Best days in baseball stay with us forever

Buck O'Neil's best day was Easter 1943, when he met his future wife, Ora, after hitting for the cycle.

While stationed in the south Pacific in World War II, Buck wrote Ora every night.

The Kansas City Star

Maybe you’ve heard this story, the one about Buck O’Neil’s best day in baseball. Everywhere he went, people always asked him to tell it, and he always began with that booming voice, =Easter Sunday, 1943, opening day…

Buck’s first at-bat he doubled. Next time up he singled, then a home run over the left-field fence. Buck’s fourth at-bat, he hit it to the fence and raced around the bases fast enough that the third-base coach waved him home. Buck, though, stopped at third.

“Uh-uh,” he said. “I wanted to hit for the cycle.”

That night at dinner, a schoolteacher caught Buck’s eye, so of course he walked straight to her and introduced himself. Asked her name. She said, “Ora.” He smiled.

Buck went into the service that year but wrote this woman every night. He fell in love with Ora and proposed in one of the letters he sent from the southwest Pacific. They were married 51 years. Buck loved that story, the one that began on Easter Sunday 1943.

“My best day in baseball,” he always said, and the people listening always smiled, because we’ve all had good days in baseball, right?

•••

George Brett’s best day in baseball may be yours, too, if you’re a Royals fan. Oct. 27, 1985. Game seven of the World Series. Brett had four hits that night, and his hug with Bret Saberhagen after the final out is one of the most iconic images in Kansas City sports. What made it so special is how many people he felt cared.

Brett says it doesn’t matter if you didn’t play in the game, if you were the bullpen coach or clubhouse attendant or secretary in group sales or a fan. As long as you were associated with the Royals, Brett says, as long as you cared about the Royals, you had the exact same feeling as him or Frank White or Dan Quisenberry or anyone else on the field.

“I was totally amazed how many people it affects,” he says. “As a player, you don’t realize it until something like this happens. It’s the whole community. To this day, people tell me where they were when we won. They remember exactly. To be part of something they’ll never forget … it’s the greatest day of my life.”

•••

Dick Vitale’s best day in baseball may sound just like yours, too, if you grew up playing like he did. He is 11 years old in the story he will tell, but the same thing happened when he was 8 and 13 and 12.

It was Vitale and his cousin, two boys in a New Jersey backyard, picking teams. Vitale usually picked the Red Sox, and he can still run through the lineup: Dom DiMaggio in center, Johnny Pesky at third, Ted Williams in left, Bobby Doerr at second, and so on.

The boys played for hours, and even in a fairytale life, these are some of his happiest memories. His mom sewed him a big-league jersey for Christmas one year, and he went to bed dreaming of wearing the real thing someday.

“Baseball just brings you back to being a little kid,” he says. “That’s what it does. It makes you a kid. That’s what I loved about Buck O’Neil, too. He made you feel like a little kid.”

•••

Matt Cassel’s best day in baseball sounds like a dream. When he was 12, he played on a Little League team that became nationally known as “The Earthquake Kids.”

Their town of Northridge, Calif., was devastated by a 6.7 tremor but rallied around a group of preteens who made it all the way to the Little League World Series. Matt hit a three-run homer on national TV, so afterward they put the headset on him, and when Steve Garvey asked about the at-bat, Matt said, “Yes sir, it was a 3-1 high fastball, and I took it over the right-center-field fence.”

The whole thing still feels like a blur. They hit Whiffle balls off Orel Hershiser on the Jay Leno Show, had a parade in Northridge, went to Disneyland, met Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and hit the same pizza joint repeatedly.

“That’s probably why I was a little overweight as a kid,” Cassel says. “Seriously. I got big, dude.”

•••

Bud Selig’s best day in baseball happened the morning after he cried at a ballpark. The tears came on Sept. 23, 1957. Selig was a diligent student, but on that day ditched an accounting class to watch his Milwaukee Braves play the Cardinals for the National League pennant.

He bought an upper-deck ticket with an obstructed view and craned his neck for 3 1/2 hours until Hank Aaron homered to center field in the bottom of the 11th. Selig stood in the bleachers and wiped away tears of joy as he watched mostly white teammates carry Aaron off the field.

The next day, he picked up the newspaper and saw that image next to one of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus attempting to block nine black kids from attending Little Rock Central High.

“They put the pictures side-by-side,” Selig says. “I guess it was the day I realized how good baseball could be.”

•••

Scott Pioli’s best day in baseball happened in the July heat in Queens. He met Wayne Garrett that day, and if that doesn’t sound like much, you’ve never been a 6-year-old Mets fan in 1971.

Bob Gibson pitched a shutout, and Joe Torre had three hits in helping the Cardinals beat Pioli’s Mets. Didn’t matter, though. Pioli saw his heroes, men like Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones and Ed Kranepool. He still has the picture of him leaning over the railing, posing with Garrett, who signed a scorecard.

This is one of Pioli’s favorite memories. And baseball is only a small part of why.

“It’s even cooler in retrospect,” he says. “Because it was me, my dad and my grandfather. That’s the only event we got to do that.”

•••

Ernie Banks’ best day in baseball began with a request from his daughter. At the time, Banks was stuck on 499 career home runs, so little Jan Banks woke up that May morning in 1970 and looked up at her father.

“Daddy,” she said, “Please hit that home run today so we can get some rest.”

Banks hit that home run in his first at-bat, and as he ran around the bases, he remembers the song, “So Happy Together” by the Turtles playing in his head.

“I did it for her,” he says. “For my daughter, Jan.”

•••

David Glass’ best day in baseball happened the first time he saw Jackie Robinson play in person. A man in the tiny town of Mountain View, Mo., sometimes took a group of kids to old Sportsman’s Park to watch the Cardinals. These were some of young David’s happiest days.

Glass remembers watching Robinson take the biggest lead he’d ever seen in his life, bouncing back and forth, left then right then left again, taunting the pitcher and stealing second base easily.

“It just left an indelible impression on me,” Glass says. “That’s a big reason I’m such a baseball junkie now.”

•••

Len Dawson’s best day in baseball happened a lot. It was his routine, really, back in the time baseball was his favorite sport and football his least.

Dawson and his older brothers and their friends would go downtown to hustle money from the shops so they could buy balls and bats, then head to a park with a baseball diamond that sloped uphill. No parents around. Just the kids.

“I wasn’t very big, so I took a lot of walks,” Dawson says. “We’d play from morning to night.”

•••

Eric Hosmer’s best day in baseball ended in the woods. This was three summers ago, Hosmer’s senior year at American Heritage High in South Florida, when a group of boys who’d played ball together since grade school won the state championship.

The memories raced through Hosmer’s mind all day. He was with seven or eight of his best friends, everyone fully aware this would be their last game together. A coach bought bottles of non-alcoholic champagne, and the boys headed out to the woods behind their hotel to trade stories.

After a while, they grabbed the bottles, popped the corks, and all got drenched.

“It was like we just won the World Series, all this fake champagne spraying everywhere,” Hosmer says. “That was the most fun I’ve ever had.”

•••

My best day in baseball happened in the summer after eighth grade, when this tall blonde I’d been sending hand-scribbled notes to sat in the bleachers at my Little League game.

I was something like a singles-hitting version of Pedro Cerano from “Major League.” Fastballs, I could get through the infield. Curveballs, my bat was afraid.

The sucker on the mound didn’t know this, though, so he threw something straight, and I swung hard in a way that happened to put the pitch on the fat part of my aluminum bat. Somehow, the ball went over the fence. I tried to act tough but know my cheeks turned pink when I crossed home plate and saw the blonde standing and clapping.

After the game, we went to Dairy Queen. We had cheeseburgers and ice cream. I kissed her that night.

In three months, we’re getting married.

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