Batter Up! Bottom of the Second
“The Pen is Mightier than the Bat”, or “A Hat Thief vs. the All-Time Hits Leader — Who’s First in the Hall of Fame?”
And so we have come to my most famous, and most oft-told story involving baseball. It was a twi-night doubleheader in late June of 1965. The Reds were in town and I was getting two games in for the price of one. That’s how doubleheaders used to work, back in the day. It was a deal I could rarely pass up — if they were playing two, I was probably there.
I paid my dollar to sit in the left-field bleachers. By the 3rd inning of the first game, I had already shimmied up the drain pipe on the wall in the alley between the bleachers and the 3rd Base reserved seats — my brother Chris had taught me that trick — and was now comfortably sitting in a seat about a dozen rows behind the Reds dugout. It was early in the evening, still plenty of light out, but the lights of the ballpark had already been turned on. I remember sitting there thinking, “Boy, it doesn’t get any better than this!” I had my scorecards for both games, my pencil to keep score, a hot dog and a pop to enjoy while I spent an evening in my version of heaven.
In that moment, I had no idea the adventure that was about to unfold and play out in my life. It was an adventure that would stretch out for 41 years, finally culminating in my induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Really — I am not making it up, it all happened, just like this.
I heard somebody say, “Hey, kid!” I paid it no mind, as I had long since learned not to talk to strangers, especially if they were getting drunk, like this guy and his buddy were obviously doing. They were sitting across the aisle to my left. I went on watching the game from my prime seat, but this guy kept saying, “Hey, kid. Over here. Hey, kid.” Finally, I looked over and said, guardedly,“You talking to me, mister?”
“Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you. Hey, are you here all by yourself, kid?” I wasn’t answering that one, so I just went back to watching the game. I thought about making up a story that my dad was a famous sportswriter covering the game and was up in one of the boxes and could see me, ‘so you better not try anything’ — but I decided that was too much. So I just ignored the drunk guy. But he was relentless.
Finally, he said, “Hey, kid — you want a player’s hat?” His friend was laughing the whole time. I didn’t see much that was funny here. They were taking my attention away from the action on the field. I was trying to keep score of the game, like I always did, and didn’t much care for distractions, especially coming from a couple of obnoxious drunks.
But I was intrigued — hey, if the guy wanted to get me a player’s hat, I’d take it. I wasn’t proud. I looked over and said, “Sure, I’d like a player’s hat!”
He winked at his friend, leaned over, and in a conspiratorial tone began to tell me just how to get a player’s hat. “You see that water cooler down there at this end of the dugout, that part that isn’t covered by the dugout roof? Watch as players go over there to get a drink. When they’re bent over filling up their cups, an enterprising young man positioned on this side of that railing could reach right over, grab that hat off his head, stick it in his shirt, and run like the dickens! That’s how to get a player’s hat, kid!”
I looked down at the Reds’ dugout, and over at the guy, and shook my head, saying, “I don’t know, mister — what if I got caught?”
“Oh, go on — you just run up these steps and back into the concourse, and lose yourself in the crowd — they’d never catch you, kid! You look like you’re pretty fast. If someone did come up those steps after you, why we’d trip ’em up, make it look like an accident, see? Come on, kid — you said you wanted a player’s hat, right? It’s easy, peasy — I know you could do it, kid!”
I was having none of it, but these guys wouldn’t let up. The more they drank, the more obnoxious they got about this grand hat scheme they’d dreamed up for me getting a player’s hat. It was ruining my enjoyment of the game.
Finally, just to get them to shut up, and to get away from them, I snuck down a little closer to the Reds dugout, and found an empty seat right near the water cooler. I figured this would shut them up, or at least get me far enough away from them that I could enjoy the game and get back to keeping score. I’d already missed a few batters. I’d have to wait until they came back up to bat next time, and find out what they did the last time up. The announcers on the radio would usually say that, then. There was always someone with a radio broadcasting the game that I could hear those details from. I refocused on the game at hand.
I did notice, sitting right there, how the players would mosey over to the water cooler, fill their cups up, usually while talking with someone in the dugout, not really paying much attention. The more I observed, the more I thought it actually might work! But, I was really not that big of a risk-taker — not with something like that. I wasn’t a thief. I had been at one time, but when Chuck caught me stealing candy at Chuck’s Pharmacy up on Brookline Boulevard, he put the fear of God in me, or at least the fear of him telling my Dad. I gave the candy back, and never stole again.
But this was different. This was a player’s hat — a real, live major league baseball player. Surely, he wouldn’t miss it — the team would just give him another one. I’d have to time it when no guards were in this section.
NO — NO — NO — STOP!!! I wasn’t going to steal a player’s hat, and that’s that. I’m here to watch a couple of games of baseball, and that’s what I’m doing. I really was enjoying this much better spot, I was practically right on the field. I could see into the Reds’ dugout, see these players who were like Gods to me, just casually sitting there, watching the game, joking with each other — it was fantastic stuff for a kid of 10. Why would I want to ruin all this?
But that guy had put the bug in my ear, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how cool it would be to get a player’s hat. Just then, there was a player, getting a drink, and to this day, I can’t tell you what came over me in that moment, but I dropped my scorecard, reached over that railing, and I grabbed that player’s hat right off his head!
Before I could even believe what I was doing, that player had my wrist in a vice like grip, and I was in full-on panic-mode — “AUGGHHHHH!!!!!” — I somehow wriggled free, spun around and proceeded to fly up those steps just as fast as my little body could take me, fearing for my life, certain that player was right on my heels, so I just kept running and never looked back, turning left at the end of the section, then right into the tunnel that led back to the concourse area. I could hear the drunk guy and his buddy howling with glee — I doubted they tried to stop anybody, and was still sure someone was after me.
There were no crowds back there to lose myself in! I was done! But, wait — there was that green No Admittance door my brother had shown me once, that led to a dark tunnel that led to the players’ clubhouse. I quickly checked the door, and it was unlocked! I opened it and slipped into the tunnel, quickly shutting that door behind me, as quietly as I could, and finally felt like I was okay.
Nobody came knocking on the door, so I must have lost them! I was completely out of breath, and really beside myself, close to tears — “how could I have done that? What was I thinking?” That drunk had really gotten into my head, and now I was going to miss the rest of this game, and probably the next one. Dang it!
I came up with a plan — I was going to stay in that tunnel until the dust had cleared, and the games were over, then I would sneak out and get out of there, take the streetcars back to Brookline, where I lived. I was sure they were all out there looking for me in the stands.
Man, and I didn’t even get the darned hat! But, wait…what is this here inside my shirt? Suddenly, I realized I DID have the player’s hat! Oh, my God, this changes everything — I have a player’s hat! A real, live major league baseball player, a Cincinnati Red’s hat!
I pulled it out, and looked at it — it was beautiful! I smelled it — it was all sweaty and dirty, with major league sweat and dirt! This was unbelievable. I’d really done it — I’d pulled it off!!
It had pin-stripes coming down from the red button on the crown, red pin-stripes on the gray wool canvas. The brim was Reds’ red. This made it all worthwhile! I began examining the hat in the dim light of that tunnel — there was something written on the inside band, a number and a name — it was #14 — Rose.
Oh my God — I stole Pete Rose’s hat!!!! I never saw his face, just felt the vice-like grip he had on my wrist. Somehow, I’d managed to wriggle free in my panic, and I guess I must have shoved that hat in my shirt just like the guy had said to do, while I took off running for my life.
Wow!!! Pete Rose!! Even then, in 1965, his third season in the league, everyone knew who Pete Rose was. He was that guy that always ran to first when he was walked. He was always running around out there — they called him Charlie Hustle. This Pete’s fate had suddenly been twisted up with that Pete’s fate. I had his hat!
My plan to stay in that tunnel for both games quickly got scrapped when I saw that first rat. I was so out of there, I just prayed that no one would see me, and recognize me as the hat thief that I knew I was. I stuck the hat back in my shirt, and went over on the Pirates dugout side of the stands, where I found a nice seat and got back into the game. The Bucs were winning! I’d lost my scorecards, but was not going back for them. I had to lay low over here.
I wore that hat everywhere for the next few years. I had a big head for a kid my age (I was 10), so it sort of fit — I loved that hat. Many a night, I slept with it under my pillow. I was a big dreamer, and I dreamed of the day I became a major league ballplayer myself, and how at the end of my long and storied ballplaying career, I would get selected for the ultimate honor — baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I would be forever enshrined there. Maybe then I would give Pete his hat back, just a couple of old Hall of Famers, and would confess to him my childhood misdeed. We’d laugh about it, toss back a couple of beers, and reminisce about our great playing careers. Yeah, I could see it all — I really was quite the dreamer.
Alas, real life can be so cruel to a dreamer like me. Not only was I not major league bound myself — heck, I couldn’t even make the Little League team! I was all desire, but no talent. I was so uncoordinated! My feet grew before the rest of me, I had a hard time running because I had asthma, and I really had no instincts for the game — just a headful of knowledge that I could never seem to execute successfully on the field. It was a curse! I wanted so badly to be a great baseball player, but just couldn’t play good enough to even make the Little League team. What a low blow!
But it got even worse than that. The Little League had a Minor League, where all the kids that weren’t good enough to make the cut for the major teams could form up in teams and still get a chance to play. On my team, I was actually among peers, other kids who were just about as bad as I was, but we wound up having fun playing together. I always wore my Pete Rose hat when I played.
Then, it all crashed on me. I was playing at third base one game, where I actually began a triple play on a ground ball I was just lucky to have grabbed. I stepped on third base, threw it to second, the second baseman caught it and stepped on the bag there, then threw it to first and we had a ground ball triple play, that I had started! It was such a rare thing on a baseball diamond, and I could see it being the beginning of my comeback. Later on, a Little League team would hear about the kid who started the groundball triple play, and want me to come man the “hot corner” on their team.
I was so elated…until the umpire called all the runners safe! What?!?!? Apparently, the umpire knew the other team and didn’t think twice about cheating us out of what had been a legitimate 5–4–3 triple play. We went absolutely ballistic! I started it all, yelling my head off at the umpire, at the injustice of it all. He just said, “Shut-up and play ball, kid!” but then the rest of my team came out on the field, followed by the rest of the other team, and a good, old-fashioned brouhaha ensued, as we started shoving each other, then someone threw a punch, and the next thing we knew, it was pure bedlam on that minor league ballfield. The umpire ran for the stands.
Finally, the only adult associated with our team at that game, Tommie’s grandfather, came out on the field and said, “That’s enough of this nonsense! Come on, boys, we don’t need this — who wants ice cream?” Well, that made a heck of a lot more sense than getting our brains beaten in by this team that had the umpire on its side, so we gave up the fight, and walked out of the minor leagues for an ice cream cone. We were banished from the league, and my minor league playing career was finished before it ever really got started. I was branded as a troublemaker, blamed for starting the “riot” that led to our team forfeiting the game, all over an umpire cheating for the other team. I was not welcomed back. I was done!
But I still loved going to games at Forbes Field, and still loved the Pirates. My Hall of Fame dreams were smashed to smithereens, but I had no idea what fate still had in store for me. As the years went by, I eventually stopped wearing that hat. I placed it lovingly in a box that, with a few other boxes, contained all my memories of a youth spent largely at the ballpark, especially from ages 9–13.
I had all my scorecards from all the games I ever went to, and many bore the autographs of all the great National League players from the 60’s. That was another trick my brother had taught me — where to wait for the players leaving the ballpark after they’d showered and changed, right outside another green No Admittance door.
There were usually only a handful of others willing to wait the half-hour or 45 minutes it would take for them to get ready to leave. Most of the players were accommodating, so I had all the autographs — Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Frank Robinson, Richie Allen, Johnny Callison — I had them all.
When I joined the Navy in 1973, those boxes all went up into the attic of my parent’s house in Windsor, Connecticut. While I was in Boot Camp, they moved to Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Years later, when I got out of the Navy, I climbed into the attic of their Cherry Hill home looking for all my baseball memorabilia boxes. I had a ton of baseball cards, scorecards, autographs, and, of course, my Pete Rose hat.
I searched everywhere in both of their attics, one above the house proper, and one above my Dad’s workroom, but couldn’t find them anywhere. “Oh, those old boxes of junk?” my Mom said, when I inquired about them. “I’m sure they got pitched when we moved from Windsor. Or maybe we sold them in a garage sale, I don’t remember. I just know they didn’t come here when we moved.” That was all she had to say about my treasured memories of a youth spent at the ballpark.
I could not believe it! I was so crestfallen I couldn’t even continue talking to her. I had to walk away. It would not have gone well had I continued, and I was trying to improve a relationship that had nearly been demolished by my poor behavior while in the Navy, especially at the end of my career. I had kind of walked out of the Navy, just like I had walked out of the Minor Leagues. It had been a recurring pattern ever since.
So I just silently grieved my loss, and moved on. The years went by, I got settled into civilian life — not just like that. By then, I had a powerful addiction to overcome, but I found help in a 12 step fellowship, and after going through 17 jobs in my first 4 years clean, I started to actually work the 12 steps with a sponsor, and life settled down considerably. I landed a job with a government outfit, managed to keep it, even after they learned about my firings and walkouts of several jobs, which I’d lied about on my application, and life began to improve. I got married, we had a son, and I moved up in my government job.
In the early 2000’s, I began to be courted to sit on several executive boards. One of these boards would meet annually at different places around the country. In 2006, it held its annual board meeting in Las Vegas. I was there for the board meeting, and my wife, Kathy came along to see the sights and keep me company in my travels. The Board met over a weekend. On Sunday morning, Kathy called me during one of our breaks. She asked an interesting question — “Do you like Pete Rose?” I said, “Well, he’s been banned from baseball for life for gambling on games, but man, he was one heck of a ballplayer. I loved watching him play.”
“Would you like to meet him?”
There was an autograph signing at a sports memorabilia shop in the gallery of stores connected to one of the casinos. There was a Pete Rose special where you could spend 5 minutes talking to Pete while he signed your jersey, baseball and 8 x 10 photo, a package deal with a great price. “Your birthday’s coming up, and it just sounded like something you’d like.”
I just said, “Thanks! I’ll see you there!” After the Board meeting I made a beeline for Caesar’s Palace. As I made my way down the corridor, I could see a line of people snaking around inside the store, spilling into the corridor. Pete was seated at the front, signing away. My wife told his handler that I was there, and she came right out and escorted right up to the table. “Pete, this is Pete. He’s a big fan!” Apparently, since we’d bought the package deal, we got front of the line privileges. I also suspected that it might have had something to do with Kathy working the handler, as she is world class at that sort of thing.
Either way, I was thrilled to be meeting face-to-face with one of my childhood heroes. Pete was the kind of player that you always felt like, if he could make it to the majors, anyone could. He’d worked hard to get there, and came across like an everyday kind of guy who made good.
As I sat down, I found him to be engaging and just a lot of fun to talk baseball with. He quickly picked up that I was a serious fan who knew what I was talking about, and we got on tremendously, spinning tales and just talking baseball like the fans of the game we both were. I was having such a good time, I tried to ignore the thought that popped up in my head — “tell him about the hat — the hat — the hat.” Like the time that drunk was trying to put me up to that deed, I just wanted that thought to go away. “No, no, no — I’m having too good a time talking baseball with Pete. I don’t want to ruin it with that. It might be a sore spot for him.”
So, we kept talking baseball, but finally, like the kid who reached over that railing and grabbed that hat, I just blurted it out. “You know, Pete…when I was a kid, I stole your hat.” I couldn’t believe I’d said that! He looked at me with a look that said, “Sure you did, kid. Sure you did.” Then I said, “I can’t remember if it was 1965 or 1966, it was a twi-night doubleheader…” Suddenly, his face grew from jovial to looking very serious, as his eyebrows scrunched up and he said, “Forbes Field?” I said, “Yes, Forbes Field! You actually remember it?”
“That was 1965, you son of a bitch!” I honestly thought he was about to reach across that table and grab me by the throat, demanding his hat back. I was ready to turn tale and run the hell out of there, feeling that same fear I’d felt 41 years before when he’d grabbed my little 10 year old wrist with his major league grip. But then a broad grin spread across his face, and I came down from the ledge and said, “How the heck do you remember the year, Pete? That was 41 years ago, for God’s sake!”
“I’ll tell you how I remember the year — that was the last year that Frank Robinson played for the Reds, and he wouldn’t let me hear the end of it for the rest of that season. ‘What kind of major leaguer lets some snot-nosed punk steal the hat off his head, right in the dugout?’ He was relentless! He got traded to the Orioles after that season.”
His next question for me was, “Do you still have it?” I had to tell him the sad tale of the hat getting lost with all my other memorabilia in a family move.
We finished our talk, he signed my stuff, and I was on my way. The Washington Nationals had just finished their second season in DC, where I worked and lived nearby in Northern Virginia. I’d gotten seriously back into my love of the game with a new home team, which, ironically, was managed those first two seasons by the very same Frank Robinson! A year earlier, our first off-season for the Nationals, I’d taken a trip to Cooperstown, NY, over the winter with a couple of new friends I’d made at the ballpark. We’d gone to a ton of games that season, and a trip to Cooperstown was just what we needed to keep our newly revived baseball spirit alive during the long winter months while we awaited the next season to begin. I had become a contributing member of the Hall of Fame, which put me on their mailing and email list. About a month after my encounter with Pete in Vegas, I got a message from the Hall of Fame about a memorabilia story contest they were holding that winter. “Send in your favorite story about a piece of baseball memorabilia. Our panel of experts will review all of the stories submitted, and the top 3 stories selected will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and their authors invited up to the Hall to read their stories to the assembled masses at the Hall of Fame theater.”
I had a story — my Pete Rose Hat Story. I wrote it all up, how I stole Pete’s hat as a kid, then met him 41 years later and he still remembered it. I included the tragic part about losing that hat, and all my memorabilia, in a family move. I put a stamp on it and mailed it off to Cooperstown.
Since Pete was banned from baseball for life, for gambling on the game, I did not expect my story to get very far with the panel of experts. However, I had apparently done such a good job in the telling, they had no choice but to give it an honest shot. About a month later, a letter arrived in my mailbox from Daniel Petrosky, the president of the Hall of Fame board, that fulfilled a childhood dream I’d never expected to come true. For that letter informed me that my story had been selected for induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I’d made it!
And that, my friends, is how I, Pete Bridgeman, a child hat thief and renegade once banned from the Little League’s Minor League, beat Pete Rose, the All-time Hits Leader and holder of 22 other major league baseball records, into baseball’s Hall of Fame!