Luke Appling and the 1982 Cracker Jack Game

This game, in particular 75-year-old Luke Appling’s homer off Warren Spahn, was one of the warmest memories baseball produced in a decade that featured a long strike in 1981 and Pete Rose getting banned from baseball in 1989. And it came not under the auspices of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the rest of organized pro baseball, but because the people at Cracker Jack wanted to put on an exhibition game featuring stacks of retired greats in a city that hadn’t seen mlb action for a decade. Here’s how the Washington Post described the proceedings:

Warren Spahn kicked as high as he could, Hank Aaron dived after balls and 75-year-old Luke Appling hit a first-inning home run as the American League went all out to defeat the National League, 7-2, in a very respectable Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic last night before 29,196 at RFK Stadium.

A sudden thunder shower nearly forced postponement of the five-inning exhibition, the first baseball game in RFK since 1972. But once the players had filed onto the field one at a time for more than 30 minutes of introductions, they went at it with relish.

The American League, which had a lot of players not used to losing All-Star games, took a quick lead in the first when Appling hit Spahn ‘s second pitch 12 rows deep into the short left field bleachers.

The American League got four more runs in the third on Jim Fregosi’s home run and RBI singles by former Senators Mickey Vernon and Roy Sievers.

In the locker room afterward, Appling flexed his biceps between puffs on a huge stogie. “I haven’t felt better in my life than I did tonight,” said Appling, who has been playing in old-timers games longer than he played in the majors.

“I didn’t even look at it (the home run). I just didn’t want to run around the bases. I never feel old.”

Spahn was largely responsible for setting the game’s serious tone. On his first pitch, he rared back, kicked his right leg high in a reasonable facsimile of his famous form and threw Appling a high curve ball.

“I didn’t know we were allowed to throw curve balls,” said Whitey Ford of the American League.

“I told Luke last night my strategy was to pitch around the young guys and get the old fogeys out,” said Spahn, the winningest left-hander ever. “But he didn’t give me a chance.”

Before the game, Spahn estimated that in today’s salary structure he would be worth about half a franchise. Which makes Appling worth how much? “The Chicago White Sox,” he said, “And the Cubs, too.”

American League pitchers, most noticeably ex-Senator Camilo Pascual, Ford and Bob Feller, held the National League to six hits, including a home run by Bill Mazeroski. And the National League hitters got the benefit of some very lenient scoring.

“I threw tough for 11 years. Why would I stop now?” said Pascual, who threw harder than any of the pitchers, but had one lapse–Mazeroski’s home run.

While some of the oldsters, like Ewell Blackwell and Johnny Mize, had some trouble maneuvering, many players wouldn’t have let up if ordered to.

In the second inning, Aaron made a remarkable catch of a sinking liner hit by Bill Freehan. Al Dark was his usual competitive self, decoying runners into sliding. Richie Ashburn even attempted a drag bunt.

“It was a major league catch,” Aaron said of his second-inning acrobatics. “We’re not playing to embarrass ourselves. We wanted to win. People are paying their money to see us.”

“Some of those pitchers were throwing pretty hard,” said Willie McCovey, who hit one off the mezzanine during batting practice, but couldn’t get a ball out in three at bats. “You always have your pride, which makes you play as hard as you can.”

But there were moments when the players acted their age. Al Rosen staggered around third base trying to catch Ernie Banks’ foul pop-up and eventually watched it fall behind him. And in the second, moments before his running one-handed catch, Aaron let an easy fly ball hit him in the chin. It was ruled a hit.

When they were through, the players swarmed onto the field and doffed their caps to the fans.

“We played like this for the fans. They didn’t deserve anything less,” said Brooks Robinson, who started two American League double plays.
“They kidded me,” Appling said afterward. “I hit 45 homers my whole career and I had to wait 32 years to hit my 46th. The thing is, I’m no pull hitter.”

The thing is, Luke Appling is 75 years old. He was the oldest guy taking part in the Cracker Jack Old-Timers’ game at RFK Stadium last night.

The game drew 29,196 on a rainy, muggy night, which is remarkable. The American League won, 7-2, which is rare, indeed, in all-star exhibitions. And Luke Appling hit a home run off Warren Spahn in the first inning.

“I talked to Spahn before the game,” Appling said. “I told him not to throw me the ball outside, because I might drill one back at him. So he threw me one inside. Sometimes, you’ve gotta be smart.

“It was a knee-high, helluva curve. Nah, actually, he was kind to me and just laid it in there. I didn’t know it was gone, I just didn’t want to have to run around all the bases.”

The ball soared through the drizzle and into the short porch in left field, about 315 feet away. There would be two other homers hit (Jim Fregosi and Bill Mazeroski off Bob Allison’s creaky leap trying to catch his fly ball), but Appling is almost as old as Fregosi and Maz put together.

“If I’d had a short porch like that in Comiskey Park,” Appling said, “I’d have turned into a pull hitter.

“People kept asking me how I felt, seeing how some of the guys had gotten old. I said, ‘Hell, I’m the oldest guy here.’ But I still travel for the Braves, work with their minor-leaguers. Now, I’ll have something to tell them.”

Spahn: “It’s something neither one of us will ever forget.”

Joe DiMaggio said: “You never saw so many guys having a great time. You know, a lot of us only knew each other as competitors. Now you get to know these guys as people. Everybody was in little groups, and guys would just wander from group to group, telling stories and catching up on old times.

“The players of our eras didn’t make the money that they make today. You wouldn’t believe it, but in recent years, baseball has actually given the association [the Association of Professional Ball Players of America, which supported retired players] less money–down from $50,000 to $30,000. And costs are going way up. This game will bring the association more money–$50,000 guaranteed–than baseball provides in a year.”

Cracker Jack put on three more Old-Timers games at RFK Stadium: read about the final one in 1985, or buy some articles from the Washington Post covering the other games.

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Published in: on February 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is such a cool account! I recall videotaping this contest, haven’t thought about it in years. The names on the rosters are loaded with memories, so evocative of baseball history! Am sure I still have that cassette in my archives!

  2. I remember this game well , I was from Calif. where we had 5 major league teams , when I came to DC , it was a dry town ( No baseball ) .
    When they played this game it was like a breath of fresh air !! Did not know it would take years to get a major league team !
    Very happy to see all these top players ,now some are gone but not forgotten !!

  3. what a great game…I actually own Luke Appling’s uniform from this game. A true class act, the lot of them!


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