Balls, strikes and beers: a father-son umpiring crew saw 4 gritty stars rise in Detroit sandlots
As a teenager in the mid-1970s, I spent summers toiling alongside my father on dirt fields in suburban Detroit.
The work was part-time, usually three days a week including Sundays. It wasn’t unusual for us to bake in 90-degree heat and 90% humidity. The pay was about $10 an hour at a time when the minimum wage was $2.
Uniforms were mandatory — plain black cap, light blue shirt and dark slacks underneath full body armor, heavy mask and steel-toed shoes. If we made a mistake, managers would throw tantrums and berate us, often shouting profanities. But if they crossed a line, we could order them to leave the premises.
We were baseball umpires for the American Legion’s 18th District. As the eldest of six children, I came to cherish the opportunity to spend bonding time with my father as true partners. The work produced memories we share more than four decades later.
This is a personal narrative that takes on special significance as my 87-year-old dad labors through the final innings of life. It is the story of how sandlot baseball connected a father and son to four awkward teenagers growing up in gritty, sports-crazed small towns that worshiped the automobile, alcohol and our beloved Detroit Tigers.
Those teens would go on to earn roughly $50 million playing a boy’s game on a big stage. They would win a collective six World Series rings along with Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards. Three of them played starring roles in three World Series for the Dodgers.
Kirk Gibson, the most famous of them, hit an unforgettable home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Bob Welch struck out Mr. October — Reggie Jackson— on nine straight fastballs as a 21-year-old rookie to save Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. Steve Howe recorded the last 11 outs against the New York Yankees in Game 6 to clinch the 1981 World Series. That same year, Steve McCatty led American League pitchers in victories.
In the 1970s, American Legion ball around Detroit attracted the very best players age 19 and under — along with college and pro scouts who perched in the stands behind home plate.
As a two-man umpiring crew, my father and I always had each other’s back. Before instant replay, being an umpire meant never admitting you were wrong — even if, deep down, one of us knew the other had blown a call.
Forbes Glenn Bunting was born at the height of the Great Depression. He grew up in a one-bedroom, one-bath bungalow with no hot water and no telephone. A coal furnace in the living room provided the only source of heat. He slept out back in a closed-in porch; his sister slept in the attic.
Each summer, he played baseball at a nearby schoolyard from sunup to sundown and listened to Tigers games on the radio. (During road trips, an announcer read each at-bat aloud from a clattering ticker tape machine.)
He attended only two Tigers games at Briggs Stadium in his youth. “That was like walking into heaven,” he recalled.
His biggest thrill as a young fan came in 1945 when the Tigers beat the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series. More than 70 years later, he can recite every player and his nickname — among them catcher Hack Miller, shortstop Skeeter Webb, outfielders Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg and Doc Cramer, and pitchers Prince Hal Newhouser, Dizzy Trout and Virgil “Fire” Trucks.
My father played football and third base at Cass Tech Engineering High and went straight to Chrysler Motor Co., where he spent his entire career as an engineer.
He combined his greatest passions — baseball and Budweiser — as a Little League coach. During one visit home from college, I watched in amazement as my brother Andy and his young teammates took turns retrieving cans of Bud from a cooler stashed underneath the bench to deliver to my Dad in the third base coach’s box.
Recently, my dad composed a heartfelt note to his children citing his failing health and his desire to decline further medical care. He ended it with his trademark humor: “It may seem a bit odd, but when I pray to my God, I keep hoping and thinking I will be drinking on the other side of sod.”
I spent my first four years in the same Westside Detroit bungalow my father was raised in. We then moved to the suburbs in Madison Heights. Nearly every kid on our block was the offspring of an auto worker and played sports year-round. We followed the Tigers by listening to the gospel of Ernie Harwell on transistor radios.
I still have a World Series program from 1968, when the Tigers overcame a 3-games-to-1 deficit to beat Bob Gibson and the heavily favored St. Louis Cardinals. Like my father and the 1945 Tigers, I can recite every player on that team.
More than any Tigers moment, the hot afternoon of June 23, 1967, is seared in my childhood memory. My father took my brother Mark and me to a Sunday doubleheader against the hated Yankees. We sat in the left-field bleachers above our favorite player, Willie Horton. As if on cue, Horton blasted a home run that day. So did a gimpy first baseman named Mickey Mantle.
As dark clouds drifted over the stadium during the nightcap, my dad told us it was time to leave. The next day, we awoke to a phone call informing my father not to report for work. Those clouds, it turned out, were huge puffs of black smoke choking the city at the onset of the Detroit riots.
For the next week, we stayed indoors and watched horrifying images on our tiny Motorola of white Guardsmen shooting black rioters as hundreds of buildings were engulfed in flames. As an 11-year-old paperboy, I ventured out to deliver the Royal Oak Tribune each afternoon on an eerily quiet, motionless Spoon Street.
With the smell of smoke heavy in the air, I spotted fear in the eyes of neighbors who waited for the latest news behind locked doors. It was the first time I saw a handgun (tucked in the waistband of an elderly man who greeted me in his driveway) and heard the N-word (as part of a stern warning to get off the street for my own safety).
All part of growing up in Detroit.
Kirk Gibson was so wild as a pitcher for Chief Pontiac Post 377 that he once flung a fastball over the head of a crouched catcher that struck me flush in the mask. My head rang like a bell.
Gibson credits his Legion manager, Shufer Burns, with teaching him the finer points of the game. My dad and I had a soft spot for “Shu,” a bald, pint-sized man who spit tobacco on the field and dressed up for every game in a full uniform that included checkered shorts.
“We really loved him,” Gibson told me. “He had a way of convincing us to do the right thing.”
When Gibson took practice swings before a Legion game, Shu would lean against the batting cage and admire his raw talent. “That boy’s a pure hitter,” he liked to say.
Gibson had such a ferocious swing that the sound of the ball coming off his aluminum bat was different than that of his peers. On the basepaths, you could hear loud footsteps as his muscular frame pounded the dirt.
For those of us who watched him then, Gibson’s World Series heroics were no surprise. No Tigers fan can forget his eighth-inning shot off Goose Gossage in Game 5 to clinch the 1984 World Series. It is the last time Detroit celebrated a baseball championship.
Of course, Gibson is best known for hobbling to the plate in the bottom of the ninth of the 1988 World Series and smashing a pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 for the Dodgers. It is also is the last year Los Angeles celebrated a baseball championship.
When Gibson connected off Oakland Athletics closer Dennis Eckersley, I leaped off the couch in our living room outside Pasadena and exchanged high-fives with our neighbors, my wife and our 6-year-old son. I went to the backyard and called my father. It was Legion ball all over again.
“That boy’s a pure hitter,” he said.
Bob Welch was the most polished of all the Legion pitchers we umpired. Watching him mix a blazing fastball and a wicked curve with off-speed pitches for Berkley Post 374 was like witnessing a young maestro on a hill.
We had no clue he was a teen alcoholic. Welch wrote in his book “Five O’Clock Comes Early” that at age 10 he chugged glasses of 7 and 7. At 15, he got drunk on a bottle of Mogen David blackberry wine.
Remarkably, the drinking didn’t interfere with his pitching prowess. Welch led Eastern Michigan to back-to-back appearances in the College World Series and was drafted by the Dodgers in the first round in 1977. He won the American League Cy Young Award in 1990 and is the last pitcher to win 25 games in a season.
Shortly after striking out Jackson to save Game 2 of the 1978 World Series, Welch checked himself into a rehab clinic at the urging of the Dodgers.
“I have fallen asleep in a cemetery, on floors, in a Japanese geisha house,” Welch wrote. “I once fell asleep in a whorehouse with a handful of one-hundred-dollar bills.… The only place I never fell asleep was a bar. Too busy drinking.”
On June 14, 2014, Welch died of a broken neck after falling accidentally in the shower of his Seal Beach home. He was 57.
Steve Howe called his three favorite Tigers — Mickey Lolich, Denny McLain and Norm Cash — “interesting choices” for a future drug addict. “Lolich had a beer belly and a reputation as a serious partyer, McLain had served time in federal prison, and Cash died tragically in a boating accident after a drinking bout,” Howe wrote in his book “Between the Lines.”
Howe frequently skipped class in high school to get drunk with friends. At 16, he began hopping bars — with his father.
In the parking lot before a Friday night Legion game, I spotted Howe with what looked like a beer can in a brown paper bag. I felt obliged to check with his manager about whether Howe was slated to pitch for Lake Orion Post 233 that evening. Fortunately, he was not.
The Dodgers selected Howe in the first round of the 1979 draft. An All-Star reliever, he was suspended a record seven times, including the entire 1984 season, for substance abuse. Two days after the Dodgers released him, he was arrested for carrying a loaded .357 Magnum.
I was working in the Los Angeles Times newsroom in 2006 when a bulletin crossed the wires that Howe had died after his pickup truck overturned on a highway in the California desert. The toxicology report found methamphetamine in his system. He was 48.
Steve McCatty was a chatterbox and carefree spirit who enjoyed slinging quips and barbs at his Troy Post 518 teammates, opposing players and even us umpires.
My dad and I laugh at the time McCatty was pitching and surrendered two bloop singles that landed at the feet of a timid left fielder. He called timeout and summoned the shortstop to the mound for a chat.
“Someone needs to tell that kid that if he catches the ball in the air, it’s an out,” McCatty cracked.
Today, my father is legally blind, hard of hearing and grappling with a recent diagnosis of throat cancer. He suffered a heart attack and underwent triple-bypass surgery last fall between Games 1 and 2 of the World Series.
We still talk baseball, mostly about quirky plays or rules interpretations. We chuckle at the time one Legion manager ran onto the field to protest a close play at first base that he was certain I had gotten wrong.
After screaming at me, the angry skipper rushed up to my dad behind home plate and shouted for all to hear: “Like father, like son!”
Bunting was a Times editor and reporter from 1985 to 2007. He is the founder and president of the strategic communications firm G.F.BUNTING+CO.
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