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The Slugger, the Senator, the Sportscaster, and Two Collectors: Joe Bauman, Pete Dominici, Tom Brookshier, Hans, and Dale

In the summer of 1941, baseball became America’s “national pastime,” in part thanks to Ted Williams’ batting average of .400 and Joe DiMaggio’s getting a hit in 56 straight games. But by winter of 1941, America was at war. An estimated 500 major league ballplayers were drafted or enlisted. And the minor leagues, which had been around since 1901, dwindled in size to 66 teams as players departed for the military.

Four years later, major leaguers returned home to the same sixteen major league baseball clubs in ten cities that had been there when they left for the war. Minor leaguers, however, returned to leagues gone viral. Two years after the war, 1947, there were 388 minor league teams in about that many towns and cities. In 1949, the minor leagues boasted 448 teams.

Radio stations carried some baseball games in the 1940s, but fans wanted to root for their team in person. Given that so many lived in towns or cities too far away from major league baseball to sing “Take me out to the ballpark!”, minor league baseball brought the ballpark to the fans.

Back from the war, minor league players were hoping to make a life for themselves and their families. Sure, they loved the game, but they also played for the money, the opportunity to make it to the majors, and for the prestige of being recognized as pro baseballers. Veterans were joined on the field by youngsters recently out of high school, who also wanted a paycheck, prestige, and the chance to play in the majors.

The 448 teams in 1949 dwindled over the next few years, but there were still more than 300 in 1954 when New Mexico was home to such minor league teams as the Albuquerque Dukes, the Clovis Pioneers, the Hobbs Sports, and the Roswell Rockets. The Rockets had blasted off in 1949. Named in honor of Dr. Robert Goddard’s pioneering work in rocketry north of town during the 1930s, the team played in 1954 in the Class C Longhorn League with the Artesia Numexers, the Carlsbad Potashers, the Sweetwater Spudders, the Odessa Oilers, the Midland Indians, the San Angelo Colts, and the Big Springs Broncs.

Joe Bauman, the Longhorn League’s most famous player, was big for the times, a lean 6’4”, 250 pounds. He had served four years in the Navy during WWII, and although he had signed a contract to play major league ball prior to the war, he couldn’t make it in the majors afterward. He was pumping gas during the day and playing semi-pro baseball at night in Oklahoma when a medical doctor from Artesia approached him. He offered Joe a contract, and Joe signed. He agreed to move to Artesia, play in 1952 for $600/month during the season ($5500/month in today’s dollars), and he could buy back his contract for $250.

Big Joe, as he was called, did well in Artesia. He hit 50 homeruns in 1952 and 52 more in 1953, the most of anyone in organized baseball those two years. Artesia loved him, but Big Joe was 32-years old in 1954 and concerned about his future. When a Texaco station went up for sale in Roswell, he bought back his contract, purchased the station, and moved to Roswell, where he debated playing the 1954 season for the Rockets. The previous two years in Artesia he had had been hampered with injuries. He had played well – 102 homeruns – but he didn’t feel good. Had he felt no better upon his move to Roswell, he would have quit baseball.

Big Joe not only hit lots of homers, his batting average always hovered around .400. Opposing coaches told their pitchers to throw junk because Joe would knock a fastball out of the park or down their throat. Consequently, he saw a lot of curveballs, sliders, change-ups, knucklers, spitballs, mudballs, slop balls, and anything else that moved slow and crooked and was out of the strike zone – a foot outside, two feet outside, in the dirt, over his head. He walked 110 times in 1954 and could have walked 250 had he not thought that his job was to swing and entertain the crowd with homeruns. Still, Big Joe hit ten homeruns the first eleven days of the 1954 season. People in Roswell were ready to elect him mayor.

Given such a great start, the question was could he beat the record? Babe Ruth had hit the major league homerun record in 1927 with 60. To beat that would be exciting, but the record that fans wanted Big Joe to break was the 69 homeruns hit by both Joe Hauser in 1933 for the Minneapolis Millers and Bob Crues in 1948 for the Amarillo Gold Sox.

       Forty-six years after the 1954 season, San Francisco-based sportswriter and historian Tony Salin was in Roswell, spring of 2000, promoting his book, Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes. That night he couldn’t sleep and drove to Denny’s for a late-night snack. At the counter he struck up a conversation with a fellow sitting two stools down. Salin mentioned that he was probably the only visitor in town who had come because of baseball rather than aliens. The fellow at the counter put down his spoon and said, “I too am in town because of a baseball.” He then launched into a story about his father, a Chicago industrialist named Hans.

Hans (no last name given) had grown up in St. Paul, Minnesota and was a teenager when Joe Hauser hit 69 homeruns for Minneapolis. Hans’ dad spoke more German than English, and he would say to Hans, “Gut, Hans. Das ist gut.” Hans knew what the words meant, but over time he began thinking of “Gut, Hans” as “Good Hands.” For although he couldn’t hit the baseball as a teenager, he caught it as well as anyone else playing the game. It became a source of pride to him to be able to catch a ball barehanded as well as his schoolmates could catch with a glove. And given his reputation for catching foul balls and homeruns at Minnesota Millers games, it was a personal disappointment that he hadn’t caught Joe Hauser’s record-setting 69th homerun in 1933. He had wanted it for his collection, which at the time was almost unheard of. A baseball collection?

As the 1954 season got underway and sports pages across the country mentioned that Joe Bauman of the Longhorn League might be on course to break the homerun record, Hans, by then an adult in his 30s, took notice from his factory in Chicago.

       One Longhorn League tradition was very lucrative for Joe Bauman. As he trotted back to the dugout following a home run, fans would run down to the edge of the field and express their appreciation by sticking rolled-up dollar bills through the chicken wire that separated the field from the grandstands. Fives and tens also. All Longhorn League players could pick up extra cash by hitting a homerun, but long before Clint Eastwood ever made Fist Full of Dollars, Big Joe would have both fists full of dollars by the time he entered the dugout. A bat boy from 1954 said that Joe never cashed his paychecks until after the season. He hit so many homers and got so much cash shoved through the chicken wire, or “fence money” as he called it, that he had plenty to live on during the season.

At Fair Park Stadium, Roswell, chicken wire separated much of the grandstand behind home plate from the playing field, in part, for safety reasons, but more so because baseballs were relatively expensive. Any ball hit out of a Longhorn League park was still the property of the league. And to help insure that spectators didn’t make off with a ball, in addition to the chicken wire, teenaged ball boys were positioned so that in case a foul ball was popped up to the upper section of the bleachers, beyond the chicken wire which was strung high and halfway over the bleachers, they could get it. They were then compensated for each ball returned to play by the concessionaire – candy, soda, or a snow cone.

Ball boys were also sent running to beyond the outfield fence when a heavy hitter came to bat. And the fans lived for homeruns! Jim Waldrip, who played a couple of seasons as a pitcher for the Roswell Rockets, later a renowned Roswell High School baseball coach, is quoted in Bushleague Boys by Toby Smith as saying, “For much of the time I played, we used a Macgregor and Goldsmith 97 baseball. Fans wanted homeruns, and that ball was hot. Teams could get a cheaper ball made by Worth, but that was a dead ball and pitchers hated it.”

       Joe Bauman didn’t own the only filling station in Roswell identified with an athlete in 1954. Across town was Brookshier’s Mobil, owned by Tommy Brookshier’s dad. Tommy was all-state in three sports at Roswell High School and then went to the University of Colorado where he played two, football and baseball. When he graduated from college in the spring of 1953, the Philadelphia Eagles wanted him to play football for them. He wanted to say yes, but couldn’t. Part of his support at the University of Colorado had come from an ROTC scholarship. He owed Uncle Sam two years in the Air Force. The Eagles said to let them know when he was free.

He then reported to the Air Force, who, as it turned out, had no record of him. He phoned the Eagles and told them that the Air Force said to go on home and wait until they figured out who he was. The Eagles replied, “Then wait here in Philly.”

Tom Brookshier played his first year of pro football in the fall of 1953. The Eagles paid him $5500 for the season ($51,200 today), of which he and his wife saved $1200. He had no idea when the Air Force was going to call him back, but he had to have a job by summer. Otherwise, he’d be broke. He and Barbara jumped in their new Mercury and headed for the Southwest where he hoped to pitch for the Lubbock Hubbers. The Hubbers, though, reneged on a signing bonus, and so he drove on to his hometown and signed as a pitcher with the Roswell Rockets.

A man who liked to joke and tell stories, Brookshier roomed on the road in 1954 with Big Joe and said things like, “If I told you that old Joe snored, you wouldn’t get the idea. What he did was he tore the wallpaper off the wall.” Tom would also stay up most of the night on bus trips telling jokes to Cuban ballplayers who didn’t even know English. They’d been sent by the Washington Senators to Roswell for seasoning.

But some of his stories capture what life was like in the Southwest of 1954. He said that in every town they’d arrive in to play, all up and down Mainstreet were signs that said, “Closed. Baseball Tonight.” Midland, Texas had high class fans. The men wore both pants and a shirt to the game. In Odessa, the wildcatters wore only pants, and they had the biggest arms he’d ever seen.

He also provided a description of one of Joe Bauman’s most interesting homeruns. The Roswell Rockets were playing at Fair Park Stadium, which was near the rodeo grounds in Roswell, but not that close. One evening Big Joe hit a home run that was still rising when it went over the outfield fence. It kept going – Brookshier estimated 550 feet in the air – until rodeo fans saw something bouncing rather than bucking through the rodeo arena. A cowhide ball rolling their way was obviously out of place, but the fans knew who had hit it. They stood, waved their cowboy hats, and yelled for Big Joe as loudly as the fans at Fair Park Stadium.

Brookshier lasted four weeks in Roswell before the Air Force figured out who he was. His pitching philosophy was, “If I can just hold the other team, Joe will knock in enough runs for the win.” And Joe rarely disappointed. He knocked in 224 that summer. Tom said that his time in Roswell was as much fun as he ever had playing anything. As a pitcher he had seven wins and one loss, which put him on course to have pitched 35 wins had he been able to finish the season. But one day he was waiting for Roswell manager Pat Stasey to point him to the pitcher’s mound, the next he and his wife were throwing all their clothes in the Mercury and heading toward Colorado Springs and the Air Force Academy, where he was put to work as an assistant football coach. It wasn’t until years later that they realized they had forgotten to take any mementoes of his time as a Roswell Rocket with them. No photographs, no newspaper clippings, not even a sweat-stained baseball cap.

After two years with the Air Force, Tom Brookshier returned to the Philadelphia Eagles, where he put in a total of seven years as a starting defensive back. He was a Pro Bowl selection twice, and the Eagles retired his jersey. He and Pat Summerall then went on to be the first non-professional broadcasters to broadcast professional football games on TV, and arguably the most popular pair of the 1970s.

       The Rockets played teams from other leagues. In July, the Albuquerque Dukes journeyed to Roswell. A fellow named Pete Dominici had just graduated from the University of New Mexico and was playing for them. That spring, Dominici had pitched for UNM, going 14-3 and making all-conference. He pitched that night in Roswell, and Big Joe hit two triples off him, knocking a hole in the outfield fence with one. The ball went through the fence some 300 feet away!

According to Toby Smith, the Duke’s manager didn’t like Pete to begin with. After the game, several blocks from the ballpark, he ordered the bus to stop. He stood and said, “Dominici, here’s a five-dollar bill. Buy a hammer and some nails at that hardware store tomorrow. Then go back and fix the fence.” Pete quit the Dukes when he got back to Albuquerque and started playing for a local semi-pro team.

Pete Domenici never played for the Washington Senators, as did a couple of the Cuban players on the Rockets’ roster, but New Mexico sent him six times to Washington D.C. to serve a term alongside that other group of Senators. There he knocked a few out of the park himself.

      On August 10, Big Joe hit his 54th homer but complained, uncharacteristically, that he hadn’t seen anything but junk coming his way in several games. Again, he could have walked almost every time, but he felt that the fans came to see homeruns, and so he swung even at junk. Then, even though fan pressure was mounting for him to set the record, the weather didn’t cooperate. On August 22, he hit three homeruns in one game to tie Babe Ruth’s 60 homeruns. But the next four games were canceled because of rain, and they weren’t rescheduled. As the season wound down, he had twelve games in which to hit ten homeruns.

In the next five games he hit four. Then on August 31 with a huge Roswell crowd in attendance, he hit four more in one game, making the total 68. Fans shoved more than $500 through the chicken wire, and with six games left to break the record, Roswell was sure he could do it. Big Joe, though, was not. He wasn’t used to being nervous when playing baseball, and he could hardly stand the pressure.

The next night in front of a charged-up crowd, Joe hit what seemed like a record tying blast, but it hit the ten-foot wall about six inches from the top and fell back in the ballpark. Fan anguish was palpable; still, they shoved $600 through the fence. The next game, September 2, was the last home game of the season. Big Joe had hoped to set the record in Roswell, which would require two homers. He hit only one, which tied the record 69. The papers reported that the cheers could be heard two miles away in downtown Roswell. He received $1,000 fence money that night ($9260 in today’s dollars), and the team boarded a bus for Big Springs.

     As the minor league season wound down, Hans knew that Big Joe had four more games in which to hit number 70. Driving from Chicago, he arrived in Big Springs, Texas in the hopes that he’d catch the record ball and take it home for his collection. But Big Springs was determined that Joe wasn’t going to set the record there. The pitchers threw him nothing but garbage. Joe didn’t get even a hit in the first game and the next day managed only a single.

There was one day left, a doubleheader at his old ballpark in Artesia. He told his teammates that he didn’t know if he had a homer in him. The pressure was too much. But before the game, Artesia manager Jimmy Adair told him that he’d heard how they pitched to him in Big Springs. “We’re not like that here in Artesia. We’ll pitch to you. We’re not going to walk you.”

Thus, according to Hans’ son, as told to baseball historian Tony Salin forty-six years later, Hans caught the historic 70th homerun ball on the fly barehanded that afternoon. Newspaper reporters interviewed him. Then he got in his car, and clutching the treasured ball, headed back to Chicago.

Hans had overlooked one thing, though. It was a double-header. There was one more game that night, and in the second game, Big Joe hit two more homeruns. Hans got so mad that he vowed to never attend another baseball game. The only ball that mattered was the 72nd homerun ball, the record ball, and he didn’t have it.

The story about Hans can be found on the baseballreliquary.org website. There is also a photo of what Hans’ son, Robert, alleges to be the 70th homerun ball. What, though, about the 72nd?

In 1954, Dale Eck was in the 9th grade in Dexter, New Mexico, which is roughly halfway between Roswell and Artesia. He was in the scramble beyond the Artesia outfield fence to get the 71st and 72nd homerun balls that night. He didn’t get the 71st, but he got the 72nd in spite of the ball boys, who, when Big Joe came to bat, always raced out ahead of time beyond the outfield fence. There were several other boys beyond the fence also, each hoping that he could pick up the ball and run away without getting caught by the ball boys. Boys will be boys.

Dale was accompanied by a friend. Their agreement was that if one of them should get a homerun ball, he would run this way, the other pretend that he’d gotten it and run that way, all this to confuse the ball boys. As agreed, when Dale scooped up the ball, he went one way, his friend pretended he had it and went the other. But it was dark beyond the outfield fence, and his friend didn’t see a chain hanging between two fence posts. It struck him chest high. As he lay on the ground gasping for air, the ball boys quickly determined that he didn’t have the ball. Dale didn’t have the head start he had wanted, but he found an abandoned barn and hid inside for two hours until he was sure that the ball boys had stopped looking for him. Then he went home.

Years later, Dale, a lawyer, still assumed that there was a 50-year statute of limitations on the ball he stole as a 9th grader. It could yet be taken away from him. So, he kept the ball for almost fifty-one years without telling anyone but family members. Then, in August 2005, he asked a friend of his named Dixie, who lived in Roswell, to get it autographed. She stopped by Joe Bauman’s house and told him the story. Big Joe loved it! He grinned and signed the old ball. Two days later, August 11, Joe fell at the ceremony renaming Fair Park Stadium Joe Bauman Stadium and broke his pelvis. He remained hospitalized until he died of pneumonia on Sept. 21. Had Dixie been two days later, there likely would have been no autograph.

The story of Joe Bauman breaking the home run record appeared in every newspaper in the country, giving Big Joe his fifteen minutes of fame. But he told reporters that he had no interest in going anywhere else or doing anything else. He played baseball again the next year, 1955, but the pain returned. He hit 46 homers. He wanted to quit, but the Rockets talked him into coming back in 1956. He played half the season, hitting 17 homers. His life in baseball was over. At age 34, he devoted his time to running his Texaco station. The Roswell Rockets folded in 1956.

       Today, sports memorabilia is big business. It was not in 1954. Hans and Dale were among the pioneers. Tom Brookshier didn’t even keep a sweat-stained Roswell Rockets cap. Big Joe never sold any of his bats or mitts. All his widow Dorothy retained from his baseball playing days was the bat with which he hit most of the homeruns in 1954, including the 72nd.

Joe Bauman didn’t attain the fame of his one-time teammate, Tom Brookshier, or that of opposing pitcher, Pete Domenici. He certainly isn’t as famous as Mark McGuire, who hit 70 homeruns in 1998, or Barry Bonds, who hit 73 in 2001. (Nor is he as controversial.) Still, Big Joe hit 72 homeruns in a season of 138 games (today’s major league teams play 162 games). One of those homeruns dropped into a rodeo arena, making him the most exciting homerun hitter of them all.

Further proof of the excitement he stirred up was that two years later, the Roswell Lions Hondo Little League All-Stars won the 1956 World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. These kids had watched intently in 1954 when Big Joe brought home the glory. They asked themselves, “Why can’t we?”