The ballpark was less than two blocks from the rowhouse he shared with his mother, grandmother, sister, and half brother. Dunaway was a Senators fan and would swing on the porch listening to the game on the radio. He had an entrepreneurial interest in Griffith Stadium. Sometimes he sold scorecards, sometimes he ran errands; mostly he hung out in the parking lot and waited for foul balls. He might catch as many as three on a good day and sell them to fans for $1. Usually he sneaked into the stadium. There was a lumber yard across the way on Seventh Street and plenty of boards lying around to help scale the back wall opposite the Freedmen’s Hospital morgue. But on April 17, he was a paying customer. “Had me some money,” he said—savings from selling papers inside the ballpark.
He bought a 75-cent ticket for the left-field bleachers and took a seat on the concrete benches a row or two above the left-field fence: “Down low, close enough to touch the ballplayers.” He marked the place on a photo that appeared in the Post the next morning.
He saw the ball heading in his direction, saw it hit off the beer sign, watched as it headed out of the yard on a trajectory that might have carried it into his back yard two blocks away save for the intervening rowhouses and the laws of physics. “I could see when it hit,” he said. “I turned my head around and saw the flight.” He remained seated long enough to watch Mantle cross the plate. Then he stood up: “Out of some perverse instinct, I said, ‘Let me go see if I can find it.’ ”
He started down Oakdale Place, lined with apartments and rowhouses. He walked down one side of the street and up the other, searching gardens and under cars. Dan Daniel reported in Sporting News that “a Negro woman hanging out one of the windows” had directed Dunaway and Patterson to the site. Not true, Dunaway said. He was alone.
In 1953, a row of six attached houses faced the left-field wall of the stadium. A swath of grass—“a cut-through,” Dunaway called it—ran behind the houses and parallel to the side wall of 434 Oakdale Place. “Something told me to look in the back,” he said. “I went through the little cut.”
In the fall of 2008, the lot once occupied by the Fifth Street rowhouses was empty, enclosed by a chain-link fence with a sign proclaiming Howard University’s intention to rebuild: coming soon, new homes at historic ledroit park. (Two years later, the sign is gone. There’s no other sign of progress.) The fence made it impossible to reach the back yard of 434 Oakdale Place, where Patterson said Dunaway had led him to the ball.
I asked Dunaway to show me how far back along the fence he had found it. “Under the window,” he said, pointing to a second-story window on the brick side wall, at least 25 feet closer to Oakdale Place and to the stadium than Patterson’s declared location.
Which meant the ball had never reached the back yard of 434 Oakdale at all.
“No,” he said. Never said it had.
Dunaway took the ball to an usher: “He said, ‘You found that ball? Damn, you is kidding.’ ” The usher escorted him to the visitors’ locker room, where they were greeted by a clubhouse attendant, who summoned someone who looked official. Dunaway assumed he was a reporter because he wrote down everything.
The boy didn’t provide an exact address and never mentioned 434 Oakdale Place. Nor did he take the man to the spot where he had found the ball: “I told him I found it on Fifth Street behind a guy’s house. I told him where to go look for it himself.”
What did the man look like? “White,” he said. “He shook my hand. He said it might have been one of the longest ever.”
Dunaway handed over the prize and was promised a new ball autographed by Mantle. “He gave me $100,” he said. “The guy told me how famous I would be for catching the ball. I was more excited about the money.
“He gave me a ball then. It was autographed by four or five players. I gave that ball to one of my grandnephews. He was playing baseball with that as he was growing up.”
That afternoon, his uncle Willie, a railroad porter who lived with the family when he wasn’t traveling, took him shopping on Seventh Street. Dunaway bought khaki pants, socks, shirts, tennis sneakers, and, for his uncle, a couple of beers. He spent the rest of the money on candy, pinball, and taking girls to Tom Mix shows at the Dunbar Theater.
He finished the school year, but sixth grade was his last. That summer, he was caught stealing and was sent to Blue Plains in Southeast DC, once called the Industrial Home for Colored Children. Dunaway ran away that fall.
He didn’t go back to school or the old neighborhood. He didn’t want any part of truant officers looking for him in LeDroit Park. He lived on the streets and with an uncle in Anacostia, who let his mother know where he was. He spent afternoons at a police boys’ club on Florida Avenue where no one asked questions, worked at a shoeshine stand, set pins at a bowling alley. Trouble led to incarceration in a juvenile facility in Ohio, where he learned to do laundry, to say the rosary, and that he didn’t want to spend any more time in jail. He was 20 and had five months of parole to serve when he was released after five years.
He worked in hotel laundries around Washington until the mid-1980s. After that, he survived on frugality, good luck—he hit a couple of $5,000 Four Ways in Atlantic City—and “the grace of God,” according to his brother-in-law, Elder Walter McCollough.
Dunaway never married, which he regretted, and he had a daughter whose name he couldn’t spell. Most of his friends from the old neighborhood were dead. But the memory of the day he hit the jackpot at Griffith remained vivid. “One big day,” he said. The best day of his life.
Donald Dunaway passed away on March 3 of this year. He was 71. Mickey Mantle was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, 21 years after Dunaway’s ball arrived in Cooperstown. He died in 1995 at age 63.
This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian.