Big Don was there the night Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run. Every time I saw him – almost always at Steamers for breakfast – he asked me a trivia question about baseball. Usually the answer was either an Atlanta Brave or a New York Yankee.
I’m going to miss Big Don. This morning a couple of his friends were eating breakfast, and I thought it odd that he wasn’t with them. When I got home, I knew why because I looked at the obituaries and he was in them. I never knew his first name was Charles.
Charles “Big Don” Fulmer. On that night, nearly 47 years ago, my dad loaded up the car, and without any more planning than a few phone calls, off we went to Atlanta on April 8, 1974. It was my birthday, and my dad gave me my best present ever off the top of his head. The Hammer came through, and Babe Ruth had to move over. Aaron has since had to move over, but that’s another story for another birthday boy from somewhere around San Francisco.
My high school friend Henry Blalock, my brother Brack and I are the trip’s only survivors now. I think Henry’s doing fine. I see him jogging up South Broad Street from time to time. Brack lives in Virginia Beach. Back then, I wrote sports for the Clinton High School newspaper, which is dead now, too.
Me? I’m still writing sports. Some things change; some things don’t.
The game was sold out. We had no tickets. Nothing like that ever stopped my old man. All of us got in, though not before Henry and I tried to crash the gate. I sat down the third-base line of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium with a doctor from Columbia whose daughter had been a no-show. My dad found a seat right behind the plate, where hilarity ensued.
I remember every detail from that game, much more so than the Presbyterian College basketball game I covered Tuesday night. For instance, Aaron’s home run occurred on the first pitch he swung at. It was in the fourth inning, but the Dodgers’ Al Downing had walked him unintentionally (well, technically) in the first, and the count was 1-0 when Downing made the mistake that Aaron patiently awaited.
Tom House caught it in the bullpen. Dusty Baker was on deck.
The Braves won, 7-4. No more than 5,000 of the 53,775 fans were still there at the end. The winning pitcher was Ron Reed, and Buzz Capra earned a save. Downing took the loss.
Late that night, the six of us on the trip ate at a truck stop up I-85. It was probably 2 or 3 a.m. when we got home. Henry, Brack and I were in school the next morning, a Tuesday.
Big Don was a produce man. He stocked it expertly at Wilson’s Curb Market until he and Walt Wilson had a falling out and Don came to work for my grandfather. He took over Dutton’s Market and made it Don’s PDQ. That was probably the most money he ever made, and mostly he squandered it. Few people thought he’d make it to 78 years old, but he found Jesus and started working at a ministry where he could feed the poor and tell them how he once was lost but now was found.
Don Fulmer loved the Clinton Red Devils and Atlanta Braves, but I’m fairly sure his favorite player was Mickey Mantle. One of the enduring images of my life was seeing Big Don crying behind the counter of the PDQ at about dusk on the day Elvis died.
Big Don was the kind of character small towns don’t seem to have anymore. That big laugh was almost painful to watch. His whole body shook, but the laugh made hardly any sound.
I suppose he won’t be long remembered by most folks who don’t happen to be me.
After paying for his breakfast, he’d stop by my booth and ask a question.
“Who hit more grand slams than any man who ever lived?”
“Alex Rodriguez, I’m sorry to say,” I’d reply. “I think it’s 25. Before that, it was Lou Gehrig with 23. Who got sick and gave Gehrig a chance to play first base in 2,130 consecutive games?”
“I believe it was Wally Pipp.”
I’m running out of people who can talk trivia. I’m a whiz at most anything that doesn’t make money.
Big Don will show up in my mind from time to time. I’m satisfied I’ll smile at his memory.