History was bound to be made that night, and Luke Appling figured he'd be part of it. Here it was, July 19 in Washington D.C.'s R.F.K. Stadium, and the Cracker Jack people had created the greatest old-timers' game ever. Most of these contests are mere preliminaries to regular-season games, but this one stood by itself. It was, as advertised, truly an all-star classic, featuring the likes of Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Warren Spahn for the National League, and Brooks Robinson, Early Wynn, Bob Feller and Al Kaline for the American.
The oldest player was Appling, 75, the White Sox' Hall of Fame shortstop. Just what was a 75-year-old man doing out there, anyway? Joe DiMaggio, 67, suits up, but he stopped playing in old-timers' games several years ago. Appling knew he could bat, but he was concerned about his fielding, because he wears elastic braces on both knees.
Fortunately, no balls came his way in the top of the first. As he stepped to the plate to lead off for the American League, he was given a standing O by the crowd of nearly 30,000. Luke might have expected that; what he didn't anticipate was hitting a shot that would be heard—via ESPN and the Armed Forces Network—around the world.
It happened on the second pitch. Spahn threw a fastball and Appling met it squarely—the replay showed that his form was perfect—and lined it over the leftfield fence 275 feet away. The Americans went on to win the game 7-2, and Appling was the story of the night.
August 22, 1982
Last Saturday afternoon in Chicago, Appling took part in another such game, as a member of the White Sox Old-Timers who met their Yankee counterparts. As in Washington, when his name was announced last in Comiskey Park, 35,000 fans in his old home park gave him a standing ovation. Then the crowd went nuts a second time when the Sox showed his Washington homer on the message board. Alas, lightning didn't strike again. In the field, Appling fumbled a grounder, and at the plate he grounded into a double play in his lone at bat. Bothered by his knees, he left after the first inning of the three-inning game.
But that astonishing home run he hit in Washington will not soon be forgotten. "Funny thing about that homer," he was saying over breakfast a couple of weeks ago. "I only took three swings in batting practice. First pitch goes off the end of the bat and the next two off the fists. Thought I'd broken my thumb, so I stopped right there. On the pitch from Spahn I was just trying to get the bat out front. I didn't want to hit it off my wrists."
Then the ball went out and there was the instant hero tottering around the bases, Spahn chasing him between first and second, slapping at him with his glove, people standing and screaming. Appling watched the rest of the game from the bench. "I walked into the hotel restaurant and they gave me a standing ovation," he said. "Another one when I left. I got a box full of mail. A TV guy was interviewing me and I said, 'Hey, keep this quiet.' He said, 'Too late. This was shown all over on ESPN. You might as well enjoy it.' "
A scout at a nearby table called over, "Singles and doubles hitter all his life and he don't get no recognition till he hits a homer." Indeed, Appling was a .310 hitter over 20 seasons (1930-50) who won batting titles in 1936 (.388) and 1943 (.328) but hit only 45 homers. He hadn't taken a swing in two years before homering off Spahn.
Appling is bald and a bit on the paunchy side, but his voice is clear and he looks no more than 65. "In Washington the kids tried to get me to take more batting practice," he said. "I said, if you've learned how to handle a bat, you can hit.' Now, it's just as Hank Aaron told me: 'When you go back, you can hold a club over those boys and tell them how to hit.' "
Appling was digesting that very thought with his morning eggs. He was in Anderson, S.C., a mill town of 30,000 in the northwest corner of the state, as the Atlanta Braves' minor league batting instructor, a post he has held for the last six years. The job takes him to Bradenton, Fla. (rookie league); Anderson (low Class A); Durham, N.C. (high Class A); Savannah (Double A); and Richmond (Triple A). Appling had been on the road all but about 14 days since February, and Anderson was one of his favorite stops. "The biggest jump is A to Double A," he said. "If you can hit in Double A you can hit in Triple A. And if you can hit solid in Triple A, you can hit in the majors."
When Appling's wife, Fay, to whom he's been married 50 years, isn't traveling with him—their home is on Lake Lanier in Georgia—he'll be at the Anderson ball park in the morning, helping the trainer with the team laundry. This time Fay was along and Luke took it easy. But not for long. Bill MacKay, the 26-year-old general manager of the Anderson Braves, had asked Appling to call on a hospitalized friend. "Bleep," Appling said cheerfully, "let's go see him." Dressed in black tassled loafers, gray and white checked, beltless slacks and an alligator shirt with a cigar wedged between the first and second buttons, Luke stood for an hour in Anderson Memorial Hospital chatting with Olin Saylors, a onetime shortstop in the Braves system who was recovering from a hernia operation.
"They used to call me Old Aches and Pains," Appling said later. "You know how that story got started? I hung out with Ab Schacht, the White Sox trainer. We roomed together, ate meals together and went out to the park early together. By the time the other players and the reporters got there, he'd always be giving me a rubdown." Appling was considered a hypochondriac, but he played with fallen arches, broken bones, torn muscles and spike wounds, and still appeared in 2,422 games. When Saylors recounted how he'd taped a broken ankle and played on it, Appling smiled approvingly. "Any good athlete plays better when he's a little injured because he concentrates harder," he said.
A few hours later Appling stood in the hot sun in knickers and sweats with an Anderson Braves cap on his head, watching batting practice at Anderson Memorial Stadium. The place will never be mistaken for a major league park. It seats 4,000, and the sound of buzzsaws—new benches were being built—rang through the afternoon air. The scoreboard is donated by Legion Post No. 14, the outfield fence is covered with local advertisements (Gable's Florist, Maynard's Home Furnishing, Country Club Apartments) and there's a vegetable garden outside the clubhouse. Nor will the Anderson Braves be mistaken for the parent club. Hailing from Maine to California and ranging in age from 18 to 23, the hopeful, hardworking kids make an average of $600 a month, share tacky apartments, dine on tacos and cheeseburgers and frequent Anderson's few bars. This is the society Luke Appling hangs out in—and he loves it.
Standing behind the cage, chaw in cheek ("Gives you all the moisture you need"), Appling alternately called out advice to the hitters and chatted with an onlooker. He's an indefatigable, nonstop talker who will answer all your questions—if you can get them in.
"Hey," he shouted to a burly catcher. "If you carry your hands higher, it'll make a difference. Never raise up. Keep that front shoulder down and drive your shoulder into the ball. Don't follow the ball; look for it in the strike zone. If you have to raise up, take the pitch.
"What you want them to do," he said in an aside, "is handle the bat, get it out in front of the pitch and get a bat with balance that you can feel. These kids can't feel the bat. They get gloves and pine and resin as thick as hell. They don't even know how to hold the grain of the bat so that they don't break it. During my career, I wore out two ham bones on my bats. I'd rub a bat up and down on a bone to get it hot and slick. The exercise is good for your wrists, too."
An outfielder stepped in. "You're a little slow with your top hands," Appling said. "Hey! When he gets ready to throw, cock your wrists and go from there. Don't go one way with your hands and another with your feet, like a rubber band." In another aside, Appling muttered, "Everybody tries to hit it out in batting practice instead of laying the bat on the ball. People take too big a loop. Somebody'll throw them a breaking ball and they'll fall all over themselves. Or they'll throw a fastball right by them."
A second baseman went for a high pitch. "I'm going to have to build you a soapbox to get those," Appling said. The youngster laughed. "Th'ow the top hand!" Appling called to another player. "You're hitting with your front hand all the way.
"You'd think I'd get sick of saying the same things every day, but you can't give up on them. Some you pat on the back, some you kick on the butt. You have to be patient and tactful. I love working with these kids. You try to tell a major-leaguer something"—he turned his head to the side, mimicking—"and they don't pay no attention. In the minors you ask them to come out at three in the afternoon and they're here at 10 in the morning, they're so anxious."
Appling sticks to fundamentals with Class A players. "He's taught me to hold my hands back, rotate the left shoulder down and get the bat out in front when I swing," says Outfielder Johnny Hatcher, age 19, pretty much covering the gamut. Appling gets considerably more technical with higher-level players. Atlanta Second Baseman Glenn Hubbard, whom Appling considers the most valuable player on the team, says of his tutoring at Savannah, "Luke's probably the single most important influence on my hitting. I came to Double A ball and couldn't hit to right. He showed me." Appling has a variety of ways to teach hitting to the opposite field, but none as ingenious as a method he proposed to Danny Litwhiler, the recently retired coach at Michigan State, who's known for his own innovations. "He got me up facing a hotel pillar," says Litwhiler, an outfielder and third baseman for the Phillies, Cardinals, Braves and Reds. "He said, 'Assume you have a bat. Get a foot away from the pillar and swing.'
" 'How can I do that?' I said. 'The bat wouldn't come through.'
" 'Yes, it would,' Luke said. 'Just lead with your hands and lay the head of the bat back.' Well, I went back to the campus and practiced at a backstop. I took batting practice and, sure enough, the ball shot off the bat, with authority, to rightfield. And a couple hit the fence, which I never used to do."
At the end of batting practice in Anderson, Appling went into the outfield to watch calisthenics. The players had been taught well—not only in baseball fundamentals, but also manners. There was much good-natured name-calling, belching, spitting and swearing. "That kid," Appling said, pointing out a player. "Nobody plays harder. You'll see him break up the second baseman. That's what's wrong with the game—six million doves flying around.
"The kids don't get paid enough and don't get enough meal money [$11 a day on the road] to eat right. They save it for a big meal after the game instead of before. [A few minutes later one player told another, "I didn't get to bed until 1:30, and I was still stuffed."] If you play hard, your stomach muscles tighten. I'll have a beer in the clubhouse and take my time before leaving. Today's major-leaguers are always in a hurry—they're used to plane travel instead of train. And I like to have a cocktail an hour before eating. You've got to relax when you play hard. I never let anything bother me. People would get on me, and I'd say, 'I can't hear you: Talk louder.' "
"He points out all kinds of little things we don't notice," said Anderson Second Baseman Ralph Giansanti. "Hairline things." Indeed, though he was careful to defer to Manager Brian Snitker, whom he much admires, Appling was constantly talking to players during the evening's 7-5 win over Charleston. Sitting next to Appling in the dugout was like taking a course in baseball minutiae. After Hatcher started running to first on a 3-0 pitch that was called a strike, Appling warned him, "Stand up there and let them call it. If you run right away, they'll call it a strike every time." The catcher wasn't sufficiently skilled in umpire-baiting, Appling maintained. "He isn't aggressive enough. You can look forward and still talk to the umpire. If you look around, he's liable to chase your butt." To Giansanti and Shortstop Kenny Clark, Appling had the following counsel: "Twice that inning their guys overran second and you threw to the wrong base. The backup man should yell it out. It's a lack of communication." Rightfielder Keith Street took a 2-0 pitch for a strike. Appling didn't like that at all. "With a man on second and nobody out, you don't take a pitch like that," he said.
"We pitchers listen in on him, too, because he's been around long enough that he knows more than most pitching coaches," said Mark Smith. "He's even taught me some things," said Trainer Tim Alexander, "like painting over a jammed thumb with iodine. Do that and a guy can hit the next day. I sure didn't learn that at Florida State." Snitker believes Appling's presence enlivens the whole team. "No matter how bad you feel, you've got to feel better around him," says the manager. "You come dragging off the field, and he looks like he's been on vacation a month."
After a leisurely beer and a big cigar, Appling started to dress. He donned his underwear first, then his socks and shoes, then his pants and shirt. When MacKay kidded him about his procedure, the great man had some more wisdom to pass on. "You don't get your feet wet this way," he said. MacKay protested that his pants wouldn't fit over his shoes. Appling laughed and slipped on his trousers. "If you don't wear them tight-assed britches—see that, they slid right through—you can get 'em on."
"Ever since I was knee-high to a duck, I played ball," Appling said on the way back to the hotel. "In pastures and vacant lots. We had a farm in Douglas County, Georgia, and I chopped wood with a double-edged ax and plowed the fields behind a mule. That's how my arms got so strong. I played football secretly for Oglethorpe College before my father read my name in the papers and made me quit. I played 126 games in Double A and came up to the majors as a home-run hitter. As soon as I got to Comiskey Park I realized I'd have to change. It took me three years to learn to hit to right." Appling went on to become a contact hitter extraordinaire—one who once deliberately fouled off 14 pitches while looking for one he liked.
It was nearly midnight now, and Appling's guest was thoroughly exhausted from a day in his wake. Luke, though, was contemplating a two-hour drive to his home down on Lake Lanier. He has three grown children, six grandchildren and half a dozen dogs, all, presumably, panting to keep up with him. "They say this is a young man's game," Appling said with a hearty handshake. "Well, it's keeping me young."