TERRE HAUTE —
Authors of official proclamations occasionally tend toward flowery prose at the expense of factual accuracy, but that wasn’t the case Thursday evening.
State Rep. Bob Heaton, R-46, presented Tommy John with a Sagamore of the Wabash award in the Indiana Theatre following a dinner in John’s honor, among other reasons for his “humility … and loyalty in friendship.”
That’s Tommy. And that’s why people turned out in the cold at Spencer F. Ball Park earlier in the day and in the warmth of the historic venue to honor one of the city’s favorite sons — in another proclamation, Mayor Duke Bennett made it “Tommy John Day” — or just to say hello.
John was headed to the minor leagues shortly after pitching his last game for Gerstmeyer — on what will forevermore be known now as Tommy John Field — in early summer of 1961, and hasn’t been a full-time resident of Terre Haute since.
But many of the people who lined up to see him did so knowing he would remember them — as classmates, teammates, opponents or neighbors from the 16th Street area — and those meeting him for the first time left that encounter feeling as if they’d made a new friend for life.
He passed out baseball tips to players from Indiana State and Rose-Hulman, high school players and travel-league youth teams. He lingered long enough at the ballpark to threaten his arrival time for the dinner — “I’ve got to put my makeup on,” he joked to one onlooker — and seemed to be genuinely as happy to see all of them as they were to see him.
“One of our Terre Haute heroes,” Bennett also said Thursday night.
“Everything this man does defines a Hall of Famer,” master of ceremonies Mike King said in introductory remarks Thursday night, “whether [the Hall of Fame voters] put him there or not.”
Petitions will be circulating around town shortly hoping to boost John’s candidacy for baseball’s highest honor, an inexplicable omission considering his 26-year career and his 288 victories, let alone for his courage in being the first baseball player to risk the surgery that now currently bears his name. John won 164 games after the then-experimental operation on his pitching elbow — just two fewer than Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in his entire career — and nearly half the pitchers in major league baseball today have benefitted from that research.
Hall of Fame talk came from virtually everyone except John on Thursday, however — “humility,” remember — and the former pitching great regaled the crowd with baseball stories.
John relished the fact that his first two years of baseball — also at Spencer F. Ball Park — were spent on teams without adult coaching. He recalled learning his curveball from another Gerstmeyer legend, Arley Andrews. He remembers how “massive” he was — 6-foot-3, 160 pounds, 36-inch chest, 28-inch waist — when he left for the minor leagues in 1961 (and reached the majors to stay two seasons later).
He got what he said was his first Gerstmeyer letter jacket in a presentation from Bruce Rosselli, director of recreation for the Terre Haute Park and Recreation Department. “I had a letter [during Gerstmeyer days],” he said, “but I put it on a sweater. My folks couldn’t afford the jacket.”
He laughed seeing the insignias on that jacket for cross country and track in addition to basketball (he holds the Gerstmeyer single-game scoring record) and baseball, pointing out that Howard Sharpe made the basketball players run cross country and that his letter in track “had to be gratuitous.”
Along the way, he dispensed some wisdom as well.
Noting that his father had been his coach in Little League and Babe Ruth League, John said his teams won more than other teams. “We won more because we practiced more,” he noted. “I think there’s a connection there. I know there’s a connection there.”
As a minor leaguer, he learned not to hang out with the pitchers with losing records, but instead to try to learn from the good people. He recalled his last minor league manager, Casey Wise, telling him as he left for the major leagues, “Just be the best Tommy John that you can be.”
But the advice from his father he remembered best, John said, came as he was leaving home to play ball.
“My dad said, ‘You might make the major leagues, or you might last a few weeks. But you’ll only be Tommy John from Terre Haute for the rest of your life.’ I’m just a Hoosier; that’s all I’ll be.”
That’s plenty, the crowd in attendance was happy to tell him.