Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When Baseball Was Fun: Remembering Smokey Maxwell

My mother recently spent a week with us here at the lake cottage in Maine, and while she was here she and I spent a good deal of time talking about our family history in and around Paw Paw, Michigan and rural Van Buren County. After she returned home to Florida I went to the local library in New Gloucester to do some additional research and came across an interesting newspaper article in the Kalamazoo Gazette. It took me back to my younger days when I was spending quite a bit of time on my grandparent’s farm outside of Paw Paw.

This past Sunday, Paw Paw honored one of its local legends, a two-day celebration commemorating the life of and career of Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell, one of baseball’s greats from a much-missed bygone era when players truly played “for the love of the game;” a time when young kids looked up to these guys as role models. Maxwell is a native son in the truest sense, and it is only fitting that he be honored by his hometown. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, in 1997, but hometown honors trump that in my book.

Charles Richard Maxwell was born in Lawton, just a few miles south of Paw Paw, on April 8, 1927. He grew up in the area and played college baseball at Western Michigan University, in nearby Kalamazoo until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. Following his stint in the military, he played a few years of minor league ball in Roanoke, Birmingham and Louisville before he went to the show in 1950 as a southpaw utility left-fielder for the Boston Red Sox through the 1954 season. He played very briefly (four at bats) with the Baltimore Orioles, during the 1955 season, before going to left field for the Detroit Tigers in May where he was in the starting line-up for the first time. He would play the next eight seasons, through 1962, with the Tigers and it was during this tenure that he picked up his additional nicknames of “Ole Paw Paw,” “Sunday Punch,” “Sunday Charlie,” and “The Sunday Smasher.”

Living with my grandparents and attending the one-room Acorn School in 1955-1956, I became a Detroit fan almost by osmosis. Just about everyone in Michigan supported the Tigers back in those days. And besides, I had lived briefly off of Six Mile Road in Detroit when I was a wee tyke. It was a venerable charter American League franchise, one of eight major league teams, in 1901. Tiger Stadium, its home turf, was opened in 1912 and would host the team until its final season there, in 1999 (at that time tied with Fenway Park, which opened the same day, as the oldest major league ballpark). The Tigers would be the first team I ever rooted for and regardless of the intervening years and occasional shifting alliances as I moved around the country, the Tigers would always reside in a soft spot in my heart.

Smokey Maxwell and Al Kaline, known affectionately as “Mr. Tiger” after 21 seasons with the team when he retired in 1974, were my favorite players back then. They played left and right field respectively and were two of the most popular players on the team. Kaline was the star, leading the American League in batting average in 1955 while coming in second after Mickey Mantle in all the other batting statistics. But I was a little kid and statistics did not mean anything to me. Maxwell was my favorite because he came from Paw Paw and most of my relatives knew and grew up with him. That said, Maxwell had his best year in the majors in 1956. A power hitter, he came in third with a batting average of .326 (just behind Mantle and Ted Williams) and 28 home runs. He also made it to the All Star Team for the first time (a feat he would repeat in 1957). Unfortunately, the Tigers would end the season in fifth place both years.

We were living in Wisconsin in 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves won the National League pennant and went on to beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series. I guess I am a fickle fan; I started to cheer for the Braves. But I never truly gave up on my first love - the Tigers. And Smokey Maxwell remained one of my favorite players. He went on to lead the American League in fielding percentages in 1957 and again in 1960 when he made only one error in each of those seasons.

I saw my first major league game in 1958 when my dad and I drove from Toledo, Ohio, where we were living at the time, up to Detroit Stadium (another iconic stadium lost to the wrecking ball just a year ago) to watch the Tigers play the New York Yankees. You know, I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember Mantle and Whitey Ford hitting homers over Maxwell’s head and the distant left field fence. I only wish I could have been at the May 3, 1959 double-header between the Tigers and the Yankees (yes, it was a Sunday) when “Sunday Charlie” hit four consecutive home runs (one in the opener and three in the second game). That would have been sweet! He would go on to hit 31 dingers that year.

Maxwell was eventually traded to the rival Chicago White Sox in 1962 and played there for two seasons until his retirement in April 1964 at the age of 38. He played 14 seasons (1,133 games) in the majors with a career batting average of .264 with 148 home runs. Of these, 40 were hit on a Sunday hence his several nicknames. More importantly, 23 of his homers were against the Yankees!! He also chalked up a career 532 RBIs, 856 hits, and only 25 errors. Unfortunately, Maxwell never made it to the World Series although the Tigers came close a couple of times when he was playing for the team.

How are the Tigers faring this season? They are playing .500 ball and they are in the middle of the pack in the American League Central Division, behind the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox. Save a miracle they are out of contention again this year.

Even though Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell played with different teams during
his career, he settled in Paw Paw in 1952 and continued to call it home throughout his career. It was there that he returned after he retired, becoming a local businessman selling automotive parts. He still lives there today, at age 83, although he does spend his winters in Florida. Smokey Maxwell and his fellow players were not just the “boys of summer” playing ball on multi-million dollar contracts. He worked in a manufacturing job in Jackson, Michigan during the off season just to make ends meet. During the recent celebration in his hometown, Maxwell was asked why he played baseball. His answer was quite simple - “Because it was fun.” What more is there to say?

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