Alex George tells you what it's like to play in the majors at just 16 years of age. ``My knees were shaking''
Almost before he knew what was happening, Alex George became the epitome of a local-athlete-makes-good story.
He graduated from Rockhurst High in 1955 and played shortstop in the Ban Johnson League that summer. Like many 16-year-old boys, he dreamed of one day playing baseball in the major leagues.
That dream came much sooner than expected.
Enrolled at Kansas, with his first classes two days away, George received a telephone call from his father. The Kansas City Athletics wanted to sign him.
“The next day I went down to the front office and we signed a contract,” George recalled.
On Sept. 16, with his father, A’s manager Lou Boudreau and business manager Ray Kennedy looking on, George, five years away from legal drinking age in Missouri, became a member of the Athletics in their first year in Kansas City after relocating from Philadelphia.
The deal: $10,000 spread over two seasons, with three years of spring training guaranteed.
“It’s all a strange circumstance,” George, now 79, said. “Everything was spur of the moment.”
The Athletics' minor-league seasons were over for 1955, so no stepping stone for George. Straight to the majors he went, a fresh-faced youngster in the clubhouse. Later, George picked up on some chatter from some of the team's curious veterans.
“One said, 'I think he’s the new batboy,' ” George said. “The other guy said he didn’t think so because the batboy we have in here looked two or three years older, and he didn’t know they’d bring in somebody younger.”
No, this was recent Rockhurst grad George, complete with a uniform — No. 2 — and a locker next to starting shortstop Joe DeMaestri, who became an All-Star with the A’s.
“He was a nice guy who treated me well,” George said.
So did White Sox catcher Sherm Lollar. He was behind the plate at now torn-down Municipal Stadium when George made his debut, pinch-hitting for DeMaestri in the eighth inning during a game the A’s led comfortably.
“I get into the batter’s box, and I've got to tell you, my knees are shaking so hard, maybe he felt sorry for me,” George said.
Whatever the reason, Lollar provided George with a tip. Knuckleballer Al Papai was on the mound for what would be the final inning of his career.
You ever hit a knuckleball?
“No,” George responded.
You ever see a knuckleball?
That’s all this guy throws. So now you know what’s coming.
Even the most skilled hitters can struggle against the dancing knuckleball. After fouling off a few pitches, George’s first plate appearance ended in a swing-and-miss strikeout.
The game had a happier ending for George. He took his position at shortstop, and the White Sox had runners at second and third with two outs. Jim Rivera hit a line drive that seemed destined for a base hit. Instead, the ball landed in George’s webbing for the game’s final out.
George started jogging off the field. Gliding past first baseman Vic Power, he flipped him the ball. Power gave it right back. George doesn’t know what happened to the ball from his debut, but he’ll never forget the exchange.
Three days later, the Athletics were off to Detroit, and first-base coach Harry Craft asked George if he’d seen the lineup card.
Leading off and playing shortstop: Alex George ... he was to be the game’s first batter.
“I was always pretty quick,” George said. “I dropped down a drag bunt and beat it out.”
George’s first major-league hit would be his only one in 10 at-bats over five games. He didn’t know it at the time, but at the conclusion of the 1955 season his major-league career would be over.
George spent the next nine years in the minor leagues: eight in the Athletics’ organization and his final one in 1964 with the Washington Senators, a team that had given him a tryout as a 16-year-old. Surgery on his right shoulder had sapped his throwing strength by then, and George had started a family. It was time to retire.
“It wasn’t too difficult to walk away,” he said.
In major-league history, just six players since 1900 have became big-leaguers at age 16 or younger, according to baseball-reference.com. Three of them, including the youngest — 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall of the Cincinnati Reds — made their debuts during World War II, when baseball drew on teenagers to fill rosters vacated by men who went into the service.
It didn’t hurt the Athletics from a publicity standpoint to sign a young Kansas City product whose father was a something of a sports entrepreneur in town, and later would become a founding father of the Kansas City Sports Commission.
But George wonders how his path might have been altered with a later start in the majors.
“When I think back on it, if I had come in two or three years older, it might have made a big difference,” George said. “I was a 16-year-old kid who didn’t look like he was 18 or 19. I was just a 16-year-old, moving along.”
He remains amazed that his major-league career, however brief, isn’t forgotten. Occasionally, the mail will bring an autograph request, including one recently from a man who said he originally asked 32 years ago and never received a response.
George has been recognized at his job at Sprouts grocery in Johnson County. People love talking baseball. Some younger fans don’t know there was a major-league in Kansas City before the Royals. Yes, the Athletics played here before migrating to Oakland in 1968.
George engages anyone who wants to chat, but he has never considered his life defined by baseball and the final week of the 1955 season.
“I had a pretty good career in sales and sales management in local radio and television, and generally when people ask what I did for living, that’s where I start,” George said.
But ask him about baseball, and he has a terrific story to tell.