This past Christmas morning was the 25th Anniversary of receiving my first adult book on baseball. It was on Christmas morning 1988 and I remember unwrapping Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano.
I was in 2nd Grade at the time and the book was more than a few years above my reading level and I would sit with a dictionary to help me with the words I didn't know - beginning with the first word of the title. I would also look at the cover and wonder how the Luciano, the author and a former umpire, was able to stand there in color surrounded by black & white pictures of players from different decades. The book itself is a collection of funny anecdotes from the games past and present, or at least it's present up to 1988. And I wouldn't be surprised if I read it over a dozen times over the years.
Two stories this particular book left out about the author that deserve mentioning involves how in a 1973 Spring Training game, he switched jobs with Indians 3rd basemen Buddy Bell for an inning, with Luciano playing 3rd and Bell being the umpire. This got them both reprimands from the league offices. The next one is as much of testament to the speed and prowess of Nolan Ryan when he was in his California Angels prime. This excerpt comes from an article he wrote for Sports Illustrated in February of 1982:
In a game in August I had the plate with him on the mound. I was immediately impressed, but not overwhelmed, not until the fourth inning. In that inning he went into his fluid wind-up, reared back and fired. Until the pitch reached home plate it looked like a very good, but normal, rising fastball. Then, suddenly, it exploded! A million specks of shiny white cover blinded me. I closed my eyes to protect myself. I waited for the roar of the crowd.
Nobody else noticed it.
I blinked, tried to shake the flash out of my eyes, and called it a strike.
Must have been my imagination, I thought, and put it out of my mind. But a few innings later, bam! The same thing happened. The baseball actually exploded. That's when I began to worry that there was something wrong with my eyesight. So when I was in New York City I made an appointment with a noted optometrist.
The doctor examined my eyes, then explained that Ryan's exploding fastball was simply an optical illusion. Normally, when a pitcher releases the ball, it appears to be the size of a golf ball, but as it comes toward the plate it grows into a regular-sized baseball. A number of times each game Ryan threw the ball with such velocity that my eyes simply couldn't make the adjustment fast enough, so it remained golf-ball size until it got to the plate, then popped, or exploded, into a full-sized baseball. That explained my problem. "So my eyes are O.K.?" I asked him.
"For an umpire," the doctor answered noncommittally.
Luciano, one of the biggest characters in professional baseball since Casey Stengel, tragically took his own life in January of 1995 at the age of 57 in his home in a modest village in New York. He had been suffering from depression for many years and even sought treatment. His 5 books, color commentary on The Game of the Week, and legendary battles against Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver will keep him remembered much as the way his books remembered and loved the characters of baseball's past