Great Line Up
Meeting Ike Behind Home Plate
Fifty years ago, Army beat Navy in baseball at West Point, but the game’s high point for one young spectator was getting the autograph of fellow spectator Dwight Eisenhower.
Fifty years ago today, when I was all of 15, I was at West Point, N.Y., among a few hundred fans, watching the annual Army-Navy baseball game. I have no memory of the game itself (won by Army 7-2) nor even of Navy’s centerfielder, Roger Staubach, who, after four years in the service, would go on to star in the National Football League.
I do still have the scorecard. It’s been saved but not because of my batter-by-batter account. (Staubach, fourth in the order, went hitless.) It was preserved because I had it autographed. Not by any players, but by a member of West Point’s class of 1915, celebrating his 50th reunion. He was sitting in the wooden bleachers behind home plate.
I remember no obvious security when I approached Dwight Eisenhower to ask for his autograph. Later, I told my father, who had no military background, that I had thanked “Mr. Eisenhower.” My dad scolded me: “You should have called him ‘Mr. President.’”
A half-century later, I revisited West Point’s Doubleday Field and later by phone and email, reached the Army shortstop, Tony Pyrz, who I saw play in 1965. He was one of only nine players Army coach Eric Tipton put in the game that day.
Pyrz, who lives in Indianapolis after retiring from the military, told me he captained the team and “shook hands with Ike after the game. All in all, it was a pretty good day."”
Playing Navy, he said, “was, and I believe still is, amazingly important to any Army baseball player. The rest of the season is fun. The Navy game is all business.” (These days, Army and Navy play a weekend of doubleheaders during the season.)
In early May 1965, Pyrz fractured his right hand, his throwing hand. Afraid he would miss the season-ending game against Navy, he began squeezing a rubber ball the day after he got a cast.
“It took me a couple of days to destroy the cast,” he said. “The doctors agreed a new cast would be a waste of time. After a week, with my index finger and middle finger taped together I taped a piece of sponge rubber at a strategic point on the handle of a bat and started to practice with the team. Coach Tipton let me play the Navy game.”
What Pyrz didn’t mention, until I asked him about it, was the first inning. According to my scorecard, he hit a three-run home run. I assumed he had not forgotten.
“I didn’t see any reason to go into detail about a fly ball that inched its way over a short leftfield fence,” he replied. “I was pleased. Believe me.”
After the game, Eisenhower asked Barry DeBolt, the winning pitcher, and Pyrz, the home run hitter, to meet him in the stands behind home plate. “I was totally awed,” Pryz said, “and didn’t complain when he squeezed my almost healthy right hand.”
Only recently in a new book, The League of Outsider Baseball, by Gary Cierdkowski, did I learn that Eisenhower played nine games of minor league baseball before attending West Point. I had known he played football for Army until he was injured.
Football seems to get more attention, especially in college, and especially at West Point. In Rick Atkinson’s excellent 1989 book, The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966, football is mentioned on 10 pages, but baseball strikes out.
West Point’s Sports Hall of Fame is devoted primarily to football. The baseball display is as big as the one for women’s softball, which began in 1979. West Point baseball goes back to 1890. The exhibit does mention who scored the winning run in the first Army-Navy game in 1901: a future general named Douglas MacArthur.
Pyrz, who also played football, recalled that 1964-65 was a “good year competing against Roger Staubach.” In the fall, Army beat Navy in football. “Mr. Staubach won’t remember me,” Pyrz said, “but I sure remember him. One hell of an athlete.”
Staubach, who became a wealthy real estate executive in Dallas, didn’t return my phone messages. As for Pyrz, he observed that baseball has not been one of West Point’s favorite sports, which “might be due to the relative lack of physical contact.”
That’s part of the reason I like baseball. So did my father. He never got to go to college and never explained why he liked West Point. We lived in Queens, a semi-suburban part of New York City, and he may have thought of West Point as upstate country. He was prone to depression, and may have admired West Point’s sense of order in an era when everything seemed to be thrown into question. As a young teenager, I had thought about applying to West Point. The Vietnam War helped change that.
Since 1965, I've not been back to an Army baseball game, despite living now in Westchester County, just across the Hudson River.
I have taken my baseball-loving son, who’s a 14-year-old catcher, to an Army basketball game and a hockey game. Perhaps next season, we can see the cadets at Doubleday Field, where I’ll try to weave some history between the innings. And who has scorecards from football games?