1. Welcome to SportsJournalists.com, a friendly forum for discussing all things sports and journalism.

    Your voice is missing! You will need to register for a free account to get access to the following site features:
    • Reply to discussions and create your own threads.
    • Access to private conversations with other members.
    • Fewer ads.

    We hope to see you as a part of our community soon!

Feature on former baseball player

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by Go State, Jun 13, 2007.

  1. Go State

    Go State Member

    I wrote this awhile back, and it was picked up by the AP. I have a similar story coming up and am hoping to get some feedback just to make sure I did a good job with this one. I don't want to write something similar if this story doesn't interest people. Thanks in advance!

    ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- Jim Herbison peers through his silver-rimmed glasses as a smile peaks through the left side of his mouth. His 81-year-old eyes veer toward the kitchen table, and he extends his right index finger near the half of sandwich that remains.

    “Look at me,” Herbison says pointing at the plate in front of him. “I still eat like a Class D ballplayer — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

    Don’t let the simplicity fool you. Herbison’s sports life is much more complicated — and almost surreal.

    The same man eating a basic lunch on this sweltering day with his wife, Coleen, of nearly 56 years, once pitched batting practice to Ted Williams.

    This charismatic yet humble former athlete shared the same American Legion baseball field with Yogi Berra at 15 years old. He played on the same court with a basketball pioneer, turned down a second base position later filled by Hall of Famer Earl Weaver and made decisions that led him straight out of baseball.

    After graduating from Central High School in 1943, Herbison won a pennant with the 1948 minor-league St. Joseph Cardinals, who played their home games at Phil Welch Stadium.

    But today, Herbison sits in his St. Joseph home a relative unknown.

    The musty smell of worn, discolored newspaper permeates the room as Herbison takes a closer look at the box score bearing his name.

    “Huh, they had me hitting fifth that day. That’s unusual,” Herbison says of the day in 1947 when he played in Albany, Ga. “Look at that — I was 2-for-5.”

    Four years earlier, Herbison put his chance to play professional baseball on hold to serve in the Marine Corps during World War II. Fortunate enough to elude combat duty, Herbison spent 17 months in Hawaii on Ewa Air Force Base and “did nothing but play basketball and baseball.”

    Former St. Louis Cardinal great Stan Musial and Chicago White Sox knuckleball pitcher Ted Lyons played on the same military base as Herbison. But nothing compares to Herbison’s day with the last man to hit .400 in a season.


    On a clear day in December of 1945, Herbison and a friend each took turns pitching batting practice.

    “All at once, here comes Ted Williams walking up,” Herbison recalls.

    Williams left the Boston Red Sox to serve as a combat pilot during the war. He hadn’t played baseball in months before stepping on the field with Herbison that day, but Williams sprayed line drives in each direction for nearly an hour.

    “He hadn’t swung a bat in six months,” Herbison remembers, “and it looked like he never left the batter’s box.”

    Very few people can boast playing on the same field as possibly baseball’s greatest hitter. But if it wasn’t for Coleen, Herbison would not be sitting calmly, nary a smile on his face, telling the story.

    “You don’t want to hear about that, do you?” Herbison asks.

    Everyone does.

    “It’s his grandkids’ favorite story,” Coleen says, as she gathers 60-year-old pictures of her husband.


    A black-and-white team photograph bordered with a white frame features a younger version of Herbison and his basketball teammates from Hawaii in the summer of 1945. He reaches for his glasses, and moves them further down his nose for a closer look.

    “I’ve never seen anyone shoot like this guy could shoot,” Herbison says pointing to No. 46 in the photo.

    The guy is 1987 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Wanzer. Just two years after Wanzer smiled for the picture, the Rochester Royals drafted him 10th overall. And during the 1951-52 NBA season, Wanzer shot 90.4 percent from the free-throw line — becoming the first player to shoot 90 percent or better in a single season.

    “One hand, two hands — it didn’t matter,” Herbison says. “He could shoot the ball real well.”

    Herbison basked in the luxury of playing with Wanzer, and Herbison shares the details 61 years later like it happened yesterday.

    “We had a great ballclub,” Herbison says, as Coleen hands over another collection of pictured memories. “It was great basketball and great fun.”


    The cardboard-like photo of the 1949 St. Joseph Cardinals shows the legendary Earl Weaver looking like a little leaguer, not a man who drove in 101 runs that season – or a man who later would manage the Baltimore Orioles to four World Series.

    “Look at him,” Herbison says with a laugh. “He looks like a little boy here.”

    That little boy molded the careers of many baseball players later in his career. But it could be argued if it weren’t for Herbison’s decision in 1950 to become player/manager in Goldsboro, N.C., rather than play second base in Winston-Salem, N.C., he would’ve been a major-league manager instead of Weaver.

    “(Goldsboro) was offering me the same money to be a player/manager as Winston-Salem was,” Herbison recalls. “When I decided to go to Goldsboro, Earl Weaver took the position at second base that I would have played in Winston-Salem.”

    There, Weaver met Bill Washington, who later became an Orioles’ executive.

    The rest is history.

    Herbison glances from the picture and recalls toiling in Goldsboro with a struggling team he did not put together. No words speak of regret.

    “I had no pitching coach, I had no batting coach – I was it,” Herbison said. “If you’re trying to play and manage, it’s tough. But I had to give it a shot. I’d been playing ball in the service, I was single, I didn’t have any responsibility. I made a decision.”


    Herbison remembers spending his baseball prime serving in the military, which hindered his big-league chances.

    “There went three and a half, maybe four good years that I lost of trying to move up,” Herbison says. “There’s no question that I think it cut into a lot of careers.”

    When the Cardinals organization told him major league baseball was not in his future, Herbison made another decision — to turn down an offer to play in Allentown, Pa., and marry Coleen.

    “We went to a show, and I came home and decided that I should give it up,” Herbison says. “It’s just one of those decisions you make, you know?”

    “See? It was my fault,” Coleen jokes.

    The two married in October of 1950.

    Herbison worked for the Standard Oil company during the off-seasons, and became a salesman full-time. Herbison later owned two service stations in St. Joseph before retiring in 1986 when he was 61 years old.

    Herbison spent the better part of an hour discussing his run-ins with prominent sports figures most have only read about in books. It takes the story of meeting Coleen to bring the biggest smile to his face.

    “If he wasn’t a good dancer, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with him,” Coleen says.

    Dancing skills aside, the Herbisons left baseball behind and built something much stronger than a simple wooden baseball bat.

    But his sports life still exists. Herbison stays young by playing golf when his health allows him to, and he watches the Atlanta Braves on television whenever he gets the chance.

    Herbison takes one final look at the pictures covering the tabletop like a blanket, and he stares briefly toward the ceiling before focusing on the conversation again. His voice is filled with inspiration.

    “It’s like having stars in your eyes,” Herbison says of his experience as an athlete. “You have a dream.”

    There’s no need to close his eyes. Jim Herbison is living that dream.
  2. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Go State,

    It's a good story, and you have most of the parts, but I think it's in the wrong order a little. I also think you should try to recreate scenes more clearly -- the problem with these types of stories in general is that they tend to read like the lines on the back of a baseball card: He did this, and then he did this, and then he did this. I'd rather have fewer stories included, but more richly told.

    For instance -- the Ted Williams scene is the keeper here. I love the idea of this military base being a kind of clearing house, through which all sorts of terrific athletes passed. Herbison kind of sparks that by talking about how many men lost their primes there. I think you could have used that to jump into his own story, about the near-misses and so on (I liked the Weaver part, too).

    Oh, and as for the order -- I think Ted is the lede here. I know you're trying to give us a look at the man today, sitting at his kitchen table, but I'd rather see him throwing batting practice to Williams -- and again, with more details: blue skies? wearing fatigues? did Williams say much? did the other men acknowledge him and who he was? did they ask for autographs? -- and then suddenly you have this beautiful rich start to the story of a man with some remarkable memories. I'd start with one of his stories, and then we see him telling it, if that makes sense.

    I do like how you open with a scene, though. I think that's important. I just would have picked a different scene.

    Other than that, not much needs doing. I'd watch a couple of little word uses ("veer" was weird in the lede to me) and there's a point where you start three sentences in a row with "Herbison," but really, the writing is tight and clear.

    Again, I'd just get to the stories quicker the next time around. If the man's stories are good enough, we'll follow your relaying of them as far as you want us to go.
Draft saved Draft deleted

Share This Page