Baseball dream comes full circle
The last time Ron Aiken had thrown a pitch was sometime in the late 1950s. In his heyday, the 83-year-old Woodburn resident was a terror on the mound, with a fastball that would regularly top 90 miles per hour.
Heading into the Aug. 8 Major League Baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aiken was trying to remove decades of rust in the span of a few days.
He was scheduled to throw the opening pitch.
"I hadn't picked up a baseball for 60-some years, but I can hardly throw it 60 feet," said Aiken, who had flown down to California to spend time with his family before the big day. "My grandson, Nicholas, he was catching for me while I was down there."
The event was the culmination of a lifelong dream of pitching in the majors, which took Aiken across the country in his youth. Aiken played in the 1956 College World Series for Washington State University, signed minor league contracts with the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, played in the semi-pro national championships and pitched for the House of David baseball team — a traveling exhibition team that existed from 1913 to 1955 and featured notable players such Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Grover Cleveland Alexander and Mordecai Brown.
The House of David was born out of a religious society co-founded by Benjamin and Mary Purnell in 1903, which used sports to build physical and spiritual discipline. The team toured the country throughout the first half of the 20th century and was famed for the long hair and beards its players sported and the brand of baseball they played, which focused just as much on tricks and entertainment as it did on skillful play.
"A lot of people refer to it as the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball," Aiken said. "There was a lot of good ball players on there. A lot of players weren't quite good enough to go to the majors."
The Oakland Athletics were honoring the House of David for Jewish Heritage Night in the game against the Dodgers, and it just so happened that the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team had a player on its academy team whose grandfather — Aiken — had played for the House of David. In fact, as far as anyone can recall, Aiken is the last surviving member of the House of David, which stopped playing in 1955.
"I joined them because they lost a pitcher to the service," Aiken said. "I spent about three months with them. It was a good experience for me because I had been injured so many times in the years before that."
Aiken had suffered a spinal injury while playing basketball for Washington State the year before and chipped his elbow while pitching for the Cougars in the spring. The injury claimed his junior season at Pullman, Washington, and by the time he had recovered, Aiken was looking to find a place to pitch in order to help rehabilitate his arm.
Enter the House of David.
Aiken's signed with the team and played throughout the Midwest over the summer. Toward the end of the season, they were playing in Aurora, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. Aiken's manager asked him to suit up.
"I wasn't supposed to pitch that night, but…the White Sox wanted to take a look at me."
Aiken was lights out. He fanned 14 batters in his appearance, a feat that made the paper, which was unusual considering the House of David was considered more entertainment than professional baseball. The White Sox were impressed enough to offer him a contract, though he had to wait a week until his birthday on Sept. 4 before he could legally sign.
"In those days, you had to be 21," Aiken said. "I hadn't done too well in my summer school situation, so I decided to go ahead and sign."
Aiken hopped a train to head back home to Port Angeles, Washington, but shortly after he arrived, he received a letter from the White Sox, revoking the contract he had just signed.
"The reason why is that they found out I had chipped my elbow that spring and I couldn't pitch," Aiken said. "I never told anybody."
Aiken still had eligibility left at Washington State and was afraid that the contracts with the House of David and Chicago would negate his scholarship and keep him from playing with the Cougars. He kept the contract a secret and continued to play with Washington State in the spring of 1956. There Aiken helped lead the Cougars to the College World Series, beating USC in the Southern Division to earn a berth to the quarterfinal bracket in Omaha.
From there, Aiken played baseball in Walla Walla over the summer before being recruited to play for a semi-professional team out of Bellingham, Washington. Aiken's team — half of which was composed of eight brothers — made it to the national championship, where it finished second. Aiken's play again caught the eye of a professional scout, this time from the New York Yankees, who offered him a $4,000 signing bonus.
Aiken wavered at the offer, but eventually signed and was sent to Modesto, California, the following spring to begin his minor league career. He pitched 22 games for the Reds until his elbow injury resurfaced.
I threw a curve ball, and my elbow went one way, and it just…boom," Aiken said. "I should have thrown my glove up in the air and walked away."
But Aiken kept playing. He was put on the disabled list and was sent to Alexandria, Louisiana to finish out the season in a few relief appearances. The following season, he made a few appearances for teams in Yakima, Washington, and Salem, but never played baseball again.
"That was basically the end of my baseball career," Aiken said. "I went back to Modesto for my spring training, but I couldn't really throw."
Aiken raised his family in Oregon and, after a career in banking, retired to Woodburn, where he has spent the last two decades living at Tukwila and Woodburn Estates & Golf. The trip to Oakland for the opening pitch was just the second Major League Baseball game he had ever been to, finally fulfilling his dream of pitching in the big leagues that began when he signed with the House of David team more than 60 years ago.
"It was quite an experience for me," Aiken said. "I didn't know that anything like this would come of it."