I was at the same restaurant in West Plains, Mo., one night in 2006 or 2007 with a friend when he nudged me and said, “There’s Preacher.”
My friend was a teacher at the high school there and Preacher’s son was on the school board. He had met Preacher before and knew my affinity of baseball and its history.
So, I got up and barged in on the former ball player’s meal. I knew I stood a chance of angering him; he was eating dinner after all. I was faced with the option of leaving him alone, or asking him about baseball stuff and either flattering him that I was interested or bothering him.
Sometimes you have to take the chance and roll the dice. The worst that would have happened was a baseball pitcher who played for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1938 to 1954 would think poorly of me. I could live with the odds.
I introduced myself and told him I was a fan of baseball history and said it was an honor to meet him. We talked about his career briefly, all the while his chalupa was cooling on his fork, and then I steered the questions to that 1951 game.
Maybe it’s my career in news that made it easy to do that. I’ve interviewed Bill Clinton twice since he had become president;I asked vice president Dick Cheney’s wife, Ann, once if she actually wrote an article about education she claimed to have penned; and I’ve talked to convicted killers. (I once started an impromptu press conference in front of the judge’s bench with a guy convicted of four counts of capital before the judge even rendered the sentence. My bad.)
Asking Preacher about that home run wasn’t a big deal.
That was the year he won 22 games and lost only 3 and the Dodgers ended up tied with the New York Giants. On Oct. 3, 1951, after the teams split two playoff games, the Dodgers were leading, 4-2, in the bottom of the ninth when Thomson came to bat. Fans know what happened next. He hit the home run, the Giants won 5-4 and Russ Hodges went nuts with his call of “The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant...”
And a moment became immortalized while Preacher Roe sat in the bullpen and watched.
When I asked him about the game, I could tell, more than 55 years later, it still bothered him. He said he knew the ball was a home run, despite its low trajectory. “It was hit so hard and low I thought it would knock the fence over,” he said.
He also said he thought the Giants stole Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca’s signs and Thomson knew which pitch was coming. A year later, Joshua Prager wrote his book “Echoing Green,” which substantiated Preacher’s claims.
It was a great moment for me that I’ll always remember. I could have left him to his meal, but I realized it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to talk with history. I had talked with George Kell a few years earlier about baseball, and I called Ball Four author Jim Bouton once to talk about his book. You have to ignore shyness, and perhaps politeness, to take advantage of those opportunities.
Preacher Roe died in 2008. I’m glad I butted in on his dinner and interrupted.