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Diamond of a Book Is Loaded With Legends

June 19, 1997|VICTORIA CLAYTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do baseball players do when they're not playing ball? Some of them answer mail--if they have spare time and if the questions are interesting.

Apparently Seth Swirsky's were.

During the '94 baseball strike, the Los Angeles songwriter-cum-author wrote not-so-typical fan mail to a slew of current and former baseball legends. His poignant questions hit such a home run that baseball greats, including Cal Ripken Jr., Harmon Killebrew and Ted Williams couldn't resist the temptation to offer insight, set the record straight or tell Swirsky how they felt about a particular game or play or life.

Swirsky shares the correspondence--exactly as it was written to him--in "Baseball Letters: A Fan's Correspondence With His Heroes" (Kodansha America, 1996):

Cal Ripken Jr. (1981-present), when asked how his father, onetime Baltimore Orioles manager Cal Ripken, influenced his career:

"When I was small I remember competing with my sister and brothers for time with my dad. Baseball occupied a lot of my dad's time, but he spent as much time as he could with us kids. On Saturday mornings, my dad conducted a baseball clinic for the Orioles. I quickly figured out that because my sister and my brothers weren't interested in a boring baseball clinic, I could go with my dad and get some time alone with him. The hours in the car spent with my dad driving to and from the ballpark on Saturday mornings still remains one of my most vivid--and favorite--childhood memories."

Harmon Killebrew (1954-75), when asked if his dad saw him hit his 500th home run:

"He passed away when I was 16 and never got to see me play Major League baseball. But, he was the biggest influence on my athletic career. He got me started playing all sports at a very early age. You may have heard my Hall of Fame acceptance speech when I told how my mother was complaining to my Dad about the holes in the yard and he told her we weren't raising grass--we're raising boys!"

Ted Williams (1939-42, 1946-60), when asked if he learned anything about hitting from watching or talking to either Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig:

"Best advice was from Rogers Hornsby: 'get a good ball to hit.' "

Phil Niekro (1964-87), when asked what was the greatest game he ever pitched in front of his dad:

"It's a longer story than I can write on this paper. My greatest game for me was when I won my 300th game in 1985 while pitching with the Yankees, winning the game 9-0 while my father was on his death bed. It took me 5 games to finally win it, how he held on that long I will never know. Someday maybe I can tell you the whole story about it. . . ."

Dolph Camilli, when asked what it was like to play in his time (1933-43 and 1945):

"More fun and less money."

Ken Brett (1967, 1969-81), asked when he realized that his younger brother George Brett, was a special hitter:

"I was 17 when leaving to play pro ball. George was 12. Hard for me to notice his ability. My father always thought he would be the better hitter. When he reached the majors--we were in opposite league. . . . I never saw him play . . . but friends told me he was going to be special. . . . He hit about .300 off me career-wise. And I wanted to beat him very bad."

Elden Auker (1933-42), when asked if teammate Hank Greenberg was ever discriminated against because he was Jewish: "In the 6 years Hank and I were playing for the Tigers, only one incident occurred when his Jewish heritage was ever noted. . . . In about 1937 when we were playing for the Chicago White Sox in Detroit, . . . Hank heard the remark after he grounded out and was returning to our dugout. Evidently, someone of the White Sox called from the Bench, to Hank's back 'You Yellow Jew S-B.' Following the game, Hank walked into the White Sox clubhouse and said 'the man that called me a "Yellow Jew S-B," stand up--nobody stood up! That was the end. . . . I hasten to add, the man that made the remark was the smartest player on the White Sox club--Hank could and would have wiped up the clubhouse floor with him."

Dave Stapleton (1980-86), when asked if he was surprised--as fans were--that Red Sox manager John McNamara didn't put him in to save the sixth game of the '86 World Series, replacing an injured Bill Buckner:

"Yes, I was surprised. . . . The reason he left Buckner in was to be on the field when we won the game so he could celebrate with the others. As you well know, nobody got to celebrate because of this bad decision. . . . Mr. McNamara never did have my respect as manager or person. . . . It does no good to beat a dead dog. He has to live with his decision the rest of his life. And great Red Sox fans all over the country have to continue to suffer on as a result of it. And I feel sometimes that I got released after the '86 season because he didn't want me there to remind him of his mistake."

Billy Johnson (1943, 1946-53), when asked if it was true that he helped Mickey Mantle obtain his famous No. 7 jersey: "At the start of the '51 season I had #7 and Mickey wanted that #7 badly. I said OK it didn't make any difference to me so I took #24. . . . That's all that was to it."

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