How One Baseball Fan Transported Himself Back to The 1960’s

by on June 7, 2011

It is hard to describe how great we feel to be a small part of this story!  If we can act as a conduit for baseball fans to connect with their memories, we have achieved what we set out to do. When Budd Bailey reached out to Baseballisms.com after finding the Cover the Bases interview we did with Tim Sommer, we immediately jumped at the chance to make the introduction.  The two were kind enough to include us in their correspondence, and we asked Budd if he would tell the story for the entire community, reprinted with permission.

Thanks Budd and Thanks Tim!

You’re never too old to connect with your childhood heroes. And you never know how it will happen.

I think that’s the lesson of a recent experience I had involving a former professional baseball player.

Earlier this year, I saw a book by Matt McCarthy called “Odd Man Out.” It’s something of a diary of his year-plus in professional baseball. By the way, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s on sale at Barnes & Noble for virtually nothing. If you like this site, you definitely should buy it.

When I looked up the book on Amazon.com to mark it as “read,” I saw a list of suggested books for someone who likes “Odd Man Out.” One of them was “Beating About the Bushes,” by Tim Sommer.

Tim Sommer? The former Elmira Pioneer?

Instantly, I was transported back to the late 1960’s. I lived in Elmira, New York, from 1965 to 1970. My father worked for American LaFrance, which made fire extinguishers and fire trucks, and the company had season tickets to the Double-A team in town.

For the most part, those box seats — three rows back, last area of good seats down the first-base line — weren’t exactly in demand among company employees. So I went a lot. Sometimes my dad took me. Sometimes, when I got old enough (I was between 9 and 14 when we lived there), my mom would drop a friend and me off at the park, and come back to get us near the end of the game. It was a great baseball education, even if I never, ever got a foul ball. In hindsight, I guess it was tough for a kid to get into too much trouble at a professional baseball game, so my parents were good with it.

For most of my time there, the Pioneers were affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles. We didn’t have many superstars in that era pass through, although I think Jim Palmer did a rehab assignment there. But we did have real, live professional baseball players. If you asked them politely, they’d sign your program. So I asked … and asked … and asked. Heck, I must have had Sommer autograph my program (25 cents a copy, probably) a dozen times. Same with Gary Fancher, Bobby Floyd, Bobby Litchfield, Frank Peters, etc. I’ve still got a 1966 program with several signatures on the front, even though Delano Hill probably isn’t going to Cooperstown soon. Couldn’t think of throwing that last saved program into the trash.

The Pioneers didn’t come up in many conversations after I moved to Buffalo in 1970. After I finished college in 1977, I came back and actually got to put my baseball education to good use. I covered the Buffalo Bisons, a Double-A Eastern League team, starting in 1979 for a few years. I even got to do a little play-by-play of their games — enough to convince me that my future in sports journalism was in the printed word instead of broadcasting. I remember talking to George Farson, who was the manager of Holyoke (Mass.) one year, about his days in Elmira. I believe he said that he thought he might stay in Elmira after leaving baseball because he had a deal set up with Pudgie’s Pizza, which was the big local outlet for pizza in that part of the world.

Otherwise, Elmira baseball was generally out of my thoughts as I moved along in my career. (I now work for The Buffalo News, mostly as an editor in the sports department.) Then Sommer’s book popped on the horizon. It didn’t take me long to conclude that I had to have it.

I quickly filled out an order for it through Amazon.com, and it came less than two weeks later. I zipped through the book in record time. It’s difficult to describe the experience about reading about familiar names in a completely new context. Who knew that Darrell Johnson, future big league manager, was less than admirable? Who could have guessed that one of Sommer’s teammates was cheating on the good-looking secretary of the guidance department of our middle school? Or that Sommer’s best man, Tom Fisher, was the best pitcher on a pennant-winning Pioneer team?

It’s easy to describe what the experience was like. I went back to Elmira in 2003 for a 30th high school reunion, even though I moved before I actually attended the high school in question. But I did get to see many of my friends from my Elmira years, and saw how the stories of their lives had evolved. The story-teller in me found that fascinating, just like it did with Sommer’s book.

I thought it would be fun to get an autographed “bookplate” (think of a 4 inch by 6 inch sticker from Officemax) from Sommer for my copy. A Google search revealed that Sommer had posted a message on Baseballisms, and editor Joe Magennis forwarded along my request. As it turned out, Sommer came back to Elmira after his baseball career ended and stayed there through retirement.

Tim graciously sent me a new autographed copy of his book. I sent mine to Tim Wendel, the author of “High Heat.” Wendel, a college friend, has a book out on the fastest pitchers in history, and he wrote a chapter on Steve Dalkowski — who became friends with Sommer near the end of his career. The books by both Tims share space in the bookcase with the ’66 Pioneers program.

I’m sure glad Sommer didn’t mind signing one more autograph for a 55-year-old. Thanks for the memories, Tim.

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