- Beginning last week, thousands descended on Omaha, NE, for the annual celebration of collegiate baseball excellence - the 62nd NCAA Men's College World Series
. Nearly seven million fans have passed through the turnstiles at historic Rosenblatt Stadium, with an average of 278,321 tickets sold from 2003-07. The College World Series is truly an event, especially to the south and west, from where much of the big leagues' blue chip talent and powerhouse teams hail.
Montauk's Norm Felske played in the Series long before the games were nationally televised, its highlights shown on repeat throughout the day, and aluminum bats were not even invented. He was there before anyone else, more than 60 years ago and far, far away from the place that has become the game's mecca. Felske, 84, caught the first pitch in Series history as the star catcher for the Yale
University baseball team, which finished as the national runner-up in both 1947 and 1948. His trip around the basepaths has included batting ahead of Yale teammate and future President George H.W. Bush
, going 3 for 3 off Whitey Ford
as a farmhand in the Boston Braves system, and getting a hit off Rapid Robert Feller when Ted Williams
Norm Felske batted .300 on each one of his stops within the Boston Braves
farm system, including Hartford.
Ultimately, though, his name will always be tied with the beginning of the yearly festival of baseball.
"I caught the first ball ever thrown out in the College World Series," Felske said. "Guys can bat a certain average and so forth, but who caught the first ball will never change. I did."
The Elis knew they had a strong season brewing after coming back from their trip through the South, which included games against the region's prime squads, including Georgetown and Duke. "Those other schools were playing in the fall and spring," Felske said. "If we won half our games on our southern trip, we knew we were going to win."
Felske, who arrived at Yale after a tour of duty in the Pacific during World War III, did more than his part. A defensive mainstay at catcher - "I think I could handle pitchers well," he said - the self-proclaimed "singles and doubles hitter" and native from West Hartford, CT, could also swing the lumber. As a junior, his first year in New Haven after stints at Trinity (CT) and the United States Navy, Felske hit at a .370 clip to win the Charles H. Blair Trophy, awarded every year to the Ivy League's top hitter. As a member of the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League, the Elis finished the regular season at 19-8, qualifying them for the Eastern Playoff along with Clemson, Illinois and New York University, the favorite in the draw. Yale sprung the upset, beating NYU
, 6-4, in the championship game to advance to the College World Series. Felske hit .500 in the two games.
Bush, just an average hitter, said Felske, could flash the glove. "He was a great fielder," Felske said of Bush, with whom he has stayed in touch through the years. "He was a lefty, tall and lanky. He batted righty. I think he probably should have been a left-handed hitter."
The inaugural Series was held not in Omaha but in Kalamazoo, MI, at Hyames Field on the campus of Western Michigan College, and met the University of California for a best-of-three series. Although the games weren't televised, the event was still met by great fanfare, drawing more than 4,000 fans for the June 27 opener. The commissioner of Major League Baseball, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Felske was the recipient, forever etching his name in history. Felske loaned the ball to the Yale University Department of Athletics.
Norm Felske of Montauk caught the first ball ever thrown at the College World Series.
Yale entered the '47 Series as sizable underdogs to Cal, whose star-studded line-up included a young Jackie Jensen, who went on to play in three All-Star games and win the 1958 American League MVP honors during his 11 big-league seasons. Still, Yale owned a 4-2 lead heading into the seventh inning of game one. Cal pushed two across then, added two more in the eighth for a 6-4 lead. The Elis watched the game slip out of reach in the ninth when Cal scored 11 runs - much of it charged to reliever Phil Kemp - to win 17-4.
"I never forgave [Manager] Ethan [Allen] for leaving our pitcher out there," Felske said of leaving Kemp in for the beating. "If he hadn't done that, I think we could have won the series."
Jensen actually pitched the second game, and looked set for the victory when his team staked him to a 7-2 lead. The Elis battled back to even, chasing Jensen in the fifth with four runs. However, Cal was able to bring the championship trophy west by scoring an unearned run in the seventh inning to win, 8-7.
Yale came even closer the following spring, taking mighty Southern California to a decisive third game. In game one, Felske made two outs on plays at the plate, yet on the third, the runner spiked his throwing hand. He pleaded with his manager, but nonetheless was pulled from the game in the sixth inning. His replacement, Paul Russ, promptly mishandled a throw home, allowing the Trojans to break a scoreless tie. Bill Lillie came home thereafter, sliding around an attempted tag by Russ for a 2-0 lead. USC prevailed in the game, 3-1, but not after Jerry Breen, who was pinch-hitting for Russ, Felske's replacement, grounded into a triple play to end the game.
"All [Allen] had to do was shake my hand," Felske said. "Ethan apologized that night. He said something to the effect of 'If I'd only listened to my catcher, it might have turned out differently.'."
Frank Quinn lifted the Elis to a Game 2 win, yet the Trojans bounced back to win the third contest, 9-2, the first of a record 10 championships for legendary manager Rod Dedeaux. Felske signed a contract with the Boston Braves upon finishing his career in New Haven. The first pitcher he faced as a pro was Dan Bankhead, an established Negro League pitcher signed by Branch Rickey in '47.
Gordie Davis, Norm Felske and Frank Quinn take a break from
warm-ups before the 1947 College World Series in Kalamazoo.
"He threw a fastball, and holy smokes," Felske said. "He had two strikes on me, and then I hit the ball, it hit home plate, bounced way up and I beat it out. The next time he throws something you just don't see. This thing came in fast and sharp-breaking. I get two strikes again, and the next pitch I hit right at the end of the bat, it goes over first base, and I have a standup double. The third time, I hit a shot at the third baseman and he speared it. In a seven-inning game, I went 2 for 3. That night I was saying to myself, 'if the pitching is like this, this is going to be rough.' I know I was lucky."
Felske lasted two seasons in the system. Injuries plagued his career more so than poor performance. He hit over .300 at every stop yet was saddled by finger fractures that came from wear and tear behind the plate. That included the standout day against Whitey Ford, who was just the second-best pitcher off whom he registered a hit. While traveling with the U.S. Navy, he connected on a Bob Feller heater and reached base. The injuries forced him to shuttle between minor league stops in Connecticut, Indiana and Florida, and allowed a 19-year-old Del Crandall, who went on to make seven All-Star Games, to leapfrog Felske on the depth chart. In 1949, after a stint in West Palm Beach - during which his team played a series at league-leading Cuba where "you could hear the guns go off nearby" - and another in Hartford, the last stop before Boston, Felske called it quits.
"No one paid any money," he said. "Here I am a civil engineer out of Yale and Columbia grad school, so I got a job in New York."
Felske worked for John W. Harris, who constructed Rockefeller Center and Washington's Statler Hotel. "I was making more money than the ballplayers," he said. "It was a different world then." Purchasing property in Quogue in 1956 started him on a career in real estate, during which, by his estimation, he "developed more oceanfront property in Southampton and East Hampton than anyone." Among his other acquisitions was the 105-acre Broad Cove Duck Farm in Riverhead.
When asked about his chances of making the big leagues, Felske said. "I would have made it, sure." More than a half-century later, he wonders what might have been had he stuck it out.
"I go back and forth," he said. "In life, you find out you have crossroads. Like Yogi [Berra] says, if you come to a crossroads, go straight ahead. You have a lot of decisions to make, and if you go that way, it's an entirely different world."
Catcher Norm Felske (left), pitcher Frank Quinn (center) and outfielder Tuck Redden all played key roles in the Elis' surge to the inaugural College World Series.
One of those crossroads tickles him to this day. Yale took a trip to Washington D.C. to play Georgetown, only to have rain postpone the game. Allen, the manager, gave his team a choice - visit the race track or the White House.
"So he said 'who wants to go to the track?' and I said 'I do,' " Felske said. "Bush wanted to go see the White House. When you think about it, what if I decided to go to Washington and Bush had decided to go to the race track? Would I have been President of the United States?"
These days, Felske watches the Mets
on television on most occasions, and when the College World Series comes around, he'll tune in to see the various universities duke it out in Omaha. No matter how many walk-off home runs or no-hit bids capture the hearts of college baseball fans in the coming years, Felske will always know that, before any of it, he was set in his crouch behind home plate to kick it all off.