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Frank's Place: A Christmas Eve meeting that made an impression

Last week, just days after signing a lifetime deal with Nike that figures to earn him more than a half-billion dollars, LeBron James tweeted a recipe for kale cake to his 25 million followers.

The Phillies' Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones.
The Phillies' Willie "Puddin' Head" Jones.Read moreINQUIRER ARCHIVES

Last week, just days after signing a lifetime deal with Nike that figures to earn him more than a half-billion dollars, LeBron James tweeted a recipe for kale cake to his 25 million followers.

Where to begin?

Whatever their implications for the future of sports - not to mention humanity - the details in that sentence, coming to light so close to the holidays, got me thinking about a somewhat more obscure professional athlete and a favorite Christmas sports memory.

In this Age of Irony, Christmas remains the last bastion of earnestness, the only day when sentimentality is not just permitted but demanded. That's why so many of our memories of the holiday are sepia-toned.

This one - featuring fir trees, a frosty Christmas Eve, a warm fire, and a chance encounter with a magical figure - is no different.

It happened in Broomall sometime in the late 1950s, on the night before Christmas, when not a tweeter was stirring and a mouse was still a rodent.

I was around 9 years old. I don't recall what I got for Christmas that year, but, given my childhood obsessions, I'm certain the big gift was sports-related - a football, an All-Star Baseball board game, maybe a glove and some neat's-foot oil.

It was after dinner, and, as my mother began to fetch ornaments from the attic and search for holiday music on a radio that was her lifeline to the world beyond, my father decided to buy a tree. He asked me, the oldest child, to go along.

My procrastinating and cost-conscious father always waited until Christmas Eve to purchase a tree. That's why we generally ended up with lean leftovers whose imperfections we then tried to hide by turning them toward the wall.

We drove a mile or so to the Lawrence Park Shopping Center. Its stores were dark, and, but for the holiday decorations, the only visible light was a flickering flame in a corner of the vast parking lot.

There, some organization, probably the local Boy Scout troop, had been selling Christmas trees for weeks.

Though it was difficult to see, it was clear the pickings were slim. We were hoping to find a full-bodied Marilyn Monroe of a tree, but all that remained were Twiggys.

My father believed that the king of Christmas trees was the Douglas fir. But he never bought one. Too expensive. Money was always tight, especially at that time of year. So we searched among the scrawny remnants for a cheap and acceptable alternative.

Finally, our hands numb, we settled on what seemed to be the best of the worst. We dragged it toward a little shack where a lone man stood rubbing his big hands above a blazing trash-can fire.

He wore a hat and one of those red-and-black coats that hunters favor. A scarf obscured the lower half of his welcoming face.

"Y'all got the best tree here," he said with a chuckle.

For a kid who had never been farther south than Oregon Avenue, the accent was jarringly strange. This was the voice of an alien, and I instinctively backed away.

The man noticed my discomfort and chuckled again. As I retreated farther, the transaction was completed, and he and my father spoke briefly. We stuffed the tree into the rear of a sky-blue 1956 Ford and departed.

Looking back toward the receding fire, a twinkling star amid the blackness, my father, who liked to talk sports while driving, asked me a question.

"The man that sold us the tree, do you know who he was?"

I did not.

"That was 'Puddin' Head' Jones. He plays third base for the Phillies."

The additional clarification was unnecessary. The Phillies third baseman with the colorful and unusual nickname was as familiar to me as Hopalong Cassidy.

Along with other current Phils like Richie Ashburn, Robin Roberts, and Granny Hamner, Jones had been one of the pennant-winning Whiz Kids in 1950, a team I'd heard about all my short life.

A native of tiny Dillon, S.C. - coincidentally, also the hometown of retired Fed chairman Ben Bernanke - Jones, I would learn, lived in Broomall during his Phillies career, in a house even smaller than our modest split-level.

Baseball finances weren't then on any fan's radar. I didn't know or care how much Jones earned, though the team's best everyday player, Ashburn, a future Hall of Famer, made just $30,000 in 1958.

Regardless, I never imagined that I'd encounter someone from my pantheon, a flesh-and-blood sports hero, in such humble surroundings.

From then on, I saw Jones as something other than the slightly better-than-average player he was in a 15-year career. I followed him intently, even after he was traded to Cleveland following the 1959 season. He ended up in Cincinnati and retired in 1961.

He would appear once more in my life, turning up at one of my Little League games to watch his son, Eddie, a pretty good shortstop for the rival Hawks.

Jones was just 58 when, two days after the Phillies lost the 1983 World Series, he died of cancer. On the modest tombstone at his North Carolina grave, there's no reference to "Puddin' Head," a nickname derived from a 1930s song, "Wooden Head Puddin' Head Jones." Instead, the inscription reads, "Willie Edward Jones."

I'm not sure when I stopped believing in Santa, but that mostly sleepless Christmas Eve he took a backseat in my head. After all, I'd just come face to face with a major-league baseball player for a first time.

I'd meet many more in the years and decades to come, some who earned millions and have millions of Twitter followers.

I'm pretty sure none, not one, ever stood alone in the dark on a frosty Christmas Eve selling scraggly evergreens and making memories that won't go away.