It is Opening Day!

Bruce Hampton was, among other things, an avid baseball fan. Yes, he was a fan of the Atlanta Braves franchise. More than that, he was a fan of the game and knew its intricacies, its nuanced statistical nooks and crannies. For instance, if you named the second string catcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, he could probably tell you what the guy’s batting average was with runners in scoring position on the second Wednesday of each month. And if he didn’t know it, he’d make up a plausible number.

Bottom line, the man loved the game, thought it was the greatest sport ever invented, grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals broadcasts and thrilling to the exploits of an aging Stan Musial. That was something Bruce had in common with a dude from Arkansas who would one day become his friend and artistic collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton. They were both Cardinals fans.

When Billy Bob was directing Bruce in the Academy Award-winning film Sling Blade, they would toss the ball around during down times, Thornton showing off his junkball pitching while Hampton enlightened the young director with Cardinals trivia.

Eventually, Bruce moved on to support the Braves when they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee, replacing the Atlanta Crackers as the city’s local nine. But he never forgot the magic of old Ponce de Leon Park (the Crackers’ home field) and the legends who played there (like Eddie Mathews, a double Gemini). Bruce even made a short film about it. You can watch it here.

Here is Bruce with baseball pitching ace Virgil Trucks’ nephew, Derek. While Derek doesn’t have Virgil’s fastball, Virgil couldn’t play guitar worth a damn. Bruce loved baseball and music, probably in that order.

-Photo by Ron Currens

I had the great and unexpected pleasure of meeting Bruce, and we bonded over baseball, particularly over its lore, its trivia. We could bullshit for hours over grits (his) and coffee (mine) about the best clutch hitters (Yogi Berra, according to Bruce), all-around players (he gave Willie Mays a slight nod over Henry Aaron, saying, “Mays had the better arm and could catch a fly ball anywhere in the atmosphere.”), wildest characters (Dock Ellis: “He pitched a no-hitter on acid, ‘nuff said,” Bruce opined), scariest person (“Ty Cobb scared the hell out of me when I met him,” he offered).

For his 67th birthday (April 30, 2014), I gave him a copy of “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century,” a book that included three of my stories. He loved it and said, “you should have interviewed Johnny Knapp – he actually saw some of those games; he played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball … ” And our table at the IHOP erupted.  

Bruce’s favorite baseball trivia question was this one: “Who was the last switch hitter to win the Most Valuable Player Award in the American League?” It’s a dandy and kind of a trick question. Everyone wants to say Eddie Murray, the great slugger for the Orioles. But the answer is Vida Blue, a pitcher who won the MVP Award in 1971 and was a terrible hitter.

But did you know that Bruce, too, is the answer to a baseball trivia question? Well, he’s AN answer to a trivia question, or a trivia request, which would be, “name someone who attended both the first and the last games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.” Yep, Bruce was one of the few. He was there in 1965, when the Aaron boys (first Tommie, then Henry) hit home runs in an exhibition game loss to the Detroit Tigers. And he was there in 1996, when the Braves dropped Game 5 to the Yankees in the World Series.

See … baseballs on the cover. It was inevitable.

-Cover art by Flournoy Holmes

That game is legendary in Ron Currens’ memory. Ron, founding editor of Hittin’ the Note magazine, was one of Bruce’s best friends. They attended many baseball games together (Ron had season tickets), including that World Series contest. The reason the game stands out so much for Ron has nothing to do with the outcome, and everything to do with Bruce’s pregame shenanigans.

A pretty Fox TV reporter was interviewing fans who had been to both the first and last games at the Atlanta park, and when she got to Bruce to ask him about his memories, he told her the night was particularly profound for him because his uncle had been buried out there under second base. The reporter went mute, the cameraman shook with laughter.

Today, I am shaking with laughter, with excitement, with nervousness. Today is opening day of the baseball season, and opening day for my new book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.” Today is also April Fool’s Day. I cannot think of a more perfect intersection of timing. This is Bruce’s birth month, too.

This is a book that I wanted to write. It’s a book that Bruce wanted to happen. It has baseballs on the cover – art designed by the awesome Flournoy Holmes, who knew instinctively that baseballs would have to be part of the cover and the story, a small but critical part.

Anyway, it’s also a book that I hope people will read and enjoy, and I’m so happy its finished and proud that its published and look forward to talking Bruce and baseball with anyone who wants to.

Let’s play ball!

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