This is a personal story about me and baseball, so if you don't care about me or baseball, you might want to read something else.
In late September 1961, I had just finished a successful season pitching for the Cleveland Indians minor league team in Burlington, N.C. (15 wins, 11 losses), and the New York Yankees' Roger Maris was closing in on Babe Ruth's homerun record. I was also looking for off-season work as a reporter.
It just happened that Tom Zachary, the pitcher who threw the ball the Babe hit for his 60th homerun, lived in a nearby town, so I called him and told him who I was and asked for an interview, figuring that the story behind the pitch that made baseball history would catch an editor's eye.
"Sure, come on over," said Tom Zachary. "I don't usually like to talk about that, but I guess I can help out a fellow pitcher."
Zachary was a left-handed pitcher for the Washington Senators when he threw the ball that Ruth hit for the record Maris was about to break. Thirty-four years later, he remembered every detail. It was the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 1927. There was one man on and one out, and the score was tied 2-2 when the Bambino swaggered to the plate.
"The Babe had been up three times before, but he hadn't gotten a hit off of me," Zachary recalled. "I was pitching him careful and had walked him once. Everybody knew he was out for the record, so I said he wasn't going to get anything good from me. I got the count to 3-2 and then threw him a curve. He hit it a mile high and far down the right field into the bleachers. There's no telling how far that ball did go. From the pitcher's mound, it looked foul, and I hollered, 'Foul!' But the umpire called it fair."
"Was it a good curve?" I asked with a mixture of sympathy and professional curiosity. "As good as I had," Zachary replied. "It was outside and he pulled it."
Ironically, Zachary was traded to the Yankees in 1928 and became Ruth's teammate while compiling a perfect 12-0 record. But he always told the legendary slugger that his 60th homerun deserved an asterisk. "I used to tell Ruth that it was a foul ball, and he always insisted that it was fair," said Zachary, a retired farmer who died in 1969 at the age of 72.
Zachary recalled that the Yankees invited him to a farewell ceremony for Ruth at Yankee Stadium in 1948 when Ruth was dying of throat cancer. "The Babe came up to afterwards, so hoarse he could hardly talk, and said, 'You left-handed S.O.B., you still think that was a foul ball?'" Zachary admitted the ball wasn't foul, "but close, I reckon."
It bothered Zachary that he was remembered more for one gopher ball than for the 186 games he won for six teams during 18 years in the big leagues. But he had no doubts about Ruth's greatness. "Nobgody will ever replace the Babe," he said. "He faced the best pitchers all the time, and they bore down all the time."
The interview and resulting article I wrote got me a job as a reporter for a newspaper in St. Paul, Minn., but did little for my pitching career.
In 1962, I was promoted to the Indians' farm team in Charleston, W.Va., in the Eastern League, where I had the misfortune of competing with three future major league stars - Tommy John, Sonny Siebert and Luis Tiant. Manager Johnny Lipon used me only sparingly and I was released in June, and went back to my reporting job. Three years later, my newspaper sent me to Washington. where I acquired an incurable case of Potomac fever.
But I never forgot Tom Zachary's final words about the pitch that earned him a place in the history books. "If I had that one pitch to throw over," he said in all seriousness, "I'd throw it right at his ear."