So, now, all these years later, I share it.
My father played baseball in a rag-tag country league that covered three or four counties in south-eastern West Virginia and south-western 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, country 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 summer. They would play on rough hewn ball fields beside local schools or on make-shift diamonds in the middle of someone’s cow field. They would assemble early, strutting their farm grown stuff, the 1930’s version of ‘macho’, drinking lots of half-fermented homemade moonshine, playing a little baseball that would end up in a fight.
The next Sunday they’d do it on the other team’s field.
I know the names where those rough farmers grew up. There are places like Waiteville (where my father grew up), Paint Branch, Rock Camp, Peterstown, Greenville and Wayside. Names I know from my father and because, in my boyhood, I have 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 girls from other towns.
Those 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 the Farm Boys that weren’t boringly familiar. The girls would sit in the shade of the schoolhouse or under trees in the outfield of the pastures, always distant, 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 no two as profound as my not playing baseball beyond backyards and two years of little league and my 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 a Republican in the White House who even confounds my father, in the last months before the intricacies and failures of his own mind and body began to be his only confusion, it my not playing baseball that causes me the most guilt.
He never understood why I quit playing baseball. I was ‘promising’. I played first base with a grace and effortlessness that still surprises me when I pass ball with my son. 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 the 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 balls just outside the right field line would be landing in the alley and I’d be standing on second base before anyone knew what had happened. I had one year left of little league and people in Anawalt were counting on me to develop into a hitter. I’d bat second next year, right behind Danny Taylor, who led the league in hitting and was a constant threat to steal, even with the strict, no-lead-off rules. Danny would get on more than half the time and the worried picture would serve me some fat ones. Danny would score from first on all those doubles into 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, preparing for the playoffs, 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 I even had two hits, and, never explaining, turned in my uniform.
There was one out and a Subric boy, Bobby, I think, on first. 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. Jason Butler was pitching, which showed the disgust in which we held the Aces—Jason only pitched against Elbert, allowing us to save Danny Taylor or Bobbly LaFon to pitch against first-place Gary. Leo dried his hands, spit on them, dried them again. We were ahead by 13 runs and most of the parents were anxious to go home to TV. Benny Braham’s mother stated hooting at Leo, questioning his manhood (or at least his boyhood). Benny scraped the dirt around third base, hanging his head as he always did when his mother embarrassed him, which was often. Leo stepped in, took some practice swings, ignored Betty Braham’s insults and hit Jason’s pitiful fast ball like a shot about a foot off the ground a yard to the right of first base.
(But before all that, I had been listening to our coach, standing about ten feet to the left of first base, talking with a friend from out of town. I have great hearing and often overhear conversations never meant for me—and this one certainly wasn’t! Jimmie N. our coach was telling his friend about the player’s on our team. He called me ‘four-eyes’ because I wore glasses and pointed out the obvious, I couldn’t hit worth a “God damn”. He said Jason, pitching, was a “fat assed bastard” and that Benny Braham had a ‘whore’ for a mother—and he said, “I know that first hand!” He said Danny Taylor was an ‘ass-hole’ and a ‘cunt’. He said Billie Bridgfield in center “likes to pat butt too much, he’s a queer, I know it”. On and on he went, saying horrible things about each of us. This was a man I had given two summers of my life to. A man I looked up to and trusted. And no one on either side of my family used the language he used for anything—much less to talk about 12 and 13 year old boys who idolized him.)
I don’t remember thinking about what to do when Leo hit that line-drive. Obviously, I didn’t think at all, but threw my body to the right, leaving my feet as I had done so many times playing catch with my Uncle Del in my Uncle Russell’s yard, and caught the ball in the air. The runner was already half-way to second base, not even 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 Braham’s and Jason 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 112 pounds of me, almost to the car. Half-way home down the winding mountain roads, I told him I was quitting baseball.
There was so noise save the whizzing of the wheels on the cooling pavement and the cracking of my father’s heart. He said nothing. We rode in silence. When we got home neither of us told my mother about my two Texas-league singles, my run scored, my miraculous double play. My father went outside to the coal house for drink or two of bourbon and I folded my jersey, #7, just like Mickey Mantle, for the last time.