-- by Josh Suchon
Note to readers: The feedback on the “You Were Lucky, Hershiser” story was so positive, and triggered so many memories from a childhood where my playground was the Oakland Coliseum, I’ve decided to share more of these stories. I’m blatantly stealing this idea from “Cardboard Gods” author Josh Wilker, who used his baseball card collection to tell the story of his childhood in the 1970s. Wilker gave me his blessing, so I’m going to use my autograph collection to tell the story of my childhood in the 1980s.
This chapter doesn’t fit the usual formula of baseball players who I bugged for Sharpie Scribbles as a kid, then bugged for interviews as an adult journalist. These are just two more good stories from my summer internship with the Watertown Indians minor league baseball that I wanted to share.
As mentioned in the previous chapter of this series, we had three memorable promotions during that summer. Sparky Lyle Day went fine overall, but I constantly felt like an idiot because it was so disorganized.
This post is about the other two big events: when legendary fast-pitch softball star Eddie Feigner's barnstorming team came to town, and when unknown pro wrestling wanne-be imposters came to town.
Let's start with The King.
The first time I saw Eddie Feigner was an episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He was incredible. The Washington Post once described him as “the greatest softball pitcher who ever lived.” Feigner was the pitcher on a four-player softball team, dubbed “The King and his Court,” that took on all comers around the world. They didn’t have outfielders. They didn’t need outfielders he was so dominant.
The King could pitch behind his back, through his legs, from second base, blind-folded, and you still couldn't hit him.
By 1996, Feigner was 71 years old and still unhittable, but a younger guy did most of the pitching to save his arm. The King pitched an inning or two against the best team of ringers we could assemble from the area. The game wasn't close. Nobody could touch the King. Everybody on "The Court" mashed at the plate.
The King and his Court were a relic from an era long before I was born, the ultimate barnstormers. Combine that with a ballpark that was located at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds, it felt like we were in the 1950s.
I was on the on-field PA announcer. I introduced the players and described the action. Most importantly, I handed the wireless microphone to “The King” and let him entertain the crowd by giving the history of himself, the team, and tell stories.
The most important part of this running commentary was asking the standard question of a four-person team playing a 10-person team. It always got laughs:
The King: “We can’t play with three. If the bases are loaded, nobody is available to bat.”
This event was a huge hit. It was a great thrill to meet the King, watch him pitch, watch his teammates bash home runs well over the fences, and watch a team play with a pitcher, catcher, first baseman, shortstop and no outfielders. Best of all, it was great listening to “The King” tell stories.
Afterward, I caved and asked for his autograph. The King was about to sign it for me, then paused to size me up, and wrote the following: "You should take up radio."
The King died in 2007. This obituary will give his life and talents much better treatment than I'm doing. I'm just honored that I got to meet him, watch in pitch in person, introduce him, and get such a nice unexpected compliment from him, when I was getting his autograph.
RIP, Eddie Feigner.
Now let's get to the frauds.
It was an independent wrestling group that I’d never heard of – and keep in mind, in addition to being an autograph nerd and baseball nerd, I was a pro wrestling nerd too.
I read those wrestling magazines that spouted out all the propaganda from every regional wrestling organization in the country. I'd never heard of the company, or any of the wrestlers. All the wrestlers would clearly pass steroid tests. What fun was that?
The ring was assembled on the infield. The middle of the ring was directly above the pitcher’s mound. All the equipment literally came in a van. The wrestlers setup the ring themselves. Us interns setup folding metal chairs around the ring, and added a few other finishing touches.
The promoter loved to say the phrase, “Madison Square Garden, baby.” What he meant was this show would be just like a WWF show at Madison Square Garden. I thought he was joking, until I heard him say it a dozen times.
A couple hours before showtime, the promoter told our general manager the normal in-ring announcer couldn’t make it. Was there somebody who could do it, instead?
The GM looked at me and said, “you’re up.”
I was 22 years old, a few months out of college. My broadcasting career consisted of about 30 games on San Diego State’s college radio station, about a half-dozen live minor league games so far that summer on radio, and one year as the public address announcer for my high school’s basketball team.
Now I was the in-ring announcer for a fly-by-night pro wrestling event.
Madison Square Garden, baby.
The referee took me into the dressing room (it was the visitors clubhouse) for the important instructions. Very important: I needed some type of watch or clock to keep time. Every five minutes, I would give the referees a hand signal. Why? The conversation went something like this:
Referee: “Each of the matches is timed.”
Me: "What do you mean they are timed?"
Referee: "Some are five minutes. Some are 10 minutes. Some are 15 minutes. Some are 20 minutes."
Me: “I thought the matches lasted until somebody pinned an opponent’s shoulder onto the mat for a count of three.”
Referee (not amused by my humor): “Just give me the hand signals, kid.”
Behind me, the wrestlers psyched themselves up for their performance, and practiced their moves … with their opponent.
Madison Square Garden, baby.
During the first match, I saw how the hand signals worked. The referee looked at me more than he watched the action. I gave him a “1” after five minutes. Next time the wrestlers were tied up, the referee told them the time. I gave him a “2” after 10 minutes.
The next time the wrestlers were tied up in the corner, the referee broke them up ... and gave the time.
Magically, the match ended about 30 second later.
The storylines and characters were the most basic Wrestling 101 you can imagine.
There was a good-looking, tan, blonde hair guy with muscles and pretty teeth who wore red, white and blue tights. He came out to Bruce Springsteen’s, “Born in the USA.” He was a “good guy.” He was victorious in his match, even though the bad guy tried to cheat.
There was big fat masked man from parts unknown. He was a different “bad guy.” He was actually a super nice guy in the dressing room. In fact, he did most of the work assembling the ring earlier that day, and would take it apart when we were done. After I'd introduced him in the ring to the crowd, he calmly walked over to me, and said quietly, “tell the crowd to shut up, and I'm going home if they call me fat.”
In my best Howard Finkle, I informed the crowd, in the most dramatic way possible, that the masked man said the crowd needs to do the following two things:
1. Shut up!
2. Stop calling him fat! He doesn't like being called fat! If you call him fat, he's going to leave!
Shockingly enough, the Watertown crowd took the bait. They called him fat. The fat masked man who worked so hard to assemble the ring threatened to leave. The fat masked man’s opponent took advantage by working him over. The fat masked man made a comeback, and got the upper edge.
Then the fat masked man was distracted by the crowd calling him fat. The fat masked man’s opponent took advantage of the fat masked man being distracted to work him over again. This continued, back and forth, for five minutes.
When I gave the “1 finger” to the referee, the fat masked man was about to win. Then he got distracted by a redneck in the front row who called him fat again. The fat masked man stopped in the middle of what he was doing, challenged the redneck to jump into the ring, and the fat masked man’s opponent pinned him with an “inside cradle” move.
The masked fat man was not happy.
Madison Square Garden, baby.
After four matches, it was time for intermission. I told the crowd, “we’ll take a break for a short intermission. The snack bar is open. Cold beer is available. And some of the wrestlers will be available for autographs.”
What this really meant: “we’ll have a very long break, so you can buy lots of food and beer. All of the wrestlers will be available, and for $10, you can get a Polaroid photo with you and the wrestler, which the wrestler will be happy to autograph.”
During the intermission, we looked at the radar and saw that rain was headed toward the ballpark. (When you work in minor league baseball, you look at the radar more than you do anything else, because you always have to be ready to put the tarp on the infield.)
Remember, we were outdoors. No roof for the ring, the wrestlers, or the fans. We let the promoter knew that we were expecting rain.
“We’ll shorten all the matches,” he said. I went into the locker room and told the referee that all the matches will be cut in half because of expected rain. The referee told the wrestlers. They didn’t seem to care.
The intermission lasted at least 30 minutes. The second half consisted of three matches. The first two were done in five minutes each. The headlining match, consisting of two wrestlers that nobody knew, lasted 10 minutes.
After the final match, I thanked the audience and climbed out of the ring. Most of the wrestlers were out of the locker room signing more autographs. Then, the strangest thing happened.
Somebody asked for my autograph.
The conversation went something like this:
Me: “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Drunk fan: “Hell no. You gotta sign this for me.”
Me: “Why on earth would you want my autograph?”
Drunk fan: “You were part of this. You’re the announcer.”
After a childhood chasing professional baseball players for their autograph, I couldn’t fathom somebody wanting my autograph. I also couldn’t say no. During a lot of the dead time waiting for autographs, my friends and I practiced our signatures hundreds, if not thousands of times. Now it was going to pay off.
We’d placed these old-time promotional billboards around town to advertise the wrestling show. I really now wished that I’d have saved one. With the leftovers, we handed them out at the show. That was the primary item used for autographs.
So that’s what I signed. After delivering my own Sharpie Scribble, I wrote (The PA guy) afterward, so that the drunk fan would know that I wasn’t a wrestler. Don’t ask me why I thought that was important to distinguish. It’s not like anybody knew who these guys were.
I handed the promotional billboard back to the drunk fan, and then something even crazier happened.
A kid asked me for my autograph. And so did his friend. And another friend. Next thing I knew, I had a line of people asking for my autograph. It was ridiculous, hilarious, and made me wonder if professional baseball players thought the same thing the first time they were asked for their autograph by kids like me.
Madison Square Garden, baby.