Ted Wilson: When the mayor burned in a pitch at Derks Field

Former mayor remembers his less-than-15-minutes of baseball fame.

(Photo courtesy Utah State Historical Society Tribune Negative Collection) Baseball legend Hank Aaron is seen at bat during an exhibition game against the Salt Lake Bees at Derks Field in 1964.

It’s now known as Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City, but not for much longer. Fans were stunned to learn last week that the Salt Lake Bees in 2025 will buzz on south and west to a new stadium in South Jordan’s Daybreak community. But I go back to a much simpler time, and while progress certainly happens, my heart still beats for Derks Field. I go back to an era when a ballpark could simply be named for a former Salt Lake Tribune sports editor.

In my life, the old park, (before it was rebuilt in the ‘90s) was a spawning ground for precious memories. My dad was a solid baseball fan and always had season seats along the first-base line for Class C baseball. Class C is a rookie league and, although the play wasn’t always the best, the intimacy, the association with the players and the players’ unpretentious nature made a visit to Derks a pleasure. Summer evenings would find the Wilson family camped just behind the home dugout.

In the early 1950s, there was Tommy O’Laughlin, a handsome chunk of young Irishman who my mom had an unconcealed crush for. Tommy played center field and was good enough to eventually be called up to the Big Show. But while in Salt Lake, he always made it a point to stop by the Wilson’s box before a game to cast a twinkling eye toward mom and sometimes leave a baseball for Larry or me. I must have had 10 old baseballs in my drawer at home.

Out in center field was an enormous American flag flying and framed by the magnificent mountains. At Derks, the game itself was a casual distraction to the majestic scenery and the chats with friends and family. Let’s hear it for boring baseball. It is a social game and a good excuse to talk or philosophize.

When I was mayor of Salt Lake City, I was invited to throw out the first ball. I went to the ballpark and felt the enormous gush of pleasure that sacred spot offered me through countless memories. It was a warm night, and I was able to play catch for a few moments before heading to the mound. “Mayor Wilson will pitch the first ball of the season,” crowed the public address system.

I decided not to just heave the old feeble toss memorialized by countless politicians. It was, in my mind, a stupid gesture, invented by posers who are afraid to give the pitch a firm toss. So, I toed the mound like a real pitcher, and wound up to throw in the traditional way of a professional.

My eyes clicked to the left to the Wilson box behind the dugout. Though my parents had died years before, there was my dad, my mom and my little brother Larry. Somehow mom and dad had crossed the veil to come to the game to see me in my Andy Warhol less-than-15 minutes of baseball fame. My dad had a huge grin on his face. Mom just smiled beautifully. Larry looked skeptical like, “What in the hell are you doing?”

I wound up, kicked my left leg high, thrust through with my fingers in the fastball position. As my arm arched over the top of the pitch my memory of baseball days snapped my wrist sharply.

The pitch hummed from my hand, streaked toward the plate, and landed in a loud smack in the center of the catcher’s mitt. The umpire, standing far away from the plate obviously fearing the errant lob of a politician, raised his eyebrows in total surprise and yelled loudly, “Steeeeeeerike.” A fan behind the backstop shouted, “Sign him up!”

They ranted about the pitch the next day on sports radio and The Tribune ran a small box in the paper saying the “Wilson mayorship can be questioned but not his pitch!” For days, I strolled about town with a grin.

The next year, I couldn’t wait for my chance for an identical pitch. Fans were waiting for it, of course. I was in good form and, though it was a cold and misty night, I went to the mound exuding great confidence. Again, I wound up carefully and gazed steely at the plate. There was a hum in the air as I again looked at the Wilson box. No one was there except a couple of guys enjoying beers on top of the dugout.

Like the year before, I strode confidently to the rubber, grasped the ball and gazed leaning forward toward the catcher, just like you see on TV. Rearing backward, I put all I had into it as my arm snapped forward. But something was wrong – deeply wrong. All the assurance I felt the year before had evaporated. In the middle of action, I knew something was going bad. Dramatically, the pitch slipped from my hand and careened wildly to the right, where it crossed the third-base line, about where a runner would initiate his slide. It was a hard lesson. I suddenly realized my baseball career was over.

Even my family did not want to show that pitch. The umpire sported a reflective wisdom on his face for again staying away from the firing line. The catcher had to scamper to the padded wall to retrieve the ball. Handing it to me, he said, “I heard you really burned it in last year.”

Sadly, I went back to just being a mayor. But I had a souvenir ball I took home and put on my dresser. It’s still in my house somewhere and when I stumble into – say, the tool drawer – I think it’s quite sad Utah does not have one of its greatest playing baseball. They’ll say, “He was a pretty good mayor, but I heard he really burned it in at Derks.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson in 2017.

Ted Wilson was Salt Lake City mayor from 1976 to 1986. He still enjoys a good Bees game with a view of the Wasatch Range at sunset.