A culture is defined by what it chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget. Ideally, a culture would remember everything, because knowing the past, as Santayana famously observed, was insurance against repeating its mistakes. But time is a huge eraser, as Shelley told us:
Unfortunately, Chamberlain is an exception. Once a life, a deed, a remarkable moment is forgotten, it is usually gone. That is a tragedy for the culture. The duty to remember, which I have discussed here before, is the duty to protect the culture and its riches. It is also based on the Golden Rule. We all would like our lives to be remembered as long as possible, especially when we accomplished something that future generations could and would appreciate or benefit from recalling.
This brings us to Al Luplow.
Two nights ago, in an outrageously antic and entertaining game between the Cleveland Indians and the Boston Red Sox, Indians outfielder Austin Jackson robbed Hanley Ramirez of a home run by leaping in the air at the right centerfield bullpen fence reaching over it mid-air to catch the ball, and tumbling over it. He still held on to the ball—he could have easily broken his neck—and the home run became an out.
Although outfielders have fallen over that fence from time to time, notably in the 2013 play-offs…
nobody could recall one going over and catching the ball. Some broadcasters and sportswriters—even some ex-players—weren’t sure it wasn’t still a home run, though it was not. (As long as a player has both feet on the right side of the fence, it’s a fair catch.) People have been talking about Jackson’s catch as the best of the season, and maybe of any season.
Yet as soon as I saw the catch, I said, out loud, “AL LUPLOW!” For that exact catch had not only been made before, but had been made before by another Cleveland Indians outfielder. His name was ( and is) Al Luplow, and he made the catch in 1963, during a Fenway Park day game. I heard it on my transistor radio, and cursed it too, because Luplow’s catch prevented a game-tying three-run homer for my desperate Boston Red Sox.
Surely, I thought, surely, with all the data, and all the internet access, with Google and with, surely, some sportswriters at least as old as me, someone would recall Al’s catch. Someone had to remember.
Luplow was the epitome of an MLB fringe player, a defensive specialist who played for bad teams and whose batting was reliably inadequate. For one, shining, unexpected moment in a game that meant nothing, however, Al Luplow did something incredible. How could that catch not be mentioned now, as someone was winning accolades for duplicating it ?
Not one account of Jackson’s catch mentioned it. Why had Luplow’s moment been forgotten?
To begin with, only 6,497 fans were at the game. In 1963, the Red Sox hadn’t had a winning team in more than a decade, and the city was disgusted with them. The game wasn’t televised, and no film of the catch from one of the TV stations survived. All we have is descriptions. From a 30-year-old Sports Illustrated article:
On June 27 the Red Sox were trying to complete a five-game sweep of the Cleveland Indians. Cleveland relief pitcher Ted Abernathy went into the eighth inning protecting a 6-3 lead. With one out, Lu Clinton and Dick Stuart singled, bringing the tying run to the plate in the person of righthanded hitter Dick Williams.
Abernathy was a tall righthander whose submarine delivery was particularly hard on righthanded batters. On this occasion, however, he got a pitch up high to Williams, and the Red Sox utility man, now the Padres’ manager, nailed it, sending a drive into deepest right center. “It was a high, outside fastball,” recalls Abernathy. “I was a sinker ball pitcher, and most of the time I had good luck with righthanded hitters. But that day I made a mistake to Williams and got the pitch up above the waist, and he hit it good.”
Luplow, who had been put in right-field for Cleveland as a late-innings defensive replacement, is a bit more emphatic about the blast: “I don’t think Dick Williams ever hit one better.”
Luplow, a former high school All-America and Michigan State varsity football player, was then in the second year of an undistinguished major league career, which included portions of seven seasons. He had a reputation for being a hard-nosed player, a guy who went all out. “Al used to play hell-bent for election,” says Williams. “He was a hustler. He’d run through a brick wall to make a play.” As it turned out, Luplow didn’t have to go through a wall—just over one.
“It was in between a line drive and a fly ball,” recalls Luplow. “I kept getting closer and closer to it, and I said to myself, ‘I gotta catch this ball.’ ” On the dead run, about 380 feet from home plate, Luplow leapt high and speared the ball backhanded as he went sailing over the five-foot-high fence that fronts the Boston bullpen. “I felt the warning track,” he says, “so I was definitely aware of the wall. But I guess I’d just made up my mind to catch the ball. It was actually over the fence when I caught it, and I just barely touched the fence with my right knee going over.”
In midair, with the ball nestled securely in his glove, Luplow realized he was in trouble—it was likely to be a rough landing. “After I caught the ball, I said, ‘Uh oh!’ If I’d kept going face first, I would have really hurt myself. I think my football background helped me because I tucked my left shoulder and rolled, and fortunately all I did was spike myself on the right knee.”
After clearing the fence, Luplow disappeared from sight. Several moments later, he reappeared, waving his glove with the ball still in it, his head barely visible above the wall. “I held up the ball, and the centerfielder, Willie Kirkland, reached over the fence and grabbed it from me to see if we could double somebody off.”…
“I sure wouldn’t ever do it again,” says Luplow today. “I could have easily broken my neck. I must have put those guys in the bullpen in shock.”
Reliever Chet Nichols was also in the Boston bullpen. “We all grabbed our gloves because we figured we were going to get the ball,” he says. “We were standing there waiting for it. It never occurred to us that Luplow was going to make the play. It was a fantastic catch, and seeing it from the bullpen end made it even greater.”
The article says that the catch didn’t receive much attention, but that’s wrong. I remember that fans talked about it for weeks, and for years after, any time a player make a great catch at the Fenway bullpen fence, someone would bring up Al Luplow.
Luplow is 78 now, living in Michigan. His Wikipedia page mentions the catch, but who knows to look up Al Luplow? When he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 1985, he told them,
“Every once in a while. I’ll get a card, and someone will mention it—kids, you know, who’ve heard their dads talk about it. It’s nice to know they remember.”
You deserve to be remembered for that catch, Al. It is your corner of immortality, and no one should be able to take it away from you.