high. A manicured lawn? Manicures were for women at the beauty parlor. Dads edged just to keep the alien vegetation from consuming the cement walks. They were like the elderly, white haired barber with the thick bottled glasses who trimmed your bangs or around the ears without precision just so to hold your hair back from covering your freckled face. And they swept up the plops, drops, clumps and lumps of greens, composed mostly of crabgrass and dandelions, with a push broom and dustpan or shovel and deposited in a metal garbage can.

No loud obnoxious blowers – the boomboxes of the middle-aged suburbanites of the 21st century that like a tsunami move the remains into the street and abandon them in the gutter for the next neighbor to clean up.

The coat of paint on the front door was just temporary measure to hide scuff marks that lasted until the next child kicked, pushed or prodded the door open so as not to waste any time getting to the batch of warm cookies and milk mom baked or a cold winter’s evening or a glass of lemonade to sate your thirst on a hot , sweaty summer afternoon.

The dab of white made the Mrs. happy because it showed the nosey neighbors that she kept a neat, clean home ;one that combined and separated scents, smells and aromas of Lemon Pledge, Windex and Duncan Hines . Even the floors had the impeccable track marks left by a Hoover instead of dirt marks left by ol’ Rover.

And when dads finally checked off all the countless squares on the weekly “Honey-do” list, they always seemed to have time to spend with you.
Not as the travel coach barking out plays but as a father.

They had catches not “ soft tosses” in the backyard because it strengthened the arm even playing a game called Running Bases if you had three people and only two mitts.

Soft tosses is what you did with pillows after fluffing them.

They shot hoops and played to 21, but didn’t dissect your shot, telling you to change the “angle of your release ‘ or make you dribble fifty times with your weak hand before driving to the basket for the winning layup.

They threw the spirals and played imaginary “Two Minute Warning Games with you instead of grading each spiral on a quarterback formula so convoluted it makes E=Mc2 look easy.

The time spent shooting, tossing and pitching was more about catching up on the week that was than training camp with Bill Belichick.

But one thing fathers fanatically did was pass on their love for sports and the athletes who played.

Nostalgia swept in about a week or so ago with the passing of Jimmy Wynn remembered as a Houston Astro. Wynn was one of the early stars of the Astros who changed their nickname from the Colt 45s to the Astros when the franchise moved to the ugly monstrosity, the Astrodome A place so alien to baseball it seemed that it was designed by the military at Area 51.

The Astrodome was a stark, cold formidable stadium for hitters. Stale, inert, air, poor lighting, and distant fences so remote they were measured in light years instead of feet. The field was hard and the balls bounced so high you felt like you were watching a game on the moon. But Wynn forged a decent career.

Wynn was 5’9’ 160lbs of pure muscle with great baseball skills that could launch bombs over the fence which was why he was nicknamed the Toy Cannon. He also had the coolest sideburns and goatee of any player in that generation.

He never truly tapped his talent. Managers tried to revamp his swing. Domestically, he loved his kids but his marriage was in ruins. Arguing with his wife turned ugly as Wynn’s wife plunged a kitchen knife into is stomach requiring surgery. He rebounded ,but he needed a change of scenery.

The Dodgers obtained him and won the 1974 NL pennant with a reinvigorated Wynn finishing fifth in the MVP . He turned in another all star season in 1975, but alas, the “ Toy Cannon” had nothing left in his arsenal. Age 35, after bouncing around, he retired. Wynn was a good guy and dynamite player.

Kicker Tom Dempsey had a belly that resembled the short order cook at the local greasy spoon diner who made knockout hotcakes, eggs and bacon at two in the morning.

Dempsey was also born with missing digits on his hand and foot.

His kicking foot.

Yet, on a muddy, rainy Sunday, November, 1970 he set an NFL record for the time, His half foot launched a football 189 feet in the air and through the uprights. for the win over the amused then stunned and vanquished Detroit Lions. Some of the Detroit Lions never bothered to block Dempsey’s 63 yard winning field goal.

Al Kaline played for and defined the city of Detroit from 1953 to 1974. He just went about his business, plying his craft, in a hard scrapple, “lunch pail” manner honorably representing the blue collar constituents of Motown. He spent his entire career with the Tigers unlike Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Justin Verlander.

His name didn’t roll off your tongue like baseball celebrities Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Pete Rose with romanticized nicknames like “The Commerce Comet “, “ Say Hey Kid” and “Charley Hustle” respectively. But Kaline never toiled in the minors like they did, He made the unusual leap from Baltimore prodigy to Detroit All Star to Cooperstown Hall of Fame.

Somehow, childhood is even more distant.