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Facing Mays was highlight for Bennett

August 08, 2004|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

When it comes to memories, time has no boundaries.

Some are like newspapers, which fade, yellow and get fuzzy over the years. Other memories are like wine, becoming sweeter and more full-bodied.

The name "Willie Mays" pops the cork on a vintage year of memories from 1950 for Hagerstown baseball. Politically, the time was a racial battlefield. Socially, it was an era of civic pride with a community backing a local team.

And historically, it was the starting point for one of baseball's all-time finest players when Mays played his first professional game at Municipal Stadium against the Hagerstown Braves. One of the best memories for one man who adopted Hagerstown as home stems from that time.

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Al Bennett, a transplant from New Hampshire, made a career of pitching minor league baseball in Hagerstown. The stories and memories he passed on to his son, Al Bennett III, come rushing back as Mays makes his return to Hagerstown some 54 years after his historic debut.

"Dad did a lot, but the thing he was most proud of was pitching to Willie Mays," said Bennett III, thinking back to the stories of the life and times of his father.

Mays, now 73, will be making an appearance Monday at the Clarion Hotel & Conference Center Antietam Creek on Dual Highway before heading to Municipal Stadium for first-pitch ceremonies before the Suns' game.

It's a return Al Bennett - who died 11 1/2 years ago - will miss, but the memories of those days live on through his son and his collection of his father's press clippings.

"Dad always said Willie was good and really fast," Bennett III said. "He always remembered the plays he made by using his (trademark) basket catch and how he ran so fast, he would run out from under his hat while he was trying to make a play."

For Al Bennett, he got the Braves' second crack at mercurial "Say Hey" Kid, the player the New York Giants were banking on to be a star.

Mays arrived in Hagerstown on June 23, 1950, in time to put on his Trenton Giants' uniform and sit in the dugout for the last two innings of a victory. The young centerfielder made his debut the next night, going 0-for-3 as the Giants handed the Braves their eighth-straight loss.

On June 25, the ball was placed in Bennett's hand to right the Braves' fortunes.

Bennett threw a complete game in a 6-5 victory over Trenton as Mays batted sixth and went 2-for-4 and scored a run, but struck out once.

"You knew he was a heck of a ballplayer for a young kid," Bennett said in a Herald-Mail story published on the 40th anniversary of Mays' debut. "He was playing with the Birmingham Black Barons before he came here. Everybody raved about him down there. He was quite a ballplayer."

Stories and memories of Mays' stay in Hagerstown have became well documented, some dimming the memories of the future Hall of Famer's play on the field. Much has been reported - and Mays has written - of racial barbs Hagerstown fans made and the beliefs that prevented him from rooming with his Trenton teammates at the team's hotel. He was forced to stay at the all-black Harmon Hotel on Jonathan Street.

"Some of the fans, of course, weren't used to it, but there was not a problem (in the Class B Interstate League)," Bennett said on the 40th anniversary. "I don't think he was treated that bad. Not that I know of. The other ballclubs had (black) ballplayers and they couldn't stay at hotels. It wasn't right, but that was the times."

Bennett had the opportunity to face Mays in two other games. Hagerstown and Trenton played to a 15-inning tie which was halted because of curfew on July 18, 1950. Bennett pitched all 15 innings, allowing 12 hits and seven walks, while striking out eight.

Mays, who had moved to fourth in the Trenton batting order, was 2-for-5, including a double and two RBI. Mays just missed ending the game in the 11th when Braves' right fielder Pete Perini made a shoestring catch of a line drive before throwing it to second for a double play.

Hagerstown faced and defeated Trenton in the playoffs that season. Bennett started but didn't receive a decision after pitching eight innings of a 3-2 win on Sept. 5 in the opening game of the semifinal series. Trenton jumped out to a 2-0 lead with the second run coming in the third inning on an RBI double by Mays.

Hagerstown went on to eliminate Trenton before losing to Wilmington in the league championship series.

Mays led the Interstate League with a .353 average in 81 games that season, but didn't have enough at-bats to win the batting crown. He also hit four home runs and drove in 55 runs in the first stop of a career in which he eventually hit 660 home runs - the fourth-best total in Major League Baseball history - while becoming arguably baseball's best player in the modern era.

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