HOT DOG HEAVEN

HOT DOG HEAVEN

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Hot Dog Heaven

It was 1959, and I was an insecure junior-high-school kid in Duluth, Minnesota. The local paper, the News-Tribune, ran a contest to choose the batboys for the city’s minor-league baseball team, the Dukes. Kids throughout the city sent in essays. Mine was pretty straightforward, noting that I got up at a quarter to five every morning to proudly deliver their wonderful paper. The flattery worked, and I was chosen as one of six finalists.

The contest was put to a citywide vote, with ballots printed in the paper every day to elect two winners. The one with the most votes would be the home-team batboy, and the one with the second most would be visiting-team batboy. I hoped to come in second, because that would mean working with a lot more players, including the Fargo-Moorehead Braves. Like everybody else in that part of the Midwest, I was a big fan of Fargo-Moorehead’s parent, the Milwaukee Braves.

The paper ran head-shots of all six of us every day for several weeks. I had the poorest excuse for a duck-butt haircut that any kid of the ’50s ever wore, so I wasn’t going to win on the basis of looks. But I ran what was, in retrospect, an effective campaign.

I bought a classified ad in the paper, saying “Vote for Steve Carlson for Batboy.” The six words cost me less than a dollar, easily affordable with my pay from delivering papers. A popular columnist for the newspaper noticed the ad, and he wrote a piece about the fine, enterprising young man who not only delivered newspapers every morning but knew the power of advertising in the classifieds.

The other key to my success was a random bit of luck. At the time, I was being picked on at school by a popular jock. To make a long story short, the jock also insulted a very popular girl, who retaliated against him by volunteering to manage my campaign for batboy. She gathered hundreds of votes on my behalf.

When the votes were finally counted, I came in number two, and the next summer I was visiting-team batboy.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to exclaim the importance of baseball in general, and the Milwaukee Braves in particular, at that time and place. To Minnesota teenagers, the Braves were kings of the world. Their names evoked a sense of magic and glory. Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Warren Spahn, Johnny Hodges, Billy Bruton, Wes Covington, Lew Burdett, Del Crandall, Del Rice. . . . Heck, it just seemed natural that the greatest team on earth would have not just one but two catchers named Del. Everybody in school was chronically bleary-eyed from staying up late, listening to Earl Gillespie’s play-by-play and Blaine Walsh’s color commentary, brought to you by “those famous names, Miller High Life, Clarke Super 100 Gasoline, and Kent with the Micronite Filter.” In our school, if Frank Torre and Elvis Presley had walked into the cafeteria at the same time, Elvis would have been ignored.

Equally, we all hated the New York Yankees. Oh, there were great individual players such as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, but the team itself, which seemed to always win the American League pennant, was despised. If, in any given year, the Braves lost the National League pennant to their arch rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, we’d all change allegiances and become Dodgers fans during the World Series.

In those heady years of baseball, it was a thrill to deliver bats and chase balls for minor-league players, knowing that some of them would ascend to the majors. When the Fargo-Moorehead Braves were in town, they brought intense excitement, and not just because they were Braves. One of their players—Frank Torre’s younger brother, Joe—was burning up the Northern League. It was obvious to everybody that Joe Torre would not only make the big leagues, but would become one of the all-time greats. The fact that I was right down there on the field, able to hear his every comment, even every swear word that Duluth kids had never heard before, made me feel like I was experiencing history.

In late summer, my parents decided, rather abruptly, to move to Vermont. That meant giving up my privileged position. I’d heard some good things about Vermonters, but was apprehensive. These people didn’t even have a minor-league team at the time. And the major-league teams they rooted for were, well, could you believe it? The Red Sox and, more unbelievable still, the Yankees? This was going to involve some culture shock.

My last night as batboy was with the Fargo-Moorehead Braves. To me, this was the end of an era, and it needed to go well. The game was unexceptional, other than Joe Torre’s performance, which was always exceptional.

But then, something terrible happened. A player tossed me a nickel and asked me to get him a “soda.” He was from the South, and as a life-long Minnesotan, I had no idea what he meant by “soda.” Baking soda? Soda crackers? Where I lived, the fizzy stuff was always called “pop.” So I just sat there, not knowing what to say, and the player got angry at me, berating me for being lazy. It was a total communication breakdown. He thought I was being lazy and insubordinate, when in fact I just didn’t understand what he was asking for.

When the game ended, I was in a deep depression. The team members went back to the showers, and I just sat in the dugout. In my last game as batboy, a stupid misunderstanding had destroyed everything. What a way to end what was supposed to be a glorious time of my life.

After what seemed like a long time, sitting with tears in my eyes, I felt a presence next to me. I turned, and it was Joe Torre. He looked me in the eye and said, “The concession stand isn’t closed yet. Would you like a hot dog?”

The rest of the conversation is a bit of a blur in my mind. I just remember that the worst evening in my life was suddenly transformed into the best. And even after all these years, I’m amazed that this man, who was already a popular sports idol, was sensitive enough to notice what a depressed kid I was and take the time to cheer me up.

Joe Torre’s career, of course, has turned out to be pretty much what we expected: one of the all-time greats. And it’s certainly no surprise to me that he has become widely recognized as one of the nicest people in the game.

There’s been just one major surprise. Who could have ever guessed back then that Joe Torre would become the manager of the dreaded Yankees?

Steve Carlson

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