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Brush with greatness: John Wockenfuss and the power of baseball cards

My story on John Wockenfuss appeared in the newspaper Sunday. I believe you can read it here. I don't think the paywall kicks in until after the first few articles.



So, read it?

Not all ballgames and butterflies, huh? We collectors like to romanticize our baseball players, but life doesn't care whether "John Wockenfuss" is fun to pronounce or that his batting stance was goofy.

I knew that Wockenfuss had dementia before I even called to set up an interview. I was told it was in the early stages, but I didn't know exactly what I'd find. How successful would I be communicating with him?

I've dealt with difficult interviews in the past. I once was assigned to interview a deaf person while in college. I tried to interview over the phone an elderly man living in Arkansas who had a hearing problem. That didn't work. Also, when trying to talk to a high school athlete, you never know what you'll get. Sometimes I'd listen to my recording back at the office and all I had was "yes," "no" or "I don't know".

So, I was ready. Besides, I just spent half a year trying to communicate with my dementia-plagued mother. I kind of knew the drill.

Just in case, and without even thinking about why, I pulled the John Wockenfuss cards I had in my collection to show him.

I'm so glad I did.

As I mentioned earlier, John had some interesting things to say about his cards. They weren't really a conversation starter because he was ready to talk from the beginning of the interview. But his dementia makes it difficult for him to recall names or to finish his thoughts. The cards helped him focus for moments and, once again, please don't let anyone question why you collect baseball cards. Their uses now seem almost infinite.

As I mentioned in my story, John knows he has dementia and knows why -- it's related to all the collisions he suffered, both in high school football and the plays at the plate during his 20-plus pro baseball career.

We talked a little about Bill Freehan, the Tigers catcher from the 1968 World Series team who caught for years and was the starting catcher when Wockenfuss reached the majors. Freehan is now in hospice care with dementia, unable to do anything for himself and he's been that way for more than a year. John knows this, too.

Thanks to these conversations with him, I am now 100 percent in favor of MLB's rule created five years ago in an attempt to avoid home plate collisions. I didn't see the need for it before. I now definitely do.

It was frustrating trying to figure out some of the stories that John wanted to convey. In particular, he was discussing a memorable home plate collision that sent him to the hospital. He couldn't remember who hit him or where or when it was. Only after I came back for a second interview and tossed a name or two at him, did he remember that it was the Indians' Buddy Bell and the play happened in Cleveland (I still couldn't confirm it online).

It was like that for a lot of the interview. He would tell a story with several details missing, he'd try to fill in the blanks but the dementia wouldn't let him. He talked about one cocky SOB who "did anything he wanted" in Geneva, N.Y., which is where Wockenfuss began his pro career. Only through some later clues that he threw out did we both determine that the player was Pete Rose (I never knew Rose started in Geneva, but I looked on baseball-reference while I was at the Wockenfuss home and, lo and behold, Rose's first stop was Geneva.)

I don't know why Rose was back in Geneva after he had already been in the majors for four-plus years, but apparently he was.

I won't go into the whole interview because some of that is already in the story, but he had lots of tales about his playing days. He mentioned Sparky Anderson a bunch and you could tell he has great affection for him. But he was still bothered by the fact that the Tigers traded him in 1984 before their World Series season and a bit miffed at Sparky.

Wockenfuss was famous for playing every position except pitcher during his playing career. I brought up the fact that he did play pitcher during a game, when he was managing in the minor leagues and his team was playing the Tigers during spring training. Wockenfuss ended up winning the game.

John got a scolded look on his face and said: "Oh geez, Sparky was pretty peeved. ... He wasn't happy with that. We had three games to play. So I'm sitting there, throwing it around and when it was time to go I wanted to help him, not hurt any of (the minor league players), so I played. I think I won the game. ... I was cocky, I think, I screwed up. But what are you going to do?"

If you've looked at my story online, you noticed that Wockenfuss' baseball cards ran with the story. Those are all my baseball cards. I didn't even plan for them -- certainly not all of them -- to run with the story. I just offered them up as a possibility and then they appeared!

During my second visit to John's home, I again grabbed some cards at the last minute. Again, I didn't know why.

This time it was the 1983 Fleer cards that I had of the Detroit Tigers.

That proved to be very helpful because John was able to provide a few words about many of his teammates. He called Lynn Jones "my buddy" and was pals with Dave Tobik, too. He said pitcher Dan Petry was a no-nonsense guy who just did his business while Jack Morris justifiably thought he was king of the hill. Some of the players were real obscure Tigers names but I knew exactly who they were, thanks to my baseball cards.

There was a time in the conversation when I brought up Champ Summers, and John's face lit up. "Oh, Champ!" he said. "Champ got a home run and then I'd hit two. He'd hit two, I'd hit one. We would go back and forth."

Both players were members of "The Riders of the Lonesome Pine," the Tigers bench players of the early 1980s, all of them wanting more playing time. From my conversations with John, that was his main beef with his time in MLB, he never got the playing time he thought he deserved. He was a 42nd-round draft pick who spent eight years in the minors, so that chip on his shoulder was a satellite dish by the time he reached the majors. As I said in the story, he wasn't in the game for records or fame, he just wanted to play the game as much as he could.

I brought up Mark Fidrych and he said that everyone loved "Fid". He said that in the minors, Fidrych was nothing special then burst onto the scene. He then mentioned how "nutty," Fidrych was with his antics on the mound. During my later research on the story, sifting through the amazing things you can find on Facebook, I found this:

That is a picture of John and Mark Fidrych in the pizza shop that the Wockenfuss family owned during the 1970s. Wockenfuss' mom and brother ran the shop and John would help out during the offseason. I love this picture so much.

John talked about Rusty Staub and Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson and Ron LeFlore and Billy Martin. He talked about getting a photo posing with Ted Williams, thanks to his mom. We got to Dave Rozema's card and in an effort to get John to elaborate on his statement of "Rozy!", I said, "He was a character, wasn't he?"

John gave me a side-eye and said, "Don't even go there."

Wockenfuss was traded to the Phillies in 1984, a team that that he accurately called "terrible," as Philadelphia had begun a long downswing after their appearance in the 1983 World Series that wouldn't end until the early '90s. But he did have a story about Mike Schmidt complimenting John's swing.

John paused to recall the story, muttering to himself "Let me get this," then he said:

"I'm gonna forget this but I'm trying. One time (Schmidt) was going up to hit and I was going to hit first and he said, 'Man how can you hit that ball? You're slick, you're way better than I am.' He was like, 'I can't hit that ball. The ball's (moving) too much.' And I would go, (makes a hitting noise), and there was nothing to it. It was funny how he could say that and he was always the best player."

During the second interview, our photographer came along to take photos for the story. As John shuffled through the '83 Fleer cards I gave him -- they were all in alphabetical order (Thanks, Fleer) -- the photographer spotted the one on the bottom, which was Wockenfuss.

That enabled her to get the shot that I showed above of him viewing his card. Such a cool photo.

There was so much to this story that I couldn't get into the article that I wrote, and I thought "well, I'll just put the rest of the stuff on my blog." But now that I'm writing the post, I feel like I'm forgetting about the stuff I wanted to write here, even with my notes in front of me.

I think that's because overwhelmingly what I want to say -- especially after going through what I did with my mom -- is to stress that John seems pretty happy overall.

He's in a good shape -- even at 70, he looked powerful to me. He's happy with his wife. They watch ballgames together.

He's a fun-loving guy. I could tell from looking back on his career but also in my conversations with him. He likes to joke around. Nothing ever gets too serious. He's always looking to fish or hunt or watch a ball game or give baseball tips, whatever he can do while he has the mind to do it.

I like John and I hope that he is able to stave off the effects of dementia for as long as possible because it's obvious that in the year or two he's been in town that the people around like him and enjoy being in his company.

Meanwhile, help comes to the house to assist him medically. His family comes up to help, too. I keep thinking about how fortunate it is that he married a woman who actually works in the mental health field and knows all about debilitating brain injuries.

I've interviewed several professional athletes in my life and many of them have been memorable, just because I'm a fan and this is my area of interest.

But this story is probably right up there with Frank Smith in terms of a baseball interview that will stay with me forever.

This story got a lot of attention and still is and I'm hoping maybe it will connect him with some of his former teammates who can reach out and help. John deserves that much.

We all love our '70s and '80s ball players and sometimes they don't live up to our expectations. I'm happy to say that John Wockenfuss does.


Chris said…
Excellent work Greg. I'd heard his name before and it obviously stood out, but I didn't know much about his career or his dementia. Thanks for posting the story of your story here.
Billy Kingsley said…
Powerful post, and a sad story. He sounds like a cool guy. I'm glad they have made that rule to hopefully prevent that sort of injury from happening again.
Sean said…
Fantastic article (and post). While its not great that Wockenfuss has dementia of course, it is great to read an experience like this and have it out there.

I also like that photo of him with Fidrych in his pizza shop.
Some more numbers to toss around at y'all: Currently 10% of Americans age 65 & older already have dementia (this # will rise), 25% of all american in that same age group have some other form of cognitive impairment. 32% for those over 80 have dementia without any consideration to a specific cause. Before becoming a caregiver these last 5/6 years, my career focused on educating people of all ages the importance of LTC (Long Term Care). I made my living that way, selling them the insurance that is. The bottom line: 1 out of every TWO people will need LTC! It is not your money that buys the insurance that will help ease the burden, it is your health! The younger you are the easier it is to qualify for it. And the insurance is the #1 thing you can do, to avoid ever needing to go to a nursing home. Yes, avoid it completely, it is possible. The right policy can make it happen! Okay, I'm done preaching. Great article Greg, great story, and I hope everyone reading it remembers it as I will.
The two Wockenfuss pieces and the Smith post are exactly why I read NOC.

"I want to tell stories about people who should be known. I want others to know their stories."

You do a great job of that, Greg.
Nick said…
Great blog post, even better article, Greg. I knew almost nothing about Wockenfuss outside of the goofy name before this -- now I feel like I have a vivid picture of the guy, both as a ballplayer and a human being. I can only hope he has a few good years left, because he seems like a wonderful person. Your article is also a good example of how baseball cards can be a priceless outlet for times and memories. Just one of the many reasons we collect them.
Captain Honkass said…
My father (who is 77) has been living with Dementia for over ten years. He's pretty far gone now and can't converse beyond a few words. I go over to my parent's house every Sunday morning for breakfast and it's the high point of my dad's week. He doesn't say much, and tires out quickly, but he's happy just because I'm there. Unfortunately, I missed the years of his condition where he could function at the level of Wockenfuss, because I lived out of state.

Incredible story Greg, I could really relate to it.
Johngy said…
This was wonderful! Wow so many emotions and thoughts. Great job!
Brett Alan said…
Terrific article. In these times it's so good to be reminded that there are still good local journalists out there...wish there were many more. My wife asked for the link to your article, too.
Nachos Grande said…
Top notch from start to finish. Mental health is no joke and I feel for Wockenfuss (and his family).
Bo said…
Great article and post. What a great idea using the Fleer cards as a conversation starter. Images are key to memory so photographs of any kind are probably very helpful in a situation like this.
Rob said…
This was fantastic, the article in the paper too. i could listen to old ball players all day long...
zman40 said…
John seems like a character. I mailed him his '81 Donruss to sign for me in 2013 and he sent back a letter with his phone number on it. Since I live in Kansas, and he's heard about the deer here, he wanted me to call him if I had some spots to hunt. That is still the best TTM return that I have ever gotten back.

I am sorry to hear about his dementia, but glad that he is handling it well at this point.

Great articles!
Fuji said…
Awesome stuff Greg. As I was reading the article, I was crossing my fingers that you'd elaborate on Fidrych and was stoked when I saw it in this post. I'm glad to hear that Mr. Wockenfuss is still in good shape physically... although it's totally sad that he has dementia. I remember it was painful to see my grandmother not recognize family members. But on a positive note, she was always so happy and engaged in conversations with everyone. It sounds like Mr. Wockenfuss enjoys a good conversation too.
Matt said…
Your talent for writing is amazing. That is a fantastic article, and an equally fantastic companion blog post. Thank you.
I saw blurbs regarding the article and blog post on Twitter, but it's great to see the full thing in the form of a post and an article. Great work.
BaseSetCalling said…
Thank you. Ernie Harwell always seemed to like him.