Hall of Fame ‘balldude’

Written by: Jim Gates

By 7:45 p.m., the threat of frostbite seems very real. It is the middle of August and I have seldom been this cold. And that is saying something for someone who has lived in Upstate New York for more than two decades. As the wind chill factor increases, and wisps of fog swirl down from the highest seats overlooking AT&T Park, only one thing comes to mind: It’s all Molly’s fault.

Molly would be my friend, and fellow balldude/dudette for the evening’s match between my beloved Baltimore Orioles and her hometown San Francisco Giants. Molly Cavagnaro is completely, totally, and absolutely responsible for my being on the field, and I am ready to protect the local fans from errant foul balls. It feels funny, wearing a Giants uniform while watching my Birds, but at least I’m in black and orange. What I need is a parka, in any color.

This saga begins in 2010 when Molly’s mother, Corinne Mullane, announces her retirement age 84, having served 17 years as the original San Francisco balldudette. Corinne, a feisty Irish lass if ever one existed, takes umbrage at her favorite team when the Giants implement a balldude program in 1993. The intent is to have “spry seniors” work the first and third base foul lines, something previously done by younger guys.

Well, to Corinne this just isn’t right. If men can be balldudes, why can’t ladies be balldudettes? She writes a letter in April and soon finds herself a member of the Giants family. The team’s response is to expand the program to include spry senior ladies and the word “Balldudette” is formally added to the baseball lexicon. Clearly, Corinne Mullane is a woman of drive and determination, a force to be reckoned with. Spry indeed.

As Corinne departs the ballfield, Molly, who has been working as a balldudette since 2001, thinks her mother has been a special part of baseball history, and sends me a letter. She remembers to include one of her mom’s baseball cards. On this matter, Molly is correct. Corinne’s story is both inspirational and fun. I contact her and ask them to put together a collection of photos, documents, newspaper stories, etc.? These are cataloged and added to the Hall of Fame’s archive.

Not only do these intrepid ladies from California pull together a nice collection of material, giving birth to the Corinne Mullane Collection (BA MS 112), they also visit Cooperstown to ensure everything is in order. Corinne and the spry seniors now have their special place in the Hall of Fame archive.

In the ensuing years I stay in touch with Molly, keeping up with her baseball adventures, and every year she invites me to join her on the field. And every year I decline. My Hall of Fame duties during the summer, along with my evening duties as the owner of a small bed & breakfast, do not permit traveling opportunities. That changes in the winter of 2016 when my wife and I sell the inn. I make one mistake: I tell Molly. Knowing my major travel impediment is gone, Molly signs me up for balldude duty on Saturday, Aug. 13, when her Giants play my Orioles. Molly makes the arrangements, and my family is on her side. Clearly, there is no way out. I must go in search of my inner spry.

Jim Gates poses with his wife Vicki, and son Sean, before his debut as a "balldude" for the San Francisco Giants, on Aug. 13, 2016. (Jean Fruth / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

I spend much of the summer reading instruction sheets given to balldudes/dudettes by the team, and watching YouTube videos of on-field gaffes made by others working the Giants games. There appears to be ample opportunity for embarrassment, plays that will be captured for all to see on endless internet replays. What have I gotten myself into? But I think, if Molly and Corinne can do it, so can I.

Travel arrangements are made, hotel rooms booked, and West Coast family members notified. In addition to my wife and son, my brother and his family, along with a cousin and her family will be there. Oh my, this was getting to be too much. Not only am I going to do something that will be called out on SportsCenter, but the live audience is going to be watching closely. How did Corinne handle all this pressure?

The big day arrives. We leave our Union Square hotel early enough to join Molly and Corinne, along with her brother Brendan, for lunch near the ballpark. Brendan has served as balldude, so I have a vast amount of experience upon which to draw. We are off to a good start.

Following lunch, we walk over to the park and are met by Giants representative Sue Petersen. Sue coordinates the balldude/dudette program, and is kind enough to give us a tour of the park. As we stride by one of the gift shops I notice an abundant amount of cold-weather gear. Not just the standard baseball jacket and hat, but Arctic-quality parkas and gloves. Maybe the team is sponsoring a scientific expedition to Antarctica? This should have been a warning, but I fail to notice. By the third inning, it will all make sense.

Corinne Mullane and her daughter Molly Cavagnaro are both balldudettes. Corinne worked for the Giants from 1993-2010, and Molly has been working for the team since 2003. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Heading into the bowels of the stadium, Sue leads us to the Giants wardrobe area where Molly and I are issued uniforms. We also receive a jacket and helmet, along with a rather heavy stool. Dressing areas and lockers are provided, and we are soon walking on the field, getting further instructions as we saunter down the base line. For Molly this is old hat, but I am hanging onto every word, knowing that tens of thousands of fans will be watching. I don’t want to mess up. In the end, it all comes down to Molly saying, “When in doubt, get out of the way and take your stool with you.”

The pregame focuses on the Gaylord Perry statue dedication, and I am more than happy to see him receiving the accolades. The more attention he gets the less I have to worry about. Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson is part of the day’s events, and he comes down to say hello and wish me good luck. It is very nice of him to do so. He takes time to speak with Molly, and to my family who will be sitting nearby. At this point everyone admits to knowing me. I hope they continue to do so after the game.

As my Orioles are introduced I remember instructions from Molly, most importantly her warning that it is probably not a good idea for me to openly root for the Birds while wearing a Giants uniform. I remain calm and follow her directions, but I do quietly say “O” during the national anthem, a longtime Baltimore tradition. What’s life without a little rebellion?

I have a chance to speak with the Orioles’ bullpen catcher, a very nice young man who has apparently been here before. He tells me it is going to be cold out in this part of the field, but I think to myself, “How cold can it get in mid-August?” He offers some words of advice that don’t appear in the printed material provided by the Giants: “Watch where you scratch. You might be on live TV at any time.” Words of wisdom indeed.

The game begins on time and it is great to be on the field watching two MLB teams with postseason aspirations. In the hallowed tradition of ball-dudism, I am feeling spry. But, by the end of the first inning, it does seem to be getting a bit cool. My thoughts on the weather are interrupted when I hear someone yell, “Hey balldude, don’t embarrass your family!” That would be my brother, sitting just a few rows back. Oh my, this is going to be a long game. By the third inning, the wind has picked up, the temperature has dropped, and my toes are starting to feel numb. I look over at my brother to see if he is cold, but he is enjoying a hot dog and a warm drink.

Jim Gates (far right) poses with Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson and balldudette Molly Cavagnaro. (Jean Fruth / National Baseball Hall of Fame)

There are plenty of Baltimore fans at the park, and I have the chance to speak with some between innings. This is also an excuse to get up and walk around. The stool is low to the ground, so we don’t block the view of the fans, but it also means my knees are getting cranky. I start to get worried. I am not feeling very spry. What if a foul ball heads in my direction and I can’t get off the stool? Jeepers, that’s as bad as letting one go between my legs! Alas, not to worry, nothing has yet come my way.

By the sixth inning, I am flat-out cold. Spry has left the building. Although we have the option to remove the helmet between innings, I decline as this padded device is keeping my head warm. My toes have gone numb and my fingers are close behind. If they hit one my way now, I may not be able to grab it in my glove. Oh why didn’t I request an Arctic parka? I look over and see my brother having another warm drink.

Finally, in the eighth inning, one Giants player, a name that is lost to history, hits a hard grounder down the first base line, but foul. It seems to go past at 300 miles per hour. It is well out of reach and there is no chance for a proper catch. I run onto the field to pick it up. I find my lost spry. Returning to the sideline, I give it to a child, per my pregame instructions. I look over at Molly and she gives me the thumbs up. My wife and son are smiling. My brother is enjoying another warm beverage.

And then, the game is over. Just like that. Only one foul ball works its way in my direction, and I have done nothing worthy of YouTube. Success. I pick up the stool and head to the Giants’ dugout. My toes and fingers are completely numb, frostbite perhaps, but Molly meets me and says this is one of the coldest nights she has experienced at AT&T. That is good to hear. It wasn’t just me.

We head down the steps into a heated area. Circulation returns to my digits while changing back to street clothes. I return the uniform to the ladies at the wardrobe desk. They are very nice and ask if I enjoyed myself. In fact, everyone associated with the Giants has been wonderful. Following the game, Molly and I head to a local restaurant for a postgame meal. Family and friends are waiting. I am able to say thank you to Corinne and Molly for giving me the chance to be in uniform on a major league field. An experience I will not forget. They have made this evening possible, and I have found my inner spry.

It’s all Molly’s fault.

Jim Gates is the Librarian at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Library research a hallmark of Museum’s mission

Dave Bohmer visits the Giamatti Research Center to research Commissioner Ford Frick for a biography he plans to write.

Monte Irvin proved his greatness in National League

Monte Irvin left an indelible mark on baseball.

Irvin and Thompson debut for Giants

Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson debuted for the New York Giants on July 8, 1949.