A ballplayer, his wife, and his final game

I saw Willie Mays’s last hit. It was in 1973 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, a ground single up the middle, his 17th hit in five World Series and the 3,312th hit of a storied career that everybody knew was over.

I saw Thurman Munson play his last World Series, in 1978. He drove in seven runs, hit .320 and caught the pop-up for the final out that won the series for the New York Yankees, who didn’t win it again for 18 years. Nobody knew it was over for Munson. He died in a plane crash the following summer.

I also saw Zeke Faulkner’s last game.

It was August 28, 1964, the day that Bob Dylan is alleged to have introduced The Beatles to cannabis, at a party in New York’s Delmonico Hotel. That was the year Fab Four first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, the year The Supremes topped the charts with “Where Did Our Love Go?” and the year Nelson Mandela went to jail.

Nobody wondered where Zeke Faulkner went, after one hot August night in Bismarck, North Dakota.

A minor-league outfielder, Wardell “Zeke” Faulkner’s career ended following four largely forgettable seasons in Class A. His finale was with the Winnipeg Goldeyes, against the Bismarck-Mandan Pards. He went one-for-four, a double, just the 344th hit of his career. He retired at 22.

The thing I remember most about Zeke Faulkner is his wife, and before you go thinking what you may be thinking…don’t.

Let me explain.

That season, a friend named Mike O’Shaughnessy and I produced the Goldeye News Bulletin, a typewritten publication with some news but no bulletins. We sold a fresh issue every homestead — for five cents — and in one, I had written a four-paragraph story about Faulkner. A “road trip” to see the Goldeyes’ last game, in Bismarck, was our remuneration. Since the team was already there, we were invited to accompany a player’s wife who picking up her husband to go home to Illinois.

Her name was Willie Faulkner.

I had the passenger’s seat, probably because I was older, and there was nothing remarkable about the six-hour drive…until we arrived. I must have said something about driving a car because she looked at me with astonishment and said: “You can drive? I wish I’d known that!”

More remarkable was that the trip even happened.

Willie (for Willielean) Faulkner was black, and still is. She was just 19, very attractive and here she was, newly married and driving a new car into the U.S., her only passengers two white teenage boys. This was the year America really exploded with five race riots, the fifth in Philadelphia that week, and the controversial Civil Rights Act had passed in July. It was an awkward time for blacks and whites to travel together.

I don’t remember anything about crossing the border, so there must have been nothing to remember. I never thought about the black-white situation until years later, and I was oblivious to race riots that seemed so far away.

All that mattered to me was this free trip to my first baseball “road game.” That and, in hindsight, a chance to see Zeke Faulkner’s final game.