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.
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.'