Friday, February 21, 2014


(looking through these old writings is making me aware of how bad my memory is. This piece--"Baseball"--was written before my father died in 1988 and I don't remember writing it. But I will share it with you here.....)

My father played baseball as a young man in a rag-tag country league that covered three or four counties of southeastern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia. Actually it is a misnomer to call what my father played in a 'league', even a 'rag-tag' one. It was more like a network of young men from scattered farm communities who knew each other from logging jobs, county fairs and cattle sales. Each of those young men would go back to their community and fire up enough enthusiasm to schedule a two Sunday double-header, home and away, during the summers. They  would play on rough hewn ball fields beside local schools or on the makeshift diamonds in the middle of some one's cow field. They would assemble early, strutting their farm grown stuff, the 1930's equivalent of "macho", drinking lots of half-fermented homemade moonshine, playing a little baseball that would end in a fight.

The next Sunday they'd do it all again on the other team's field.

I knew the names of the places these rough farm boys grew up. There were place like Waitville (my father's home), Paint Branch, Sweet Springs, Gap Mills, Union, Laural Branch, Rock Camp, Peterstown, Greenville and Wayside: names I knew from my father and because, in my boyhood, I had been there. And in all those places, according to my father, there were raw, rough, harsh, sunburned farm boys itching for sunny weekends, home brew and baseball. Not to mention it was a good way to meet the girls from other towns.

The girls would come in their home-made dresses or summer things from Montgomery Ward, full of freckles and giggles, hiding their faces behind their hands, but their eyes were sharp, focused, sizing up farm boys that weren't boringly familiar. The girls would sit in the shade of the school house or under trees on the edges of the pasture, always shaded, remote from the action but fully involved. Dreaming dreams, I imagine, that farm girls have always dreamed.

I have disappointed my father in many ways, but now two as profound as not playing baseball, beyond backyards and two years of Little League and by not being a Republican. All the other disappointments and betrayals pale beside those two. And now, in the last of the ninth of his life, with Nixon in the White House, who even confounded my father in the last months before the intricacies and failures of his own body and mind began to be his only confusion, it was my not playing baseball that causes me the most guilt.

He has never understood my not playing baseball after 13. I was 'promising'. I played first base with a grace and effortlessness that still surprises me when I pass ball with my son and daughter. I was, in the language of the game, a 'glove'. And in batting practice or in softball, I scattered hits to all fields and showed occasional power to right-center. But when the game began, when Ray Smith was on the mound for Gary and I was at the plate, people went for sodas. "All field, no bat" was my scouting report when I was 12 and 13. But everyone thought I would 'come around'. People who had seen me in practice knew it was just a matter of time and timing and all those sharply hit liners just outside first base would be landing in the alley and I'd be standing on second before anyone knew what happened. I had one year of Little League to go and people in Anawalt were counting on me to 'develop' into a hitter. I'd back second, right behind Danny Taylor, who led the league in hitting and was a constant threat to steal a base, even with the strict, no leading off rules. Danny would get on base more than half the time and the worried pitcher would serve me up some fat ones. Danny would score from first on all those doubles to right center. The Anawalt Comets would, at long last, be winners.

Then, with one game left in the 1960 season and the Comets securely in second place behind Gary, preparing for the play-offs, I quit. I walked off the field after turning a brilliant unassisted double-play that ended a 16-3 rout of the Elbert Aces in which even I had two hits, and, never explaining, turned in my uniform.

There was one out and a runner on first--one of the Subrick boys, I think, and Leo Kroll, the only decent hitter Elbert had was batting. He hit left-handed and I was guarding the bag, holding the runner on. Arnold Butler was pitching, which showed the disgust in which we held the Aces--Arnold only pitched against Elbert, allowing us to save Danny Taylor or Bobby LaFon to pitch against first place Gary. Leo dried his hands, spit into them, dried them again. We were ahead by 13 runs and most of the parents were anxious to go home to TV. Benny Graham's mother started hooting at Leo Kroll, questioning his manhood (or at least his boyhood). Benny Graham scraped the dirt around third base with his foot, hanging his head as he always did when his mother embarrassed him, which was often. Leo stepped in and hit Arnold's pitiful fastball about a foot off the ground six feet to the left of first base.

I don't remember thinking what to do. Obviously, I didn't think at all but threw my body to the right, leaving my feet as I had done so many time playing catch with my uncle Del in my uncle Russel's yard, and caught the ball in the air. The runner was already half-way to second base and not looking back. Nevertheless, I pulled myself to my knees and dived back to first, slapping my Ferris Fain mitt on the base for the game ending double play.

The crowd, whether delighted by my fielding or merely glad to be able to go home (or a little of both) cheered and cheered. Someone picked me up and suddenly the arms of my friends were lifting me up on Benny Graham's and Arnold Butler's shoulders. I was carried off the field for the first and last time in my life. They put me down into the waiting arms of my Daddy and he carried me, all 110 pounds of me, almost to the car. Half-way home down the winding mountain roads, I told him I was quitting.

There was no noise save the whizzing of the tires on the cooling pavement and the cracking of my father's heart. He said nothing. We rode in silence. When I got home, neither of us told my mother about my two Texas League singles, my run scored, my miraculous double play. My father went to the coal house, where he kept his liquor, for a shot of bourbon and I folded my uniform, #7, just like Mickey Mantle, for the last time.

(I never told  my father why I quit Little League a day and a year before I had too. I never told him because it was because of our manager, Jimmy Newsome, who my father admired greatly. Before the game, when we were taking infield, Jimmy {long dead now, I imagine, since he was 20 years older than us back then} was standing in the first base coaching box talking to one of this drinking buddies. He was commenting on the members of the team. He told his friend about me ['all glove, no bat'] but then he moved to Billy Bridgeman at second base and called him 'a good player but a f*cking thug'. Danny Taylor was at short and Jimmy Newsome praised his athletic ability but said he had 's*it for brains'. Jimmy called Benny Goodman's mother 'a foul mouth whore' and said Arnold Butler 'wouldn't know where to put his d*ck except in the assh*ole of a dog'. The worst was for Mousy Macroski, the catcher. "That little Pollock," our manager said of Mousy, "can catch, but he's a bastard and smells like a Pollock."

This was a man I looked up to, admired, wanted to emulate. And as 12 and 13 year old boys were taking grounders and throwing to me at first base, he was defaming and abusing us in coarse language and without an ounce of respect. We, on the other hand, were wanting to win the game to make Coach Newsome praise us. We looked up to him like a minor deity. I don't know what was the worse conclusion: that he didn't think I could hear what he was saying or didn't care if I did.

I knew I could never play again for him, not after that night. All the naivete of childhood was over for me. Since that evening when we beat Elbert 16-3 and I had my first and only glory on a playing field, I've never trusted authority. I drove teachers and scout leaders and professors and bishops wild by making them prove beyond doubt that they could be trusted. Never again did I willingly accept that the person in 'authority' was worthy of respect and obedience.

I never told any of my team mates why I quit even though they resented me for it. I didn't want to rip the admiration and adoration of Jimmy Newsome from their hearts and mind. I became, on that night, folding up my Little League uniform for the last time, an 'outsider', immune from slavishly accepting 'the way things were' and became, for always, a skeptic and a rebel. Jimmy Newsome broke my heart and gave me the identity I have to this day.

On one level I resent him mightily for robbing me of my innocence. On a deeper level I appreciate that he gave me, early on, a bull-sh*t detector that seldom fails me.

I started once to tell my father in the nursing home this story. But he wouldn't have known what I was talking about and why would I put that on him in the bottom of the ninth of his life....?)

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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.