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Originally published January 29, 2011 at 8:01 PM | Page modified January 29, 2011 at 8:20 PM

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Washington's oldest major-leaguer looks back on a life well lived

Ford "Moon" Mullen, 93, played only one season of major-league baseball. But the Stanwood resident is also one of only two surviving members of Oregon's legendary "Tall Firs" and is a historical treasure walking among us.

Seattle Times staff reporter

STANWOOD —

Ford Mullen's inclination has always been to underplay his accomplishments, to minimize the astonishing breadth of a life well lived for nearly a century.

His son, Ford Jr., calls it his dad's "humble stumble," and while Mullen is sincere in his humility, no one else is fooled for a second.

They know just what a remarkable run Mullen has had, one that landed him in the first NCAA basketball tournament as a reserve guard for the famed "Tall Firs" of the University of Oregon, saw him have a spell with the Seattle Rainiers, and later took him to the major leagues for one glorious season as a wartime second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies.

One of two surviving members of that 1939 national-championship Oregon team, and the 18th-oldest living major-league baseball player (the oldest in Washington state), Mullen is a historical treasure walking among us. Oh, walking with a much slower gait these days, to be sure, but still going strong.

"I keep telling him, 'You're my idol, Ford,' " said John Carr, who played baseball for Mullen at Olympia High School and has remained close to his former coach and teacher. "I think he was, and is, for a lot of people."

Mullen was born during World War I, had his baseball career forged by World War II, spent nearly three decades teaching and shaping young lives at Olympia High School, and now is living his contented twilight years in a retirement community in Stanwood. Fittingly, for someone who grew up on the resort his family operated on Pattison Lake in Lacey, and who spent decades fishing the Strait of Juan de Fuca, he lives a tape-measure home run away from the beach.

Mullen's wife, Jessie, has been by his side through it all. Ford turns 94 next month, while Jessie is a vivacious 92. Both remain, all things considered — Ford asks you to knock on wood when you point this out — in good health. They met in the stands at an Olympia High football game, when Ford worked up the nerve to ask Jessie if she would walk home with him. They celebrated their 70th anniversary in November.

"I'm not sure what she saw in me, but I'm thankful," Ford said during a recent interview at their home. "She's a wonderful gal, a wonderful wife."

Jessie says she made a pact with Ford early: She'd go fishing with him if he'd go square dancing with her.

"So we square-danced for 33 years, fished for 25 years, and traveled for 25 years in our RV," she said. "It's been a very good life."

Sitting in his living room, Mullen apologizes that his memory "is getting worse," but again, he's underselling himself. For someone whose life has spanned from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, Mullen's faculties are remarkably acute.

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Ask him about his time as a 5-foot-8 guard on Oregon's basketball team, which beat Ohio State 46-33 in the NCAA title game at Northwestern University (with James Naismith in attendance), and he replies, with a laugh, "I was the shortest Tall Fir."

The Huskies and their legendary coach, Clarence "Hec" Edmundson, barely recruited Mullen. "I wasn't that great a prospect," Mullen shrugged. "They weren't interested in the little likes of me."

John Dick, the only other surviving Tall Fir, begs to differ, remembering Mullen as a proficient backup to All-American guard Bobby Anet.

"Ford could not do all the things Bobby did, but he could do enough that he was more than a capable backup," said Dick, 92, from his Eugene home. "Bobby was always pushing the foul limit, and there was never a great loss when Ford came in."

Ask Mullen about his teammates with the Phillies, some 67 years ago, and he'll rattle off the old names without hesitation: "Ron Northey, outfield. Dick Barrett, pitcher. Andy Seminick, catcher. Tony Lupien, first base. Ray Hamrick, shortstop. Ted Cieslack, third base. I was the second baseman."

A check of Baseball Reference shows he nailed every position. The website also gives the details of Mullen's singular 1944 season: 118 games for a Phillies team that would finish dead last in the eight-team National League at 61-92, a full 43-½ games behind the champion St. Louis Cardinals. Mullen had a .267 batting average, zero homers, 31 runs batted in, but the cold statistics don't come close to telling the story.

Mullen is known in the baseball annals as "Moon," a nickname hung on him that year by a Philadelphia columnist. The reference is to a popular comic strip of the time, Moon Mullins, but to Mullen's friends and family, he has always been Ford.

Yet somehow it's apt. Moon Mullen's baseball career had a sort of fleeting Moonlight Graham purity to it — one full season in the majors, never to return.

"That's life," shrugged Mullen. "I wasn't a star. I wasn't a great player."

But he has great memories of that season, which still prompts, to this day, a steady stream of letters requesting autographs from fans who have somehow tracked him down. Mullen answers every one.

"It's amazing — he gets requests for autographs once or twice a week," said Jessie. "I tell him it's because he's so old. People are afraid he's going to die before they get it. They always say, 'We want autographs of players who played for the love of the game, not money.' "

Many of them, like Mullen, played in the majors that '44 season because many established big-leaguers had gone off to fight World War II — an estimated 470 by the end of 1944.

What was left was a motley assortment of players — stars like Stan Musial, Dixie Walker, Lou Boudreau, Vern Stephens and Hal Newhouser, interspersed with hastily assembled replacements who ran the gamut from one-armed Pete Gray to 15-year-old Joe Nuxhall, the youngest player in history.

Many thought the majors would shut down entirely while the war raged, but President Franklin Roosevelt famously wrote what is now called the Green Light Letter to Commissioner Kennesaw Landis on Jan. 15, 1942, urging baseball to continue during the war as a morale boost.

In his seminal book on wartime baseball, "Hardball on the Home Front: Major League Replacement Players of World War II," Craig Allen Cleve discovered that the surviving players he interviewed weren't happy with his subtitle.

"The word 'replacement' got their hackles up," Cleve said. "They are fiercely proud of their time. They felt they were major-leaguers."

Count Mullen as one of the proud ones.

"If you love baseball, it doesn't matter, majors or minors," he said. "Of course, I loved playing baseball."

Mullen had a modest claim to fame with the Phillies, getting the lone hit to break up a no-hitter by knuckleballer Jim Tobin of the Boston Braves on April 23. That became even more notable when Tobin followed his one-hitter by pitching a no-hitter in his next start against Brooklyn.

One of Mullen's favorite major-league memories occurred in a sunny Sunday game against the Cardinals, in which Northey hit a towering fly to the great Musial in the outfield.

"I can still see Stan trying to shade the ball from the sun," Mullen said. "Well, the ball missed his glove, hit him on the top of his head, and bounced about 40 feet back toward center field. Northey, of course, rounded the bases for an inside-the-park home run. Enos Slaughter was in right field and had to come over to back him up. When he saw the ball hit Stan on the head, he collapsed on the ground laughing."

Mullen, signed by the Detroit Tigers out of Oregon, had actually quit baseball after drifting through the low minors in places like Beaumont, Texas; Alexandria, La.; Henderson, Texas; and Winston-Salem, N.C. Jessie recalled that the family moved 32 times during his career.

Eventually, Mullen was shipped out to Jacksonville, Texas, where discouragement peaked. "Here I was, 3,000 miles from home, and I couldn't even make the lowest classification in pro ball, Class D," he recalled. "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what's going to happen?' "

Mullen, however, recovered to hit .340 in 102 games with Henderson in 1940, and eventually wound up in the more comfortable environs of the Western International League with the Vancouver Capilanos in 1942. He even got a cup of coffee at the end of the season with the AAA Seattle Rainiers, who brought him in to play three games at old Sicks' Stadium.

"I had followed the Rainiers all my life," Mullen said. "I guess in my mind I was in awe, being able to be there."

It was at that point that Mullen, feeling he had reached the pinnacle of his career, took a teaching job at Eugene High School, also coaching the baseball and basketball team.

But the Rainiers also were losing players to the war, and in May 1943, Mullen got a call asking him to come back to play second base for them. He had to wait until school ended in June, then packed his bags for Seattle.

Ford and Jessie were reading the newspaper one morning in September when a headline caught their eye: "Mullen sold to the Phillies."

"We didn't know anything about it," Mullen said.

The Seattle Times reported that the Rainiers were to receive $15,000 from the Phillies. Mullen's salary that year was $5,000, but he probably would have played for free to step onto baseball shrines like Ebbets Field, Wrigley Field and the Polo Grounds.

"After reading about those places, why, it was quite a thrill," Mullen said. "But actually, when you come right down to it, a baseball field is a baseball field."

Following his season in Philadelphia, Mullen was drafted into the Army, serving at Fort Lewis rather than going overseas.

"I'll tell you why he didn't," said Jessie. "He can't stand the smell of ether, and he passed out when he got the shots. They found out he was a baseball player, so they put him on the baseball team."

The powerful Fort Lewis squad, which Mullen eventually served as player-manager, won 72 consecutive games. After his Army discharge in August 1946, Mullen went back to spring training with the Phillies in '47, and thought he had the team made. A team trainer, in fact, told Moon in private he was in, so the Mullens rented a house in Philadelphia. Just at the outset of the season, however, the Phillies traded him to Kansas City, a Yankees farm team, for first baseman Nick Etten.

Mullen would never again sniff the major leagues, finishing out his career in Portland and Boise before retiring for good after a brief go as a player-manager in Boise in 1950.

He had a productive second career teaching zoology and biology at Olympia High for 27 years, as well as coaching the Bears' basketball and baseball teams for a stretch. While his major-league stint was brief, his impact in education was enduring.

"There couldn't have been a better coach in the world," said Frank Caruso, who played baseball under Mullen from 1953 to 1955. "If you had any ability, he had you prepared when you went into a ballgame. Some of us went on to college, and our coaches were surprised we had some of the prior information others kids didn't have."

Carr has moved to Wilmington, Del., but still visits the Mullens frequently.

"He was our coach, yet he was like our guidance counselor as well," Carr said. "He was like a father to me."

Said Ford Mullen Jr., "There's a lot of guru in him, but he didn't even know. He's a very wise, kind and forgiving man, probably the most principled guy I've ever met."

So principled, said daughter Judy Schneider, that Mullen quit coaching baseball after Olympia High relieved him of his basketball duties.

"He said, 'If my coaching principles aren't good enough for basketball, they're not good enough, period,' " Schneider said. "He always lived up to what he believed."

The Mullens have three children, six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Schneider, who lives in Seattle, recalls a famous family story of the night she was born while her dad was playing in Vancouver. With Jessie in labor, the Capilanos played 19 innings against Tacoma, and wouldn't you know it, Ford kept getting the hits to prolong the game.

"He got home at midnight, and they went to the hospital at 6 a.m.," Schneider said. "The next night, when Mom was in the hospital, a couple of ballplayers sang 'Rock-A-Bye Baby' as they knew Mom was listening to the game."

It was a more innocent time, to be sure. Mullen still follows the Mariners, and especially enjoys Ichiro, whose style replicates his own.

But in general, he has disdain for the modern ballplayer. Once, he walked out of a Padres spring-training game in Yuma, Ariz., because the players were shunning autograph seekers.

"I get disgusted with some of them, because they don't have the hustle we used to have," he said. "We played baseball not for the money, because there wasn't that to be had. We played for the fun and the love of the game."

Most of his baseball memorabilia is gone now, but the memories live on. Ford Mullen was a national champion, a major-leaguer, a teacher and a coach. A father, husband and mentor.

Not a bad legacy for a century of living.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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