Joltin’ Joe in Ashland

(This originally published in September 2009)

My phone rang the other day and on the other end of the line wasn’t a familiar voice, but it was a familiar name.

Jimmy Rose was calling me. I’d heard about him through my many conversations with Jack Fultz over the years. Rose was Fultz’s high school basketball coach at Olive Hill. He was 20 years old at the time, the youngest man to ever take a team to the State Tournament. He did that with Olive Hill in 1944 and darn near won the thing.

The Comets defeated tournament favorite Brooksville 23-20 in the quarterfinals but fell the next day in a heartbreaking semifinal against Harlan and “Wah Wah” Jones. Jack Fultz, I remember, never got over that loss.

Rose’s brother is Gayle Rose, who played on Kentucky’s 1954 undefeated national championships. “One of the best ballhandlers ever,” said big brother Jimmy. Gayle Rose’s jersey is hanging in the rafters at Rupp Arena.

Jimmy Rose coached Olive Hill High School to a 49-4 record in 1946. It was the most victories in a season ever in Kentucky. “We had dropped football and I had to give the boys something else to do,” he said. “We started playing games in October.” He was also the first coach to play an all-black team when Olive Hill met Booker T. Washington before the public white schools were even allowed to play the black schools.

But Jimmy Rose wasn’t calling to talk about basketball.

He wanted to talk baseball.

More specifically, he wanted to talk baseball in Ashland in 1940.

Jimmy Rose is 85 and in failing health. He is housebound in central Kentucky and suffers from dementia and short-term memory loss. “I’ve forgotten so much of my past,” he said. “But I’ve got a great story for you. For some reason or another, I’ve never forgotten it.”

Over the next 45 minutes or so, Rose took me on a journey to Ashland in 1940 and one afternoon in April that he will never forget.

You would never have known this was a man who had “forgotten his past.” He spoke with such clarity and detail that it was like these events happened yesterday. I was simply mesmerized.

Yankee fan

Even though he lived in northeastern Kentucky, in the heart of Reds Country, Jimmy Rose always loved the Yankees.

“I heard Babe Ruth hit a home run when I was 6 years old,” he said. “From then on, I was hooked. It was dangerous living in Olive Hill because everybody there was for the Reds.”

Not Jimmy Rose. He loved the Yankees and especially Joe DiMaggio.

Rose learned that the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers were going to stage an exhibition game at Armco Field on their way north for the start of the 1940 season. Rose, who was 15 at the time, was going to be there, even if he had to walk from Olive Hill.

“I went in the night before and spent the night with friends,” he recalled. “My daddy was a doctor and he gave me a prescription pad for autographs.

“I couldn’t sleep; I slept very little. At daylight the next morning, I went down to the old railroad depot in Ashland. Walking up and down past the Pullman (sleeper) cars, I was wondering which one Joe DiMaggio was in? He was my hero. The Yankees were my heroes.”

Rose watched and waited, anticipating when the Yankees would be coming off the train.

“I saw some man get off the train. I could tell by his size and build, he wasn’t a Yankee,” Rose said. “That day they were to meet the Brooklyn Dodgers at Armco Field. He said to me, ‘Young man, where are we?’ I said ‘We’re in Ashland, Kentucky.’ He said ‘Oh yes, we have a game here today with the Dodgers.’ I asked him ‘Are you with the Yankees?’ He said ‘I’m their equipment manager.’’’

Rose’s ears perked up. “That got my attention real quick,” he said. “I’ve told this story so many times I’ve got it memorized. I asked if he knew Joe DiMaggio. The greatest player in the game. What a question!”

But the man just smiled. “He started to get back on the train and he said ‘Young man, I need a couple of young men to help me today. Do you know where I could find them?’ I said ‘You’ve already got one of them right now.’’’

The equipment manager told Rose to recruit a friend and meet him at the Henry Clay Hotel at 10 o’clock and he’d give them instructions.

“I called my friend Buster Cartee, who later coached at Olive Hill,” Rose said. “I said ‘Buster, get your mother to drive you in here quick. We’re going to be batboys for the Yankees’ and he came.”

In awe of Joltin’ Joe

Rose watched as the Yankees filed into the hotel. He got them to sign autograph after autograph. He got one from Red Ruffing, the top pitcher in the American League, but the one he wanted was DiMaggio.

“The last one to make an appearance – and he didn’t come in the same door as the other guys, he came in the side door instead of the front door – was guess who? He was dressed like a Philadelphia lawyer. I got up and started to get his autograph and I couldn’t get up my nerve to do it. I stood in awe of him.”

Rose and Cartee were given instructions on what to do from the equipment manager. One assignment was to carry the uniforms and gloves to the players’ rooms.

“They didn’t carry their own uniform,” he said. “They were all in suits and ties. They looked like businessmen rather than ballplayers. That was one of their marks, looking like professionals.”

They delivered the uniforms to each room and had the thrill of meeting Joe Gordon (“His gloved looked like a piece of leather,” Rose said) and Red Rolfe. They met George Selkirk, Frank Crosetti and Charlie “King Kong” Keller.

The Yankees dressed in their rooms and then came to the lobby to board the bus. Rose and Cartee were the last ones on.

“We set on the steps going into the bus and drove from the Henry Clay (Hotel) to Armco (Field),” he said. “I happened to look up and one man had a seat all to himself. That was Joe McCarthy, the great manager of the Yankees. He smiled at us with the sweetest, kindest smile. He gave us the fatherly look.”

Once at the park, the players took the field for batting practice. Rose and Cartee were positioned behind the short right field fence to retrieve home run balls.

“They had so many left-handed batters, they wanted us to recover as many of the baseballs as we could and bring them back,” Rose said. “They hit balls over there one right after the other.”

It was then that Rose caught a glimpse of DiMaggio at the plate.

“When he took batting practice, everything came to a standstill,” Rose said. “I remember he hit a line drive that went almost all the way to the center field fence. That ball never got more than 10 feet off the ground. It was one of the hardest hit balls I’ve ever seen.”

When the game started, Lefty Gomez sat with Rose outside the dugout. “He had a little change in his pocket and he sent me for peanuts,” Rose said. “A little later, he sent me for peanuts again and then again. I came back one time and he said ‘What’s the score?’ He wasn’t paying any attention to the ballgame.”

After making numerous trips for peanuts, Rose said he was gathering himself when some man came and knelt beside them. “I was busy helping Mr. Gomez and I looked up and it was Joe DiMaggio. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t say anything. I said ‘Joe, do you think you could hit a ball out of this ballpark?’ What a crazy thing to say to him.”

Rose can recall some details of the game, including when Yankee outfielder Jake Powell ran into the right field fence and injured himself so badly he had to stay in the hospital here for a week. The Yankees defeated the Dodgers 7-6.

“I’d never known it,” Rose said. “I was too busy getting peanuts for Gomez.”

One more chance

The batboys’ last job of the day was to go back with the team and collect the players’ uniforms and gloves and return them to the equipment manager.

“I still hadn’t gotten DiMaggio’s autograph,” Rose said. “After making that silly statement, I was in such awe, I couldn’t go in his room. I passed by it and looked in. He had a strawberry (abrasion) on his hip (from sliding into a base). It was angry looking really. I saw it. When I passed by the door, he recognized me as one of the batboys. He yelled at me ‘Kid, come in here!’ Naturally, I ran right up. I didn’t get too close, I was in awe of him.”

DiMaggio told him to go the equipment room and bring back the medical kit. “He told me with authority,” Rose said. “He wanted it right now. He wanted to treat the strawberry on that hip.”

Rose carried out DiMaggio’s order to the equipment manager, who gave him one of the two medical kits he carried.

“I set the medical kit down at his feet,” Rose said. “Then one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life happened. ‘He patted me on the shoulder and said ‘That’s my boy, that’s my boy.’ And I still couldn’t ask him for his autograph. But it’s one of the great thrills of my life. I didn’t think the world had anything else to offer me.”

Of course, it did, through his coaching, which he did at Olive Hill High School, Paris High School, Pfeiffer College in North Carolina and Asbury College. He later entered the ministry of the United Methodist Church.

But for one day in 1940, he was a batboy for the New York Yankees, right here in Ashland, when he had the thrill of a lifetime.

‘Is Mickey Mantle bigger than God?’

One great thing about my job of 42 years at The Daily Independent was the chance encounters with the celebrity world.

For me, it was the sports celebrity world.

The list goes on and on of sports heroes that I’ve been able to interview – Muhammad Ali, Pete Rose, and Michael Jordan, to name a few.

And, oh yes, Mickey Mantle.

The story of my five-minute interview with The Mick is much better than the interview itself.

Mantle, the baseball idol of the 1950s and 1960s, is a name that everybody knows.

It was back in 1989, long after Mantle had retired from baseball as one of its all-time home run leaders. The Mick didn’t just hit home runs, he hit them out of sight. His legend was unprecedented.

While browsing through a magazine at work one day, I began reading an article about the Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Fantasy Camp in Fort Lauderdale. At the bottom of the article, there was a number to call. It had a 606 area code and a 474 exchange. That said one thing to me — Grayson, Ky.

The curious reporter in me made the call to the number and on the other line was Wanda Greer, who was the camp director. Dave Carter, who produced the “Ashland’s Field of Dreams” documentary and many outstanding others, was the one who started the fantasy camp many years ago before anyone else was doing it. Dave has always been ahead of the curve. Now about all of them do it. But for several years, it was only the Yankees.

I set up an interview with Wanda and she asked if I’d like to speak with Whitey and Mickey.

Well, uh, absolutely, I told her.

So the wheels were put in motion. She actually gave me Ford’s number and I called him about a day later. We spoke for 15 of 20 minutes about the camp, about Mickey and about Wanda. It was a good interview but The Mick would be what could turn the article from good to great, at least in my estimation.

Wanda said Mickey would be a little harder. She wasn’t going to share his number, which was understandable. And, besides that, Mickey was always on the go, flying here and there, doing autograph signings or whatever. He was Mickey Mantle and that was job enough.

Wanda took my home phone number – these were the days before cell phones — and told me when Mickey was available she’d give me a call.

That was good enough for me. So I waited.

One Sunday night, my wife, then 5-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter and I were at church. My wife wasn’t feeling well, so she told me she was taking the kids and going home. We’d driven separately, so that would be fine.

On the way home from church, my wife drove by the Oakview Elementary playground and Stephen, being an energetic 5-year-old, begged her to stop.

“No,” she said, “if we were anywhere right now, it would be in church. The only reason we’re going home is because Mommy doesn’t feel good.”

So that was that. Stephen wasn’t happy about it but understood as much as 5-year-olds understand these things.

Well, lo and behold, when Beth arrived home she got a phone call and Wanda Greer was on the other end. She asked for me and Beth told her I was at church. She told Beth that if there was any way possible, could she have me at the phone in 15 minutes because Mickey Mantle was going to be calling.

Mickey Mantle!

My wife knew I was working on the story and didn’t want me to miss the opportunity. She hurried back to church, with Stephen and Sally in tow, and told someone in the back of the church, in our sound room, to let me know.

He came down the side aisle – I was sitting near the front – and told me. I jumped up and walked out of church and headed for home, excited about the opportunity that awaited.

In the other car, Beth was posed with an interesting question by our 5-year-old: “Mom,” he asked, “is Mickey Mantle bigger than God?”

Wow! What a zinger. Always quick on her feet, Beth said, “Well, no, but this is different. It’s Daddy’s job. That’s why we got him out of church.”

It turned out, that wouldn’t be when the interview with The Mick happened, just a sobering and hilarious sidenote. Mantle was at an airport and didn’t have time to make the call. Wanda called me and apologized and promised that Mantle would call me at work on Saturday.

That was fine with me. I was working on a Saturday morning – the paper was afternoon back then – with the late Tony Curnutte.

Nobody was a bigger baseball fan than Tony. When I told him The Mick was calling today, he was giddy.

I told him that we needed to make sure one of us was always near the phone because I didn’t know when the call would happen. Well, naturally, The Mick called when we were both away from the desk.

Our switchboard operator at the time didn’t look for me because she thought it was a bogus call.

“Somebody saying he was Mickey Mantle called but I knew it couldn’t be him,” she said. “So I hung up on him.”
“What?” I screamed. “That was Mickey Mantle!”

I quickly called Wanda back and told her what had happened. She didn’t know if The Mick would call back but told me to sit right by my desk. I’m sure she had to do some explaining but whatever she said worked.

I told Tony what was happening. He begged me to let him answer the phone so he could say he talked to Mickey Mantle. I agreed.

Ringggggggggg! Ringggggggggg!

Tony, in his most proper and professional voice, cleared his throat and then answered: “Sports, Tony Curnutte.”

The countenance on his face dropped immediately. In subdued tones he said “Yes, uh, I guess. Hang on a minute.”

“It’s not The Mick, it’s The Rick,” he said. Rick Greene, a sportswriter for us at the time, wanted to know if I wanted him to cover an American Legion game in the park that afternoon.

“Get him off the phone!” I said.

We both sat quietly. Tony stared at the phone, poised like a cat getting ready to pounce on a mouse.

Ringgggggg! Ringggggggggg!

Tony answered again in professional voice. “Just a minute,” he said firm and proper. This time it was The Mick. He successfully transferred the call to me and on the other line was none other than Mickey Mantle.

The first thing he said to me, in his thick Oklahoma drawl, was:

“You sure are a hard guy to get a hold of.”

We both laughed. I was as professional as I could be and we had a brief interview that was cut off when I asked him about Pete Rose and gambling.

“I’m not here to talk about that,” he said.

Good enough. I mean, it was Mickey Mantle.

I hung up the phone and the journey had ended. After plugging in Mantle’s quotes in the story, the job was done. The feature ran the following day and Wanda, being so classy, was kind enough to get me an autographed Mickey Mantle baseball. It had “To Mark, best wishes, Mickey Mantle” on it and it still sits today in my memorabilia case at home.

Autographed baseballs that are personalized are worth less on the open market than those that just have the name. But I liked that it was personalized and wouldn’t sell it anyway.

To me, it serves as a reminder of a story worth telling.