It happened so quickly -- almost in the blink of an eye -- that Carroll Hardy remembers precious few details.
It seemed so insignificant.
“Nobody thought a thing about it,” Hardy says. “It wasn’t a big deal, that’s for sure.”
The date was Sept. 20, 1960.
Hardy, a baseball journeyman, was nestled into his usual spot on the bench. The reserve outfielder and his Boston Red Sox teammates were in Baltimore, where Ted Williams was playing out the final days of his Hall of Fame career.
Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history, stepped to the plate in the first inning against Orioles starter Hal “Skinny” Brown and promptly fouled a pitch off his instep.
“It hurt him so badly,” Hardy says of the Splendid Splinter, “that he limped off the field, through the dugout and up into the clubhouse. They said, ‘Hardy, get a bat; you’re the hitter.’ So I grabbed a bat and ran out there and hit into a double play.”
And that was that.
Or so Hardy thought.
It wasn’t until months later, when a Boston sportswriter called to tell him, that Hardy realized he had achieved trivia immortality: He was the only player ever to pinch-hit for Ted Williams.
“I had no idea,” he says.
For Hardy, now a 76-year-old grandfather living in Longmont, Colo., things like that just sort of happened.
His long career in professional sports, as a player and executive, had sort of a Forrest Gump quality to it.
“It wasn’t just Ted,” Hardy says.
In 1955, in his only season as a running back and wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, Hardy caught touchdown passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.
Three years later, with the Cleveland Indians, he hit his first major league home run -- as a pinch-hitter for Roger Maris.
Hardy also played a role in Williams’ major league finale. Williams, after hitting a home run in his final at-bat, briefly took the field in the ninth inning at Fenway Park before Hardy was summoned to replace him.
“They booed me all the way out,” Hardy notes, repeating a line he has trotted out before, “and cheered him all the way in.”
The next year, Hardy pinch-hit three times for rookie Carl Yastrzemski, another future Hall of Famer, and went two for three. (Yaz was lifted for a pinch-hitter 48 times in his career.)
Then, after leaving baseball in 1967, Hardy spent 20 years as a player personnel executive with the Denver Broncos, helping put together three teams that reached the Super Bowl.
“I was there,” Hardy notes, “when John Elway came in.”
Of course he was.
Still, it was Hardy’s association with Williams, slim though the thread may have been, that kept his name alive.
“When I was working with the Broncos,” he says, “I rarely got asked for an autograph. But as soon as Ted Williams passed away and it was noted that Carroll Hardy was the only guy who ever pinch-hit for him, I started getting all these letters.”
Hardy says many of the autograph hounds are specific: “They want me to sign my name and then add in quotes, ‘The only man ever to pinch-hit for Ted Williams, Sept. 20, 1960.’ ”
Which he does.
“It’s amusing,” he says. “When my friends hear about it, they say, ‘We didn’t realize you were such a celebrity.’ ”
In Colorado, Hardy was somewhat of a local big shot long before he morphed into a correct answer in Trivial Pursuit. A native of Sturgis, S.D., he lettered in football, baseball and track at the University of Colorado, setting school records that still stand -- 6.9 yards a carry, .392 lifetime batting average -- and posting a personal best of 9.8 seconds in the 100-yard dash. The most valuable player in the Hula Bowl, he was the 34th pick in the 1955 NFL draft.
After signing with both the Indians and 49ers, Hardy picked baseball over football after his only NFL season.
“I enjoyed it,” he says of his short time with the 49ers, “but it’s a tough sport. I wasn’t the most physical guy around, and I took some pretty good shots. I always thought that I could play longer and have a better career in baseball.”
In the major leagues, however, Hardy never reached great heights. He played for four teams over eight seasons, batting .225 with 17 home runs and 113 runs batted in.
“I can’t say that it was a great career,” he says.
As his career wound down, Hardy started scouting for the Broncos. Later, he moved seamlessly into an executive role with the team, remaining on the job for two decades before retiring in 1988 to a life of golfing, skiing, hunting and fishing.
“I’ve had a good life,” he says.
Including a brush with celebrity.
Even now, Hardy notes, “I probably sign cards or baseballs for people maybe four or five times a week.”
All because, one evening in Baltimore in 1960, he happened to be in the right place at the right time.