I once came across George Scott in a bakery in Baltimore. There were many worse places on the road for a sportswriter to find an athlete, even then, maybe 40 years ago, but this still was not a good moment for the large-sized Boston Red Sox first baseman. He was supposed to be on a diet.
"I'll have one of those," he told the woman behind the glass counter, pointing out some highly-frosted concoction.
"And one of those…
"And maybe a few of those doughnuts…"
Trapped in another slump, he publicly had promised gastronomic austerity. When he swung mightily and missed mightily -- something he did with regularity at the time -- his whole body quivered and jiggled. His problem was as obvious as his waistline. That was why he had declared himself to be on this diet. He would get in shape. He would get back on the proper track. He would run pre-game sprints in the outfield in that rubber jacket, the water just pouring out of it when he finished. He would watch what he ate. He would be back.
"Hey, Boomer…" I said as I came up behind him. "What about the diet?"
He didn't jump, didn't stutter or stammer, didn't do anything. The words simply flowed. The man always could talk. This diet was a special diet. Understand? There was room inside this diet for doughnuts and pastries. Understand? The key was moderation. Within this moderation there was room for a man to eat some things he liked. Understand?
A special diet.
"I understand," I said. "Moderation."
"But, hey," the Boomer added. "That don't mean you have to be writing about seeing me in this bakery either."
* * *
He was a sweetheart. That was what he was, this one-time leader of the American League in home runs and runs batted in, winner of eight Gold Gloves, who died on Monday, sick and old before his time at 69 in Greenville, Miss. There were pieces of Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson in him, mixed with pieces of Jackie Gleason and Falstaff and, I don't know, maybe Louis Armstrong and maybe your father's brother, the big guy who comes to the house and makes everybody laugh for the entire evening.
He moved through his nine seasons in Boston, 14 in the major leagues, with thunder and charm. As soon as he arrived at Fenway Park in the summer of 1966, he dropped the word "tater" into the baseball lexicon as a better word for "home run" and promised to make so much money that he would be "driving an Oldsmobile with a Cadillac hitched up behind." How could anyone not fall in love with a ballplayer like this?
He had a squeaky, different voice for a big man, memorable from the first time you heard it. He boasted in that voice. He pouted. He laughed. He complained. The voice made you smile, no matter what the words were.
"My best sport back in Mississippi was basketball…," he would say sometimes, laying out tales of wonderful dunks and championships won in all-black high school conferences.
"My best sport was football," he would say at other times, same stories, different sport, touchdowns and more championships.
"Why didn't you play those other sports?" writers would ask.
"Ah, I wanted to send some money home to my mother…"
In baseball, his rookie season was a fine window to his future. He led the American League with 152 strikeouts. He also led the league in grounding into double plays with 25. Oh, wait a minute, he also hit 27 home runs and drove in 90 runs. Switched from third base to first, a position so new to him he had to find a glove to play it, he became a stylist, a dancer, a vacuum cleaner around the bag. He was selected to the All-Star team, first year at the position, and named that new glove "Black Beauty."
A strikeout or a homer. That was George Scott's modus operandi at the plate. The fielding was his constant.
"I tell Rod Carew if he wants to see a Gold Glove, he can come over to my house," he said late in his career. "I tell him that's the only place to go, my house or Brooks Robinson's house, because between us we have 26 of them."
In the baseball summer of 1967, when he played on the Impossible Dream team that captured a pennant and resurrected a franchise and saved Fenway Park from the wreckers' ball a first time, he became part of local legend. He was "The Boomah," the Red Sox' first certified African-American star. There were Yaz and Rico and Tony C. and the Hawk and the Boomah and all the rest. When he was married in the off-season in Falmouth on Cape Cod to Lucky Pena, local girl, more than 1,000 fans stood around St. Barnabas Church, simply to see him leave.
Things soured soon enough -- he came off his honeymoon to have the worst recorded season by a first base regular in baseball history, a .171 batting average, three home runs, 25 RBIs -- but that was the other side of his story, the strikeout that followed the home run.
He would have two stints in Boston, traded to the Milwaukee Brewers in 1972, traded back to the Red Sox in 1977 for two more years, then part of a third. The 1975 season was his statistical best, as he led the league with 36 taters, 109 RBIs. He would finish his career with 271 taters, a .268 batting average, numbers that probably should have been better, could have been better, but at least were real. He probably never lifted a weight during his career, certainly never ingested a steroid. He was a big man doing big man things.
He was natural. He was clean. He was fun.
"Is it true that you once hit a ball onto the Massachusetts Turnpike?" a Boston radio host asked the Boomer last year, talking about the highway that runs well behind the left field wall at Fenway.
"I don't know," that voice replied, last time I heard it. "But I hit some that were going in that direction."
R.I.P. George Scott.
And no, that trip to the bakery was not mentioned at the time. A special diet sometimes deserves special considerations.