RALEIGH, N.C. - Lefty Freeman relived the moment from his college baseball days many times: Three straight curve balls that had baseball's greatest hitter twisting into the batter's box on an April afternoon more than 77 years ago.
Freeman was a junior pitcher for NC State College against the Boston Braves in an early spring exhibition game at Fayetteville's Highland Park and he was so nervous when the mighty Babe Ruth, newly acquired by the Braves from the New York Yankees, stepped up to the plate that he threw three consecutive balls while the crowd of 10,000 spectators booed.
The left-handed hurler settled down once he realized the crowd wanted a chance to see the legendary slugger hit, not draw a base on balls. Freeman had other ideas: he threw a pair of sidearm curves then followed with an overhand curve that had the Babe corkscrewing into the ground.
"As The Babe missed that third strike, an ear-to-ear grin took possession of Lefty Freeman's countenance," reported the News and Observer in the next day's paper. "The kid was still grinning as he pitched to other batters in the inning.
"Lefty had a right to grin."
Olney Ray "Lefty" Freeman, who flashed a similar grin every time he told that story for the next eight decades, died on Saturday at the Hospice Home of Raleigh. He was 98.
"NC State lost one of its truest and most avid baseball fans," Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent said. "I don't remember many games that I've coached at Doak Field at Dail Park when he wasn't sitting in exactly the same spot. He would always catch my eye and give me a wave.
"He was one of the great old-time baseball fans whose biggest joy in life was going to a game. He had so many stories to tell, and he loved being able to interact with our team. He knew all their names, their batting averages and their parents. We'll all miss him tremendously."
A native of Colerain, N.C., Freeman threw out his arm later in the summer of '35 in a Tobacco League game in Sanford and never pitched again. He graduated from NC State in 1936 and became an agriculture extension agent, a tobacco farmer and a hog farmer.
For more than half a century, the Army veteran of World War II's "Battle of the Bulge" lived in Rolesville, N.C., and was an avid spectator at NC State baseball and women's basketball games.
Two years ago, he presented Avent with his 1935 letterman's sweater and threw out the first pitch at a game against top-ranked Virginia on the 75th anniversary of the strikeout that made him grin.
Freeman is survived by his three children, Betty Freeman, Nell Sligh and Sally Long and their families. His families have requested memorial contributions in his honor be made to Rolesville Baptist Church, P.O. Box 185, Rolesville, N.C., 27571, or to Hospice of Wake County, 250 Hospice Circle, Raleigh, N.C., 27607.
He was buried on Monday at Rolesville Baptist Church.