Ford Parker Mullen had a name suggesting he was born into an affluent Philadelphia Main Line family that sent him to Princeton by way of an exclusive prep school.
Ford Parker Mullen? Surely this was a man of wealth, taste and chauffeured limo rides.
But Mullen had the good fortune to live a life graced by more abundant riches. Mullen met the girl who became his wife at an Olympia High School football game. He asked to walk her home. The marriage of Ford and Jessie Mullen lasted 72 years, until his death last Thursday in Stanwood.
Mullen was 96. Before suffering a stroke two weeks ago, his healthy lifestyle — he abstained from alcohol and tobacco — earned him distinction on two sports fronts: He was both Washington’s oldest living Major League Baseball player and the last surviving member of the University of Oregon’s 1939 “Tall Firs,” winners of the first NCAA basketball tournament.
A 5-foot-8 reserve guard, Mullen once joked that he “guarded the water bucket” for Howard Hobson’s national champions. He pursued pro baseball after college, and in 1944 – when many big league teams were forced to cobble together rosters during World War II – Mullen ended up in Philadelphia, where the Phillies finished 431/2 games out of first place and a few light years removed from Main Line aristocracy.
A left-handed batting second baseman who hit .267 in 118 games, Ford Mullen acquired another name with the Phillies: “Moon,” given to him by a Philadelphia columnist familiar with the popular Moon Mullins newspaper comic strip.
Mullen’s moniker was used only by fans and his baseball colleagues. Friends and family called him by his first name. During the 27 years he spent as a faculty member at Olympia High, students referred to him either as “Coach” (he oversaw the Bears’ baseball and basketball teams) or Mr. Mullen (he taught biology and zoology).
Beyond organized sports, Mullen had a passion for the outdoors. He and Jessie struck a deal: If she went fishing with him, he’d square dance with her.
“So we square danced for 33 years, fished for 25 years and traveled for 25 years in our RV,” Jessie told the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone in a 2011 interview. “It’s been a very good life.”
And a very long one. When Mullen turned 96 on Feb. 9, he was among baseball’s oldest living players — No. 6 on a list headed by 101-year old Cuban pitcher Connie Marrero, who likely won’t overtake Chet Hoff in the longevity record book. A former pitcher for the New York Highlanders — they’re better known today as the Yankees — Hoff died in 1998, at the age of 107.
In his second big-league game, Hoff struck out Ty Cobb, who looked at a curveball for strike three. Hoff didn’t realize the accomplishment of whiffing Cobb until the following day, when he learned about it in the newspaper.
“My biggest thrill,” Hoff called it.
Mullen’s most notable baseball accomplishment was similarly appreciated in hindsight: On April 23, 1944, he managed Philadelphia’s lone hit off Braves’ knuckleball pitcher Jim Tobin, who in his next start threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers. If Mullen doesn’t connect for a sixth-inning single, Jim Tobin might be remembered as the guy who threw consecutive no-hitters seven years after Johnny Vander Meer did.
Mullen is survived by his wife, three children, six grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren. It was a wonderful life enriched by everlasting love and really cool stories.
Like the time he saw Reds catcher Ernie Lombardi discard his mask to chase a pop-up hit between home and first base. As Lombardi was tracking the ball, a bird flew in across the infield, landing near first base.
“He saw this white pigeon he thought was the ball,” Mullen told author Richard Panchyk in a 2012 interview, “and so he started chasing it.”
If that happened today, it would get a gazillion hits on YouTube. But it happened in 1944, when Ford Mullen was 27, in his Moon phase.
He had such a lot of living to do.