A Game of Inches
Death at the Ballpark
A Game of Inches
Baseball is a game of inches. The San Francisco Giants’ Hall of Fame first baseman, Willie McCovey, knew that better than anyone. With the Giants trailing the New York Yankees, 1-0, in the seventh game of the 1962 World Series, McCovey stood at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, men on second and third, and lined a bullet, only to be caught by the Yankees second baseman, to end the game—and the series. Had McCovey hit the ball a few inches higher, or a few inches to the right or a few inches to the left, he would have been a hero. Those few inches gnawed at McCovey till the day he died.
When I read that Willie McCovey recently died, I was suddenly 49 years younger—transported to a simpler time in my life when baseball, and my favorite team the Giants, held enormous sway over my happiness. Although I was born and raised in Los Angeles, I was a Giants fan--mainly because I loved the two Willies—Mays and McCovey—to me, the greatest duo in baseball history. Mays the legend--the greatest all around ballplayer of his generation and McCovey, the six foot four hulk of a man, with the perpetual smile and the ferocious swing that put fear in the eyes of opposing pitchers.
I was fortunate to see McCovey play ball at Dodger Stadium against the Dodgers when I was 11 years old. I even recall the exact date--May 16, 1970. Gaylord Perry was on the mound for the Giants; Bobby Bonds the lead-off hitter; Willie Mays batted third, and McCovey, of course, hit clean up. The Giants won 5-4, with McCovey delivering the winning blow when he hit his second home run of the game deep into the right field bleachers.
It should have been a great evening. Our group of friends from our Little League home, Poinsettia Park, wound up in field box seats just rows behind the Giants’ dugout. We ate foot long Dodger Dogs, drank Coca-Colas, shelled tons of peanuts--and we laughed and carried on— heaven under the bright stadium lights of Dodger Stadium.
It was also the night that a good friend of ours got hit in the head by a foul ball.
That Friday night in May, a couple of Poinsettia Park coaches drove my brother Stephen, me, and six of our friends to Dodger Stadium to see the Giants play the Dodgers. We didn’t have any money to buy tickets so we fanned out across the parking lot “mooching” tickets—asking everyone we saw if they had extra tickets to spare--someone always did. With tickets in our hands, we walked through the stadium gates looking for the best empty seats in the house. We’d usually get kicked out of those seats as the real ticket holders finally made it to the game, then we would find new ones--but that was all part of the fun. That night we were lucky-- we found a bunch of empty seats about five rows behind the visiting Giants’ dugout—seats that remained ours for the rest of the night. They weren’t all together, but that didn’t matter to us. Stephen sat next to Alan Fish and I sat across the aisle next to his brother, Stuart, my friend and sixth grade classmate.
In the third inning, the Dodgers’ Manny Mota whacked a foul ball that headed towards us--bringing a chorus of oohs and aahs from the crowd. The ball struck Alan above the left ear. He slumped down into his seat, his chin hitting his chest. He recovered a minute or so later, said he felt a bit dizzy, but that he was OK. Two paramedics came down to check on Alan and escorted him to the emergency first aid station, where the attending doctor examined him, gave him two aspirins and declared him intact. Just a bump on the head, he said—nothing serious. They sent him back to his seat to enjoy the rest of the game.
Towards the end of the game, Alan felt dizzy again. He threw up the hot dogs and the peanuts he ate earlier. His head pounded. He couldn’t keep his balance, appearing to the fans around us as if he drank too many beers. Dave, one of the coaches, realized Alan was in distress and took Alan by the arm, supporting him, and walked him up the steep stairs, through the concrete belly of the stadium, across the huge parking lot, where he laid Alan down on the backseat of his Volkswagen Bus. Alan was taken to the nearest emergency room but was told there would be an hour wait. They went to another hospital, but it couldn’t give him medical attention. Finally, a third hospital admitted him. Early the next morning, he went into a coma. Four days later he died. Alan Fish was 14 years old.
It was the first and only time in Major League Baseball history that a spectator died after being struck by a foul ball. That record still stands today—48 years later.
The day after Alan died, all of our friends gathered at the park to console each other. TV crews from the local stations interviewed us on the Poinsettia Park baseball infield--positioning us near the mound where Alan, the smooth throwing left hander, pitched. Reporters asked us how we were affected by Alan’s death? What kind of person was Alan? Are we going to miss him? How could we answer these ridiculous questions? We were hurting. We didn’t have the words.
The next three days we went door to door, raising money for Alan’s mother to help pay the hospital bills and funeral expenses. The day before the funeral, seven of us walked the mile or so from the park to Alan’s house and presented his mother with a card signed by his closest park friends. Her hands shook and her voice cracked as she read the card, barely able to get the words out. We then handed her a brown paper lunch bag, filled with crinkled bills--singles and fives, tens and twenties--probably not more than $160 in total, but for Mrs. Fish, it was priceless. She broke down and cried—tears of pain streamed down her face. Silent for what seemed an eternity. Finally she said, “I want you to know that Alan loved you guys.” She then gave each of us a hug so intense I can still feel it today.
A couple of months later the Fish family moved back to New York to be closer to old friends and family. I haven’t seen, or spoken to Stuart, since.
As Willie McCovey knew so well, baseball is a game of inches. As kids, we learned that life itself can also be a game of inches—only with higher stakes. A few inches to the right and that foul ball might have hit my brother. A few inches higher, and Alan might still be alive.