Dusty Rhodes RIP
He wasn't the first Dusty Rhodes I knew (that'd be this guy), but he'll always be my favorite.
James Lamar "Dusty" Rhodes, whose pinch-hitting heroics in the 1954 World Series helped the New York Giants win their last championship, died of cardiopulmonary arrest Wednesday at the age of 82 in Las Vegas.
Rhodes finished his playing career with a modest average of .253, but his crucial pinch hits in the first three games of the 1954 World Series earned him his spot in baseball history. And they were the reason I knew enough about him as a kid to ask my parents to take me to a baseball card show at the Penta Hotel in New York City (now back to being called the Hotel Pennsylvania) so I could get his autograph.
Every year for my birthday and/or Christmas, my grandmother would give me one of Donald Honig's baseball books, which featured not only written tales of baseball's past, but also hundreds of photographs of old players. When I first caught the autograph bug, I guess it seemed only natural to get these books signed by some of the guys in them. So I would see an ad for a baseball card show, usually in a Friday New York Post, look to see if the former players signing at the show were in one of the books, and, if one or more of them were, would begin pleading with my mom and dad to take me into the city to get my books signed. They generally caved pretty easily, and since my dad worked across the street at Madison Square Garden, he would frequently take me in and get some extra work done while I was at the show. He was a big baseball fan when he was a kid, too (he liked the Giants, and was at the last game at the Polo Grounds), so though he probably wasn't all geared up to go into the city and do work on his day off, I think he understood.
But I seem to recall that it was my mom that took me to the show where Dusty Rhodes was signing, and it might've actually been the first baseball card show I went to at the Penta (I'd been to a wrestling convention there, though, where I met Captain Lou Albano and the Haiti Kid, among others). I'm pretty sure I got Bob Feller's autograph at the same show, which means that was also the show where I wanted to get Joe DiMaggio's autograph, but they sold out of tickets before I could get one (never did get his autograph, though I bought one once that I'm pretty sure is a fake).
I don't remember anything about my interaction with Feller, but I remember that when I stepped up to Dusty Rhodes's table, he was really nice and went out of his way to talk to me and just generally be cool. When you're a kid and a guy who played in a World Series (and with Willie Mays!) talks to you, it's pretty awesome. And so, after that experience, Dusty Rhodes became my new all-time favorite baseball player. I used to compile stats and give actual major leaguer names to the little red dots that were the players on my Coleco Head-to-Head Baseball game, and Dusty Rhodes quickly became my cleanup hitter on the Giants (sorry, Willie). I believe his average hovered around the .600 mark.
Around the same time, I became aware of R. J. Smalling's Baseball Address Book, which listed home addresses for former major leaguers. Looking at it as an adult, that seems like a slightly creepy idea for a book, but as a kid, I thought this was the greatest book ever. I could write old ballplayers, send them a baseball card or an index card with a self-addressed stamped envelope, and maybe they'd sign the card and send it back. How cool would that be, getting mail from a former major leaguer?
I looked up Dusty Rhodes's address and was surprised to see that he was living on Staten Island, probably not that far from where I lived (I didn't recognize the address, but nothing's really that far away on Staten Island). I didn't want to ring his doorbell or anything, but I did want to write him a letter and thank him for being nice to me (and update him on how well "he" was doing in Coleco Head-to-Head Baseball). So I wrote him on a sheet from a yellow legal pad, mentioning how grateful I was that he treated me so nicely (and I think I included an index card for him to sign).
Pretty soon after, I got a response. I saw that the envelope was thicker than just an index card, so I opened it up and saw that my letter was there. I was briefly bummed out that he was sending my letter back. But then I looked on the back of the letter, and I saw a note. I still have it, but it's not in my apartment, so I think the note read:
It was just the way I was raised. James "Dusty" Rhodes
Wow! A ballplayer wrote me a note! And he has the same first name as me! Cool!
Childhood's full of such moments of awe and wonder, but we often forget about them as we get older. I've never forgotten that note, and the nice guy that sent it to me.
So, rest in peace, James "Dusty" Rhodes. Thanks for the note, and I hope today you're talking to the New York Giants fan that took me to baseball card shows and bought me lots of autograph tickets. Wish him a Happy Fathers' Day for me.