Ken Retzer died at age 86 on May 17.
Who, you say?
[Shakes head pityingly.] Clearly you weren’t collecting baseball cards for the first time in 1965.
They were legends, all of them. Willie Mays. Sandy Koufax. Mickey Mantle. Roger Maris. Ken Retzer.
Or so I thought, anyway.
Ken Retzer was born in Wood River, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from greater St. Louis, in 1934. He was the youngest of seven children. With lots of mouths to feed during the Depression, his parents moved often: to Worden, Springfield, Alhambra and Brighton, Illinois before crossing the river to Wellsville, Missouri, where Retzer attended high school. More shifting around in early adulthood: he enrolled at Jefferson City Junior College before switching to Central Missouri State. And then even more shifting around after he signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1954: Tifton, Georgia; Fargo, North Dakota; winter ball in Colombia; you get the idea.
After years in the minors, he was promoted to the major leagues in September 1961 by the hapless Washington Senators. He was a catcher, and despite poor defensive skills, he could hit for power. The Senators had no one better, so they gave him a shot.
He did phenomenally well in his September audition, prompting the Senators to bring him back for a longer look in 1962. His hitting regressed and his fielding remained putrid, but he was still the Senators’ best catcher, so they kept him around, and on Opening Day 1963 he had the honor of catching the ceremonial first pitch from President John F. Kennedy, who autographed the ball for him.
It proved the high point of Retzer’s career. His hitting deteriorated further, and in 1964 he was banished back to the minors. After the season he was traded to the Minnesota Twins, and I got a baseball card of him. What neither he nor I knew was that he had already taken his last major league swing. He toiled in the minors another three seasons before leaving the game at age 33.
Apparently he scuffled for an income the rest of his life, taking jobs as a racquetball instructor, limousine driver, juvenile home bus driver, and golf course groomer. He owned a restaurant in San Diego until his first marriage ended, whereupon he moved back to Wood River. He remarried in 1982 and eventually relocated to Las Vegas — where the ball President Kennedy signed was stolen. Perhaps as a consequence, he moved again, this time to suburban Phoenix, Arizona, where he died last week of an undisclosed cause.
When I was a kid I wanted to be a major leaguer. The absurdity of that dream didn’t strike me until junior high school. In gym class one day we had to throw a softball as far as we could. I launched one 135 feet — not bad. The kid who a few years later caught the attention of big league scouts threw the ball 235 feet. From what I remember, that kid got only as far as semi-pro ball, a rung below the minors, in South Jersey.
So despite his brief, unremarkable big-league performance, Ken Retzer was quite a baseball player, and it wasn’t absurd that he meant more to me in childhood than any artist, scientist, or statesman. And though I never made the major leagues — or even stuck around long enough to play for my high school team — it appears I’ve lived a stable and fortunate life in comparison to a lot of the guys who did.