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Meeting the Star of my First Major League Baseball Game

Friday night, August 6, 1971, my parents took me to see my first major league baseball game at Anaheim Stadium. I was 5 1/2 years old, and a month away from starting kindergarten, and I have no memory of the game at all.

With baseball season approaching, I decided that I’d do a story about the first major league baseball game that I ever attended.  Thankfully, my Dad saved the ticket stub, so I searched for that one particular game and quickly found the box score and game summary.  

It seemed like a nondescript Friday night game in the dog days of summer. The Angels beat the Twins 2-0. Local boy, Andy Messersmith, of Western High School in Anaheim pitched a complete game, a 3-hit shutout on the night of his 26th birthday.

All of the runs scored that night were due to the Angels right fielder Roger Repoz. In the bottom of the sixth inning, Repoz hit a 2 run home run off of Twins pitcher Jim Perry.

My detective work continued as I looked up Roger Repoz’s baseball biography. He started his career in the mid-1960’s wearing Yankee pinstripes alongside legends of the game including: Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford.

“I’ve got to contact this guy!”  I thought to myself, not having any idea in the world where he might be.  I did a little more research and found that he has lived in Fullerton for twenty years, just two miles from my own house!

I found his mailing address and wrote him a quick note explaining all of my recent discoveries, and I requested to speak with him. Two days later, I got a voicemail from Roger Repoz, and a few days after that, I was sitting in a folding chair on the driveway of his West Fullerton townhouse talkin’ baseball.

Repoz was an easy-going 74 year old man with a vice-like grip from all those years squeezing hand grips. “Hitting is all right here,” he said pointing to his hands and forearms, wasting no time in getting down to the business of talking baseball. Despite the passage of forty to fifty years, Repoz’ recollections from his 17 year professional career were as clear as though they’d happened last season.

Unfortunately, like me, he had no memory of the August 6, 1971 game, but when you’ve played in 831 major league games some are bound to run together. I filled him in on what I had learned by reading the box score.

“You hit a two run home run off of Jim Perry, which is interesting because he’s the first pitcher that you ever faced in the big leagues on September 11, 1964,” I told him.

That year, Repoz was a September call-up to the Yankees. He probably would have been selected to their World Series roster if he hadn’t injured himself at the end of the season sliding head first into third base against the Senators.

Roger was called up a second time to the Yankees in June 1965, and immediately went on a tear. On July 1st he notched his first major league hit, a home run off of the Orioles’ tough left-hander Steve Barber. Just ten days later, Repoz had already hit 4 home runs to go along with a 4-for-5 day off of the Twins’ Mudcat Grant. This early success started the unfair pressure brewing that this might be “the next Mickey Mantle.”

Back then, Repoz was a blond haired, blue-eyed, big man standing 6’3” and weighing 195, and could have passed as either Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris’ kid brother. For a big man, he was also a very fast runner. Mickey Mantle, before his many leg injuries, was a speedster himself when he first came up to the Yankees, once told Roger, “I’d give a million dollars if I could have legs like yours.”

Roger was so fast that he proudly told me about the Spring Training game when he ran down Willie Mays. “I was playing first and following the runner to second. Willie took a big turn at second and they threw the ball to me, and I ran him down and caught him on his way to third.”

On the road with the Yankees, Repoz roomed with pitcher, Jim Bouton. Bouton went on to write the iconic tell-all baseball book “Ball Four.” Roger was mentioned a couple of times in the book, but kind of sluffed it off saying, “He didn’t say anything bad about me, but back then, whatever happened in the clubhouse was supposed to stay in the clubhouse.”

Repoz was having a great start to the 1966 season, hitting nearly .350 in 37 games when he was called into manager Ralph Houk’s office and told that he was traded to the Kansas City A’s.

Repoz says that being traded by the Yankees was the biggest disappointment in his baseball career. “Yankee Stadium was custom made for my style of hitting with it’s short porch in right,” Repoz said with a what-might-have-been sadness in his voice.

He played the second-half of the ’66 season and the first half of the ’67 season in Kansas City. He soon became expendable when the A’s signed the up-and-coming, power-hitting, left-handed outfielder out of Arizona State, Reggie Jackson.  Reggie took over Roger’s right field position and his uniform number 9.

Kansas City traded Repoz to the Angels where he played for parts of six seasons. During the end of his time with the A’s and his first few years with the Angels, Repoz set a major league record that still stands today. Starting on June 27, 1967 and continuing until May 24, 1970, Roger Repoz had 1,018 plate appearances, 894 at-bats without grounding into a double play.

His best year with the Angels was 1970. He was the starting Right Fielder, played in 137 games, 407 at-bats, 18 homeruns, 47 RBIs, and a .238 average. He was second on the team in home runs, and amongst the league leaders in triples.

Repoz was the starting right fielder in an historic Angels game on July 3, 1970. In the first inning, Roger hit a triple and later scored the first run. It would be the only run that Clyde Wright would need that night, as he went on to pitch the second no-hitter in Angels history.

After his best season with the Angels, Dick Walsh the Angels General Manager called him in to discuss his contract. Repoz was offered a $500 raise. This was before free agency when baseball’s reserve clause was still in place and the players basically had to accept whatever the team offered. When Roger showed his obvious disappointment in the offer, Walsh told him, “if you don’t like it, grab a lunch pail.”

He played the 1971 season for $28,000, his largest salary in the big leagues, but significantly less than many players on the team without his kind of numbers were making.

On April 24, 1971 at Anaheim Stadium, Repoz notched his name in the record books by hitting the first walk-off grand slam in Angels’ history. The Angels were trailing the Baltimore Orioles 4-3 in the 9th, and Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver had his pitcher Dick “Turkey” Hall intentionally walk Ken McMullen to load the bases so that they could pitch to Roger Repoz. Needless to say, Repoz made Earl Weaver and the Orioles regret that decision.

Roger was traded in 1972 from the Angels to the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles then sold his contract, along with Don Buford’s, to the Japanese big leagues. He would go on to play an additional five seasons in Japan. In 1975 while playing for the Yakult Swallows, Repoz hit .292 with 27 homeruns and 70 RBIs. The following year he hit .274, 36 home runs, and 81 RBIs.

In Japan he made $68,000., and with incentives once made over $90,000 for the season. Repoz hit the 15,000th home run in Japanese baseball history, an interesting bit of Japanese baseball trivia that just may win you a free sake at a sushi bar sometime! Hitting the milestone home run was supposed to win the player who hit it 300,000 yen (approx $10,000), but because it was hit by a Gaijin (foreign player), Repoz says he received nothing.

I asked him what he thought about Tom Selleck’s movie “Mr. Baseball” about an aging American baseball player who extends his career by playing in Japan. Although he liked the movie, in reality he said it was “ten times worse.” The umpires had a “Gaijin strike zone” he called it. “Anything a couple inches off of either side of the plate, you better be swingin’.”

Repoz worried about finishing his baseball career and transitioning back to a normal life. “What am I going to do now?” he thought. “I’m 37 years old with a wife and two kids and no skills other than playing ball. He bounced around a few jobs before landing a job as a quality control supervisor at Fabrica Carpets in Santa Ana where he worked for 26 years before retiring in 2008.

He still keeps in touch with a few of his old Angels teammates, mainly pitchers Tom Murphy, Paul Doyle, and Clyde Wright. He participated in the 1985 Angels Old Timer Game at Anaheim Stadium and has an Angel Alumni card that gets him front row parking and admittance into any game he wants to attend.

One of his recent visits back to Anaheim Stadium occurred on April 13, 2011 when he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch as part of the franchises 50th anniversary celebration.

Both of Roger’s sons played minor league baseball. His oldest son Craig played at Fullerton College and in 1985 was the New York Mets’ first round draft pick in the secondary phase (5th over all).

Roger and his second wife Roberta live in Fullerton near Amerige Heights shopping center with their two dogs: Reign and Maggie. Roger is now retired and enjoys candle making, working out at the gym, and driving his black Corvette with his personalized license plate which reads, “NYYALUM.”

He says that he still receives two or three fan letters a week requesting his autograph, and while I was there a fan letter with a New York postmark arrived. It was from a retired NYPD officer requesting his signature on three of Roger’s 1972 Topps baseball cards.

Before I left, Roger showed me the Yankee logo he has tattooed on his left shoulder, and gave me one of the candles he had created. I didn’t learn much about my first major league game, but I did meet the star of the game, and a fellow Fullertonian with a rich, first-hand, history of our national pastime.