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Hank Greenwald’s supreme compliment

Hank Greenwald’s supreme compliment

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The other day, out of the blue, this scribe received a letter from a man I’d never met, yet his name was somewhat familiar and I’d soon discover who the writer was.

The writer’s name is Hank Greenwald, and he told me that he once was fortunate enough to have been the radio voice of the brand new San Francisco Giants from the very beginning, when Major League Baseball moved to the West Coast in 1958.

From those early days at Seals Stadium in downtown San Francisco — surrounded by Portrero Avenue, Alameda Street, Bryant Street and 16th Street near Franklin Square Park — the team moved on to brand new Candlestick Park in 1960, and the “Voice of the Giants” went with them.

Hank mentioned that Candlestick, as veteran San Francisco Giants fans well knew, was the windiest, coldest and foggiest ballpark in the major leagues.

Hank Greenwald always wondered, to himself of course, why Giants owner Horace Stoneham ever signed on to a ballpark where playing, watching and broadcasting games was an act of sheer endurance and love for a team.

Hank was the radio voice of the Giants on an eight-year run, then it was off to Oakland for two years, and then back where he belonged as the San Francisco Giants radio voice for another eight years.

By the way, although many San Francisco fans early on thought the great Willie Mays might have been overrated by the New York press, Willie proved early on that the “Say Hey Kid” was one of a kind.

Hank Greenwald, a San Francisco citizen now retired, recalled that over a decade ago another member of SABR, a writer named Ev Parker, writing out of New York, had written a piece titled “The Supreme Compliment” for SABR’s “National Pastime” and Hank put two and two together.

He thought, correctly, that the fellow now writing some sports pieces — as well as a “Parker’s Pen” column on good guys and bad guys, the rich and the poor and life in general — for the Napa Valley Register had to be the same scribe Hank read years before in that SABR publication.

And Hank was right.

He also mentioned his enjoying a 25-part series on the game, “Inside and Outside the Lines,” and one day he’d like to meet the author, now living in the Napa Valley.

Great praise from a pioneer of Major League Baseball broadcasting in the North Bay, and this scribe appreciated Hank’s kind words.

In a recent exchange of letters, Hank asked me to go back to my SABR story once more and to refresh his memory on the ingredients that led me to writing “The Supreme Compliment,” so here goes.

On a hot and humid Sunday, July 23, 1944, two young teenagers — my best pal Ray and I — were up at the Polo Grounds home of our New York Giants seated in the upper tier of the old green ballpark in section 20, a marvelous reviewing point located between home plate and first base.

Ray and I had seen the Chicago Cubs beat our Giants 7-4 in the first game of a Sunday doubleheader and had seen Cubs slugger Bill “Swish” Nicholson hit three home runs in that game.

“Swish” had also hit a homer in his last at-bat on Saturday, so he had slugged four homers in a row and five so far in the four-game weekend series — with one game to go, the second game that long ago Sunday afternoon.

In the nightcap, the Giants held a 10-7 lead in the eighth inning.

Two Cubs were out and the bases were loaded and once again Bill Nicholson stepped into the batter’s box.

“Swish” had already stroked his sixth home run in that four-game series, and the Giants’ aging manager and still right fielder Mel Ott trotted in to the pitcher’s mound for another conference with one of his hurlers.

Despite the bases-loaded jam the Jints were in, Ott decided that Bill Nicholson would be given what I called “The Supreme Compliment” — he would be intentionally walked, forcing in a run.

So that’s what happened, and our Jints held on for a 12-10 victory, sending nearly 24,000 fans home happy with at least one win in the four-game series — and I never forgot Mel Ott’s gutsy decision.

Years later, my story of the game ran in SABR’s “National Pastime.”

There were many SABR members who said, “Surely Babe Ruth, or Jimmie Foxx must have gotten the same treatment.”

But in fact, they never did. I explained that guys like Ruth and Foxx were always pitched to very carefully, but a catcher with his mask off, standing 10 feet or so away from home plate, as in the case of Nicholson, made the play the “Supreme Compliment” to me.

I recall a few readers pointing back to the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s and seeming to recall that the great slugger Joe “Ducky Wucky” Medwick got the Supreme Compliment.

But my friend Harry Danning, who caught for the New York Giants in those 1930’s, cleared that rumor up in no time.

Harry Danning, in one of our telephone conversations, said, “If you were a manager in those 1930s, would you intentionally walk Joe Medwick with Johnny Mize on deck?”

Harry said it all!

So after many years, my pen pal, Bill “Diz” Deane, way up in Cooperstown, New York — the greatest baseball researcher I ever had the pleasure and good fortune of knowing — finally solved the now over 100-year mystery of how many batters ever received the “Supreme Compliment.”

That is, a deliberate free pass, even with the bases loaded. Bill’s list is a short one, and rightly so:

• Napoleon Lajoie, May 23, 1901, Philadelphia Athletics versus the Chicago White Stockings.

• Del Bissonette, May 2, 1928, Brooklyn Dodgers versus the New York Giants.

• Bill Nicholson, July 23, 1944, the game this scribe attended.

• Barry Bonds, May 28, 1998, San Francisco Giants versus the Arizona Diamondbacks.

• Josh Hamilton, Aug. 17, 2008, Texas Rangers versus the Tampa Bay Rays.

In the long history of the game, only a handful of major league batters — five in all — ever experienced the “Supreme Compliment,” an experience that will last a lifetime.

And thanks to Bill “Diz” Deane for your on-the-mark information, and to my newly found friend, Hank Greenwald, for your great run with the San Francisco Giants.

Ev Parker can be reached at evjenpar or 224-9956.

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