Wolfpack Nation lost one of its biggest supporters over the weekend as Olney Ray â€œLeftyâ€ 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 â€œCollegeâ€ was replaced with â€œUniversityâ€ 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 clichÃ©) came on April 5th, 1935.Â 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 â€œSultan of Swatâ€ 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 pitchesÂ â€“ the curve and what I called a fastball although it wasn’t very fastÂ â€“ 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 â€œno more baseballsâ€ (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.