Making claim to a foul ball is seldom easy
Bare skin is not allowed near the aged, yellowing baseball that sits in front of him. Such a precaution is taken not because the ball bears the Bambino’s handwriting or because it is the only souvenir to which “Wee Willie” Keeler put a feathered quill.
What is most important to Duran, 77, is that he gained this souvenir during a game, not at some memorabilia show or off eBay.
He acquired it one sunny March afternoon in an Albuquerque ballpark that no longer exists.
He got it the old-fashioned way: He caught it.
Spring training in Arizona in 1953 was over for the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. The two professional teams were on their way back home, to Ohio and New York City, to begin the regular season.
Their first stop was an exhibition game in Albuquerque.
Duran, then a UNM sophomore lovesick on baseball, wanted badly to see that game at Tingley Field, which lay near the Rio Grande Zoo. So off he went. About the fourth or fifth inning, Duran recalls, someone fouled off a pitch that came sailing in his direction.
Duran remembers one such recent scene. “This boy, maybe 4 or 5, picks up a foul ball and starts to throw it back to the field. You can see his father shouting, ‘No! No!’ and reaching toward him. But the kid tosses it anyway. Then you can see how crushed and upset his father is.”
Foul Ball Nuttiness, I call this condition.
FBN is a messy ailment. It topples beer containers and sends popcorn flying.
FBN is dangerous. Last week at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, a fan died after stretching for a foul ball and falling headfirst 20 feet. His was not the first fatality due to stadium exuberance.
I’ve been to perhaps 20 Major League Baseball games in my life, and never have I come close to getting a foul or fair ball. I attended perhaps 20 Albuquerque Dukes games over the years, and not once did I bring home a bat-scuffed ball.
I refused to take my mitt to ball games when I was kid. Early on I figured out that the odds were long on ever finding something in it. Similarly, I never took a mitt to a game as an adult. There would be no need for it. Besides, I could already hear the words: “What position you do play?”
I spent two seasons selling beer in the stands at Isotopes Park, and nary a foul ball caromed my way. As a fan at the park, one night about five years ago I sat along the first base side. At the crack of a bat, I looked up to see a ball touch down a row or two behind me, then bounce forward over some seats until it stopped rolling a few inches from my sneaker. I can remember staring at the ball, unable to process why it was there. All I had to do was reach down and pick up the ball—my ball.
Ann, a friend sitting alongside me, leaned over and grabbed it.
I suggested she give the ball to me. I was, after all, clearly nearest it.
“To this day I’m still amazed.”
Ann looked at me as if I had asked her to fork over her winning lottery ticket.
“No way,” she said.
I was stunned.
“It’s mine,” she said.
The one autographed baseball I own was signed by former Gov. Bill Richardson. There’s a long story behind how this came to be, and it need not be repeated here. Suffice is to say, in 2005 Richardson signed my Kmart-bought ball suspiciously, in his governor’s office. A few months later he admitted he had never been drafted by a Major League team, as he always insisted he had.
Art Duran was seated in the first base-side bleachers during that 1953 exhibition game. That’s a good place to get balls due to a wealth of right-handed batters who might be swinging late.
Duran had been to Tingley Field twice before, both times in 1951, when he was a student at Menaul School. The first night no balls dropped in his vicinity. Someone told him that if he came back and fetched a foul ball outside the stadium, the Dukes would give him a free ticket to a game. Duran showed up and found himself among 20 or 30 kids from Barelas, all there with the same idea.
Duran left empty-handed and decided he would never go back.
But he did return—for that Cleveland Indians-New York Giants exhibition. Why? Because Cleveland was his favorite team. Duran was born in rural Mora Valley. He was listening to a baseball game on the radio one day in 1948 when he heard a familiar name. Down the road from his house lay a village named Cleveland. Yet here was a baseball team, also named Cleveland—on the radio!
“I thought, Wow! Isn’t that something?”
Cleveland won the World Series that year, the last time that happened.
So here he was again, at Tingley Field, on March 30, 1953, a Monday. He cut class that day at UNM and took a bus to see the game. His ticket cost 25 cents.
Duran was among a crowd of 7,000 when the foul ball came winging toward him. Quick reflexes caused him for reasons unknown to take off his UNM cap and hold it out, upside down.
A hat trick.
Art Duran scored a prized souvenir.
“To this day I’m still amazed,” he says. “I was lucky.”
After the game, which Cleveland won, 13-6, Duran wandered around outside Tingley Field. He passed by a waiting bus that held the Indians.
“Hey, kid,” a voice called from the door of the bus. “Come in here if you want some autographs.”
So he did. Duran says Al Lopez, the Indians manager offered him a pen, but only if he promised to give it back. He did.
As the bus took off, Duran moved about, giving his ball to players to sign. When the bus finally stopped, it was at El Fidel Hotel in Downtown.
“Kid,” called that voice again. “If you go inside the hotel, the Giants are there and you can get their autographs too.”
So Duran did that.
His baseball has about 20 readable signatures. Among players Duran did not get to sign were Willie Mays, a sensational young outfielder, and pitching immortal Bob Feller. Mays was still in the Army and would not rejoin the Giants until 1954, when the two teams would meet in the World Series. The Giants would win that Series in four games.
Feller, Duran was told, had left the Indians early and would fly to their next exhibition game in Oklahoma City. God does not take buses.
For a time, the baseball stayed in Duran’s parents’ house. The ball’s owner, who became a physical education teacher, took jobs teaching or coaching—mostly basketball—in California. He brought the ball with him to a string of towns on the West Coast. When he returned to New Mexico, he gave the ball to his parents again while he went overseas for the U.S. State Department to coach in South America, Africa and the Middle East.
When Duran returned, he retrieved the ball and moved with his family to coach in one small Navajo reservation town after another in New Mexico and Arizona.
Now and then Duran returned to New Mexico to watch the Albuquerque Dukes, who had left Tingley Field for a new stadium that would later become Isotopes Park. Whenever he watched the Dukes or the Isotopes, Duran says, it was the same old story: No chances for a baseball.
Ten years ago, Duran purchased a small protective case for his ball. The ball doesn’t leave his house in the Northeast Heights.
“I like to watch ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ and I see other autographed baseballs being appraised,” Duran says. “I think mine might be worth $350.”
It’s not for sale. It’s going to his kids, along with those disposable gloves.