He’s the Yankees’ “Moonlight” Graham — except he never even got his moment in the big leagues.
It was the early 1940s and Donald Holliday, a tough young man who lived and breathed baseball growing up in the mountains of Southwestern Pennsylvania, was slated to ink a deal to play for the Bronx Bombers, his favorite team.
He was a star catcher during his playing days and was about to live out his dream in the Bronx, but he never got to put on those famed pinstripes. He never got a chance to crouch behind the plate like Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey or hear his name reverberate throughout the House That Ruth built. He never got a chance to play alongside Joe DiMaggio or a bunting savant with a slick glove named Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto.
No, he didn’t go on to a medical career as the real-life Archibald “Moonlight” Graham — immortalized in the movie “Field of Dreams” — had done not long after playing just three outs in the field for the New York Giants.
No, Holliday went into the Army to fight for his country in World War II, and his baseball career went with him. The closest he got, he’d tell his children when they were little, was catching Yankees ace Whitey Ford while they were both in the service.
Several decades later, however, Matt Holliday fulfilled his late grandfather’s dream when he stepped up to the plate on April 2 against the Rays on Opening Day. “I never really thought about it like that,” says Matt, who signed a one-year, $13 million contract with the Yankees over the winter. “But that’s pretty cool.”
Donald Holliday was born on June 18, 1918 — a year before Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees by the Red Sox for $125,000 — and grew up in Addison, Pa. Famous scout Paul Krichell supposedly found him, and he was set to bring his contract, which the Holliday family had in its possession for a long time, with him to spring training when the war ended. “He was so excited,” Donald’s son and Matt’s father, Tom, 64, recalls. “He just figured, ‘I’ll go in, and then I’ll come right back.’”
But Donald never got the chance, and the contract stayed put. While he was fixing small machinery (field glasses, watches, binoculars, etc …) somewhere in Northern Africa — his job as part of General Patton’s army troops — a nearby blast from a hand grenade or bomb shattered his left ear drum, according to Tom. The incident was never recorded, and he ultimately completed his service. But when the war was over, Donald was too old and worn down to continue his baseball career, as his hearing was permanently damaged.
He became a truck driver, raising his family in Uniontown, Pa., a town 46 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. He would listen to Yankees games on the radio when he came home at night after a long day at work, putting his right ear close to the speaker to hear Mel Allen, the static crackling through the broadcast.
“It sounded like a popcorn popper,” Tom recalls.
“We were trying to be Pirates fans. I’d ask my dad, ‘Aren’t you a Pirates fan?’ And he’d say, ‘Nah, I’m a Yankees fan.’ He wouldn’t even consider being a Pirates fan,” says Tom, who rooted a little for the Yankees even though the Pirates, which open a three-game series against Matt Holliday and the Yankees tonight, were his No. 1 team.
The 1960 World Series was tough on everyone, Tom recalls. With the Yankees facing the Pirates, it was a crazy time for the entire family. Bill Mazeroski, of course, won it for Pittsburgh with his dramatic walk-off homer in Game 7.
“My dad was so irritated that the Pirates won,” says Tom, who was seven at the time and got let out of Catholic school early so he could run home and see Maz’s heroics on the black-and-white TV set. “And he didn’t want to see the playbacks which were on TV. The Pirates weren’t supposed to win, and they did, which really upset him. We all tried to make it a joke, and it was not to be a joke.”
It took about a week for Donald’s disbelief to wear off. A year later, the Yankees reclaimed their place at the top of the game, and he ended up with a ball signed by the entire 1961 World Series championship team, which is still in the family. He’d also take his family to see the Bronx Bombers play in Cleveland and at Old Yankee Stadium.
Tom himself was later drafted by the Pirates, but his dad wasn’t all that impressed, not until he learned one of his teammates was a kid named Dale Berra, son of Yogi. Donald was always infatuated with the Yankees, first and foremost.
“I don’t even know how it started,” Tom says. “He was just a Yankee fan. He liked the Yankees, he was all about the Yankees, and he defended them even when they had their bad run (during the 1980s).”
Tom played a year of minor-league ball in Pittsburgh’s organization in 1975 before eventually becoming an assistant baseball coach at Oklahoma St. Matt, who also excelled as a football quarterback, was basically born with a bat in his hands, looking up to Stillwater stars Robin Ventura, Pete Incaviglia and Jeromy Burnitz. His favorite player growing up was done playing long before he was born, a fellow Oklahoman from Commerce named Mickey Mantle.
“Like me, he was from Oklahoma and just a big, strong dude,” says Matt, who always wore No. 7 for the Commerce Comet but had to switch to No. 17 in New York since Mantle’s number is retired in the Bronx. “I never got to watch him play, but I thought he was awesome.”
Matt actually almost began his career as a Yankee, as the organization was interested in drafting him in 1998, But the Yankees were worried they might not be able to sign him as he had committed to play quarterback and baseball at Oklahoma St. and, according to Tom, the Yankees were worried Matt Holliday might be another John Elway, who danced with the Yankees in the minors in 1982 before spurning them for the NFL.
Matt ended up falling to the seventh round, where he was drafted by the Rockies. His uncle Dave, now a scout in Atlanta, was a scout in Colorado at the time. Matt got $840,000 — a record for a seventh-rounder — and decided to give up football and pursue a career in baseball.
Nearly two decades later, it’s worked out quite well.
Matt Holliday, a seven-time All-Star with 297 career homers and 1,161 career RBIs, is 37 now. He is serving as the Yankees’ primary DH while providing a veteran leadership presence for young players like Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird and Aaron Judge.
“It’s probably toward the end of his career, but Matt takes care of himself and I think he’d like to play two or three more years and finish his career as a Yankee,” Tom says. “Let’s hope that the last chapter is the best chapter.”
Tom just wishes his father Donald, who died on July 10, 2001 at the age of 83, was here to see it.
“I think my mom and dad would’ve relocated to New York,” says Tom. “My dad would’ve been at the ballpark every day.”