The sign-up sheet for the Meriden Connecticut Boys Club sponsored bus trips to major-league baseball games was posted on bulletin board. As often happened, all seats for Red Sox games were quickly taken. The only available game pitted the dreaded “Evil Empire” versus some non-descript rival. Everyone on the list was a diehard Yankee fan, surely an uncomfortable place for a nutso Red Sox fanatic. However, I desperately wanting to see a big-league game, I signed up.
The trip to Yankee Stadium was, as expected, awful. Three hours of high pitched, hysterical cheers singing the praises of everything pin striped. The game was also excruciating with the Bronx Bombers blowing the opposition to oblivion. To add insult to injury, everyone wanted to rush down to the players’ entrance with hopes of getting post game autographs.
I found myself in the epicenter of a tangled mass of hard core Yankee fans when all hell broke loose as someone shouted, “Here comes The Mick.” I must admit I had mixed feelings about Mickey Mantle. On the one hand, I intensely disliked him as the poster boy of the Yankees. A great athlete who always seemed to come through in the clutch wining big games with a home runs, great catches or stolen bases. On the other hand, I admired his “gee whiz” attitude and laid back, country boy demeanor in the midst of mass idolatry.
A friend handed me a pen and piece of paper pleading, “If Mick comes near you, please get his autograph.” After being pushed and prodded for what seemed like an hour, the mob seemed to part and walking toward me was none other than Mantle. Unlike rumors implied, he did not walk on air and there was no golden halo shining above his dirty blond crew cut.
I thrust out the pen and paper and asked for his autograph. He looked through me and pushed my arm away grunting, “Outta my way kid!” I was shocked and devastated. Seeing this, another Yankee came up to me and said, “I’ll sign that for you.” That player was pitcher Johnny Kucks.
Kucks’s big-league tenure lasted six seasons and was mostly undistinguished. He won 54 games and lost 56, with an earned run average of 4.10. However, while viewed as a player of middling stature, he did have one shining moment in the national spotlight. In 1956 he was called upon to start the seventh game of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. He pitched a brilliant three hit shutout. However, he had the misfortune of pitching two days after his teammate Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in Series history. Both men received bonus gifts. “Larsen got a car,” Kucks told The Associated Press in 2000. “I got a fishing rod.”
As an adult, I learned more about Mickey Mantle. About his troubles with alcohol. He was not the greatest husband or father and many who knew him said he was not the most pleasant guy to be around unless he had a few drinks.
I never heard much about Kucks, but I didn’t need to. I understand he quietly retired to New Jersey where he passed away in 2013. Johnny Kucks will always be enshrined in my memory a caring adult who saw a kid crushed by a self-absorbed man/child and by a simple act of kindness proved to be a hero. I have come to see that beneath the patina of awe we confer on our heroes there lie mere mortals possessing both good and poor qualities. Some use fame to help those less fortunate while others are more self-centered. I also learned that within the midst of perceived enemies can lay caring souls who might quietly serve as positive role models.