Harry Truman and Albert Pujols. Two guys who started their careers in Eastern Jackson County.
Truman as Eastern Judge of the Jackson County Court. Pujols on the baseball diamond at Fort Osage High School.
No one was thinking that Truman, elected with Pendergast support in his debut 1922 campaign, was on his way to national office. And all 30 MLB teams thought so little of Pujols that he was the 402nd pick in the 1999 draft.
Fast forward to today. The two overachievers are still going strong.
Truman: Yesterday, in the 100th year after his first election, Truman’s statue was unveiled in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capital. Truman is one of ten presidents so honored.
The Truman Library Institute – founded by President Truman as the nonprofit partner of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum – spearheaded the statue campaign, raising over $400,000 from donors. The statue was created by Kansas City sculptor and artist Tom Corbin.
Pujols: On September 23, Albert Pujols hit career home run #700 (video here), joining an exclusive club now having four members (from left below – Babe Ruth, Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron). The club becomes more exclusive if it includes only those with 700 homers and 3,000 hits – Aaron and Pujols.
For Kansas City Royals fans, Pujols is the local boy who got away.
Pujols at Fort Osage High School: Pujols was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S. at age 16. The family settled near Independence after a short stay in New York. He played baseball at Fort Osage High School, 23 minutes from Kauffman Stadium.
In his senior year in 1998, he had 88 plate appearances, walking 55 times. In his other 33 at bats, he hit eight home runs. In American Legion ball that summer, he hit .593 with 35 home runs. He caught the eye of at least one scout, Tampa Bay’s Fernando Arango.
Pujols at Metropolitan Community College: After graduating from Fort Osage in December of 1999, Pujols went to Metropolitan Community College, Maple Woods Campus, 19 minutes from Kauffman Stadium.
As a freshman at Maple Woods, Pujols hit .461 with 22 homers. Fernando Arango, the Tampa Bay scout, saw him hit some bombs at Maple Woods and considered him a strong prospect. But he said a lot of scouts were there: “One of them was with the Royals, and I just thought we had no chance of getting this guy…minutes away from Royals Stadium.”
1999 MLB Draft: After his semester at Maple Woods, Pujols entered the June 1999 MLB draft. Tampa Bay’s Arango recommended that the Rays draft Pujols, and when they declined, Arango quit his job. Tampa Bay was not alone. None of the 30 teams drafted Pujols through the first 12 rounds. Allard Baird was then GM of the Royals and echoed what most teams were saying. “We weren’t sure he had a position. He didn’t have a great baseball body. We all saw him the same way, and we were all wrong.” I’ll say.
St. Louis finally drafted Pujols in the 13th round, the 402nd overall pick. And they were still not convinced. The Cardinals lowballed him on his signing bonus – $10,000. Pujols turned it down and played in a summer collegiate league until the Cardinals bumped the bonus to $60,000.
St. Louis Cardinals (2001-2011): After only one year in the minors, Pujols became a major league star. Rookie of the Year in 2001. MVP three times. All-Star nine times. Gold Glove first baseman. Two World Series Championships. His stats for his years in St. Louis assured him a place in the Hall of Fame.
Pujols was a free agent after the 2011 season. Negotiations with the Cardinals did not go well, so…
Los Angeles Angels (2012-2021): Pujols signed a 10-year $254 million contract with the Angels. That did not go well either. In the nine-plus years he played for the Angels, Pujols hit 222 homers and had a cumulative WAR of 12.8. In the prior 11 years he played for the Cardinals, he hit 445 home runs and had a cumulative WAR of 86.8. The Angels made the playoffs only one time while Pujols was with the team – in 2014 when they were swept by the Royals in the ALDS.
When Rita and I were on our California stadium tour in 2017, Pujols had recently hit his 600th career homer. This photo from our night at Angel Stadium shows a sign in right field tracking Pujols’ career homer number (“601” when we were there). When Pujols completed his Angels tenure in 2021, his career homer total was 667.
The right fielder in the photo is Yankee Aaron Judge who is having his own fine 2022 season (61 homers and counting).
Los Angeles Dodgers (2021): The Angels released Pujols in May of 2021, but were still obligated to pay his $30 million salary for the year. The Dodgers signed Pujols for the balance of the season, and he hit 12 homers to bring his career total to 679.
St. Louis Cardinals (2022): Pujols signed a contract for the 2022 season with his original team. St. Louis fans were ecstatic to have him back. Pujols was 21 homers away from 700, but few thought the 42-year-old would reach that milestone. A notable exception was Greg Amsinger, a commentator for MLB Network. On April 12, he predicted this (video here)…
“Albert’s going to play so much more than people think, he’s a draw and he’s going to be productive. He will reach 700 career home runs. He’s going to hit his 700th career home run on the road, Friday night, in Los Angeles in September, off Clayton Kershaw.”
Wow! What a prediction! Pujols indeed hit his 700th homer on a Friday night in L.A. in September. The only flaw was that Kershaw was not pitching. He had been scheduled to start, but the Dodgers pushed his start back to Saturday.
A cool way to appreciate the arc of Pujols home run career is to view Greg Harvey’s progressive timeline chart showing the leaders from 1871 to 2022 (click here; two minutes).
Personal Note: I am in a Home Run Derby. Ten players, each with eight picks. None of us picked Pujols in our draft at the beginning of the season. We can substitute for two of our players during the season, but no one thought to take Pujols until he got hot late in the season. Then it was too late to get the benefit of most of his homers. I finally took him about ten days ago, just in time to have the honor of counting homers 699 and 700 in my total. Thank you Albert.
President Harry Truman and Opening Day in Washington: Unlike Albert Pujols, Harry Truman did not grow up playing baseball. He followed the game, but according to biographer David McCullough, Truman was “afraid of the rough-and-tumble of the schoolyard, and because of his glasses, felt incapable of any sport that involved a moving ball.” But that hesitancy did not extend to throwing ceremonial first pitches.
Starting with William Howard Taft in 1910, presidents often threw out the first pitch at opening day for the Washington Senators. Franklin Roosevelt did for several years, but his last one came in 1941 because of the onset of World War Two. Roosevelt sent representatives each year during the war, and for April 14, 1945, that person was to be Vice President Harry Truman. But Roosevelt died two days before the game. Truman sent his handwritten regrets to Clark Griffith, President of the Washington team: “We must postpone it now. I’m up to my neck and must think of my terrible responsibilities for some days to come.”
Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. Six days later, President Truman threw out the first pitch at a Senators game (newsreel here). It was more than a ball game. It was a signal that peace had returned along with normalcy for baseball and the country.
In every year of his seven remaining years as President, Harry Truman threw out the first pitch on Opening Day at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. He was the first president to do so left-handed.
Truman became a friend of team owner Clark Griffith. As recounted in Curt Smith’s 2018 book The Presidents and the Pastime:
“The irony is that Truman probably enjoyed Opening Day – hell’s bells, he had a ball – more than any other president. To begin, Senators owner Clark Griffith was a rancher’s son from Clear Creek, Missouri, a natural for any conversation with Harry, and a yellow dog Democrat, denoting a party member so loyal he would back any Dem, human or yellow canine. Unlike even Mrs. Truman and Margaret, Griffith was sure Harry would win in 1948, making him that rare bird to raise money for Truman – and bet his own. ‘Everybody is against Harry except the people,’ said Griffith.”
In 1950, the ambidextrous Truman threw out two first pitches, one from each hand (newsreel here). The Senators’ played the Philadelphia Athletics that day, and team owner/manager Connie Mack is in the box with Truman (far right in photo below). Mack and Truman became friends, and Truman sent a public presidential birthday wish when Mack turned 90 in 1952.
1955 – Opening Day in Kansas City: On April 12, 1955, Connie Mack was again in the box with Truman (photo below), but each had “former” in their title. Truman was now the former President. Mack was now the former A’s owner because he had sold the team to Arnold Johnson who moved the franchise to Kansas City. Truman was on hand to throw out the first pitch for KC’s new team. And he repeated his 1950 switch-pitching show by throwing out two pitches, one with each hand (newsreel here).
Fun Fact #1: John Sherman, current CEO and chairman of the Royals, was born that day.
Fun Fact #2: I was at the game that day with my 8th grade pal Jay DeSimone. We went to different high schools after that year and lost touch for about 55 years. In 2010, we reconnected and began an annual tradition of going to a game together. Last week on Thursday afternoon, we watched the Royals finish their 3-game sweep of the Twins.
1955 – The Truman Library: A month after Truman opened the first A’s season in 1955, ground was broken for the Truman Library in Independence.
1967 – The Truman Sports Complex: In 1967, Jackson County was governed by three county administrative judges: Presiding Judge Charles Curry, Western Judge Charles Wheeler and Eastern Judge Alex Petrovic. The judges called for a bond election that included funding for dual stadiums. Petrovic, who held Truman’s old position as Eastern Judge, suggested that the sports complex be named after Truman, and the other judges agreed. The three judges visited Truman in Independence, and Truman publicly endorsed the bond issue. It passed.
Today – Truman Library and Truman Sports Complex: The Truman Library opened in 1957. The Truman Sports Complex had two inaugural events: Arrowhead Stadium for the Chiefs in 1972 and Royals Stadium (later renamed Kauffman) in 1973.
The Truman Library completed a substantial renovation last year, reopening with a new entrance and permanent exhibition. It’s excellent and highly recommended.
The stadium leases at the Truman Sports Complex end in 2030, and the teams are considering their long-term alternatives. Renovate? New? Baseball to downtown? Stay tuned.
A final word from the man who has a new statue in the Capitol Rotunda.
Lonnie’s Jukebox – Gary and Rita Shalton Edition: One more story that starts in Eastern Jackson County. I grew up three blocks from Van Horn High School which opened in 1955. I played tennis with high school buddies at Slover Park, and from 1955 to 1957, we saw new construction at the east edge of the park – the Truman Library.
My brother Gary, two years younger, also went to Van Horn. The new sounds of rock ‘n’ roll became part of high school life. Our parents gave us a heads-up in early 1956 about the wild new singer they had seen on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s Stage Show. The new rocker was Elvis Presley, and we quickly became fans. I bought a ton of Elvis 45-rpm records that Gary and I played constantly. I specifically remember his favorite was “Old Shep.” This matched up with Gary who was an avid fisherman and animal lover.
After high school, Gary joined the Marines. While stationed in Memphis, he met a girl named Rita (small world) from nearby Hayti, Missouri (in the Bootheel). They fell in love and got married in Memphis before Gary shipped out to Vietnam where he was an aircraft mechanic stationed at Da Nang. After serving his country, Gary returned to Independence, and he and Rita raised two wonderful daughters, Wendy and Angie.
When I married my Rita in 1981, my mother decreed that she would be called “Rita Ann” at family gatherings to avoid confusion with Gary’s Rita. Another name heard at those family gatherings was “Moke” – a nickname for Gary. When he was born and named Gary Michael, the intent was to call him “Mike.” Two-year-old Lonnie mispronounced it as Moke, and it stuck for family and close friends.
Sadly, Gary died unexpectedly in 1997 at the age of 53. Earlier this month, Rita died at the age of 78.
At the memorial service for Rita, in a beautiful eulogy delivered by Angie, I learned a bit of history I had not known. Rita as a teenager was an Elvis fanatic, and she once met him. Her brother was working at a local service station and called to say a fancy car had come in and Elvis was there. Rita grabbed an Elvis photo and ran to the station and got the King’s autograph.
How fitting it was for Elvis fans Gary and Rita to marry in Memphis, the home of Sun Studios where Elvis cut his first records. Last year, Angie took Rita to St. Louis to see an Elvis impersonator, and two weeks before Rita died, took her to see the new Elvis movie.
Rita’s memorial service ended with music, and we knew from the first downbeat what it was…
“Jailhouse Rock” (listen by clicking on the song title)
This reminded Rita Ann that we had video of Gary and Rita dancing at my 50th birthday party in 1991. The party theme was the ‘50s, so Elvis was part of the playlist. The video was shot by Wendy, and she is heard in the background saying “I didn’t know they had it in ‘em.” Elvis knew. The screenshots below are from Wendy’s video.
Two very different dogs…
Wendy has a story for the next song: “My dad use to ‘try’ to sing ‘Love Me Tender.’ It wasn’t pretty. Lol. Dad had no singing talent, but it made my mom laugh.”