Most of Bruce Springsteen's fans know that the Boss is a baseball fan. Springsteen sprinkles his concerts with amusing anecdotes that link the mythology of baseball to the tradition of rock-'n'-roll. The cover of his latest album, Born in the U.S.A., shows a bright-red baseball cap poking out of the back pocket of the singer's blue jeans. And the narrator of Glory Days, one of the songs on the album, tells of his chance encounter in a local bar with an old buddy who played baseball in high school. But few Springsteen fans have ever seen the Boss play his favorite sport, and fewer still have played against him.
Ten years ago I was a general assignment reporter for the States-Item, an afternoon daily in New Orleans. Although I spent most of my days chasing fire trucks and talking to city planners, my city editor also let me write a weekly rock column for the Saturday tab. No one else at the paper wanted to do it.
My first rock review was a 10-page rave of Springsteen's Sept. 6, 1975 New Orleans debut, early in his "Born to Run" tour, not long before both TIME and Newsweek put him on their Oct. 27, 1975 covers.
After the show, I tracked Springsteen down at a small club in uptown New Orleans. He was shy and told me he didn't give interviews. So I put my notepad away, and we chatted for a while before I rushed home to write my review.
Seven months later, in April 1976, the show's promoter, Bill Johnston, called to tell me that Springsteen would be back in New Orleans in May. That was good news, but Johnston's next words were even better.
"Now that spring is here," he said, "Bruce and the band have been playing softball. Bruce wants me to arrange a game with the local media. Would you like to be captain of the team?" Naturally, I said yes. If there's one thing in life I enjoy as much as rock-'n'-roll, it's playing softball. For a rock-'n'-roll-softball junkie like me a game with Springsteen would be pretty hard to beat.
Because Springsteen's return concert was scheduled for Thursday, he decided to hold the softball game on Friday afternoon. Local rock stations mentioned the game, and more than 500 fans showed up at the Audubon Park levee to watch. Many unpacked picnic lunches of fried chicken or crawfish and Dixie beer, a local favorite.
I met Johnston at the park at about 3:30, and he introduced me to my "team"—four or five hung-over deejays, several women who worked on the promoter's staff and some local rock critics, most of whom didn't like each other very much.
Springsteen's tour bus pulled up and parked on a lot at the edge of the field, and the band members climbed out. They were dressed in "uniforms" of blue-and-white sleeveless basketball shirts that read E STREET KINGS. Their gloves were still shiny, their rubber cleats new. Springsteen wore reflecting shades and his trademark Our Gang hat, which flopped rakishly over his curly hair. He seemed slightly uncomfortable.
Johnston introduced us at the pitcher's mound. Springsteen acknowledged that we had met once before, but it didn't make him any more forthcoming. Perhaps he was put off by my own sartorial choices. Like the band members, I wore a basketball tank top. But my headgear, a wide-brimmed plantation hat, was every bit as untraditional for a baseball diamond as Springsteen's—although it was perfect for the stifling weather.
After the ground rules had been established, I asked Springsteen how his team had been playing. He said they had won 19 out of 22 games on the tour so far—all promotional affairs with radio station disc jockeys and pop-music critics. Was he confident his team would beat mine? He smiled politely and declined to predict, but I had a feeling he was pretty cocky inside.
"I'll bet my hat against yours that my team wins," I suggested. He looked at me suspiciously and then at my hat with something akin to disdain. Perhaps he was wondering what effect such a hat might have on his image. He shuffled his feet and demurred. "Hey, I just got this hat," he said. "Like, I'm attached to this hat, ya know? I wore it at the concert last night."
I retreated to the sidelines. It was tough to tell the difference between my teammates and the onlookers, who pressed right up to the base paths. I jotted down my roster of 15 players, three of whom were women. I promised I would work them all into the game at some point and aligned my defense purely on instinct. "C'mon," I said to my team as we took to the field, "we're not going to lose a game to a bunch of musicians."
Lead guitarist "Miami Steve" Van Zandt led off the game with a home run. Next up was Springsteen, who singled, then scored along with organist Danny Federici on road manager Rick Seguso's base hit. But my hastily assembled batting lineup produced two big rallies, with five runs in the first and four runs in the second. After four innings we had a commanding 9-3 lead. Springsteen must have been relieved that he hadn't taken me up on my proposal.
In the top of the fifth, it was clear that I had to make some lineup changes. The women on my team were anxious to play, and our lead looked safe. I replaced the three lightest male hitters with the three women. One turned in a stellar performance in rightfield. Unfortunately, the other two hadn't put on a glove since childhood, and the E Street hitters tested them as often as possible. With Bruce and his buddies peppering ground balls and long flies to my unpracticed distaffers, our six-run lead wilted like a cotton plant in a drought.
We eked out an insurance run in the bottom of the sixth and took a 10-7 lead into the last inning. Federici singled to start the seventh; then Clarence Clemons, the band's "big man" saxophonist and first baseman, put his weight behind a pitch and huffed and puffed his way around the bases. Our lead was cut to one run.
The crowd on the sidelines cheered the E Street rally. The three men who had been sidelined, miffed that Springsteen's team was hitting to our worst fielders, demanded to come back into the game. If the E Street Band wasn't playing with women, they noted, why should we?
It was a legitimate point, but moot. I had already taken them from the lineup. Springsteen knew the rules as well as I did, and he wanted to win as much as I did. In his situation I probably would have taken advantage of my opponent's weakness, too. I kept the women in the game.
After Van Zandt flied out to leftfield, one of the roadies and Springsteen both singled. E Street's next hitter, bass guitarist Garry Tallent, came to the plate with the game on the line at 10-9. On the first pitch, he hit a hard one-hopper back to me at shortstop. On instinct, I tagged the roadie as he passed me and pegged the ball to first to complete the double play and end the game.
Springsteen met me at the mound and pumped my hand. After retrieving the ball, I asked him to sign it and then tucked it safely away in my glove. Fans wielding pens and scraps of paper surrounded Springsteen immediately, and he happily signed autographs for 10 minutes, a huge grin on his face.
Meanwhile, the rest of the band members cleaned up the debris that had been left behind on the levee. Chicken bones, crawfish carcasses and empty beer cans were strewn everywhere, but in no time, the field was cleaner than it had been when the game started.
Only 15 or 20 spectators were left at the rim of the diamond, when an "official scorer"—the official what!—a Columbia Records representative, suddenly appeared waving a scorebook. "Hey," she said, "you guys only scored four runs in the first inning, not five. The game is still tied 9-9."
I was flabbergasted, but Springsteen didn't miss a beat. "C'mon, we haven't lost yet!" he cried, leading the band in a rush back onto the field.
My team, however, was nowhere to be found. I had only three players left—enough to send to the plate for the last half of the seventh, but not enough to field a team in case we couldn't score a run. Springsteen and his band waited patiently for my next move, patting their gloves. In New Jersey, that's known as a squeeze play.
Shaking my head, I stepped slowly out to the mound to confer with Johnston and Springsteen. Though I was still shocked by the appearance of an official scorer, I couldn't refute her evidence. At the same time I didn't believe we had miscounted our total score, either.
"Look, Bruce," I said, "I have three guys here. We might be able to score a run and win this thing, but we might not. I can't field a team if we don't end the game, so why don't we just call it a tie and play a doubleheader next time you come to town?"
Springsteen smiled and shook my hand. "Sounds good to me," he said. "Why don't we just trade hats?" Needless to say, I had no objections.
My friends and family—and future grandchildren—will never believe this, I thought, so I asked a friend to take my picture with Springsteen while we swapped. Johnston got into the middle of the picture, too. Later it turned out my friend had forgotten to load his camera.
In the intervening 10 years, we have all gone on to bigger and better, or at least different, things. Springsteen now could probably fill the Meadowlands as easily swinging a bat as he does strumming his guitar. Johnston turned down a chance to manage the E Street Band and took over the career of Gino Vannelli, who, Johnston once predicted, would be "the biggest thing since Frank Sinatra." Vannelli wasn't.
As for me, I'm still a journalist, but now I write at a computer terminal for a Virginia newspaper. In my spare time I like to hang out at the local pub, reminiscing with folks about past softball glories, like a character in a Springsteen song. Bruce and I never did meet for the other two games—but you might call swapping hats a doubleheader.
Chuck Bauerlein is a feature writer for the Newport News, Va. "Daily Press." He is also the manager of a softball team, the Typoz.