Oldest Rookie: The Incredible True Story of the Thirty-five-year-old Physics Teacher Who Broke into the Major Leaguesby Jim Morris, Joel Engel, Kevin O'Rourke
After an injury-plagued stint in the minor leagues in his twenties, Jim Morris hung up his cleats and his dreams to start a new life as a father, high school physics teacher, and baseball coach. Jim's athletes knew that his dream was still alive - he threw the ball so hard they could barely hit it - and made a bet with him: if they won the league championship,… See more details below
After an injury-plagued stint in the minor leagues in his twenties, Jim Morris hung up his cleats and his dreams to start a new life as a father, high school physics teacher, and baseball coach. Jim's athletes knew that his dream was still alive - he threw the ball so hard they could barely hit it - and made a bet with him: if they won the league championship, he would have to try out for a major league ball club. They did - and he did, and during that tryout threw the ball faster than he ever had, faster than anyone there, nearly faster than anyone playing in the Bigs. He was immediately drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and three months later made his major league debut, striking out All-Star Royce Clayton.
Author Biography Jim Morris was a high school physics teacher until becoming a professional ballplayer at age 35. He is currently a relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and lives in San Angelo, Texas.
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THE FIRST THING you need to understand about West Texas is that even local video stores have announcement boards out front with messages like "Keep the Christ in Christmas."
The second thing to understand is that, if Jesus Christ himself were to show up on a Friday night in the fall, he'd have to wangle a seat in the high school stadium and wait until the football game ended before declaring his arrival.
In West Texas, high school football and religion are often the strongest links between small towns lying hundreds of miles apart. As you drive down two-lane highways that cut through scrub-brush landscapes littered with deer carcasses and the cars that hit them, your car radio is likely to pull in only two stations, country and religiousand both are likely to broadcast high school football games.
That's how it's been since before my father, Jim Morris, grew up in Brownwood during the era of black-and-white television. A city of about 19,000, Brownwood is in an area of West Central Texas where much of the country's pecan crop comes from. If you're there at the right time of year, when all the pecan trees are blooming, it's something to see. But pecans didn't put Brownwood on the map. Football did.
Even for Texas, the town's devotion to its Brownwood High School Lions is extraordinary. I can't imagine the people of South Bend, for instance, showering Notre Dame heroes with more affection than Brownwood residents and merchants do their home team. They treat football players like celebrities. You're lucky to be a great athlete in Brownwood, and even luckier to be a great athlete from another town whosefather is suddenly offered a better job in Brownwood. Everyone wants to play for the Lions.
Yet my dadwho was big, strong, fast, smart, and had an arm like a rocket launcherchose not to play, turning his back on a chance to be Brownwood's maximum BMOC, the starting quarterback. Glory, at least, if not a college scholarship, could have been his. But the new coach hired by the school board before Dad's junior year, 1960, came with a reputation for discipline. And Dad was allergic to discipline. Maybe he was trying to be nothing like his father, who epitomized self-discipline. Or maybe Dad modeled himself after James Dean and that whole Hollywood motorcycle-jacket culture. Whatever the reason, Dad preferred to drink, smoke, and chase girlshe was the rebel in search of a party. There'd be time for none of that if he had to practice football five days a week, four hours a day. Many people tried, but no one could sway himnot his father, not the coach. It didn't even matter that pretty cheerleaders favored football players, because his good looks, smooth talking, and come-on smile made him popular enough with other girls. As it turned out, the new coach brought home Brownwood's first state championship trophy that first season. Grateful, the citizens of Brownwood tagged him with a nickname"God"though they whispered it.
Dad had missed playing on a championship team but felt no regret. To him, the world was filled with too many people who thought they were God. He couldn't wait to get out of Brownwood, where his mother was secretary at Central Methodist Church and his father spent his waking hours either volunteering at the church or running his menswear store the way Brownwood's coach ran his football team. College? Not for Dad, not if he couldn't major in Pabst Blue Ribbon. No, what Dad wanted after high school was adventure. To see the world, and be paid for it.
He joined the navy.
When she was younger, Olline Ketchum liked to brag about her deep Texas roots. Way back on her mother's side was Sam Bostick, who helped capture Santa Anna after the battle of San Jacinto. On the other side was Black Jack Ketchum, the notorious train robber who shouted to witnesses at his hanging, "I'll be in hell, boys, before you start breakfast." Ollie, as everyone called her, used to wink and say that she had a little of both men in her. As her son, I know she does.
At eighteen, she was lissome and blond and stood five feet ten, with striking blue eyes and flawless alabaster skin. I've seen snapshots from back then and have to believe that, if she'd lived in New York, some photographer would have spotted her sitting on a soda fountain stool and put her on magazine covers. But she'd grown up in San Saba, Texas, population two thousand something, and had graduated high school without a clue about what path to follow. So she took her mother's advice and went to Brownwood for the summer to study cosmetology, renting a room with a shared kitchen and bath from the landlady next door. To her, Brownwood was the big city and offered big-city fun. And she was on her own.
It was the summer of 1962, the summer of Telstar and Diet-Rite Cola and the Houston Astros. One hot night when she should have been studying, Ollie freshened her makeup and put on something pretty. Running out to her car, she considered which hangout to visit first, Lion's Drive-In or the Dairy Maid on Coggin Avenue. A few minutes later she pulled into the Dairy Maid parking lot.
She spotted him, standing next to his car while talking to someone, the same moment he saw her. Wearing a tight T-shirt, he was tall, with broad shoulders and powerful arms. His wavy black hair was cut in a flattop. As he walked her way, she felt her face flush.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey yourself," she said.
He smiled as he folded his arms above her car window, and Ollie knew it was going to be hard to mind her mother's one and only sex-education lesson: "Keep your dress down and your panties up."
He was in the navy, he said, and would be going back to San Diego in a couple of days. San Diego? She'd always wanted to see it. Yeah, it's a great town, he said, but he'd be shipping out on a submarinewould be gone most of a year, to who-knows-where. That sounded pretty good to her.
His name was Jim Morris, and soon they had a date for the following night.
Over the next six months, Jim and Ollie carried on a torrid romancein letters. He wrote to her in San Saba from ports far away, describing what he saw, complaining about his superiors, and telling her about his dreams. He had the same easy way with words on paper as he did in person. When he came back on Christmas leave, he drove the two hours south from Brownwood every day. And in April, his next time home, Ollie got pregnant.
She knew it in May, since she was never late. After seeing a doctor, she called Jim in San Diego.
"Oh, good," he said when she told him. "It's what I wanted."
"It is?" she asked, thinking that the last thing he would want was to be saddled with a family. It hadn't been high on her list.
They were married in early July, on a miserably hot day, at the minister's house, with only a few family members and friends as witnesses. Jim needed to be back in San Diego in five days to catch a sub for parts unknown.
Nineteen years old and seven months pregnant, Ollie rode a Continental Trailways bus to California in November. She set up a furnished apartment near the naval base and waited for Jim to come back and for the baby to be born.
I arrived in January, weighing in at ten pounds. My size may have made it tough on my mother, but it saved my life when the naval hospital took thirty-six hours to diagnose my pneumonia. Treatment required putting me in isolation for ten days and left me with weak lungs and asthma.
It was 1964, and the Beatles were one month shy of Ed Sullivan. By the time they had the top five songs that summer, we'd already left San Diego and moved up to Vallejo, in Northern California, so my father could attend nuclear sub school. When that didn't work out, we were sent elsewhere, and then elsewhere, and then elsewhere.
At seven months old I made my first cross-country journey, from California to Key West, Florida, in my parents' new gray Volkswagen Bug that they'd bought with the money earned for Dad's re-up. Shipping their belongings ahead, they'd placed me on a pallet of cotton blankets that covered the hard vinyl backseat, and expected me to lie contentedly for five days. Somewhere outside of Phoenix, I stood up for the first time. Neither of them heard me, not with the noise that came from squeezing seventy out of that little engine and the 110-degree wind whipping through the open windows. As I prepared to launch myself through the space between the bucket seats, Dad noticed me in the rearview mirror and shouted to Mom. First she grabbed me and held me on her lap, then she reached down to consult her worn copy of Dr. Spock. Apparently, I'd just skipped five months of normal development.
By late that night, we'd nearly made it to Balmorhea, Texas, as forsaken a part of America as exists. Dad exited the interstate, hoping to find some Cokes and candy bars. Nothing was open. The only light came from the single traffic signal on the town's main drag. Mom checked that I was still sleeping. When she turned forward, the car was suddenly bathed in blue light, thousands of watts' worth. They had to shield their eyes. Dad commented that they must have stumbled onto an airport runway, and he put the car in reverse, but the light continued to blanket them no matter which direction or how fast they drove. They felt terrified.
Then it was over. The next thing Mom and Dad rememberand they're both clear on thisis driving fifteen miles an hour on a pitch-black country road, thirty miles east of where they'd begun, and feeling as though they'd just awakened from a trance. Dad checked his watch. Two hours had passed. "What happened?" they asked at the same moment.
Being too young at the time, I have no idea whether this incident actually occurred. What makes it meaningful for me is not the possibility that my parents had a close encounter; it's that this was one of the few things they consistently agreed on. In their twenty-three years of marriage, they were so much more often at each other's throats than united that I enjoyed seeing them defend themselves and each other against accusations of being crazy or drinking or taking drugs every time they told family or friends what happened that night. These were about the only times I really considered them husband and wife, and I was sorry when they finally stopped telling people the story.
Our first apartment in Key West was the tiny upstairs unit of a converted house owned by an elderly lady who lived downstairs with her grown son. The clapboard building had no air conditioning, only a small oscillating fan that didn't do much. Mom, who wasn't used to the humidity that made the late summer heat so much more intense, fanned herself and missed Texas. A week after we moved in, Hurricane Hilda struck.
Before hitting Louisiana and killing dozens, Hilda terrorized the Keys. All the naval wives and children were taken to the base and safeguarded in barracks while the men put out to sea in a sub for the duration. When the crisis was over, Mom announced that she hated Key West. Dad asked her what she expected him to do about it. "The navy owns me," he said. My parents were twenty-year-old kids who'd been drawn together by sex and had to marry because of it. That's the way it was done in 1963. The moment they conceived me, they forfeited the right to take their time deciding whether to spend their lives together. With their mistake growing every day, they felt trapped as much by what they were learning about each other as by circumstances. It seemed a blessing when Dad's assignment sent him to sea for several months. As soon as he left, Mom and I drove to San Saba for a long visit with her mother.
Grandma Frances was excited to see her only child's only child, and had bought a closetful of toy tanks, cars, and gunsthe usual stuff you gave toddler boys. What Mom had forgotten to tell her is that I only played with balls. I loved balls of all kinds, big, medium, and small. Give me a ball and I would roll it, throw it (left-handed), bounce it, kick it, and catch it for hours; give me a toy dinosaur and I'd toss it aside, crying for a ball.
Mom or Grandma would take me to the playground, where I could play with other toddlers in the sand or on the jungle gym and ladders. But I preferred to chase a ball through the grass. The idea that this ball might be attached to a particular game with rules, like the ones being played elsewhere in the park, didn't compute. Nothing could have been more fun than exploring the physics of soft, round objects. That's why the older kids playing ragtag football and soccer couldn't hold my interest. They didn't seem to be having any more fun doing that with each other than my ball and I were having by ourselves.
Then one day, when the weather was warmer, a group of twelve-year-olds began playing a new game. For some reason, I stopped and watched. They stood apart from each other, wearing leather gloves. One kid threw the ball at another, who swung a stick of smooth wood and struck the ball, which then flew in the air and was either caught or run after; meanwhile, either one, two, or three kids ran in a giant square. No matter what happened, the ball remained the center of attention.
There are moments and then there are moments. Most of them pass unremembered. Some become snap-shots that form a kind of narrative. A very few stick in your brain and change your destiny. This happened to be one of those moments. With no conscious effort on my part, my brain just seemed to chisel this particular moment into something permanent.
Then Mom gave me the vocabulary to name it:
Those kids, she said, were playing baseball. I said I wanted to play, too.
By that afternoon she'd bought me a Wiffle baseball and bat. Hour after hour I insisted that she lob the ball for me to hit, or stand with the bat and let me try to sneak a fastball past her. But moms have their limits. So I learned to play by myself, throwing a rubber ball against the steps, catching it, and throwing it again. The constant thwack on concrete must have seemed like a Chinese water torture to everybody else. I assume that's why she bought me the Larry Sherry Pitchbacka large, rectangular frame attached to elastic netting that allows you to play catch with yourself. Silently.
All the activity accelerated my eye-hand-foot coordination. At a year and a half, I could do what athletic five- and six-year-olds did. If I'd had the same relative level of manual dexterity, I might have spent my days assembling models or taking apart and reassembling transistor radios. But I had no interest in anything else, not games, not models, not toy soldiers, not books, not even other kidsunless they played ball with me. And they didn't. I was too young for the kids who were good enoughthey wouldn't be caught dead playing with a little squirtand too good for the kids my own age, who could barely throw forward, let alone straight.
Dad's sub brought him back to Key West, and he was assigned shore duty. We moved into another clap-board house, this time on the bottom floor. (Good thing, too, because one day when no one was looking I managed to open the screen and fall out the window. It was the first of many accidents, and about the only one that didn't send me to the hospital. A few weeks later I swallowed a bottle of aspirin and had to be rushed there. Mom had been bleaching her hair at the time and of course didn't have time to wash the bleach out until the doctors assured her I'd be okay.) Having been gone so long, Dad was surprised by my skill level. First he watched me play, then he joined me. It wasn't a game as much as a tutoring lesson. He showed me the right way or a better way to do everything. I happily soaked it up, not yet knowing that there would always be a better way.
On the Christmas right before my third birthday, Dad called me into the front yard, where he proudly stood beside a two-and-a-half-foot-tall, green and orange battery-powered truck. "Watch this," he said, pushing the button. The truck began to roll forward, its oversized tires and powerful little motor taking it easily over every molehill and mound in its path. "Isn't that great?"
Dad's face beamed with the expectation that mine would beam too. And what boy's wouldn't have? What boy wouldn't love this truck?
I looked at it and ran off screaming, in search of a ball. Dumbfounded, Dad stayed outside and played with the truck for a while before putting it back in its box. Poor Dad.
A few months later, Grandma Frances came for her first visit and brought me a gift. Not a toy this time, it was a junior baseball uniformcap, shirt, and pants, all of which said "Little Slugger" on themalong with a tiny glove, a soft baseball with red laces painted on, and a tiny bat.
I didn't understand the point of a uniform, since I'd never seen a real team wear one, but I put it on anyway and begged Mom to play with me. She took me outside and agreed to pitch. The first one came and I connected. The ball soared far over her head. She cheered as she ran to get it, and when she came back I insisted on pitching to her. Struck her out. Fastball.
From then on the ball, glove, and bat became parts of my anatomy. I took them everywhere, begging people to let me hit or pitch. When they got bored, and they always did, I'd toss the ball up fungo-style and whack it, then run to retrieve it and hit it back the other way. Sometimes I pitched myself small rocks or bottle capswhatever was on the ground. When darkness or weather forced me inside, I stood in the living room and practiced throwing the ball up and catching it in my mitt, over and over, hundreds of times, trying to see how close I could come to the ceiling without hitting it. In bed, I'd lie on my back and continue in the dark.
Nobody asked me, when I was three, what I wanted to be when I grew up. If someone had, I would've said I wanted to play baseball. I didn't even know you could actually get paid to do it.
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