Steinbrenner's final salute to an old friend

2:08 PM, Jul 18, 2010   |    comments
George Steinbrenner
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(CNN) -- Those of us who knew Alex Clowson understood that his baseball dreams were all behind him.

We couldn't have been more wrong.

Alex -- he insisted that we call him that; "Mr. Clowson," he said, was too formal -- was the one man in our central Ohio town of 13,000 who had been a professional ballplayer. He had been captain of the baseball team at Ohio State, and had led the Big Ten in hitting in 1932 and 1933. The people who knew him back then thought he would have a shining career in the majors. And in fact, the Cleveland Indians organization signed him to a contract.

But he injured his knee, and in the big leagues being just half a step slow means you're probably not going to make it. So from 1935 to 1941, he played in the low minor leagues, for Class C and Class D teams like the Zanesville, Ohio, Greys, and the Oswego, New York, Netherlands, and the Monessen, Pennsylvania, Indians.

Which was all right with him. Baseball was the love of his life, and he was very good at it, and he was being paid, although not much, to play it. Then World War II arrived, and he was called to military service and his days on the diamond were over. Those of us who knew him in the 1950s and 1960s were friends of his children, with whom we were growing up. Alex and his wife, Betty, raised their young family, and Alex ran a succession of taverns and restaurants, some more successful than others.

His love of baseball never died. He was an assistant coach at Ohio State for 10 years, and after that he seemed to be a volunteer coach for just about every league in town. "Dad's been gone for more than 10 years," his daughter Wendy told me the other day. "And I still run into people who tell me, 'Your dad was my Little League coach.' Or, 'Your father give me my first baseball glove.' "

If you were a kid in a summer league around town, you probably saw Alex Clowson in the stands. He was always so encouraging; his opinion meant more than anyone else's, because he was the man who had been a pro ballplayer. If you weren't especially good -- I can vouch for this -- it meant the world to you to hear Alex's voice shouting "Nice throw," or "Good hustle."

Why am I telling you this today?

Because in the early 1950s, before any of us were old enough to know him, he ran a tavern called the Musical Bar. He was the owner and the bartender.

One of his steady customers was a young Air Force second lieutenant assigned to nearby Lockbourne Air Force Base. The customer's name was George Steinbrenner.

"Daddy told me that Mr. Steinbrenner never ordered an alcoholic beverage," Wendy Clowson said. "He would come in and order a Coke with a cherry in it. And he would sit there and he and my father would talk about baseball for hours on end."

This was many years before Steinbrenner, who died last week at the age of 80, bought the New York Yankees; George Steinbrenner with his Coca-Cola and Alex Clowson behind the bar were just two guys who loved to talk baseball.

Clowson never struck it rich in business, but Steinbrenner, of course, did, and despite the difference in their worlds they remained friends over the years. "Every time we would see Mr. Steinbrenner, he would say to us children, 'Your father taught me everything I know about baseball,' " Wendy said. It may not have been literally true, but it was a lovely thing to tell the Clowson children, and they always were grateful for how Steinbrenner treated their dad.

When Alex Clowson was dying in the summer of 1999, Wendy said, "the thing that he hated the most was that he had macular degeneration, which meant that his eyesight had badly failed. He couldn't read the baseball box scores in the newspapers any more. That made him really sad."

Three weeks before he died in a nursing home, he received a telephone call from Steinbrenner. "They talked for a very long time," Wendy said. "We didn't hear the conversation, but we knew what it was about. Dad and Mr. Steinbrenner talked about baseball. Just like they always did."

Clowson died on a July Thursday in 1999. Before the funeral, Betty Clowson's telephone rang. It was Steinbrenner. He said he planned to do something to honor her husband.

And so it was, on the day Clowson was buried in Ohio, that Steinbrenner issued an order to his staff at Yankee Stadium in New York.

The Yankees weren't playing at home that day. But Steinbrenner ordered that the big American flag in center field be raised, and then lowered to half-staff.

For Alex.

Several weeks later, a package arrived at Betty Clowson's home. Inside it was the flag, along with a photo of it at half-staff overlooking the most famous baseball palace in the world.

"I know that Mr. Steinbrenner was a controversial guy, and that there were a lot of people who didn't like him," Wendy Clowson said. "But I hope you can understand why our family loved him."

We who knew Alex Clowson thought his dreams of baseball glory had drifted away.

But what did we know?

In the end, against all odds and expectations, this impossible thing came true:

He made it all the way to Yankee Stadium.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

CNN

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