This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
After three unsuccessful trips to the plate on Jul. 26, 1962, Bob Aspromonte had one last chance to fill a mighty tall order for a boy facing life-changing surgery in the morning.
Three months earlier in his hometown of El Dorado, Arkansas, Billy Bradley had been struck by lightning while taking a sip from a metal water fountain. He survived the potentially fatal encounter with Mother Nature but awoke the next morning to find she had robbed him of his sight.
The attending physician broke the bad news to the heartsick parents. Their child’s optic nerves were damaged beyond repair leaving him permanently blind.
But the Bradleys refused to accept the grim prognosis and drove all the way to Houston for a second opinion from one of the top ophthalmologists in the world. In addition to creating the Texas Eye Bank, Dr. Louis Girard performed the first cornea transplant in 1954 and co-designed the contact lens four years later.
Dr. Girard’s second opinion proved to be well worth the trip. Neither Billy’s retinas nor his optic nerves had been destroyed.
“You will have to have a series of operations,” the surgeon explained to the boy in his parents’ presence, “but when we’re through, you will have your sight back.”
Billy Bradley passed the time until his initial operation by listening to the Houston Colt .45 baseball games on the radio. The first-year expansion team may not have been a pretty sight — the .45s shot mostly blanks in 1962 losing 96 times — but the avid fan still managed to find someone to cheer for, third basemen Bob Aspromonte.
Learning he was the brave boy’s hero, Aspromonte hustled to the hospital with two teammates in tow. Due to go under the knife the next day, the visit was just what the doctor ordered.
As Aspromonte got up to leave, the big-leaguer asked Billy if there was anything he could for him. In the time it takes for a line drive to reach the pitcher’s mound, the youngster blurted out, “Can you hit a home run for me tonight?”
Aspromonte was at a loss for words. Home runs were few and far between for the Brooklyn native, who retired after 13 seasons with only 60 round-trippers to his credit.
“I’ll do my best,” he answered. “If I do hit one tonight, it will be for you.”
The Bradleys were the guests of the Colt .45’s that evening for a meeting with the San Francisco Giants. Dr. Girard gave Billy permission to attend with the strict understanding that he would be back in his hospital bed by ten o’clock.
Each time Aspromonte came to bat, a hush fell over the crowd at Colt Stadium, the team’s temporary home until completion of the Astrodome three years later. However, when Billy finally had to call it a night, his favorite Colt .45 was a disappointing 0 for 3.
Aspromonte stepped into the batter’s box in the eighth inning knowing full well it was his last chance to make his number-one fan’s wish come true. After taking a strike down the middle of the plate and watching two pitches miss the strike zone, he knocked the fourth offering out of the park.
Spectators screamed themselves hoarse as Aspromonte trotted around the bases. An equally excited Gene Elston, the play-by-play announcer, yelled into the microphone, “This one’s for you, Billy Bradley!”
The hero and the hero worshipper did not see each other again until Jun. 11, 1965, when Billy returned to Houston for another operation. Aspromonte informed the Arkansans over lunch that a box seat behind the dugout had been reserved for them at the Colt .45s-Cubs game that night.
For a second time, Billy blindsided Aspromonte by requesting a repeat performance. “I’ll give it my best shot,” was all he could say.
In the bottom of the tenth inning with the score tied, Aspromonte rose to the occasion in truly dramatic. With two outs and the bases loaded, he drove a three-two pitch over the left field fence for a game-winning grand slam.
Six weeks later, Billy was back in town for the final surgery that completely restored his eyesight. Once more the Bradleys had box seats, and once more the boy asked the near-impossible – a third home run.
This time Aspromonte did not wait for the drama to mount. In the bottom of the first inning with runners again on every base, the Mets pitcher challenged the light-hitting infielder with a blazing fastball. Everyone knew from the crack of the bat that the Colt .45 had given little Billy a second grand-slam gift.
In 1974 Ken Aspromonte and Billy Bradley, then a grown man of 21, suddenly switched places. The ex-ballplayer was trying to jump-start a car, when the battery blew up and a cap flew into his right eye.
Billy called often during his childhood hero’s long ordeal. Eight operations and a cornea transplant, all performed by the same Dr. Girard, succeeded in restoring partial sight to Aspromonte’s badly injured eye.
BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or email@example.com.