Don Kladstrup’s wife was reading the newspaper one rainy day nine years ago at their home in France, not far from the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, when she stumbled upon a story about a local baseball team.
“Don, look at this!’’ Petie said. “There’s baseball right near here! In France of all places! You have to try out!”
Don chuckled, and told her to stop being silly.
“Baseball’s over,’’ said the man who had carved out an illustrious network television journalism career with CBS and ABC. “It’s been over for a long time.”
In fact, it had been over for nearly four decades—since that humiliating day at the University of Iowa when the onetime major league prospect from Pittsford couldn’t will his injured arm to deliver a pitch over the plate. But Petie persisted, and the then 64-year-old Kladstrup finally agreed to bring his glove out of mothballs. He was rusty at first—his throws missing targets and the ball popping out of his glove when he tried to catch deliveries from players young enough to be his grandkids. But, after a few practices, his body caught up to what his brain was telling it to do. A torrid love affair put on hold since his freshman year of college had been rekindled.
Kladstrup has played for several different French clubs during the ensuing years and is hopeful to be back on the diamond in a few months after undergoing rotator cuff shoulder surgery.
“My dream is to be able to pitch again, and pitch well,’’ he said recently from Paris. “It’s probably a fool’s dream, but I’m going to give it a try.”
As Kladstrup has discovered, life, like baseball, serves up interesting curveballs.
“Who would have thought I’d ever be playing baseball again, especially at my age?’’ he said. “And to do so in France, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower—that truly is mind-boggling.”
People are astonished when they discover Kladstrup is one of roughly 13,000 French residents playing this strange, quintessential American game. That number includes many U.S. college players who are there in hopes of extending their careers and seeing the world. But many of the players are Frenchmen who have caught the baseball bug.
“It’s really loosely organized and the quality of play is uneven,’’ Kladstrup said. “At one end of the spectrum you’ve got people totally new to the game, and at the other end you have some pretty good college players. While baseball is embraced enthusiastically here, it clearly is a minor sport, way below soccer, basketball, tennis and rugby on the pecking order.”
Surprisingly, baseball’s roots run deep in France. It was introduced to Parisians by American artists who traveled there shortly after the Civil War to study with the great Impressionists. Along with their brushes and palettes, they brought bats, balls and gloves, and would play informal pickup games during their free time.
At the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, major league baseball staged games at the foot of the newly dedicated Eiffel Tower as part of A.G. Spalding’s global tour. The event drew an enormous crowd, prompting Spalding to predict France would become the next great baseball nation. Its popularity did grow there, but two world wars and President Charles de Gaulle’s expulsion of NATO troops, which included thousands of baseball-playing U.S. soldiers, were devastating blows.
“The absence of American players really put a dent in our ambitions for baseball here,’’ said Kladstrup, who has delved deeply into the game’s history in France. “Lately, the sport’s growth here has been more like a limp.”
But even a limp represents progress, and for Kladstrup the journey around the basepaths has personally been rejuvenating. The circuitous trip inspired him and his wife to write a memoir, “Almost Home: Playing Baseball in France.”
The original dream was to play baseball in America at the highest level. And after a junior season at Pittsford (now Pittsford-Sutherland) High School in which he mowed down hitters like blades of grass, it appeared he was on his way. A big-league scout, a friend of his father, told him the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox were following him closely.
To enhance his strength and chances, Kladstrup went out for the wrestling team the winter of his senior year. While doing pullups he heard something pop in his right (throwing) shoulder. He thought nothing of it, but when he started throwing the ball at the first practice that spring, he was inaccurate and in pain. It only got worse. He gutted his way through his senior season, but he was no longer the pitcher he had been. The prospect became suspect. The Yankees and White Sox stopped paying attention.
Kladstrup decided to try out for the Iowa baseball team his freshman year but wound up being humiliated during a batting practice session. He trudged dejectedly back to his dorm room and put his glove and dreams away. As one door closed, another opened. His work as a journalist would take him all over the world and include covering major stories such as the end of the Vietnam War and Nelson Mandela’s release from a South African prison. Kladstrup continued to follow baseball, but not passionately—until that rainy day in Normandy when Petie came across that newspaper story.
On a shelf, in their Paris home, rests a ball autographed by a Rochester baseball legend. It was given to Kladstrup at a banquet in 1960 and reads: “To Don, Pittsford’s all-time winningest pitcher. Johnny Antonelli.” The ink on that ball has faded, but the memories remain bold. Kladstrup may not have followed Antonelli into the big leagues, but he’s still living the dream.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.