A Last Game of Catch

“How would you like to meet a former major league ballplayer?” my great Uncle Herman asked me one morning in July, 1967, when I was visiting him in his hometown of Saranac Lake, New York.

“Really, Uncle Hermie? That would be wicked cool!” I screeched to him in my preadolescent, Bostonese vernacular. Twelve years old at that time, I lived for the game of baseball, and my Northern New York relative, a retired local postman, knew it.

“Well, my friend hears that you’ve got a pretty good left arm for someone your age, and he’d like to meet you as well!” My eyes became two Europas when Uncle Hermie announced, “Come on, Shaunie, let’s get into my car and go over to greet Mr. Larry Doyle! And remember to bring your baseball mitt!”

Lawrence Joseph Doyle, a celebrated player for the old New York Giants, was nearly eighty-two years old at the time when I first saw him waiting calmly for me on his front porch not far from Saranac Lake itself. During our drive over to his friend’s modest bungalow, Uncle Hermie explained to me on the drive over that Larry Doyle had played in the big leagues for thirteen years, from 1907 to1920 and was considered the finest second baseman in the National League during the nineteen-teens. He had such apparent people skills that legendary Manager John McGraw made Doyle the Giants’ captain in just his second year in the majors. In Uncle Hermie’s edition of Baseball’s Book of Quotations, Larry Doyle had a solitary entry, which seemed to encapsulate his ebullient personality: “It’s great to be young – and a Giant!”

His blue eyes, the color of the North Atlantic, brightened visibly when I finally alighted onto his rickety front porch. As I approached the former big leagues baseball star, Larry Doyle ambled up from his rocking chair, held out his beefy right hand, and said, “So this is the ballplayer you’ve been talking to me about, Hermie!” Despite his somewhat arthritic hands, his handshake was firm, sustained, and authentic.

When I informed him that my name was Shaun Kelly, Mr. Doyle began to giggle. “We have more in common than I thought!” His laughter brought on a cough, a rasping shrill sound that echoed off the porch and caused the spidery hanging plant that hung between us to quiver. “Excuse me, Shaun; my cough sometimes sounds like one of the old Pennsy trains we’d take to play the Cardinals in St. Louis. Yep, you can hear it for miles!”

On the drive over to Mr. Doyle’s house, Uncle Hermie had explained to me in his quaint, long-about way, how Larry Doyle, a native of the Midwest, had ended up residing in the clutches of the Adirondack Mountains for quarter of a century. The old Giants’ captain had been the legendary Christy Mathewson’s longtime roommate and had loved “Matty” like a brother. During heroic service to his country in The Great War, “Mathewson, baseball’s first genuine superstar, had contracted tuberculosis in 1918 after being gassed in a trench attack in France. Matty had come to Saranac Lake after the war to recover at the internationally renowned Trudeau Sanitarium, which had been opened in 1884 as a long term-care hospital for tuberculosis patients.

The founder of the sanitarium, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, became friends with my great grandparents, who were local residents. My great-grandfather, Walter Rice, had even helped Dr. Trudeau run the sanitarium in the early years. Ironically, Larry Doyle eventually contracted TB in 1942. His old Giants roommate, Christy Mathewson, had succumbed to it in 1925, but Laughing Larry had stubbornly fought the disease for twenty-five years by the time I had I met him. Although the Trudeau Sanitarium closed down in 1954, Mr. Doyle still made Saranac Lake his home. For over a decade, he had been residing in a little abode near the town’s center, overlooking the famed lake itself.

When I informed the former Giants’ second baseman that my middle name, Livingston, was in honor of Dr. Trudeau, Mr. Doyle’s eyes shone like a beacon. “You are carrying the namesake of a genuine hero, Shaun. Yes, people like Matty and me brought joy to many people by playing baseball well, but what Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau did for people in our society was so much more.”

Over the next thirty minutes, Mr. Doyle reminisced about his playing days, rocking back and forth in his chair as I listened intently. His eyes twinkled when he recalled that…“if you hit the ball high up in the air towards centerfield at the Polo Grounds, it was most assuredly an out. That darn fence out there was at the 483-foot mark – and this was in the dead ball era! Let’s say that I learned to go pull the ball down the rightfield line or go with the pitch to left.”

He recalled the legendary brusque John McGraw, who was, in reality, a deeply sensitive, misunderstood man. “Our old Giants’ manager would come up to Saranac and hold Matty’s hand for hours when Matty lay dying at the sanitarium. Old John McGraw would be caring but resolute when he was with Matty, but as soon as he left the room, he would sob like a baby.”

Because Larry Doyle knew that I was a passionate Red Sox fan, he recollected his experiences playing in the 1912 World Series, which Boston won on two errors by the Giants Fred Snodgrass and Fred Merkle at the newly constructed Fenway Park. “That was the hardest loss any of us ever experienced,” he recalled, “but you move on. You have to in life.” He then added with a laugh, “Wouldn’t you know that when I retired from the Giants in 1920, they proceeded to win the next two World Series! I guess that says something about me!”

After a spell, Mr. Doyle said he wanted to stretch a bit, but before we began a short walk together, he scurried inside his dwelling and brought out a threadbare baseball mitt with him. He then steered us out back to an expansive lawn that was shared with a gaggle of other neighbors, each of whom checked on him daily. In the golden sunshine of Northern New York, with the indigo waters of Saranac shimmering in the background, Mr. Doyle then patted me on the back. “I’m glad to see that you brought your baseball glove with you, Shaun, because I think I have one more game of catch in me, and I want it to be with you.”

He smiled at me and then pointed to a patch of grass about sixty feet from where he was standing. I walked slowly to the designated spot, turned around, and noticed that he had placed his own ancient glove on his left hand. “Okay, Son, fire away! I might be old, but I still have a little left!” he said reassuringly.

When I commenced throwing an official Little League baseball to him that I had brought with me, he laughed heartily, “Well, it’s good to see that you’re a southpaw like the old Bambino!”

While we continued to effortless toss the baseball back and forth, Mr. Doyle recalled: “You know, Shaun, I played catch with many of the greats because a lot of us used to barnstorm together in the South and the West after the season was over. Of course, I regularly played catch with Christy Mathewson, but I was fortunate to also toss a few with such legends as Shoeless Joe Jackson; Homerun Baker; Tris Speaker; Cy Young, Ty Cobb – even a young Babe Ruth.”

Mr. Doyle then showed be how he used to flip the ball to Giants shortstop Art Fletcher to start a double play. He then imitated Fletcher’s throw to first, which I caught with an elongated stretch. “And there’s a 4-6-3 in the books!” Mr. Doyle bellowed. “You’re catching a ball with some ghosts today, Son!” he chuckled.

Of course, Mr. Doyle was right. Here I was playing catch with a person who had first thrown a baseball back in 1892. Almost as if he was reading my mind, Mr. Doyle chirped. “You know, Shaun, I used to play catch with one of our neighbors back in my hometown of Caseyville, Illinois, and he was a proud Civil War veteran who began playing ball in the 1850s!”

For the next forty or fifty tosses, neither of us made a bad throw. It was almost as if the specters that guided our throws were making sure that in a rare perfect moment, errors were nonexistent

When we put down our gloves a few minutes later – Mr. Doyle being tired and winded from the exercise – I thanked him profusely and informed him that playing catch with him had been one of the greatest honors of my life. “Well, Shaun, thank you, but really, the pleasure has been all mine.” He rubbed my left arm and exclaimed, “You’ve got some talent, Son. Keep at it.”

“Yes, Sir, I promise!” I exclaimed as we strolled back to his porch before saying our goodbyes.

Laughing Larry Doyle died seven years later at the age of 88. According to a weathered yellow copy of the local newspaper, all of Saranac Lake wept. By that time, I was pitching for the Jacksonville University Dolphins. After my collegiate playing days had ended, I  coached baseball for  forty years and played catch with literally hundreds of boys and a few girls along with the way.

Every spring, when the wind blows in from the Long Island Sound, and the sun glistens like a jewel in the splendor of the grass, I tell my players about the time I played the last game of catch with a legendary second baseman for the old New York Giants, and how I plan to do the same thing down the road when the time is right.

These days, if you should saunter into my classroom, you will notice that on the shelf behind my classroom desk lies a tattered baseball glove. A hazel-colored Wilson A-2002. It had so much usage over the year that there is now a hole the size of a quarter in its center. Of course, it is my glove, the one I first wore as a senior high school first baseman and reliever in Wellesley, Massachusetts; and then as a pitcher for the Jacksonville University Dolphins. As the years passed, I used it when I played in the outfield in the Wellesley Fast Pitch Softball League; as a starting pitcher for the Cobham Yankees of the England (UK) Baseball Association; as a veteran reliever in the Boston Park League; and as a utilityman for the Greenwich Indians of the Greater New York City Men’s League.

An ivory-colored baseball from the Cape Cod Baseball League is nestled inside my mitt, a ball which was given to me after I was asked to throw out the first pitch in a game between Orleans and Chatham in August, 2005.

In the mystic fog of the future, when I play that last game of catch, it will be with that glove and with that ball.

When that time arrives, I will then share with that boy or girl what the great Larry Doyle told me just after I caught the last ball he would ever throw on earth. “As my father and neighbors passed the game onto me, I am passing the game onto you. After all, the game endures – even if we don’t.”

Indeed.

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