This will be my 45th Fathers Day weekend without my dad, so I would like to tell you about the last time I saw him smile. It was Sunday afternoon, July 11, 1965.
But first, some background.
While my inclinations toward music came without a doubt from my mother (and Dad would have been the first to admit that!), my dad gave me baseball.
The first baseball game I can remember ever seeing had nothing to do with Dad. It was at Wrigley Field in the mid-1940s, and I was 8 or 9. Visiting my grandmother's aunt in Illinois, 40 miles northwest of Chicago, was something we did almost every summer till I was in college.
That first year Aunt Doll and her Chicago friends, Hazel and Joe Wellnitz, took us to a Cubs game. All I remember about it, except for the huge scoreboard in center field, was that Doll dragged me down to the front row of the box seats to get an autograph from Cubs star Bill Nicholson. It was only three or four years after the Cubs had been in the World Series. (Yes, that really happened once!)
But it was Dad whose enjoyment of baseball got me hooked on it. Not at any big-league park but at venerable old Hyde Stadium in Pierre.
Even back in the late '40s and early '50s before the Basin League brought college players from all over the country to Pierre, Winner, Valentine, Mobridge, Chamberlain, Sturgis, Rapid City and other places each summer, the Pierre Cowboys were what they called a semi-pro team. Something less than a professional team, but something more than what we used to call a "town team," the local amateur players who continued to play baseball long past their prime.
Hyde Stadium became our home away from home in the summertime. Dad worked everywhere, in the morning on his mail route, in the afternoon as a handyman for many people in Onida, but when the Cowboys had home games, he saw to it we had time to get the 31 miles down the road to Pierre for the games as often as possible.
Over the years as the Basin League developed, college players who came through Pierre and the other league cities eventually became major leaguers. It was a long list. It was a neat thing—and a source of pride—to know that we had seen them play when they were just college kids.
So let's go back to that July Sunday in 1965.
Dad had been diagnosed with cancer in 1962. By 1965, when he was 70, he had had to retire from the postal route and his other jobs and was staying at home, never complaining but obviously not well. When visitors stopped by to pay their respects, he did his best to seem as if he were doing OK.
I had been teaching in Huron the previous school year was but living in an apartment in the basement at home that summer, awaiting a new position in the fall.
The summer of 1965 was only the fifth year of the Minnesota Twins' existence after the franchise had been moved from Washington. They had had a couple good years, a couple of so-so years, but big-league ball here in the Upper Midwest had caught on.
There was no television of Twins games, of course. The only TV game in those days was the Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons—usually the Yankees against somebody.
In the 16 seasons prior to 1965, the Yankees had been in the World Series every year except twice (Cleveland in 1954 and the White Sox in 1959). There were no playoffs—three days after the regular season ended, the American League and National League champions started the World Series. So to get to the Series, you had to be the champion of the eight-team American League.
This particular season had started well, and the Twins team had stayed near the top of the league standings up to the midway point. They and the Yankees happened to be playing each other in a four-game series at Metropolitan Stadium on the final weekend before the All-Star Game in Bloomington. The Twins had won two of the first three games, but the spectre of the hated Yankees was always hanging over the Twins and everybody else in the American League.
On this particular Sunday Dad was sitting in his living-room chair, wrapped in a blanket, as I recall, even though it must have been hot weather by that time. In the den adjoining the living room I had the Twins game on the radio.
The Twins took the lead, then lost it, and the Yankees went ahead in the top of the ninth, 5-4. It was then just as it is now—the Yankees would always seem to find a way to win, and then just as now, we hated them for it.
This year though, Mantle and Maris were getting old, and the Yanks were floundering a bit. Twins fans were cautiously optimistic.
Rich Rollins coaxed a walk in the bottom of the ninth, so the tying run was on base. I remember sitting at the desk in the den, holding my head in my hands.
Some Twins batter made the second out, and the team was down to its last out. But the batter was Harmon Killebrew.
Dad said something like "this is their chance."
Unbelievably Killebrew got hold of one and sent it high and far into the left-field stands. Twins announcer Ray Scott made the call, and his color man, the legendary Halsey Hall, a true "homer" if there ever were one, yelled "Holy cow!"
It has been said that that home run was the most significant in Twins history until Kirby Puckett's game-winner in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. At that moment in 1965, Twins fans realized their team actually had a chance to unseat the Yanks.
I was speechless, and as I turned toward Dad in the living room, he was sitting there smiling.
It was the last time I saw Dad smile. His cancer got the best of him in the next two months, and he died over Labor Day weekend. He never got to hear the Twins clinch the pennant in their former home, Washington, late in September, as they finished 27 games ahead of the Yankees or to hear them play the Dodgers in the World Series, taking a 2-0 lead at home, losing three in Los Angeles, winning Game 6 on Mudcat Grant's pitching and home run, then losing to Sandy Koufax in a 2-0 seventh game.
Baseball has remained my summertime passion every year since those early days when Dad took us to Pierre to the Cowboys games.
I hope you have the privilege of seeing your dad have reason to smile this Fathers Day.