By In Baseball

Your best day

I came across this Don Kolloway story entirely by accident … wasn’t even doing baseball research. I was doing some work for my upcoming book on Tom Watson and his rivalry and friendship with Jack Nicklaus when — and I would never be able to retrace the steps — Don Kolloway somehow emerged from the newspaper fog.

Don Kolloway was a utility player for White Sox and Tigers — mostly the White Sox — in the 1940s. He grew up in Chicago — Blue Island, to be precise — and signed with the local White Sox at 18. The scout Doug Miner had never even seen him play, but he’d heard good things and threw a few hundred bucks at young Don and sent him to Rayne, Louisiana, which is known both as the frog capital of the world and the rice capital of the United States. Kolloway said he had rice every meal.

He moved relatively quickly through the minors — Rayne for a year, then Longview, Texas, then Oklahoma City. He was tall and lanky, and he could run a bit. He fielded well enough that for a little while there they called him the Blue Island Bird Dog.

So far, you will see nothing too unusual about his career. In 1942 — his one full season in the big leagues — he led the league in doubles. In 1943, he joined the army and he was awarded the Bronze Star after seeing combat as part of the 29th Infantry Division. When he returned from war, he had some useful seasons as a second baseman, though he never slugged even .400 in a season. When he retired, he opened up a bar in Blue Island and he later worked for Cook County in voter registration. He had four daughters and a son, lost his wife when he was in his 60s but lived long enough to enjoy five grandchildren. He died in 1994 at the age of 75.

And again — a good life, a full life, a heroic life, but probably nothing you haven’t heard before.

All of us, though, can have a best day. It’s part of what makes life so rich. You can wake up one morning and on that day be greater than you’ve ever been, greater in some way than anyone has ever been. A middling pitcher named Don Larsen on his best day threw a perfect game in the World Series. A singer for a scrambling band called The Knack, Doug Fieger, on his best day came up with a song about his girlfriend Sharona Alperin. The actor Alec Baldwin, on his best day, did the 10-minute “Put the coffee down” soliloquy for Glengarry Glen Ross.

On June 28, 1941, a Saturday afternoon, 22-year-old Don Kolloway went to the ballpark for a game in Cleveland. It was Ladies Day at the ballpark so a decent crowd of 13,000 or so came out. The Indians were in first place and the White Sox in fourth, hovering right around .500. The world was darkening. World War II was rapidly growing scarier; this was the day Albania declared war on the Soviet Union and there were reports of 11,000 Jews being killed in Kishinev. In Oklahoma City, the airport — which would become a key training facility for the Air Force — was named for Will Rogers. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak reached 40 when he cracked a double off Johnny Babich in Philadelphia. This was 10 days after the Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight that still had America buzzing.

Kolloway, for some reason, was hitting leadoff. Nothing about this made much sense except that White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes just took a linking to the kid. Kolloway up to this point had 88 plate appearances in the big leagues. He was hitting .195 for his career — .168 for the season. He had not walked a single time. He had not hit even one home run — or a triple. He had stolen one base in his career. There was no reason to expect much.

But that’s the point of best days. You never expect it. Kolloway led off the game against Cleveland’s Al Smith by laying down a good bunt toward third that he beat out for a single. He promptly stole second base and scored on Dario Lodigiani’s single. The White Sox took a 2-0 lead. Kolloway flew out his next time up so nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Indians had a 4-2 lead when Kolloway came up in the fifth.

This time he hit his first big league home run, a solo shot to left off of Al Smith. That made the score 4-3.

That was still the score for Kolloway’s next at-bat, when he led off the eighth inning. And … yep … he promptly hit the second home run of his career to tie the score. What are the odds of such things? Kolloway would go entire seasons without hitting two home runs. So it goes. A little later in the inning, Luke Appling’s go-ahead triple scored the go-ahead run — the White Sox led 5-4 going into the ninth.

Then, in the ninth inning, Kolloway came up one more time. No, he did not homer — this is even better. He beat out a double play ground ball. There were two outs. And then Don Kolloway — with Cal Dorsett pitching for Cleveland and Gene Desauteis catching — stole second. He then stole third. And, on the double steal, Don Kolloway stole home. Yep, he stole his way entirely around the bases. The White Sox won the game 6-4 and knocked Cleveland out of first place — the Indians would not be back in first place for the rest of the season.

Don Kolloway is the only player in baseball history to hit two home runs and steal four bases in the same game. He’s the only Chicago White Sox player to steal second, third and home in the same game.

But you know what the best part of all is? When Don Kolloway was 68 years old he was asked by the Chicago Sun Times to name his best day in baseball. And he did not name this one. He did not say the day he hit two home runs and stole four bases was his best day. Instead, he pointed out that the first time he ever sat in a big league clubhouse was April 16, 1940. He did not get into the game — did not play in the big leagues for a few months in fact — but that was the day Bob Feller threw his famous Opening Day no-hitter. That was his introduction to big league baseball.

A year later, Kolloway faced Bob Feller for the first time. Some of his pals from back in Blue Island decided to make it “Don Kolloway Day” and get the community to give some gifts. Kolloway cracked two singles off the legend and got a set of luggage from his buddies. That, Don Kolloway would say, was his best day.

Or, he added, it might have been the day Joe DiMaggio walked by him and said, “How’s everything going Don?”

“I was so proud he knew my name,” Kolloway would say.

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32 Responses to Your best day

  1. John says:

    Beautiful stories.

    Isn’t it funny, how the day that would seem to be a person’s best day isn’t the day they’d choose?

  2. Scott says:

    I often think I’m nuts to push the refresh button on my browser several times a day to see if Joe has posted something new.

    Stories like this are the reason why.

  3. Sam says:

    DOUG Fieger’s best day was so good that eventually people would forget that his name wasn’t Don.

  4. Scott says:

    It sounds like a pitch for “Bad News Bears, Part Six”:

    “The worst player on the team hits two home runs to keep the game close, then steals his way around the bases in the ninth to beat the first place rivals.”

    At which point the studio shows the pitchman the door…

    On a more direct baseball note, how rare/frequent is stealing around the bases in a single inning? Especially when it matters (i.e., no defensive indifference).

  5. Matt says:

    What an amazing story.

  6. Wilbur says:

    Love that nickname … The Blue Island Bird Dog. Almost as good as The Wild Horse of the Osage.

  7. Wilbur says:

    About the Joe Dimaggio comment: I have have a friend who was a first-year assistant basketball coach at a Big Ten school. Bob Knight walked into their locker room during pregame warmups, sat down to chat, and addressed my friend by his first name. He was blown away that Knight knew who he was.

  8. MCD says:

    Anybody else think of “City Slickers” when they saw this?

  9. Shagster says:

    It’s writing like this that gives a sense of why Joe is such a Springsteen fan. Which of course now leads to the question …

  10. This is a really hard “Best Day Ever” to top. I thought I’d look at some notoriously bad players and see if I could find something similar. I did come up with Bob Uecker hitting a HR off Sandy Koufax & some other interesting facts, but no game where a bad player had so much impact on one game as with the Don Kolloway story. The best I could find was Les Sweetman, who was a pitcher in the late 20s/30s for the Phillies. He threw a shutout on Opening Day against Brooklyn in 1930, winning 1-0 and hitting a double and scoring the only run of the game. The rest of the year, he was 7-15 with a 7.71 ERA and a 1.982 WHIP for the last place Phillies. That had to be the best day of his life.

    • Brian says:

      Yet Sweetman was arguably not the Phillies’ worst regular starter that year (Claude “Weeping Willie” Willoughby went 4-17 with a 7.59 ERA and a 2.020 WHIP). Of course that was the year the team threw up a 6.71 ERA for the year, sailing the perfect storm of the offensive craziness of 1930, playing at the Baker Bowl, and crappy pitchers.

    • Mike Rose says:

      I vaguely remember reading somewhere that, when asked what the highlight of his career was, Bob Uecker said he had two — when Sandy Koufax intentionally walked him, and when he got out of a rundown against the Mets.

  11. MCS says:

    Bret Saberhagen’s wife gave birth to his first son, then he went out and pitched a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series the next day… I guess it’s not technically “next day” but that’s got to be “Best 24-Hour Period”…

  12. This is a brilliant column. And I’m sure that the sports world is filled with stories such as Don Kolloway’s. And yet, what do sports writers write about? Do they write about Don Kolloway? No, they write articles about the color of LeBron’s facemask and then argue about it for 15 minutes on ESPN.

    Thank you, Joe, for being the best sports writer in the world.

  13. Wilbur says:

    Rick Wise pitched a no hitter and hit two home runs in the same game. A pretty good day’s work.

  14. Anon says:

    Not only is it the only 2 Hr/4SB game, it’s the only 2 HR/3SB game. Until 1994 when HRs exploded, only 5 other players had ever gone even 2/2. (Since 1994 it’s been done 8 times.)

    BTW, while it’s his only season over 130 games he did play over 119 6 other times, qualify for the batting title 5 other times besides 1942 , finished with 4246 PA in his career and is still 47th all time in RF/G for 2B so he was a lot more than a PT player. So cool to read about a player I had never heard of before.

  15. Herb Smith says:

    I’m from the small hamlet of Blue Island, so I especially enjoyed the story. In fact, my grandfather’s favorite player was Luke Appling, and my dad had a tryout with the White Sox.

    Anyway, how about Tony Cloninger for having a “best day?” Against a stacked 1966 Giants lineup, he struck out McCovey, coaxed a double-play ball out of Willie Mays, and finished with a complete game victory.

    Oh, and with the bat? An RBI single, and two grand slam home runs. Two. Nine total bases, 9 RBI’s, 2 grand slams. I assume he slept well that night.

  16. Zack says:

    And yet Kolloway’s WPA that game was only marginally higher than teammate Luke Appling’s.

    Kolloway .462
    Appling .452

    Both performances ranked in the top 31 single-game WPA’s in the league in 1941.

  17. Bryan says:

    Reminds of me the day in 1989 I went to see my Royals play in Yankee Stadium and witnessed the immortal Bill Pecota hit three home runs in a double header – the only three he would hit all season.

  18. ajnrules says:

    Huh. I’ve been living in Longview TX (hometown of Chris Davis and Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey) for almost three years now, but this is the first time that I’ve heard of the minor league team that’s played here. Guess I’ll have to read up more about my new hometown.

  19. James says:

    Just seen him here in Auckland, New Zealand – first time he’s been here in about 20 years. 3-and-a-half show, Rosie made an appearance, played Born in the USA album from start to finish, and he NEVER stopped. 60-plus years old! The only word we came up with afterwards (being absolutely gobsmacked by what we had witnessed) was EPIC.

    • Herb Smith says:

      The Boss is doing Rosalita again? His best song?
      All is right with the world once again (at least the E Street world).

  20. KB says:

    Mr Posnanski, are you implying that other than that brief scene in Glengarry Glenross that Alec Baldwin is, dare I say it, overrated?

  21. Brad says:

    How about the best summer of your life? Justin Verlander, making some nice bank while mowing down American League hitters AND dating Kate Upton.

  22. Chad says:

    Joe, you have such a gift as a writer. It is pretty obvious that you love what you do, and love finding and sharing obscure stories like this. Thank you for allowing us, your dedicated (and brilliant?) readers the opportunity to share in your gift.

  23. Mark says:

    Great piece, Joe. Glad that Don emerged from the newspaper fog.

    The thing about best days….you never know they are till the end, but up till the end, you think you’ll top it. Then it all stops.

  24. ceolaf says:

    you the man, joe. you the man.

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