1951: New York Yankees 15 – Houston Buffs 9.

Sorry to be getting this story to you so late. It’s actually my third attempt. The first time I wrote it up back in 2003, it became part of the book I did with the late Buff slugging star Jerry Witte, “A Kid rom St. Louis” in slightly different form. Today’s version is pretty much of a reprint on the column I wrote over at ChronCom, the Houston Chronicle website, on July 7, 2008.

What stirred to repeat it here was the news that longtime Yankee Stadium public address announcer Bob Sheppard has died at age 99. Sheppard had worked the Yankee Stadium games from 1951 through 2006, becoming the franchise’s iconic voice over the process of time.

Thanks to my dad, I got to see the Yankee club that started Sheppard’s career in New York – and that 1951 team included Joe DiMaggio in his last season and Mickey Mantle in his first. And I got to see them both together in the same outfield at Buff Stadium, even getting to stand there on that field with them behind the spillover spectator ropes as a kid fan on the first standing room row.

How blessed can a lucky kid from the East End have been, so, in honor of Sheppard, my father, and the memory of a lifetime, here it is again, one more time.

The Houston Post, April 9, 1951

The date was April 8, 1951. It was a typically hot and humid 3:00 PM Sunday afternoon baseball game at Buff Stadium. Because of the very special circumstances, my dad had driven 13 year old me, my 9 year old little brother John, and my 13 year old Pecan Park best friend Billy Sanders to a pre-season exhibition game at the old ballpark.

The New York Yankees were coming through town to play the Houston Buffs in a single game. The great Joe DiMaggio was set to play center field for the Yankees, with 18-year old rookie spring training phenom Mickey Mantle playing right fieldI. Everybody in Houston wanted to see this game. And it would turn out to be a game and afternoon that all of us would remember forever.

Oh my! I only wish that I had been able to take my Kodak Brownie camera with me to that special game on that particular day, but I learned too late that I had no more film and, with Dad springing for the tickets, I knew better than to ask him for extra money as an advance on my allowance – just for film. Dad had his own ideas about what was important and he didn’t suffer well from requests that seemed extravagant. As a result, 57 years later, you will just have to settle here for pictures that still exist vividly in my mind as best I am to develop them for you in words.

We left for the game only about forty-five minutes prior to its scheduled start. That fact alone bothered me. Since we didn’t have tickets, I worried that we might not be able to get into the ballpark due to an almost certain sellout. Anxiety didn’t matter. Dad already had settled into his “don’t worry about it” mode and there was nothing left for me to do but keep my fingers crossed and pray. Yes, I prayed about stuff like this when I was 13.

When we reached the Cullen Boulevard exit going north up the Gulf Freeway from the southeast, our red 1950 Studebaker immediately oozed into bumper-to-bumper traffic and slowed to an inch-by-inch pace over the last 500 feet of street-trekking into the Buff Stadium parking lot.

“Oh, My God!” I muttered from the back seat.

“Don’t get the Lord involved in this one!” Dad affirmed, as he lit another Camel and began to bongo the steering wheel with his right hand.

I didn’t say it, but I thought it: “If we had gotten the Lord involved earlier, we wouldn’t be going through this and left the house earlier, and with my Kodak Brownie camera already loaded with film!”

By the time we reached the ticket gate, we already knew that we would be lucky if the SRO tickets were still available. Buff Stadium held 11,000-seated tickets, but club president Allen Russell was already roping off about twenty feet from the outfield in left and right field. By taking that measure and just making every ball that flew or rolled into the outfield SRO section a ground rule double, Russell would be able to get an extra 2,500 to 3,000 fans into the ballpark for the big game.

Once Dad bought our tickets for the left field crowd, I didn’t mind at all. I knew that we now had a chance to fight for a front-of-the-rope position deep as possible toward center field – and very near the great Joe DiMaggio.

It happened. We did it. We battled for four spots in left center on the front rope line and won. To our left during the game, the great Joe D. was often no more than fifty feet away. Once he even came over and, running toward us, he caught a fly ball directly in front of us. In my mind I whispered, “Nice catch, Joe!”, but the actual words could not escape my lips. I can still hear the sound of his footsteps as his charge came closer and closer. For whatever reason, I wasn’t worried about him crashing into us. And he didn’t.

I could squint into the further distance and see the young Mickey Mantle in right field. He looked so very young because he was. He was only five years older than my friend Billy and me. I remember thinking, “Wow! In five years, I could be either playing pro baseball too or else, serving with the army in Korea.”

Neither happened. I never had the talent of a Mickey Mantle. And they settled the Korean War before I could get there.

Once in a while during the game, when the Yankees were in the field, I would close my right eye to block out the sight of Yankee left fielder Gene Woodling. As I did, it was to help my fantasy that it was I, not Woodling, playing left field for the Yankees. What an outfield that was on April 8, 1951: Mantle in right; DiMaggio in center; and McCurdy in left!

In my dreams, small things never occurred to me.

The game itself did not disappoint, except for the fact that none of my Yankee adulation had removed my first loyalty to the Buffs. The Buffs jumped on the Yankees early, but couldn’t hold them for the full nine innings.

Going into the 9th, the Yankees led, 13-6, paced by Mickey Mantle’s 5th inning, 3-run homer over our heads and over the double-deck fence in left center that rose behind us. 2-run homers earlier by both Russell Rac and Frank Shofner had not been enough to keep the Buffs in contention.

Then something happened in the 9th that may have never occurred before or since. I know the facts of this story from my interviews with former Buffs slugger Jerry Witte, when we were working on his biography “A Kid From St. Louis” a few years ago.

Jerry Witte had been asking Joe DiMaggio all day for a souvenir bat. Nothing happened until the top of the 9th, when Joltin’ Joe crashed a homer of his own to left with one man on base. As the game moved to the bottom of the 9th with the Yankees now leading 15-6, DiMaggio sent his home run bat over by way of a bat boy as his gift to Jerry Witte.

When Jerry Witte came to bat against veteran hurler Max Peterson with two Buffs on base in the bottom of the 9th, he decided on impulse to use the DiMaggio bat for his last time up against the Yankees.

Lo and behold! Deploying the same bat that Joe D. had used to crank a homer in the top half of the 9th, Jerry Witte unloaded a “Fair Maid Bakery” blast to center field in the bottom of the 9th to make the final score in the game New York Yankees 15 – Houston Buffs 9!

As Witte trotted home at the end of his home run pace, he says he stole a look for DiMaggio in the Yankees first base dugout. He said that DiMaggio was falling all over himself with laughter for having supplied Witte with his weapon of last productive resort.

After the game. Jerry Witte got Joe DiMaggio to sign the bat for him. He still owned the bat at the time of his death in 2002. If there was ever another instance in organized baseball of two players from opposite teams both homering in the 9th, or any other inning, of the same game, using the same bat, I’ve never heard of it.

I will always be grateful to my Dad for taking us to the biggest game in my childhood memory. I’m also glad that he didn’t buy our tickets in advance. Had he done so, we would have missed out on our up close and personal experience in the outfield with the great Joe DiMaggio on a hot April day in Houston back in 1951.

Things do have a way of working out for the best. Sometimes.

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15 Responses to “1951: New York Yankees 15 – Houston Buffs 9.”

  1. David Munger Says:

    Great story, Bill.

  2. Damon Leonetti Says:

    Bill:

    I enjoy your articles. Thank you for sharing your Joe D. story. Below is mine…

    I’m a bit younger and missed most of the Buff history in Houston, only catching Williams and Santo during the Cub years. On to my Joe D story.

    My dad (a blue collar provider) was somehow able to get some World Series tickets in 1959 via his brother in Southern California. He took me on a train to see the 3 games at the LA Coliseum. In addition to the train ride and attending a WORLD SERIES, part of the fun and experience was seeking autographs from the celebs attending. I got most of mine near the restrooms-LOL. (Anne Miller, Jack Webb, Leo Durocher and others).
    As we were walking to meet my uncle after the final game in LA (game 5), we were waiting at a stop light reflecting on our dream father/son vacation. All of a sudden, my dad says, “Look son, there is Joe DiMaggio sitting in the back of that limo” (while waiting for the light to turn green). I politely stepped forward and presented my Dodger program, which he very obligingly lowered the window, greeted me and signed. A cherised momento and exciting ending from my greatest childhood experiece.

    Damon Leonetti

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Damon:

      Thanks. I love your Joe D story too. Hope you hold onto that
      1959 World Series program forever. What a thrill. I’ve kicked
      myself forever that I did not have our Kodak Brownie camera
      with me that 1951 spring afternoon in Buff Stadium. The pictures
      in my mind will have to do – and they will live forever, but to
      get his autograph as you did – man. that’s the tops! – See
      you down the road somewhere. – Bill McCurdy

  3. Judy Murrah Says:

    I love your stories. My husband forwards them on to me. Aren’t good memories the best!

  4. Mike McCroskey Says:

    Good story, Bill. I felt like I was there with you, although I never got to see DiMaggio play or go to Buff Stadium.

    Mike

  5. Wayne Roberts Says:

    I’ve only been reading these for about 6 months now and this is the best yet. Too bad you didn’t have the film but your narrative paints a great picture.

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks, Wayne.

      It was the most thrilling day of my childhood. I’m gratified that some of the imagery from that day was transferable to others through words. Your kind words in return help me feel a little better about the missing camera. It’s absence has haunted me for years as my only real regret from that day. I hated the fact that the Buffs couldn’t pull out a win, but hey, even then I was grounded in the reality that the Buffs were not even close to being in the same league with the New York Yankees. – Bill McCurdy

  6. Shirley Virdon Says:

    Great story! I saw my first Major League game with my Dad when I was 10 years old. We went to St. Louis to see the Cardinals play and we were lucky enough to catch a foul ball off the bat of Marty Marion, the Cardinal shortstop. That was the beginning of my “love affair” with baseball!

    This week has brought back memories of our 2 years in New York with the Yankees. I was saddened to hear of George’s passing. He was difficult to work for, but he was always kind to me and because of him, Bill received more national exposure as a manager than he could have anywhere. That lead to his arrival in Houston and a successful 7 years with the Astros!

    • Bill McCurdy Says:

      Thanks, Shirley!

      I hope you kept that Marty Marion foul ball and got him to sign it.

      You are so right about this week. The death of “The Boss” was a big loss for baseball. Some people may not have liked him, but George got things done when it came to putting a winning club on the field. He was important to your Bill, but so was Bill important to George and the Yankees. We just got lucky when Bill Virdon ended up in our yard in Houston.

      By the way, when you get a chance, please consider signing in your support for the Astros retirement of Joe Niekro’s #36 over on that column post. The link, if you need it, is

      https://bill37mccurdy.wordpress.com/2010/07/13/its-time-to-retire-joe-niekros-astros-36/

      Thanks, Bill McCurdy

  7. Mark Wernick Says:

    I liked Bill Virdon as a manager of both the Yankees and the Astros. He was special indeed.

    Bill, your story prompts me to chime in with my own connection to that spring, through my late Uncle Al. I’m pretty sure that the Yankees game just before the one with the Buffs was in San Antonio against the Missions. My Uncle All attended that game and saved his program, which his wife – my Aunt Alice, who seldom threw anything away – saved in a shoebox over the years. I never knew it existed until the day she gave it to me in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It’s a wonderful bit of memorabilia. The Yankee roster that day listed the usual suspects, including DiMaggio, Rizzuto, Berra, Mize, Woodling et al, and also included a pitcher named Burdette and an outfielder named Jensen. Catchers after Berra were Courtney, Houk, and Silvera. The program’s Yankees roster didn’t include a rookie named McDougald, but he played in the game; or a teenager named Mantle, but number 6 also played in the game and went 1 for 6 with a double. DiMaggio doubled and drove in a couple of runs, and Woodling hit two homers in a 3 for 4 afternoon. Jerry Coleman played shortstop that day instead of AL MVP Rizzuto. The Missions roster included the names Mancuso, Turley, and Held. Not sure if Held was Woodie – I think not. My Uncle tried scoring the game and gave up in the third or fourth inning, clearly not knowing what he was doing. But his penciled roster included Mantle, Number 6, batting 3rd before DiMaggio. Tommy Byrne was listed as the winner of this 13-10 game. Then it was off to Houston to play the Buffs. What a treasure! I had Mantle sign it and framed it. Thanks for the memories!

  8. Clint Ellison Says:

    Thank you, Bill. Oh, the excitement of Buffs baseball in the 1950s!. My dad made me go to bed at 8:00 every night. I used to get my little transistor radio under the covers with the volume turned as low as it would go—and listen with rapt attention to my beloved Buffaloes as they pursued the Texas League pennant. I remember a preseason erxhibition game one year after Al Kaline broke in with the Tigers. It was a Sunday afternoon game, just like you described in your story. Kaline crashed two humongous home runs that day and the Tigers mauled my Buffs. But what an unforgettable memory for a boy. And then–later in the fifties, I saw a Dixie Series game against the Atlanta Crackers. Howie Phillips, our little second sacker, electrified the crowd with a long home run to right center. What fantastic memories!—Russell Rac (I still don’t know how he didn’t make it big in the bigs), Herbie Adams, Ruben Amaro, Bennie Valenzuela, Pidge Browne—my heroes from a bygone era. Thanks for your story and for bringing a tear to the eye of a sentimental man.

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  10. david almendarez Says:

    I happen to have the scored scorecard to the NY Yankees vs Houston Buffs on April 8, 1951, 65 years ago. Keep it in a top loader on display!

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