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Published: 8/22/2005

The Pride of Paw Paw was a star on Sunday

Charlie Maxwell came inside when the phone rang, happy to have a break from washing windows. Then again, he was happy to be able to wash the windows, thanks to the new hip they gave him this spring.

"Hey, I'm glad you called," he said. Half a century ago, he was a more a threat to break windows than wash them - at least near a ball park, and especially on Sunday.

One day when the Detroit Tigers were just about as mediocre as they are now, Charlie Maxwell, the pride of Paw Paw, a little town near Kalamazoo, arrived, finally a part of the team he had always loved.

Back then, players had home towns, and usually went back to them when the season was over. They didn't have agents ("I didn't know what that word meant," Charlie said), didn't sell their autographs, and had other jobs in the off-season.

But from April to September, Charlie, who like Babe Ruth, had started as a pitcher and became a power hitter, just wanted to play.

He sat on the bench, mostly, with his first major league team in Boston, especially after Ted Williams returned from Korea. He barely even got to bat at his next stop, Baltimore. Finally, he got the chance in Detroit.

And his career took off. He started hitting, and hitting home runs, most of all on Sunday. "I'm just a crowd-pleaser, I guess," he kidded.

That was an era when baseball really was America's pastime, and when regular working guys could easily afford to go to a lot of ball games. "Oh yeah - old Sunday Punch. He was one of the more colorful characters on the Tigers of that era," longtime broadcaster Ernie Harwell remembered.

"I think we had more fun, back then," Charlie mused. "Everybody knew everybody. We competed on the field, yes, and we were tough competitors, but then we would go out and have a good time after the game."

He never put on airs. He was somebody regular guys could relate to. The announcers started calling him "The People's Choice."

He batted .324 and got into the All-Star game in 1956, and again in 1957, and worked his way up to a salary of $26,000.

That's something like $150,000 in today's money, or less than the lowliest rookie makes now. Charlie Maxwell would be at least a $5 million man today. But he has no complaints and no regrets, and tried to save half his salary each year.

He had a wife and four kids (still does; the original ones). He took a salary cut after 1958, and then made history with four home runs in a row in a doubleheader against the Yankees on May 3, 1959. Naturally, it was on Sunday.

The Tigers played what was then the longest major league game in history in 1962, and while it was still on they traded Charlie to the Chicago White Sox. "No, I wasn't upset. I knew all those guys, Mel Ott, Luis Aparicio, and with that infield I used to say I could play first base without a glove."

He had a couple of good years, and beat the Tigers two months after he was traded - with a home run. Yes, it was on a Sunday, too. During his career, he hit 40 home runs on Sundays, and only 108 the other six days of the week.

Finally, time caught up with him. Chicago let him go in 1964, and he decided he was done. The travel was really grueling, he said, and he knew at 37 he was, in baseball terms, an old man.

They offered him a job as a minor league hitting coach, but he said no.

It was time to be a grownup. So he came home to his family in Paw Paw, and sold castings for the automobile industry, and coached a bit.

Every so often, somebody still writes and asks for an autograph. Once in a great while, he goes to see a game, and when he tells the Tigers he is coming, they let him sit in owner Mike Ilitch's box. But he doesn't go often.

He doesn't like Comerica Park as well as the historic old ball park where he played, and it is three hours away from his home.

When the Tigers hosted the All-Star game this year, they mentioned all their past All-Star players, but evidently forgot Charlie. His friends read about it in the paper, and were mad.

"I've had a good life. Not worth getting upset over," he shrugged. He never got into a World Series, never played on a pennant winner, and knew that while he had his moments, he would never be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. What would he like people to remember about him?

"I hope they thought that I played hard and always tried to give them their money's worth," 78-year-old Charlie Maxwell said.

No, he'll never be in the Hall of Fame. Nor on trial for steroid use. But when I was talking to him I think I glimpsed why, once upon a time, this really was the game for all America. And also why it isn't so much, any more.



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