GOLDEN YEARS : Those Were the Days, but the Stories Get Better With Age for Hall of Famers at Drysdale Celebrity Golf Tournament
A loud crash reverberated through the dining room at a decibel level that made silverware quiver like tuning forks.
It sounded as if someone had just taken a dive straight through a plate-glass window. Bobby Hull looked around to see what happened.
A waitress stood over a tray of dishes she had dropped, but Hull had a better idea of whom to blame.
“Uh, oh,” Hull said. “Nitschke’s doing the dishes again,”
Amid a din of laughter, Ray Nitschke was too busy to reply. Having finished lunch, he was chewing a cigar for dessert.
Earlier, someone had remarked to Duke Snider how well he looked. Snider wistfully agreed.
“If I had known I’d live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself,” Snider said.
Well, you had to be there. Some of the greatest names in sports, all of them Hall of Famers, got together over the weekend to laugh, lie and play golf in the Don Drysdale Hall of Fame golf tournament at Hyatt Grand Champions.
The event, which benefits desert charities, drew a number of former great athletes:
Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Ernie Banks, Brooks Robinson, Al Kaline, Snider, Willie McCovey and Ralph Kiner from baseball; Chuck Bednarik, Otto Graham, Paul Warfield, Sid Gillman, Nitschke, Glenn Davis, Tom Fears, Deacon Jones, Marion Motley, Jim Taylor and Don Maynard from football.
Eddie Arcaro, Bob Cousy, Jack Kramer, John Havlicek, Rick Barry, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Hull, Drysdale, of course, and others.
They seemed to have a great time. The past wasn’t too bad either.
In his closet at home, there must be just about 9,000 caps that he bought at the last minute to keep warm while playing golf, DiMaggio said.
The hair was white on the head that wore the black cap DiMaggio bought at the Morningside pro shop Friday morning. The cap rested easily upon the greatest living legend in baseball history, who stood leaning on his driver the same way he leaned on a bat so many years ago.
This living legend idea is a label that DiMaggio accepts with characteristic style and grace, but not without a bit of reluctance because he knows that along with it comes the public attention he does not seek and surely does not want.
At 74, DiMaggio is growing old with the same kind of grace with which he patrolled Yankee Stadium for 13 years, 10 American League pennants and 8 world championships.
The second youngest of 9 children of fisherman Joseph and Rosalie DiMaggio, he lives in the same house he bought for his parents in the 1930s in the Marina district of San Francisco, near the Presidio.
DiMaggio still keeps a busy schedule. In addition to his many appearances at charity functions, he is a spokesman for the Bowery Bank of Manhattan.
Wary of interviewers, DiMaggio is reluctant to speak of his career or his personal life. Friends say part of the reason is shyness, the rest a lifelong quest for privacy.
“It’s my business,” he said simply.
DiMaggio is for the first time considering an autobiography. Maybe in his book DiMaggio will feel free to tell his story.
Over a quiet dinner of broiled salmon, DiMaggio, in a gray-checked sports coat and white knit golf shirt, he said he did not want to reminisce. He did, however, engage in polite dinner conversation.
“The pitchers who gave me the most trouble were sinkerballers,” DiMaggio said. “Mel Harder was tough. There were only a couple of pitchers who threw sliders, but the emeryball and spitball were legal pitches, so we had our problems, too.”
A .325 lifetime hitter, DiMaggio seemed to have little trouble with anyone. Only 2 things slowed him--a 3-year enlistment in the military during World War II and a nagging heel injury.
DiMaggio missed the first 2 months of the 1949 season when surgeons removed bone spurs from his heel in a relatively new type of operation.
“I was kind of a guinea pig,” DiMaggio said. “Nobody really knew much about it, but I went in with my eyes open. What was I going to do? I had to play and this was the only way.”
DiMaggio returned to the Yankees and in late June, he hit 4 home runs and made a game-saving catch as New York swept the Boston Red Sox in an important 3-game series at Fenway Park.
“I’ll never forget it,” DiMaggio said, but wouldn’t go on.
DiMaggio ended his round of golf with a wonderful bunker shot on the last hole, had lunch, finished with apple pie for dessert and then headed for the airport where he would catch a flight for another engagement that night.
DiMaggio flew in a private plane. It seemed only appropriate.
Eddie Arcaro is 72, lives in Florida and is on the golf course just about every day. Since he retired in 1962 as one of the greatest jockeys of all time, Arcaro’s interests have tended to run more toward birdies than horses.
But when he was riding, the horses always seemed to run for Arcaro, especially in the Kentucky Derby. He won 5 of them. Twice he won the Triple Crown, horse racing’s trifecta of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont.
Arcaro won his first Kentucky Derby in 1938 on Larwin. He won again in 1941 on Whirlaway, in 1945 on Hoop Jr., in 1948 with Citation and in 1952 with Hill Gail.
Does he remember them all? Sort of. “You know, I don’t remember the winning ones so much as the ones I should have won,” he said. “The ones that are indented in your mind are the ones when you goof up or had bad luck in. I rode in 21 Derbies and won 5, won 2 Triple Crowns, but I should have won maybe another one. Like I got beat on Nashua (Swaps won in 1955) through bad luck, then won the Preakness and the Belmont hands down.
“The Derby is just different. People are screaming and hollering. The atmosphere scares the hell out of a lot of people.”
When he was a boy in Newport, Ky., right across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Arcaro was hardly a frightening sight. Instead of saying he grew up, the tendency is to say he merely grew older because by the time Arcaro was in high school, he was only 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds.
“Horse racing gave me a chance because I was so damned small, I couldn’t compete in other sports,” he said. “I gave it a try.”
He began working in some stables in Kentucky’s horse country, since Newport was not part of this industry. Arcaro tried riding for the first time at Agua Caliente, in Mexico, then returned to Kentucky where he sized up his competition.
“All those kids I was meeting, they were from horse country,” he said. “People thought that since I was from Kentucky, I was associated with horses. But, hell, there were no horses where I was from.
“I had no idea I’d ever be a success.”
But he was. Arcaro became the first jockey to win more than $2 million in purses and Whirlaway, Citation and Kelso are rated among the best horses of all time.
Whirlaway, Arcaro’s second Derby winner, was a special horse because his style had to be completely altered to make him successful.
The horse was a beautiful chestnut color and his tail touched the ground. Trainer Ben Jones, however, wanted to give Whirlaway a different look. Jones changed Whirlaway from a front-running speed horse into a come-from-behinder.
“We reversed him,” Arcaro said. “It took a long time to do that, to train him to lay back, but when you wanted him to move, you’d better have some place for him to go.”
In the 1941 Kentucky Derby, Arcaro found a place. Whirlaway, once dead last in the field, moved into position on the far side. Then, magic happened.
“Just as I gathered him up, he just exploded,” Arcaro said. “He went to the front between the half-mile pole and turning the corner and he must have run that quarter-mile in 20 seconds.”
Whirlaway won in a breakaway, beating Staretor.
"(Whirlaway) was an impressive horse to ride,” Arcaro said.
But if Whirlaway was especially noteworthy, even more so was Kelso, the best horse Arcaro said he ever rode.
Kelso was a 5-time horse of the year, from 1960-1964, and Arcaro rode him the first 3 years. But Kelso never ran in the Kentucky Derby. Arcaro said Kelso was so mean as a 3-year-old, he had to be gelded, and so missed his chance at the Derby.
“Even so, he could do it all,” Arcaro said. “He carried weight, he ran all distances, he could sprint, he could go 2 miles, he was just amazing.”
It’s been more than 50 years since his first Derby victory. In those days, when he was riding, Arcaro spent countless mornings in the horse barns and on the track. There, in the darkness, the sound of muffled hoofbeats competed with the smell of wintergreen and chicory coffee for the attention of one’s senses.
Arcaro doesn’t miss it.
“You kidding?” he said laughing. “You might think it’s bad, but your old buddies are there, too. They are all doing the same thing. I did it so much in my life, I don’t miss it at all. It becomes a way of life. It was my way of life, it’s just not my life anymore.”
Choke? Bob Cousy? Surely Red Auerbach’s hair would turn black before something like that happened.
But Cousy said it did indeed.
In 1957, in the seventh game of the NBA finals between the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks, Cousy said a very large apple, the size of basketball, got lodged in his throat.
“It was strange,” he said. “It was the first time I choked in basketball.
“Unlike golf, in basketball normally the thought of choking doesn’t come into play because everything is action and reaction--unless you’re at the foul line--so I never thought of it.”
Cousy, 60 years old and 32 years removed from that experience, remembers clearly how he choked and the Celtics still won their first NBA title. There would be many more, 16 in fact, but until that seventh game in 1957, the Celtic mystique was not yet been born.
Cousy’s choke may have been the first instance of a Celtic mistake becoming Celtic mystique.
The series with the Hawks was tied, 3-3, but with 4 seconds left, Boston led by 1 point and Cousy was fouled. He would shoot 2 free throws.
“I go up to the line and dropped the first one, no problem at all, just swished it through,” he said. “We go up by 2. Alex Hannum was the Hawks coach. He might have been the first one that thought about icing people down.
“He calls a timeout. We go back to the huddle and everybody is jumping up and down. They’re saying, ‘Cooz, all you’ve got to do is make this and we win our first championship ever.’ All that stuff.
“Now that thought went through my mind. If I do make it, there’s no way we can lose. We’re up by 3 and the best they can do is make a 2-pointer. Anyway, I go to the line, I shoot, but I barely move my arm. I miss the rim. I fell short of the rim.
“I get letters to this day saying, ‘Cooz, what was the strategy? We knew you couldn’t miss that badly, so what was it about?’ ”
What it was about was that Cousy, one of the best free-throw shooters in NBA history, blew it because of a case of nerves.
“It was a pure, unadulterated choke,” he said.
The Hawks had a chance to tie. They took the ball out beneath the basket. A length-of-the-court pass bounced off the backboard and into the eager hands of the Hawks’ best player, Bob Pettit.
“He was 15 feet away and in perfect position for his best shot,” Cousy said. “But he choked worse than I did. He let that thing go, it hit the backboard and it almost bounced out to half-court. I mean it was incredible. Two pretty good basketball players choking almost simultaneously.”
According to Cousy, there is a choke factor built into sports, even if many athletes do not want to acknowledge it.
“Generally, I’ve always felt that any great athlete normally overachieves under pressure and the mediocre ones self-destruct,” he said.
“But even the great ones all choke at one point or another. The ones that deny it are liars. They’re lying to themselves and they’re lying to the public.”
So that is how the Celtics won their first title. With it, they were on their way. The addition of center Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn to Cousy and a veteran team that included Bill Sharman, the Celtics won 11 NBA titles in the next 13 years.
Cousy was around for 6 of them, but he will always remember the first.
“The longer you work to achieve something, they say the more meaningful it becomes,” Cousy said. “I had been on the team 6 years before we won.”
For a long time, Cousy said he has been told he was born 20 years too soon, that his unique basketball talents would have been worth a great deal of money today. But Cousy believes his moment arrived correctly.
“I will always believe that I played, we played, at the best possible time,” he said. “We enjoyed it. The relationships between players, between coaches and players and between players and management, everything was comfortable and warm,” he said.
“Today, it’s hostile and bottom line and cutthroat. But guys are becoming millionaires overnight. So depending on what your priorities are and what you consider great, I think we played in a far better time.”
Cousy is a television commentator for Celtic games. His fifth book, “Cousy On Celtic Mystique,’ was released 2 weeks ago. He still has no trouble remembering when it all started, the time he was standing there at that free-throw line in 1957.
Burglars broke into Cousy’s house a few years ago and stole all of his championship rings, gold charms and silver trays. He mourned their loss, but chose to replace only one item.
“I remade only the ’57 championship ring, the first year,” he said. “That’s the ring I wear.”
In the 1960s, Ray Nitschke may have been the meanest player in the NFL, playing for Vince Lombardi, who may have been the meanest coach. At least those were their reputations.
But when Bart Starr followed Jerry Kramer into the end zone to beat the Dallas Cowboys in 1967 and send the Green Bay Packers into the Super Bowl, Nitschke and Lombardi were standing next to each other on the sidelines.
They hugged each other.
“Of all the games I played in 15 years, that had to be the greatest,” said Nitschke, 52, a national accounts executive for a midwest trucking firm. He lives in Oneida, Wis.
“It was really an exceptional moment. You play sports and you dream of playing in a game that ends that way. We were right at the end of our reign, more or less, the old, veteran team that had been in big games playing against a young, strong, up-and-coming franchise like the Dallas Cowboys.
“To beat them like that . . . in the locker room afterward, of all the tremendous celebrations, that had to be the greatest moment for the Green Bay Packers.”
At 6-feet 3-inches and 235 pounds, Nitschke teamed with Dave Robinson and Lee Roy Caffey to form one of the best linebacking units in NFL history. Nitschke was the anchor, a snarling, aggressive defender who enjoyed his reputation for meanness.
“As a linebacker, you like to think you’re mean and tough and you hope they don’t run in your direction. That makes it a lot easier when you play.”
Under Lombardi, the Packers with Nitschke achieved greatness. Green Bay won 5 NFL titles in the 1960s. The Packers and Nitschke, who was a blocking back in college at Illinois and converted to linebacker at Green Bay, won the NFL title in 1962 by defeating the New York Giants.
In that game, Nitschke became a star. He deflected a pass that led to interception and recovered 2 fumbles. Nitschke was named the championship game’s MVP.
Now, more than 22 years since the Packers last success, Nitschke said the team he played for was not only one of intimidation and brute force, but also one of love and togetherness.
“We had such a tremendous love and respect for one another,” he said. “Winning that game against the Cowboys was what sports were all about. Lombardi gets bigger every year. He stressed the basics--personal commitment, pride, respect, discipline. He was really a gifted guy, a great leader.”
Nitschke’s father, Robert, was killed in an automobile accident when Ray was a child in Elmwood Park, Ill. He said sports helped him make something of himself.
“It was a way of learning, an outlet,” he said. “I probably benefitted from football as much as anybody who ever played the game.”
The Packers of the ‘60s rank as one of sport’s most enduring dynasties, and Nitschke is grateful for playing a part.
“They are great memories,” he said. “The great experiences that I had by being in Green Bay at that particular time, no one can ever take away from me. Those are the things you cherish.”