Coffin: The Catch

Sep 8, 2014

With the world’s champion Red Sox in the cellar, my thoughts go to other baseball times, like my first visit to Fenway Park. That day I saw two of possibly the greatest catches ever, made by perhaps the greatest outfielder who ever lived.

The year was 1952 when father, despite my lack of baseball interest, took me to a doubleheader with the Washington Senators. Of course, my first view that cloudless day of Fenway’s beautiful importance has stayed in my mind six decades.

The Red Sox weren’t doing well that day, either, and they lost both games. But what remains for any of the 10,000 or so in attendance was Jim Piersall, that day patrolling Fenway’ vast right field, for twice he stole home runs from Senators star hitter Mickey Vernon.

For one catch he raced from deep right field to the right field foul pole and dove into the stands to spear the ball in the tip of his glove. Amazing!

Then… the masterpiece. The left-handed hitting Vernon was again up and Frank Sullivan threw a fastball. Vernon hit it deep to right center. Piersall was off at the crack of the bat. Racing full speed to the warning track, without breaking stride he leaped on the low bullpen wall, then bounced onto the rail fence atop it, propelling himself upward and onward. Soaring at full speed and extending his glove as far and high as he could reach, Piersall speared the ball. He landed in a summersault, ending up on his knees, ball triumphantly held high in the glove.

Legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once called Piersall the best outfielder he ever saw. And he managed Mantle and Mays. What a player Piersall might have been, but his career was plagued, and cut short, by mental problems.

Years later, I was introduced to Piersall at a spring training game in Sarasota. While he signed a ball I told him of being in Fenway the day he made those two great catches. “Off Vernon,” he said. Then he added, “Mr. Yawkey said they were the best ever in Fenway.”

To this day, I think that second catch may have been the best ever in the history of major league baseball. But I have no proof. Nobody filmed the games that day.

Yet the supporting testimony is good. The great Jim Piersall thought them his best, and he made a ton of great grabs. Then there was Yawkey, who owned the Red Sox 40 years and almost never missed a game.

And I can still see Piersall, young and square-jawed handsome, racing fast as he could to launch himself off the bullpen fence to make THE catch, and turn one 10 year old Vermonter into a lifelong baseball fan.