There are great catches and there are great catches. Because the entire nation is tuned in, the ones that occur in the World Series are the best remembered: Gionfriddo off DiMaggio in 1947, Mays off Wertz in '54, Swoboda off Brooks Robinson in '69. But one of the most remarkable, and least remembered, catches was made in 1963 by a journeyman outfielder named Al Luplow in an ordinary weekday afternoon game at Fenway Park before 6,497 fans.
On June 27 the Red Sox were trying to complete a five-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. Cleveland relief pitcher Ted Abernathy went into the eighth inning protecting a 6-3 lead. With one out, Lu Clinton and Dick Stuart singled, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of righthanded hitter Dick Williams.
Abernathy was a tall righthander whose submarine delivery was particularly hard on righthanded batters. On this occasion, however, he got a pitch up high to Williams, and the Red Sox utility man, now the Padres' manager, nailed it, sending a drive into deepest right center. "It was a high, outside fastball," recalls Abernathy. "I was a sinker ball pitcher, and most of the time I had good luck with righthanded hitters. But that day I made a mistake to Williams and got the pitch up above the waist, and he hit it good."
Luplow, who had been put in right-field for Cleveland as a late-innings defensive replacement, is a bit more emphatic about the blast: "I don't think Dick Williams ever hit one better."
Luplow, a former high school All-America and Michigan State varsity football player, was then in the second year of an undistinguished major league career, which included portions of seven seasons. He had a reputation for being a hard-nosed player, a guy who went all out. "Al used to play hell-bent for election," says Williams. "He was a hustler. He'd run through a brick wall to make a play." As it turned out, Luplow didn't have to go through a wall—just over one.
"It was in between a line drive and a fly ball," recalls Luplow. "I kept getting closer and closer to it, and I said to myself, 'I gotta catch this ball.' " On the dead run, about 380 feet from home plate, Luplow leapt high and speared the ball backhanded as he went sailing over the five-foot-high fence that fronts the Boston bullpen. "I felt the warning track," he says, "so I was definitely aware of the wall. But I guess I'd just made up my mind to catch the ball. It was actually over the fence when I caught it, and I just barely touched the fence with my right knee going over."
In midair, with the ball nestled securely in his glove, Luplow realized he was in trouble—it was likely to be a rough landing. "After I caught the ball, I said, 'Uh oh!' If I'd kept going face first, I would have really hurt myself. I think my football background helped me because I tucked my left shoulder and rolled, and fortunately all I did was spike myself on the right knee."
After clearing the fence, Luplow disappeared from sight. Several moments later, he reappeared, waving his glove with the ball still in it, his head barely visible above the wall. "I held up the ball, and the centerfielder, Willie Kirkland, reached over the fence and grabbed it from me to see if we could double somebody off."
At the same time, first base umpire Joe Paparella, who had also started back at the crack of the bat, was making the call. "I was between 50 and 60 feet away," says Paparella. "Luplow's feet were still in the playing territory when he caught the ball. He had possession of the ball after he fell into the bullpen, and he came back up with it. It was an out. There was no question about it."
"I sure wouldn't ever do it again," says Luplow today. "I could have easily broken my neck. I must have put those guys in the bullpen in shock."
He must have, as Red Sox manager Johnny Pesky's post-game conversation with Boston bullpen coach Al Lakeman indicates. Pesky: "I said to Lakeman, 'Why didn't you throw a ball up in the air? Paparella couldn't see you, and he might have called it a home run.' Lakeman said, 'To tell you the truth, I didn't think of it. We were so enthralled with the catch, we all froze.' "
Reliever Chet Nichols was also in the Boston bullpen. "We all grabbed our gloves because we figured we were going to get the ball," he says. "We were standing there waiting for it. It never occurred to us that Luplow was going to make the play. It was a fantastic catch, and seeing it from the bullpen end made it even greater."
Sadly, because it was such an insignificant game, the catch didn't receive much attention. Still, no one who was in Fenway Park that day will forget it. "Every once in a while," says Luplow, who's now a tavern owner living in Michigan, "I'll get a card, and someone will mention it—kids, you know, who've heard their dads talk about it. It's nice to know they remember."