Bruce and Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks

Bruce at an IHOP lunch. That’s Jim Basile’s shoulder behind the Virgil Trucks baseball card. Jim is probably Bruce’s equal when it comes to baseball trivia.

A few days after Virgil Trucks, the old pitcher, died in Alabama, Ron Currens shared the sad news with Col. Bruce Hampton, who already knew, of course. We were at the Lilburn IHOP to interview the Colonel, Ron for a piece about Bruce’s new documentary (for the magazine Ron co-founded, Hittin’ the Note) and me for my book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography (coming this spring from University of Georgia Press), and also for the hell of it, because it was Bruce, and Ron asked me to be there. It was late March 2013.

Like Bruce, Ron knew that Trucks was one the Truckses. Virgil’s nephew, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band. And Virgil’s great nephew is guitar master Derek Trucks, who co-leads another band you’ve probably heard of, along with his wife, a bluesy guitar-playing siren named Susan Tedeschi. Derek is also one of the countless musicians Bruce mentored in some fashion.

Virgil had been one of Bruce’s baseball heroes, a maker of early memories for the kid. Bruce even had Virgil’s autograph in his collection of sports memorabilia. Several years earlier, in an interview with filmmaker Michael Koepenick for the documentary we were there to talk about, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, (an interview that wasn’t used in the final cut), Bruce gushed about, “Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks. Ted Williams called him the greatest pitcher who ever lived.”

The Trucks family, he explained, had been in his life for as long as he could remember, thanks to Fire Trucks, who threw two no-hitters in 1952, which comprised nearly half of his victory total that year (he went 5-19, unusual for a guy who won 177 games in a great career). “He was my hero,” Bruce said. “I like that name, ‘Fire Trucks.’”

That day in the IHOP, after Ron shared the news, Bruce mythologized about Virgil and Ted Williams, saying, “Ted said he’d be out of a job if there had been another Virgil Trucks. I think he went one for 70 against him.”

We laughed at that, Ron and I, because A) we’re baseball fans, and B) it’s a funny thought, Ted Williams going one for 70 against anyone, and C) Bruce’s delivery was great. We didn’t care that it wasn’t accurate. Bruce had made the point he was trying to make in his own colorful way: Ted Williams had a lot of goddamn respect for Virgil Trucks.

That part is completely true. Teddy Ballgame thought Virgil was the fastest pitcher he ever faced and always considered him one of the best. Ted also considered him one of his favorites because he hit 12 home runs off Virgil Trucks (the most he hit off any single pitcher).

Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts for Virgil Trucks, an all-star pitcher who won a lot of games for the Detroit Tigers, and was one of the few pitchers to post a 20-win season playing for two different teams (St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox in 1953). Today or yesterday in 1955 (Bruce might know), Virgil returned to the Tigers in a trade that sent Bubba Phillips (you remember him) to Chicago. As Bruce noted, Virgil also was a Yankee (in 1958, his last season as a big league pitcher).

When it came to baseball history, Bruce was a spray hitter with precision power – he could be all over the place, and he could go long to straightaway center. Most of the time he was correct. All I know is, baseball is what connected us. Baseball and sports trivia in general, but mainly baseball. Over lunch in a cheap Mexican place in Helen, Georgia, with Tommy, Tosh, and J.B., he talked baseball and asked some impossible questions. So I kept showing up to lunch, wherever and whenever I could.

At the IHOP, a few days after Virgil Trucks died, Bruce talked mainly about the movie, and about his old baseball hero, of course. In the end, Ron asked one final question. Was there anything else the Colonel wanted Hittin’ the Note readers to know?

“Mythocracy is what I live, and I don’t like truth, or melody,” he said. “Every lawyer and every politician says, ‘to tell you the truth …’  I don’t want to tell you the truth, I’m sick of a culture with truth. Myth is where I’m at. What’s funny though, about 88 percent of the stories are true, that’s what’s scary, and the rest is embellished. I’d rather have somebody laugh than know the weight of an onion in Idaho. And I can’t believe Virgil Trucks is dead.”

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