“Never a Bad Game,” which chronicled the first 50 years of the Southern League, has been updated and re-released. (Ordering information below). Over the coming weeks, I’ll present excerpts from 10 of my favorites of the 50 stories told in the book.
Fran Kalafatis was in Montgomery in March 2012, doing advocacy work on behalf of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation. She stopped in a pharmacy, trying to find something to ease a nagging back pain that has been exacerbated by constant travel. The pharmacist, noting she was visiting town, asking how she liked the city, and she responded that she had once lived there.
As she handed her credit card to the pharmacist, he stared at it and paused.
“George Kalafatis. Left-handed first baseman. He could hit the heck out of the ball,” he said. It had been merely 43 years since Fran Kalafatis’ late husband had played for the Montgomery Rebels.
“I just looked at him,” said Fran. “Of all the drug stores in Montgomery, and he knew him immediately. It gave me shivers up my spine.”
Kalafatis never created memories as explosively as he did on July 1, 1969, when he hit four runs against the Birmingham Barons, an accomplishment no other Southern League batter matched in the league’s first half-century.
“Greatest thing I’ve ever seen and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Rebels’ catcher Jim Leyland.
“It was magical,” Fran. “It was hit after hit after hit after hit.”
“I just hit them and they went out,” Kalafatis told The Montgomery Advertiser.
Kalafatis was a 6-foot-5 Goliath, but deft enough around the bag to lead Southern League first basemen in fielding in 1969. He had a robust minor league career, but with Norm Cash entrenched at first for the Detroit Tigers, Kalafatis never had a big-league appearance. He died at age 50, having picked up a virus while playing winter ball in Venezula. The virus lay dormant for years, but caused an enlarged heart that proved fatal.
By then, he had established himself as a prominent sports agent by having such a kinship with pro athletes. He joined Mark McCormick’s famed IMG when partners there noticed how well-connected Kalafatis was in baseball. Said Fran, “He could never remember my birthday but he knew the phone number of every locker room in the United States.”
Kalafatis was a free-swinging power-hitter whose stats were further complicated by poor vision. Said Fran, “He could walk into a wall. He had to put on glasses just to get out of bed.” Glasses were too awkward to wear while playing and the hard-lens contacts of the day were troublesome because of infield dirt and the poor lighting of a minor league park.
She arrived fashionably late, if not totally fashionable, “dragging myself not to get there too early” on a typically hot and humid night at Paterson Field on July 1, 2-year-old daughter Lara in tow. Everyone she saw caught her up. “You just missed a home run from George,” they told her. No matter. He hit three more, including one that cleared a fence sign sponsored by a local clothing store, which earned him a free sports coat.
The Rebels wrapped up the 13-0 win, with eight RBIs from Kalafatis. The team headed out to a player’s home to celebrate. Fran can’t remember exactly which player hosted the bash, only that it was “one of the single guys because the place was filthy.”
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