With the first pitch of the Ole Miss baseball season, I was reminded of an interview I taped more than 20 years ago with one of Oxford’s most avid baseball and sports fans, and characters, Leroy Rooker. We were in Rick Gambino’s Restaurant in Point Clear, Alabama, while we were on a golfing trip to the Grand Hotel in Fairhope.
Leroy had oftentimes told the story of how he got his all-time hero, Ted Williams, to sign his autograph book, but I wanted to get it on tape.
RB: Leroy, tell me the story about the time you were almost a batboy for the Red Sox.
LR: I don’t remember what year it was, but it was the spring just after second baseman Billy Goodman, of my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, won the American League Most Valuable Player Award. As Casey Stengel said, “You can look it up.” I think I was in the 9th grade, and my pal Walter Gastaway and I skipped school and hitchhiked up to Memphis to see the Red Sox and Chicks play an exhibition game as the Sox were making their way back north after spring training. We got to the park about two hours before the ballgame and stood on the sidewalk waiting for the team bus to arrive.
LR: We each brought a G Number 2 pencil and our autograph books. When the bus arrived, Johnny Orlando, the Sox clubhouse boy, came out and started hollering at Gastaway and me and we didn’t know what he was talking about because he was from Boston or the Back Bay or somewhere. Then Billy Goodman came off the bus, one of the first ballplayers out. He was from South Carolina, so we could understand him. He said what Orlando wanted to know was if we wanted to be batboys, and naturally we did. So we asked Goodman what we should do, and he said when the players got out for us to go the back of the bus and haul out all the bats and catcher’s paraphernalia, and drag it all to the locker room. We did as we were told. Red Sox players were inside changing into their uniforms so Gastaway and I sat on a bench and waited. Goodman knew that we were after autographs and warned us “don’t ask the ball players for autographs in the dressing room. Wait until they get on the field.”
LR: He said they don’t want to fool with that until they get dressed. So we sat there quite a while until Goodman came over and told us we needed to take the bats and the catcher’s stuff out on the field and line them up in front of the dugout. We started hauling that stuff out and after 10 or 15 minutes the Sox started taking batting and infield practice. Of course, the stands began filling up because a lot of people wanted to watch batting practice, particularly Ted Williams. We got excited when Johnny Pesky invited us to play pepper with him. Finally, Goodman said it was OK now to go get all the autographs we wanted. As far as I remember we got everybody’s autograph except Walt Dropo. I asked him for an autograph and he said, “Kid, I ain’t got time for that.” Within two years he was back in the minors and I was glad of it. He didn’t have time to sign an autograph. Ted Williams would sign twice but Dropo didn’t have time to sign at all.
RB: Ted Williams signed twice?
LR: Yeah, I got his first one when he was around the dugout or wandering around there somewhere after he got out of the batting cage. I had gotten everybody to sign on a separate page in my book so they wouldn’t get all crowded up. After Ted had taken batting practice, he wandered out in left field and was shagging flies. But I got concerned – I know this doesn’t make a lot of sense – but I thought, what if I lose his autograph. I won’t ever get another chance. I better get two. Besides, I wanted to get real close to Ted one more time. So I wandered out to left field with my book and I got scared. I had lost my place in my book and was flipping pages over to find the first blank page for Ted to sign again and while I was doing that he saw where he had already signed. He said “Jeez kid, you already got it once, how many times do you want it?” I tried to come up with some lie about having a sick kid brother at home. Well, anyway, he said give it here and he signed it again.
RB: He didn’t give you a tough time?
LR: No, well it had hurt me, crushed me, when he said, ‘Jeez kid how many times you want it.’ But he did sign it – that’s more than Dropo would do. But anyway, we got the autographs and of course Gastaway and I were hoping that we would get to stay in the dugout for the nine-inning game. But Goodman told us about ten minutes before the game started “Y’all got to go back, and you got to go sit up in the stands.” They didn’t have a regular batboy, but we didn’t get to stay in the dugout during the ballgame.
RB: Do you remember anything about the game itself, like how it turned out?
LR: Yeah, the Red Sox beat them pretty good, 7-2, or 9-2. The main thing I remember about the game is Ted Williams – I had never seen this before or since – he played I think the first four or five innings. He came up twice. First time up, he flew out to right field, or lined out to second, I think he flew out to right field. The second time up he doubled off the right field wall. They took him out of the ball game, the Red Sox being way ahead but about the 8th inning, the crowd started hollering for Ted. I had never seen this in a ballgame before, but they put him back in the game, just to hit.
RB: Today’s athletes would have gone into the shower after leaving the game, but you’re saying Ted stayed around in the dugout?
LR: Yeah, he was in the dugout. He played five innings and sat down for two innings and never would have come back except the fans started hollering. Well, that’s what they were there for – to see Ted Williams. They started hollering, they sent him back up. He hit again. He didn’t play any more left field, but he hit one more time.
RB: How did he do?
LR: I think he flew out to right. He doubled in three times up. I think Bobby Doerr had a big day that day.
RB: What did you do after the game?
LR: Hitchhiked back home.
RB: But you didn’t help the team load up after the game?
LR: No, we didn’t load the bus. Once the game started, we were through. I don’t know who loaded that stuff up. Johnny Orlando, I guess. We didn’t go back. But we didn’t have to buy tickets, we got in free.
RB: How important was all this to you?
LR: Well, the greatest thing that ever happened to me was being around Ted Williams, being around the Red Sox. Biggest thrill I ever had. Nothing compares with that experience with Ted Williams. My Dad had taken me to Memphis a couple of years prior to that – ’48 or ’49 – I believe it was the spring of ’48 because if I am not mistaken, Yogi Berra was a rookie in ’47, wasn’t he?
RB: I think so, but I believe he actually came up for a few games at the end of the ’46 season.
LR: I think he was a rookie in ’47, and my Dad took me to see the Yankees in an exhibition game in the spring of ’48 and I met their bus that day. I didn’t get to be a batboy, but me and a lot of other kids were out there, and I got a lot of Yankee autographs. I got Joe DiMaggio and Henrich, Raschi, Reynolds, Lopat, Joe Page, Yogi Berra – all of ‘em. Well, I didn’t get all of them, but I got a lot of Yankee autographs. I got Joe DiMaggio, but it wasn’t nothing like getting Ted Williams’ autograph twice. Nothing at all like that.
RB: Did you ever meet Williams again, or have the chance even to see him again in person?
LR: Never, never, one time, that’s it. Never saw any of the Red Sox again.
RB: Really? You have not been to a Red Sox game in 40 years?
LR: No, not a live game, no. I’ve been to Chicago and seen the White Sox and the Yankees up in Chicago, and I’ve seen the Cubs. I saw the Cardinals. I saw Stan Musial get his 3,000th hit in Wrigley Field in Chicago. But I’ve never seen the Red Sox again.
RB: What did you do with your autograph book?
LR: (Laughing) I lost it in a rooming house in Port Arthur, Texas, years later. If I had gone back there looking for it, I wouldn’t know where to find that room or not. But I wish I had it back.
RB: How old were you when you lost it?
LR: I was 19 or so. I was out of school. I was on my way to California and spent some time in Port Arthur, and this fellow had a room in a boarding house. And when I left, I left my autograph book there. It really didn’t mean anything to me at that time, it didn’t bother me that much. It wasn’t a big deal with me, but it’s gotten to be a bigger loss every year since then. Bothers me now, and it has for a long time. So yeah I would love to have it.
Billy Goodman died in 1984. Ted Williams died in 2002. Leroy Rooker passed away in 2007.
A New Orleans native, Ron Borne is a medicinal chemist by experience, and an amateur writer by avocation. He served Ole Miss and the School of Pharmacy as a teacher, researcher and administrator for more than 40 years and is now “retired” and living in his center of the universe. Email him at email@example.com.