Pictou Advocate sports

Better to think about the past we know


I’m never surprised when someone asks how I continually come up with subjects to write about. I guess that’s to be expected since I’ve written thousands of sports columns through the years.

Seldom, though, do things unfold the way they did last Thursday morning.

It was my day to write and, as I enjoyed the summer-like sunshine, my morning paper and a hot cup of coffee, I had no specific subject in mind.

Then — in less than an hour — I had three.

First, I was reading John DeMont’s column in The Chronicle Herald entitled “How nostalgia helps us through the pandemic.” Something we all know about after what we experienced the last few months.

Just then, a bulletin came over the CBC News Network that’s always in the background. Dame Vera Lynn, the wartime sweetheart, had passed away at the youthful age of 103.

Finally, when I checked my overnight email, I found a message from a regular reader — “Jimmy on the Sunshine Trail,” he always signs it. He had finished my first book and wondered how I got my picture taken years ago with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the photo on the book’s cover.

So now I’ve got you wondering — how do DeMont’s column, Lynn’s death and the Mantle-Maris photo belong in the same discussion?

I’ll explain.

It was John’s closing paragraph that caught my attention. “Some days,” he wrote, “it’s just better to think about a past that you know, than a future that you most certainly don’t.”

In these times of virus statistics, face masks, washing hands and social distancing, it’s more helpful to look back than ahead.

Well, I’m old enough to think all the way back to the Second World War, when I was a kid hearing the songs Vera Lynn sang to the troops. I’ve been humming “We’ll Meet Again” all my life, as well as the lyrics to “White Cliffs of Dover.”

The latter had a special meaning at our house.

Back at the start of the First World War, my father was 15 and went from New Glasgow to Halifax where recruiters didn’t know he was underage and enlisted him. He wound up in the Royal Flying Corps, and was soon piloting a bomber in night bombing raids against the Germans.

One night, returning across the English Channel, he got lost in heavy fog and crashed — just a few home run lengths from the White Cliffs of Dover. He was hospitalized, recovered, and was soon off on more bombing raids. Dad never talked much about that or other overseas experiences.

Two decades later, during the second war, it was easy to understand why our household had to be quiet when dad heard “White Cliffs of Dover” on the radio.

That’s why I couldn’t let Dame Vera’s death pass without comment.

Then there was the email from “Jimmy.” He never uses a second name, but always asks for background information on sports subjects.

I’ve often mentioned my photo with Mantle and Maris in columns. It’s been there a number of times through the decades. It’s also the photo at the top of my Facebook page and, as the email writer said, it was on the cover of “I’ve Lived My Dream.”

However, I’ve never really explained how the photo happened.

Though it was 59 baseball seasons ago, a mention of the night makes my thought process flow faster than water over Niagara Falls.

I never forget the date — July 21, 1961.

I was at Fenway Park for a series between the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. With a media pass around my neck and a passion for the Yankees in my heart, I spent an hour and a half on the field that first night.

It was surreal.

It was more than another weekend on the schedule. It was a mid-season chance to see Mantle and Maris as they chased the ghost of Babe Ruth.

I never expected what occurred.

Just by chance, a photographer from the Boston Globe wandered by the batting cage as the two Yankees and I were chatting. He asked if he could take our photo. Both players nodded okay.

The Globe photographer returned the next evening, not just with the promised negatives, but large copies suitable for autographs. Mantle and Maris both added their signatures. The autographed one is on the wall next to my desk. The photo was used on my first book and it’s also atop my Facebook page.

It was just past the halfway mark of the season and both outfielders were taking aim at one of the sport’s most prestigious records — Ruth’s 60-homer record in 1927.

When it was time to leave the field and head to the press box, I remember wondering if either of them would hit one out of the park.

Darn right they did.

In fact, in the top of the first inning, Maris and Mantle hit back-to-back homers. For Maris, it was his 36th of the year. For Mantle, his 37th. Those four-baggers came just half an hour after the three of us were talking.

All these years later, I’m still surprised how many people show interest in that photo.

I thought only fans who were around in ‘61 would appreciate its significance.

The importance of that season — Maris breaking Ruth’s record with 61 homers, Mantle hitting 54 — took on a whole new meaning for me.

It’s just sad how all three Yankee greats died so young.

Ruth passed away in 1948 at the age of 53, Maris died in 1985 when he was 51, and Mantle left us in 1995 at age 63. Just think, Vera Lynn more than doubled Maris’s age, almost doubled Ruth’s.

Now, I’m almost certain, somewhere up there where we’ll all be meeting again, the three Yankees are already hearing the White Cliffs of Dover.

Sing on, Dame Vera.