Sports bring people together. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. I always knew this to be true, but on Wednesday afternoon, that saying took on a whole new life.
Looking around the Mike Hargrove Suite situated above the first baseline at Progressive Field, I saw generations of the same family with smiles as wide as they could be.
The younger generation was having the time of their lives; they were eating all the sweets they could get a hold of, running around without a care in the world, and even snagging a foul ball, while the older generation was soaking it all in and telling stories from years past.
On this sunny, Wednesday afternoon when the Boston Red Sox were in town for one more game, former Cleveland Indians catcher Hal Naragon was joined by his family and friends to watch some baseball and cheer on the home team.
“It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame,” Naragon said.
To some, when you look around the ballpark and see the names of past Indians players such as Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Larry Doby, you may think of that as a forgotten era long ago.
But at 90-years-old, Hal talks about it like it was just yesterday. Those were his teammates, and those were his playing days, and Lemon and Feller were just some of the great pitchers he caught for.
When Hal talks about baseball, you feel like you’re peering through a window into his mind and can see a glimpse of the life he got to live. His grandsons and daughter tell his stories with just as much passion, too.
Like a story about when he played for the Indians on the 1954 team and caught an inning in game three of the World Series. Or a story like the one when he hit a home run that may have been foul so both sides settled on a ground-rule triple.
Or the story about how he earned his spot in the bigs was by playing hooky for a day so he could tryout for the Indians during his junior year of high school.
That one innocent day of hooky turned into a handshake deal between Naragon’s father and the organization with a promise that Hal would finish high school. When he graduated, the Indians organization, true to their word, signed him to his first contract.
Beginning his career in 1947, and making it to the bigs in 1951, Hal played roughly 10 years in the league. He was the backup catcher for the Tribe in 1951 and then gave up the ‘52 and ‘53 years of his career for military service. He resumed his playing days in the same role for the club between 1954-1959.
Hal would go on to play for the Washington Senators when his time in Cleveland came to an end, which soon after became the Minnesota Twins. He was a bullpen coach for the team in 1965 when the Twins won the American League Pennant but were defeated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in game seven of the World Series.
Following his years in Minnesota, Hal become a bullpen coach for the Detroit Tigers and was a part of the 1968 team that ended the year with a championship. In total, his playing and coaching career spanned over 20 years.
And, speaking of that championship, to this day, the Tigers World Series Champions ring sits just above another important piece of hardware, which would be Hal’s wedding band. Joanne, his wife of over 70 years and counting, has been his best teammate since high school.
Those days, these stories may seem like a fantasy world, and almost as if they are too good to be true. And maybe looking back, in a way, they sort of were when times were simpler.
But as former Tigers reliever Jon Warden told me, while maybe the players have changed and while maybe the money has changed, “The bases are still 90 feet apart and the mound is still 60 feet and 6 inches.”
You’d think that making the big leagues would be your reigning accomplishment in life, but looking back, and when talking with former players like Warden, he says, “Maybe you don’t miss the playing as much, but you miss the guys. You miss the camaraderie.”
On days where everyone can get together and reminisce, you can see exactly what he is talking about. You can see how close teammates can really get, and still be, after decades. This was evident as, in addition to Warden, the likes of Rich Rollins, Garry Roggenburk, and Joe Nossek were talking among one another — whether they played together or not. A chat on the phone with “Mudcat Grant” even happened among former teammates while gathered in the suite on Wednesday afternoon.
You can see how the importance of building relationships, maybe similar to the one the guys currently wearing the hometown uniform are aspiring to do, can take you the distance and maybe make you a champion. You can see how the Indians organization treats one of their own — by providing a limo ride and suite for a family that dedicated their lives to the game.
And while one might think that for Hal, being born and raised in Ohio and playing professional ball for his hometown organization was the dream, you can tell, while that was important, it was really just the catalyst that brought the people around him together today. Because as his daughter, grandkids and spouses, great-grandkids, former players, friends, and family gathered around — one thing is for certain. Without baseball, none of this would be possible.
On a day where you celebrate the life and career of an amazing person, and one that I am fortunate enough to call my great uncle, it didn’t matter what the standings were, and it didn’t matter what the score was, either. All that mattered was that we were under one roof, given the opportunity by the game that started it all, and together we could enjoy a beautiful day for a ballgame.