BOSTON – Fifty years ago, a man made the greatest catch 6,497 people ever saw. Fenway Park was practically empty June 27, 1963. The Red Sox were hosting the middling Cleveland Indians. It was the eighth inning. The man, Al Luplow, jogged out to right field after entering two innings earlier as a defensive replacement for Cleveland. Following a Carl Yastrzemski flyout, Boston knocked back-to-back singles to put runners on the corners.
What happened next is unclear inasmuch most things from the 1960s are unclear, which is to say there are no known videos and only grainy photographs that don't capture the splendor described in typewritten accounts. It is quaint to think how the catch lives on: through words and stories and nothing else, the greatness of the moment perhaps inflated by five decades of embellishment or minimized by the mind's inability to capture vividness that vanishes in an instant.
Never again will we face that uncertainty. Every facet of life today is recorded with ubiquity. Moments are not moments; they are YouTube videos, Vines, tweets, Instagram pics, cellphone snapshots, Facebook updates, Twitter messages. The world is everyone's to share, the photographs theirs to meme, the videos theirs to doctor. One moment spawns a million unique and consumable ones.
So for Al Luplow's catch to be frozen in time, the property only of those 6,497 at Fenway Park – some of whom could've left early, others of whom might've been in the bathroom, a few of whom, surely, would've been too drunk to remember – lends it an air of romance. If a man made the greatest catch anyone ever saw, and barely anyone was there to see it, did the man really make the greatest catch anyone ever saw?
"If Willie Mays or Jimmy Piersall made that catch, it would go down as the greatest in history," Dick Stuart, the runner on first at the time, told the Boston Globe's Will McDonough. "But Al Luplow made the catch, and who's Al Luplow? Just another ballplayer."
Early this week, Al Luplow thought about writing a note. He never got around to it. He's trying to get in his last few rounds of golf before winter arrives. Luplow is 74 now, and it's how he keeps busy, though the pain in his right knee keeps getting worse, and he's not sure how much longer he can play on it. He calls it his Wisconsin knee, because he shredded the thing playing football for Michigan State against Wisconsin back in '58.
Good part is, the Wisconsin knee gets Luplow out of doing a whole lot around his house in Saginaw, Mich. He no longer helps run Smokey's, the neighborhood bar he oversaw for a while. The real estate stuff has calmed down. Best of all, he doesn't have to mow the lawn anymore. That's left to his bride of 51 years, Marlene.
"She does it a little bit better than a billy goat," Luplow says.
He laughs, knowing she's listening intently to him talking about the old days. About playing football at State with Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley. "I was a better halfback," Luplow says. And about that time in 1967 he told Roberto Clemente to beat a sore neck by standing on his head for 15 minutes. Clemente stayed in the position for almost 30. "Robby told me, ‘Luplow, you tell skipper you play for me tonight,' " he says.
More than anything, he's talking about the catch. He was watching Game 2 of the American League Championship Series live Sunday when the Boston Red Sox loaded the bases in the eighth inning with a 5-1 lead. David Ortiz launched the first pitch from Joaquin Benoit deep into the night. Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter chased it toward the right-field fence. This looked too familiar to Luplow, except for what happened next: Hunter missed the ball by inches, ran into the 5-foot-tall fence and careened ass over elbows into the Red Sox's bullpen. Grand slam, tie game, iconic moment.
At first, Luplow considered sending Hunter a note. He figured he'll wait a little, at least until the playoffs are over. If ever he does put pen to paper, he settled on offering a bit of friendly advice.
"It's better to go over the fence than through it," Luplow says. "You can't go through the damn fence. Next time, do it like I did."
On the night he flew over the fence, Torii Hunter asked himself: Was it worth it? His head throbbed. His side ached. He was bruised and scratched all over his body. He ran full force into a stationary object; humans do not win such battles.
Hunter considered the question and realized it was rhetorical. Of course it was worth it. Everything is worth it for baseball. In his 17 years as a major leaguer, Torii Hunter has earned nearly $147 million. His willingness to chase down everything, even to his detriment, will provide for generations of Hunters. He won nine Gold Gloves in center field. He isn't going to abandon his reckless abandon, no matter who asks him to play like a normal 38-year-old.
"My wife was pissed off I did that," Hunter says. "I told her, ‘Baby, you won't ever understand.' I'd die for her, because I've got a passion for her, and I love her. Know what? I love this game, too. It's done a lot for me. It's changed my lifestyle, my family's fortunes. Everything. And when you've got a passion, you'd die for it."
Baseball didn't make Al Luplow rich. He spent seven seasons in the big leagues, most on the bench as a fourth outfielder. Hoot Evers, an old baseball man who signed Luplow out of Michigan State for the Cleveland Indians, once gave him a piece of advice about playing the outfield: If you're close to the ball, catch the damn thing.
"It didn't matter if I splattered myself," Luplow says. "Thanks a lot, Hoot. He's worried about the ball. I'm worried about staying alive."
Because Luplow never was a great ballplayer, he listened to Evers' advice and always tried to catch the damn thing. He lasted as long as he did because of his glove. One time, Luplow was with the Indians at Old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Back then, he says, the outfield walls were made of brick. Luplow ran full speed into the left-field wall one night catching a ball and went straight to the hospital. He was back in the lineup the next day.
"I left my marks in a lot of ballparks," he says.
The only ones still standing from 1963 are Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, where his name lives on. The score that day was 6-3. Like Game 2 of the ALCS, the tying run was at the plate. Dick Williams, a right-handed hitter who that season whacked two home runs for the Red Sox, shot a fly ball toward right field. Luplow ran toward it and told himself he could catch it. "I said that to every ball," he says.
The ball tailed toward Luplow. He needed to extend further. Except the right-field fence was right there. With no time to make a choice, Luplow ceded to instinct. He dove, a full-on layout, his torso stretching over the fence, his gloved left hand snagging the ball. There was the matter of his lower half, of course. Luplow's knee – the Wisconsin knee – caught on the top of the fence and caused the rest of his body to flip over it. Football taught him to tuck his shoulder and roll, which he did, and when he stood up, a Red Sox reliever greeted him by saying: "What the hell are you doing here?"
Catching the ball, it turns out. Second-base umpire Joe Paparella called Williams out, even though he couldn't see whether Luplow held onto the ball the entire time. Luplow handed the ball to center fielder Willie Kirkland, who relayed it back to the infield. Lou Clinton scored from third base, and Stuart moved to second, but reliever Ted Abernathy escaped the inning, and Cleveland held on to a 6-4 victory. Boston manager Johnny Pesky filed a protest. The call was upheld.
"The next time I came to Fenway, I went back out there," Luplow says. "I said, ‘Yeah, you're goofy enough to do something like that.' I could've broken my neck. "But you know what? I'm glad I did it."
Torii Hunter knew nothing about Al Luplow until Thursday. When he hears the story of the catch, of how few people saw it, of how it was almost identical to his miss, he wants to know more about Luplow and his career.
"He was just a hustler, huh?" Hunter asks. "I've seen a lot of guys who are like that. Play hard. Work hard."
Sounds about right. Luplow was a football player in a baseball uniform, even if it scared Marlene and his mom, June. The day he dove over the fence in Fenway was June's birthday, actually, and it was a good thing she wasn't there to see it, lest he never hear the end of it. Almost everybody else back in tiny Zilwaukee, Mich., appreciated Luplow for who and what he was.
Today, they would call him a throwback, though that's not entirely fair, because it presupposes that there aren't guys around today who play like Luplow. There are. One of them is Hunter. He doesn't look the stereotypical part. He isn't short and white and all the other prerequisites for scrappiness. Luplow sees it. He saw it in Game 2, and when the series picks up Saturday night with Game 6 at 8:07 p.m. ET with Hunter leading off and playing right field, he will see it again.
"I give the kid credit," Luplow says. "It was a valid effort. You ever talk to him? Tell him: He's gotta dive."
The message is relayed, and Hunter nods. Some day, he's going to be the old man giving kids half his age advice on how to play. Because he'll have earned the right to do so, just like Luplow did. The game may be different now. The way we capture moments certainly is. And yet enough is the same that when the man who made the greatest catch ever speaks, it's worth listening.
"I only know one way how to play anything," Al Luplow says. "You go all out or go home and eat popcorn."