Your best day

I came across this Don Kolloway story entirely by accident ... wasn’t even doing baseball research. I was doing some work for my upcoming book on Tom Watson and his rivalry and friendship with Jack Nicklaus when -- and I would never be able to retrace the steps -- Don Kolloway somehow emerged from the newspaper fog.

Don Kolloway was a utility player for White Sox and Tigers -- mostly the White Sox -- in the 1940s. He grew up in Chicago -- Blue Island, to be precise -- and signed with the local White Sox at 18. The scout Doug Miner had never even seen him play, but he’d heard good things and threw a few hundred bucks at young Don and sent him to Rayne, Louisiana, which is known both as the frog capital of the world and the rice capital of the United States. Kolloway said he had rice every meal.

He moved relatively quickly through the minors -- Rayne for a year, then Longview, Texas, then Oklahoma City. He was tall and lanky, and he could run a bit. He fielded well enough that for a little while there they called him the Blue Island Bird Dog. So far, you will see nothing too unusual about his career. In 1942 -- his one full season in the big leagues -- he led the league in doubles. In 1943, he joined the army and he was awarded the Bronze Star after seeing combat as part of the 29th Infantry Division. When he returned from war, he had some useful seasons as a second baseman, though he never slugged even .400 in a season. When he retired, he opened up a bar in Blue Island and he later worked for Cook County in voter registration. He had four daughters and a son, lost his wife when he was in his 60s but lived long enough to enjoy five grandchildren. He died in 1994 at the age of 75.

And again -- a good life, a full life, a heroic life, but probably nothing you haven’t heard before.

All of us, though, can have a best day. It’s part of what makes life so rich. You can wake up one morning and on that day be greater than you’ve ever been, greater in some way than anyone has ever been. A middling pitcher named Don Larsen on his best day threw a perfect game in the World Series. A singer for a scrambling band called The Knack, Doug Fieger, on his best day came up with a song about his girlfriend Sharona Alperin. The actor Alec Baldwin, on his best day, did the 10-minute “Put the coffee down” soliloquy for Glengarry Glen Ross.

On June 28, 1941, a Saturday afternoon, 22-year-old Don Kolloway went to the ballpark for a game in Cleveland. It was Ladies Day at the ballpark so a decent crowd of 13,000 or so came out. The Indians were in first place and the White Sox in fourth, hovering right around .500. The world was darkening. World War II was rapidly growing scarier; this was the day Albania declared war on the Soviet Union and there were reports of 11,000 Jews being killed in Kishinev. In Oklahoma City, the airport -- which would become a key training facility for the Air Force -- was named for Will Rogers. Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak reached 40 when he cracked a double off Johnny Babich in Philadelphia. This was 10 days after the Joe Louis-Billy Conn fight that still had America buzzing.

Kolloway, for some reason, was hitting leadoff. Nothing about this made much sense except that White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes just took a linking to the kid. Kolloway up to this point had 88 plate appearances in the big leagues. He was hitting .195 for his career -- .168 for the season. He had not walked a single time. He had not hit even one home run -- or a triple. He had stolen one base in his career. There was no reason to expect much.

But that’s the point of best days. You never expect it. Kolloway led off the game against Cleveland’s Al Smith by laying down a good bunt toward third that he beat out for a single. He promptly stole second base and scored on Dario Lodigiani’s single. The White Sox took a 2-0 lead. Kolloway flew out his next time up so nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The Indians had a 4-2 lead when Kolloway came up in the fifth.

This time he hit his first big league home run, a solo shot to left off of Al Smith. That made the score 4-3.

That was still the score for Kolloway’s next at-bat, when he led off the eighth inning. And ... yep ... he promptly hit the second home run of his career to tie the score. What are the odds of such things? Kolloway would go entire seasons without hitting two home runs. So it goes. A little later in the inning, Luke Appling’s go-ahead triple scored the go-ahead run -- the White Sox led 5-4 going into the ninth.

Then, in the ninth inning, Kolloway came up one more time. No, he did not homer -- this is even better. He beat out a double play ground ball. There were two outs. And then Don Kolloway -- with Cal Dorsett pitching for Cleveland and Gene Desauteis catching -- stole second. He then stole third. And, on the double steal, Don Kolloway stole home. Yep, he stole his way entirely around the bases. The White Sox won the game 6-4 and knocked Cleveland out of first place -- the Indians would not be back in first place for the rest of the season.

Don Kolloway is the only player in baseball history to hit two home runs and steal four bases in the same game. He’s the only Chicago White Sox player to steal second, third and home in the same game.

But you know what the best part of all is? When Don Kolloway was 68 years old he was asked by the Chicago Sun Times to name his best day in baseball. And he did not name this one. He did not say the day he hit two home runs and stole four bases was his best day. Instead, he pointed out that the first time he ever sat in a big league clubhouse was April 16, 1940. He did not get into the game -- did not play in the big leagues for a few months in fact -- but that was the day Bob Feller threw his famous Opening Day no-hitter. That was his introduction to big league baseball.

A year later, Kolloway faced Bob Feller for the first time. Some of his pals from back in Blue Island decided to make it “Don Kolloway Day” and get the community to give some gifts. Kolloway cracked two singles off the legend and got a set of luggage from his buddies. That, Don Kolloway would say, was his best day.

Or, he added, it might have been the day Joe DiMaggio walked by him and said, “How’s everything going Don?”

“I was so proud he knew my name,” Kolloway would say.