Injured hand didn’t keep Scott Christopher from a life of baseball and art
The 6-year-old boy was happy to see his father when he spotted him at Tyler Park in Falls Church, Va., during his Little League game. He was excited, and ran over to him. But like an excited 6-year-old boy, he tripped and fell.
At the concession stand at Tyler Park, baseball mothers sold food and soda to make money for the league. The soda came in those thick Coke bottles that marked the era. Sometimes they broke, and it was the boy’s bad luck that a pile of that broken glass was in a small hole where he fell.
The chunks of glass cut all the tendons in his right hand. His father picked him up and rushed him to the hospital. The hand was so damaged doctors thought they were going to have to amputate it.
And that’s how the strange, curious, painful and wonderful life of Scott Christopher began.
It has taken the path from that Falls Church park to the pages of Sports Illustrated to the dugout with Cal Ripken to a private moment with Michael Jackson that produced what is considered the greatest photograph ever of the pop icon. The path led from the baseball field to his New York and Santa Fe studios where he now makes a living as an accomplished artist and photographer.
All along, there was the damaged right hand to remind him where it all began.
“We called him ‘The Mobillion,’” Ripken said of his former Charlotte Orioles teammate, a name based on a science fiction novel Christopher was writing while he played ball. “He was one of the fastest guys I ever played with.”
He had impressive base running statistics during his four-year minor league career – 93 stolen bases in 325 games, including 41 in 97 games during his 1978 season with the Miami Orioles. But Ripken said he seemed destined for something besides baseball.
“He understood the joys of life beyond most of us,” Ripken said. “He was a free spirit.”
How free? He once went up to bat at home plate while playing for the Charlotte Orioles and closed his eyes as the pitch came in. “He did it just for the experience,” Ripken said.
More than a decade later, Christopher, 59, was alone with Michael Jackson in an exhibit room at the National Children’s Museum in Washington and captured a moment on film that the Huffington Post called “the greatest Michael Jackson photo” ever taken.
He has been able to forge two careers – ballplayer and artist — despite a right hand that has never fully functioned to this day. “I still struggle to pick things up like a coin or silverware,” Christopher said. “My right hand was probably 50 percent. All my tendons were tied together. I mastered a very unorthodox way of throwing. But it worked.”
He could use his right hand like everyone else when he was 6 years old and playing Little League baseball in Falls Church, Va., in 1960 before falling on that broken Coke bottle. The hand would be saved, but it would require years of rehabilitation.
His parents decided that the best way for their son Scott to rehab would be through an active sports life – always forced to adapt and come up with a way to use it. “They thought that would give me a better chance to bring my hand back to functioning,” he said.
Even with limited use of his right hand, Christopher became a young baseball star, and was featured at the age of 12 in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.” He excelled not just in baseball, but in wrestling, at Falls Church High School. He was a varsity wrestler at the light weights – from 95 pounds to 112.
His passion was baseball. He built a makeshift batting cage with lights in his back yard. He kept hitting and hitting, working with his damaged right hand until he became a standout hitter, sometimes hitting so long his bat handle would have blood on it. He batted .372 his senior year at Falls Church High School, and set his sights on Maryland to play college baseball.
Christopher met with legendary Terps baseball coach Elton Jackson to convince him he should give Christopher a baseball scholarship. Jackson told him there was no place for Christopher – an infielder — in the program at that time. But after seasons at Mercersburg Academy and Ferrum Junior College, Christopher landed a scholarship at Maryland.
He was a two-time team Most Valuable Player for the Terps, and in his senior year was team captain and all-ACC at shortstop. He had the game winning home run against Virginia in his senior year, as Maryland made it to the tournament championship game, losing 2-1 to Clemson.
“Scott had a real drive about him,” said Jackson, who coached Maryland baseball from 1961 to 1990. “He had some problems with his right hand, but he didn’t let it affect him and his ability to play. He compensated for the problem. He was a good player, the kind of player I was always looking for, a kid who could overcome adversity and wanted to play.”
Christopher was passed over in the major league draft, but signed a contract to play for the Orioles. He made the roster of the 1977 Class A Miami Orioles, where he played 111 games at shortstop, second base and designated hitter. Christopher batted .287 with 92 hits, 50 runs scored and 25 out of 28 stolen bases. The Orioles went 72-66 and lost in the playoffs.
The organization asked Christopher to try switch-hitting, and despite his experimental 40 at bat as a left-handed hitter, he still batted .288 with 105 hits and 62 runs scored in 92 games, with a remarkable 41 out of 42 stolen bases.
He would open the 1979 season with Miami. One of his teammates was Cal Ripken, Jr.
“Scott was always in tune with his experiences on the baseball field,” Ripken said.
One experience Ripken will never forget. They were talking on the bench during a game and the discussion came up of what it would be like to stand in the batter’s box, facing a pitcher, with your eyes closed. “The consensus was that it was too crazy to do it,” Christopher said. “One of my teammates bet me that I wouldn’t do it, and I had already kind of decided I would try it. I would do it until I got a strike called on me.”
Christopher went up to hit left handed. All his teammates were on the top of the dugout steps, waiting to see if he would actually close his eyes in there. Christopher stepped back out of the box, took two fingers and put them over his eyelids slowly “like pulling down a window shade.”
He stepped back in, closed his eyes, and heard the ball hit the catcher’s mitt – ball one. “My teammates are laughing, and I said I would do it until I got a strike,” Christopher said. “So I stepped back in the box, did the same thing with my fingers on my eyelids, and heard the ball hit the catcher’s mitt again. The umpire called a strike, and the dugout erupted.”
“Everyone thought it was nuts,” Ripken said. “I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it. What if that one pitch gets away? You can’t react to it. But there was a greater meaning to the exercise. He was curious about everything.”
Christopher was promoted to the Class AA Charlotte Orioles during the 1979 season. In 71 games with Miami and 24 games with Charlotte, Christopher, now an outfielder, made just one error in 183 chances. But he struggled batting left handed at Class AA as a switch hitter and wound up being sent back down to Miami.
He was struggling because something happened in his life that changed his focus – he became a father. “I had responsibilities to my teammates and at home, and I was being pulled apart,” he said. “So I decided I had to stop playing.”
Jimmy Williams, his minor league manager, said Christopher “was a little different and quirky. But he worked hard all the time. He was a good guy to have on the team. When someone was in trouble on the club, he would be there to help them out. I felt really bad when he left. If I named the top 25 players I managed, he would be on that list.”
Christopher had been doing his art, painting and photography – he was featured as the artist-writer-ballplayer in a Miami Herald story while he was playing baseball, and now devoted more time to it. “I was always taking pictures, doing watercolors, drawing,” he said.
He began building a reputation as an excellent artist and photographer. He got clients like the Washington Opera, the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation, and found himself in demand as a celebrity photographer – ultimately with one of the biggest celebrities of his time, Michael Jackson.
That led to a memorable moment in Washington in 1990 when Jackson was in town to be presented an award by President George Bush as Entertainer of the Year. “He was given a guided tour of the Washington Children’s Museum,” Christopher said. “I wound up in a room alone in the museum with Michael,” he said. “It was a music room, and he was looking at a poster of Louie Armstrong playing the horn. He sat down on a small end table and started playing a xylophone. I could see the photo developing with Armstrong behind him, and I knew I would only get one shot.”
Christopher got the shot that would be described in the Huffington Post earlier this year in a show as the greatest Michael Jackson photo ever taken. “He was a very guarded person, and he controlled a lot of his images with cameras and video,” Christopher said. “But he sensed I was an artist, and gave me a little more freedom.”
His art and photography career continued to blossom. Christopher was a featured painter in the Neiman Marcus catalog. He was a photographer for the Discovery Network, traveling all over the world on assignments, sometimes risking his life. Christopher was in Ecuador on an assignment taking photos of “people of the night” when he and his bodyguard was attacked. “They swarmed us,” he said. “Our bodyguard took a beating. We were lucky to get out with our lives.”
Christopher established a studio Santa Fe, and became New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s photographer during his presidential campaign. He stayed involved in baseball, running clinics abroad while he traveled in places like Cuba.
Like baseball, he has built this successful artistic life with a damaged right hand. “I can still barely use my right hand today,” he said.
The damaged tendons that connected Christopher and baseball are still strong. When former Orioles number one draft choice in 1977, Drungo Hazewood, died from complications of ampullary cancer this summer, Christopher felt the obligation of a baseball teammate. He had already organized his former minor league teammates to help Hazewood, who had seven children, with his medical expenses, and did the same for his funeral. “I told the funeral director you have my phone number,” he said. “This funeral is paid for.
“I stand by my teammates,” Christopher said. “I wanted to make sure my teammate’s life had the proper respectful burial it deserved.”
Because, throughout this strange, curious, painful and wonderful life of Scott Christopher, there was one constant – baseball. “My heart and passion was baseball,” he said.