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Billy Reed: Birthday remembrances with a baseball soundtrack playing prominently in the background

Today is my birthday, and a lot of things go through your mind when you reach my age. I remember, for example, Mickey Mantle’s famous quote before he died: “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d taken better care of myself.”

I think a lot about baseball because the season always was in full swing on July 12. Not this year, of course, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. But I still have a lot of happy memories, including the time a few years ago when the Louisville Bats invited me to celebrate by throwing out the first pitch (it got to the plate, barely).

For some reason, I remember the summer of 1959, when I turned 16. That was a pivotal time in my life. My father already had told me he was tired of supporting my ‘sorry butt,” and I’d better find a job to sustain me through my last two years at Henry Clay High School in Lexington.

By the grace of God, I was able to do just that. I began working part-time in The Lexington Herald-Leader sports department in August, and loved it so much I was working almost 40 hours a week by the end of the year. I owe much to Billy Thompson, the assistant sports editor of The Herald. He’s the man who hired me and gave me a lot of responsibility for a 16-year-old.

I celebrated my birthday that summer by accompanying my dysfunctional family to a double-header at Crosley Field between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. Actually, the trip came on July 26, a full two weeks after my birthday, but I’ve always considered the “twin bill,” as the baseball writers used to call a double-header, as my birthday gift.

Both teams had losing records, so I guess it was fitting they split the games. The Reds won the first one, 4-2, behind pitchers Don Newcombe and Brooks Lawrence, but the Phillies took the so-called “nightcap,” 6-3, with the Phillies’ 6-foot-8 Gene Conley, one of three men to play in both the World Series and the NBA championship series, defeating young Reds’ left-hander Jim O’Toole.

The record book says the double-header attracted 15,557 fans, about 13,000 or so below Crosley’s capacity. The first game lasted an hour and 55 minutes, the second two hours and 45 minutes. That’s a lot of baseball on a hot Sunday afternoon in July, but I loved every minute of it.

The Phillies’ second-baseman in both games was a rookie named George “Sparky” Anderson. He only played one season in the major leagues, and this was one of his best days. He went 1-for-3 in the first game and 3-for-5 in the second, not bad at all for a guy who was hitting .220 for the season.

Years later, when Sparky became the manager of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine,” he was delighted when I told him I had seen him play in the summer of 1959. Of course, he was every bit as stellar as a manager as he was mediocre as a player, becoming the only man to manage a World Series champion in both the National and American Leagues.

The “Big Red Machine” champions of 1975 and ’76 are still remembered as perhaps the best team in baseball history. They might have won another two or three, but management ruined the chemistry by trading Tony Perez, the slugging first-baseman and clubhouse catalyst, to Montreal for the 1977 season. One by one, the players moved elsewhere except for catcher Johnny Bench, shortstop Dave Concepcion, and right-fielder Ken Griffey Sr.

As the Reds declined, general manager Dick Wagner felt he had to “shakeup” the coaching staff, which meant he intended to fire some of the guys who had been with Anderson for years. Sparky refused to go along, and was fired on Nov. 27, 1978, a sad day in Reds’ history.

He didn’t stay away from the game for long. On June 14, 1979, the Detroit Tigers hired him to run a team stocked with talented young players such as shortstop Allan Trammell, second-baseman Lou Whitaker, and outfielder Kirk Gibson. The decision paid off in 1984 when the Tigers won the World Series.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

I could not have foreseen any of this when I saw Sparky play on July 26, 1959. He seemed destined to be one of those guys who got his cup of coffee in the big leagues before fading back into obscurity. But Sparky had a shrewd baseball mind, and an ability to motivate, that didn’t become apparent until years later.

Two years after the summer of ’59, the Reds shocked the baseball world by winning the pennant for manager Fred Hutchinson. Their opponent in the World Series were the New York Yankees of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. That was the year Maris hit 61 homers to break Babe Ruth’s hallowed record of 60 in one season.

I turned 18 that summer and was covering high school sports for the afternoon Lexington Leader. But when sports editor Winfield Leathers declined to cover the World Series because he didn’t particularly like baseball, I asked him to request a credential in my name, which he did.

I covered two of the three Series games played at Crosley Field. Years later, just for the heck of it, I started claiming to be the youngest writer ever credentialed to cover the World Series for a metropolitan newspaper. To this day, nobody has disputed my claim, so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

I miss baseball because it’s been the background soundtrack of all my summers. I hope the big leagues are able to play an abbreviated season beginning July 24. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to complain. The health and safety of all our citizens is far more important than any game, and I know my friend Sparky would agree 100 per cent if he were still around to go through this with us.

One of my first birthday gifts came from my friend Kathleen Gumbel, who works for Commonwealth Bank & Trust of Louisville. She’s also a Reds’ fan, and she hand-made a Reds’ face mask for me. I was touched by her kindness, and if that’s as close as I come to baseball on my birthday, it’s more than enough.

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One Comment

  1. Dear Billy,
    Your letter brought back many memories of Henry Clay, rhe Reds and old KY friends. I have read your sports columns and many of your facebook posts.
    I am retired from Hospital Pathology and live in Kansas City, where I follow the fortunes of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Royals.
    Hope the Docs will take good care of you.
    Live long and prosper!
    Parker LaBach

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