RIP Lefty Freeman

Wolfpack Nation lost one of its biggest supporters over the weekend as Olney Ray “Lefty” Freeman passed away this past Saturday at the age of 98.

Lefty was a pitcher for NC State Baseball in the mid 1930’s, long before “College” was replaced with “University” in the title. More than that however, he was a shining example of what I think we all strive to be as State fans and alumni.

His biggest claim to fame (or brush with greatness…choose your own cliché) came on April 5th, 1935.  That was the day that State and Lefty faced the Boston Braves and more specifically, Babe Ruth, in an exhibition game.

This was in the twilight of Ruth’s career and he was certainly not the same “Sultan of Swat” he had once been. Nonetheless, when Ruth stepped up to face him, Freeman was so nervous that he could hardly see the plate. After failing to even remotely find the strike zone on three consecutive pitches, and falling behind 3-0 to the man who had once been the most feared hitter on the planet, the crowd that day began to boo.

No doubt looking for something down the middle, Ruth dug in.

But Lefty had other ideas. Rearing back and not giving an inch, he delivered three straight breaking balls that the Babe couldn’t lay off. He couldn’t hit them, either.

“The first pitch got away from me and it sailed right at him,” Freeman recalled in a 1977 interview with The Raleigh Times. “He went down and got up talking.”

Freeman was booed by the anxious crowd after throwing two more balls to Ruth, taking the count to 3-0.

“They all came to see Babe Ruth hit a home run and they thought I was intentionally walking him,” Freeman said. “They were yelling all sorts of things but most of them were just pleas for Ruth to rip one.”

Freeman was surprised when Ruth chased after a curveball on the 3-0 count.

“I guess he just wanted to please the fans, however, and he went all the way after it,” Freeman said. “He swung so hard he fell down and just sort of curled up there.”

Ruth fouled off the next pitch to run the count full. Freeman, who threw side-armed because of some strained ligaments in his shoulder, shook off Staton’s call for a curve ball.

“I wanted to think a little,” he said. “I didn’t have but two pitches – the curve and what I called a fastball although it wasn’t very fast – so it didn’t take long for the catcher to get back to the curve again.”

But instead of side-arming the pitch, Freeman came straight over the top with a curveball, which dropped straight down, and the Babe, thinking it was a waist-high fastball, took a Ruthian cut at the ball. He missed badly and his momentum took him to the ground, baseball’s greatest hitter struck out by a collegian.

The Braves would go on to beat State that day 6-2, though it was a frustrating day all around for the aging Ruth. Interestingly enough, the game was called in the 7th inning due to “no more baseballs” (reportedly, it actually said that in the official box score).

Seems the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, in an effort to promote the game and boost attendance, made a point of encouraging fans to keep their free souvenir fouls balls. This was not as accepted a practice then as it is today, but Raleigh fans had no trouble following directions. Reportedly not a single ball that reached the grandstand was returned that day.

Freeman’s baseball career would end abruptly later that same summer when he would throw out his arm for good in a Tobacco League game. But what he did after that makes him as much of a State man, if not more, than even his athletic prowess on the diamond.

Lefty became both a hog farmer and a tobacco farmer, as well as an agricultural extension agent.

He would also remain one of the most diehard Wolfpack fans ever, and despite being wheelchair bound in his declining years he still attended games regularly through this past season. He was easily recognizable and was missed whenever he wasn’t in attendance.

“NC State lost one of its truest and most avid baseball fans,” Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent said. “I don’t remember many games that I’ve coached at Doak Field at Dail Park when he wasn’t sitting in exactly the same spot. He would always catch my eye and give me a wave.

“He was one of the great old-time baseball fans whose biggest joy in life was going to a game. He had so many stories to tell, and he loved being able to interact with our team. He knew all their names, their batting averages and their parents. We’ll all miss him tremendously.”

 

If you’d like to read more about Lefty, or the exhibition game against the Boston Braves that day 77 years ago, Tim Peeler had a piece a couple of years back that is a pretty darn interesting read – PEELER: When Lefty Freeman Struck Out Babe Ruth (GoPack.com).

Rest In Peace, Lefty.

About Wufpacker

A 2nd generation alumnus and raised since birth to be irrationally dedicated to all things NC State. Class of '88 and '92.

Baseball NCSU Sports History

10 Responses to RIP Lefty Freeman

  1. Wolfman 9806 09/10/2012 at 7:17 PM #

    Guys like Lefty make me proud to be a member of the Pack.

  2. tractor57 09/10/2012 at 7:19 PM #

    RIP lefty

  3. highstick 09/10/2012 at 8:39 PM #

    Super info…I’ll bet even Kennel is envious!

  4. choppack1 09/10/2012 at 9:30 PM #

    Thanks for posting this article – these are the guys that truly make the game. Would have loved just sitting there and listening to his stories.

  5. tjfoose1 09/10/2012 at 10:24 PM #

    “Super info…I’ll bet even Kennel is envious!”

    I’m sure if Mr Kennel told the story, he’d tell you he was the catcher that day, and it was his calling of the pitches that got the Babe out, not Lefty’s arm.

  6. Wufpacker 09/10/2012 at 10:40 PM #

    LOL ‘foose. Too funny.

    @choppack1, I agree. Would love to have had just a few hours with a tape recorder. Probably have enough material for two books.

  7. 87stategrad 09/11/2012 at 6:27 AM #

    I had the honor of meeting Mr. Freeman and talking with him as often as I could at baseball games. A couple of years ago he threw out a first pitch at a home game and my youngest daughter was fascinated with his Babe Ruth story. As luck would have it, she caught a foul ball that game, and she immediately had the idea to get Mr. Freeman to sign it. His face really lit up when she asked him, and he took a few minutes to tell his story again just for her. Not only did he sign the ball, but he wrote “struck out Babe Ruth in 1935″. My daughter now has that ball in a very special display case. After that game, my daughter and I would always stop and say hello to Mr. Freeman whenever we saw him, and his face would always light up with a smile.
    He was also a Worl War II vet, and he was honored at as such at a Wolfpack Basketball game last year if I remember correctly.
    By the way, the Braves/Ruth exhibition game was actually held in Fayetteville. Turns out, Ruth played his minor league ball in Fayetteville, and it was supposed to be a “homecoming” game for him. Actually, my dad grew up in Fayetteville, and remembers being at that game (he would have been 7 years old).
    I know that my daughter and I will miss Mr. Freeman’s smile and wave at Wolfpack baseball games. He was not only a legend, but a fellow Wolfpacker and a friend.

  8. GAWolf 09/11/2012 at 11:04 AM #

    I added the picture of my son with Lefty. Lefty and his daughter were great to my little fellow. They are kind folks, and Lefty will be missed.

  9. Wufpacker 09/11/2012 at 11:27 AM #

    That’s awesome GA. You take that shot?

  10. GAWolf 09/11/2012 at 12:57 PM #

    Yes. W/ cellphone.

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