by Bill Swank
My father was from the Southside of Chicago. His favorite baseball player was Luke Appling who frustrated the penurious Comiskey family by hitting foul balls into the stands. The team determined Appling averaged 15 foul balls a game which reportedly cost the White Sox $2,300 a year.
The following excerpt is from his Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown:
“A two-time American League batting champion, he topped the .300 mark 14 times. His ability to foul pitches became his trademark at the plate. Appling was known as ‘Old Aches and Pains’ because of his frequent ailments.”
During a 1982 old-timers game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., “Old Aches and Pains,” at age 75, hit a home run into the stands off Warren Spahn. He considered the home run one of the highlights of his life.
In 1980, I was asked to play over-the-line. Our team won a preliminary tournament and, later that year, advanced to the quarterfinals in the Canardly Division at the OMBAC OTL World Championship. I had never played OTL before. Because I hadn’t mastered the golf stroke to place dinks “over the line,” I took a full swing for home runs. We won several games by the “eleven run” mercy rule. Then, in my early forties, I was diagnosed with Reiter’s Disease, which rendered me unable to ever play competitive OTL again.
Time passed… My red beard turned white, my waistline expanded. I have been Santa Claus at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park during “December Nights” since 2002. At 63, I had the good fortune to play second base as Santa for the original House of David baseball team out of Benton Harbor, Michigan. HOD players wear long hair and beards as part of their religious beliefs. They became famous barnstorming against Negro League teams during the 1930s and 40s. Satchel Paige called them, “The Jesus Boys.” The Harlem Globetrotters fashioned their “Sweet Georgia Brown” opening act after the House of David pepper game routine.
In addition to playing high level baseball, HOD players were accomplished showmen and entertainers. Former Clairemont resident Eddie Deal was a catcher for House of David from 1929 until 1942. When asked if the secret of his longevity was, “No smoking, no drinking, no meat, no sex,” Eddie smiled and replied, “You could say that.”
Before his death at age 98, he taught me the “hidden-ball-in-the-beard” trick. I successfully pulled it off in a 2003 exhibition game in Geneva, Illinois that was written up in the Chicago Tribune. I also played for HOD in 2006 and 2008, but could barely get to first base after I hit. Colony leader Ron Taylor confirmed that I am the only Santa Claus to ever play for House of David.
A year ago, Richard Eckfield (AKA: Sustainable Santa), asked me to play for his over-the-line team: Real Santa’s United to End Childhood Obesity.
Sustainable Santa, a member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, and his wife, Helen Nielsen, are committed to healthy diets for kids. Richard visits farmers markets in the North County and gives carrots to kids instead of candy canes. Richard and Helen also believe Santa should be skinny.
I support their goal, but I’m hardly a poster child for a healthy diet. I told Richard that I put sauerkraut on my Polish sausage at Costco and he said that qualified as a vegetable. He was impressed that the House of David members were vegetarians. My wife, Jeri, thinks I’m a hypocrite, but Richard convinced her that it isn’t easy to find old Santas who can still play ball.
Jeri considered me too crippled to compete and worried I’d hurt my back. Of course, she was right, but how many men get recruited to play ball when they’re 76 years old? Besides, I’m known as “Baseball Santa,” so had to give it one more try.
Sustainable Santa asked his counselor, Santa Marv, if we should have a practice. Marv’s response, “Would it make any difference?” I thought about having my granddaughter, Clara, who pitches for Olympian High School, toss some balls, but was concerned I’d injure my back before the first game.
“Old Aches and Pains” Luke Appling hit a home run when he was 75. Could Baseball Santa possibly duplicate the feat? We all have our dreams.
Or would it be:
“…somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but their is no joy in Mudville – Mighty Santa has struck out.”
I came up twice in the first game and got two solid hits. In the field, one ball was hit to me. I caught it, but my wife was right. I hurt my back with my second swing and became too stiff and sore to continue.
“Old Aches and Pains” said, “Baseball is a game to keep old people young.” I was in pain, but felt young again. I didn’t hit a home run like Luke Appling, but I didn’t embarrass myself either.
Real Santa’s United won second place in the uniform contest and it was an honor to play on Richard and Helen’s team. Their message for the kids of America is good.
These are my food rules. Put sauerkraut on your Polish sausage at Costco. Don’t be a hot dog. Don’t use too much mustard.