Friday, December 04, 2015

Why I love baseball

Baseball has been a part of my life experience since I can remember...going back to 1947. Living near (50 miles or so) Pittsburgh made the Pirates our family team.

The radio was on in the house most weekend afternoons as we listened to the play-by-play of the beloved Buccos. During home games the announcers (Rosey Rosewell and soon after Bob Prince) called the game from Forbes Field. The away games were called from Pittsburgh with some sort of teletype hook-up to the city where the game was being played.

I am not sure that every pitch was sent over the wire, so the announcer made up action to fit what was sent. For example the wire might send something like, “Kiner singles on a 2-2 pitch.” That is what would be recorded in a score book. So, Rosey would imagine the pitches that got the batter to a single: “Here’s the windup, the stretch, the pitch….low, ball one.” There was no background sound other than the sounds of a newsroom and what patter he would generate. It would be like calling a game by looking at Yahoo Sports Ap and reading what they show  there. It was like listening to paint dry.

As boring as it sounds it piqued our interest in the game and kept us up on how the Buccos were doing. We, of course, was sister Phyllis, whom we all called Chickie. She was the baseball fanatic. During those years...1947-52 while she was at home before graduating from High School she would clip the press reports out of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (which Dad brought home from the office, daily) and pin the most dynamic up on her bedroom wall. When you walked into her room your eyes were attracted to the clippings.

Chickie would play catch with me in the front yard while we listened to the Pirates on a small table radio...extension cords stretched as far as we could from the nearest outlet in the house. Of course, home games were more fun with the crowd noise and Rosewell’s trademark: “Raise the window, Aunt Minnie, here it comes.” There would be a crash of a breaking pane of glass and his final words, “She never made it…”On rainy days when we couldn’t be outside, Chickie taught me how to keep score...pencil, paper, clipboard and a ruler to make your own chart.

Catch consisted of a taped up ball, and two being a five fingered mit that allegedly was used by my oldest brother Joe when he played organized ball. The backstory was that Joe broke his front teeth in an inverted V which dad repaired with gold...the material of choice in the 1930s. And the story continues that allegedly Dad said no more organized baseball for his boys. Continuing that if we broke our teeth, we had to fix them yourself, somehow. But back to the games of catch. The second glove was often a small mit with no padding. Later, I bought a glove which I played with through Little League.

She stood at the big white pine tree in the front yard and I had a spot near the driveway, probably 50 feet away and throw as hard as I could to make her wince. She was a teenager then and a good catch and thrower. I am not sure how many ten year olds had 16 year old sisters that  play catch with them. 

Notice Dad's work attire...
There were others, of course, including Dad. He did not last long since he could not risk injuring his hands being a dentist. Jim and I played catch, too, but not the seemingly hours that I spent with Sister.

In the summer of 1951 five of us….Dave, Tillie, Chickie, Jim and I ….. frequently attended North County League baseball games. We went to Volant mostly, but I remember going to Pulaski, New Wilmington, and Eastbrook. It was there that I learned the finer points of the game...positioning, pitching and hitting. We had a connection to Volant, of course. 

Our family had a cottage along the Neshannock Creek just below the dam of the old mill during the 1930s until the fall of 1941 when I was born. Dave knew people there and some of the locals were patients of Dad. So there was a welcomeness and warmth when we sat in the bleachers, there.

It was my indoctrination to the Volant culture...small town, water-wheel powered mill, general store and people of the earth...lovely people who knew more about my family’s past summers there than I did. But it was all because of baseball.

The Volant ball field was...and more or less, still the lowland adjacent to the river south of the bridge. Foul balls tailed off into river (in left field) into Wilkin’s general store (right field) and as far back as the mill race to the right of home plate. Home runs went into the bushes on the hillside 300+ feet from home plate.

When we journeyed to other fields the fans felt less hospitable, but that may have been just me. Actually, Eastbrook was closest to us...the old field up behind what was then the High School and now is apartments (the school where Aleene attended ninth grade.) We hung out down the right field line adjacent to the Vo-Ag classes that were taught by my mentor (10 years later) Mr. Howard Fox. In New Wilmington, there were folks who were related to Tillie and they made us feel comfortable there. That field was located up behind the “old” high school.

Pulaski was a whole new “ball game.” We knew no one there and as a result we, or at least I, watched my Ps and Qs. The interesting thing about Pulaski was that the “bull pen” was adjacent to the stands and I got to watch the interplay there as the pitchers and relievers warmed up. I can still hear the pop of the ball hitting the glove of the catcher.

This summer experience had a real impact on me, because baseball came alive. I could see it, hear it and yes, even smell it. It also made me feel that baseball was something I wanted to be involved in.

I played ball at recess and lunch at school in games that would seem to go on and on for days. We had some pretty good players. But when the chance came to play the first Little League team that Neshannock fielded, I got stoked. I talked Dad into taking me an informational mixer at the Fire Hall on the corner of Shenango and Mercer Roads...a plain block structure, not the modern building that is there now. It had three garage doors and was packed to the rafters that night. They served hot dogs and cider and had an old guy talk about playing ball against Honus Wagner...turns out he was the Sheriff and his stories were true.

The point of the meeting was to explain how the process would work which culminated in parents having to sign a permission slip that we at school called “contracts.” As in: “Did your folks sign your contract?” like it was a pro-thing. Well, my parents talked and talked and finally signed at the last minute, as I recall. I was in. All I had to do was make the team.

The rules that first year were crazy. There would be one team of 18 boys from the whole township. It would be made up of an equal number of 10, 11, and 12 year olds...all on the same team. There were a lot of boys left on the outside looking in. I got picked as a 10 year old and was one of two who made the first team at first base. I can still name the first team and would except it would be super boring. Anyway, that team turned out to be quite good. We traveled around the county playing New Wilmington, Wampum, Pulaski, Hillsdale...all over the place. The only team we could not beat was Wampum. They had a pair of brothers by the name of Allen. One was Harold and the younger one was Richard who was known affectionately as Sleepy because it looked like his eyelids were half closed. Well, Sleepy Allen turned out to be Richie or Dick Allen future player of the Philadelphia Phillies.

That was all in 1952...I would turn 11 that October, so I played as a 10 year old. I was getting ready to go into 6th grade. Our team would actually get together and practice in the afternoons during the week. Supervised practices were held in the evenings. We enjoyed playing together so much we rode our bikes for, in my case, miles just to play.

Jerry Opp, John Catterson, Ronnie Rupp, Eddie Houck, Ronnie Schmidt, Tommy Lutz...and others whose names escape me were a very cohesive team. In short, we thought we were good.

The next two summers the rules changed. There were too many outsiders looking in, so to speak to justify just one team from our community (Township). As a result six or eight  teams were formed and we played each other until August when an “all star” team was formed and we played the winner of the County Little League (the league we were in the year before) which both years...Wampum still with the Allen brothers. Needless to say, we lost both years. All stars do not play game after game together and there was no cohesiveness. I am sure this was all done with good intentions of the adults in charge, but we were designed for failure. Those were the summers of 1953 and 1954. That ended my organized baseball career.

My heros were Ralph Kiner, Wally Westlake, Stan Rojek, Danny Murtaugh and the rest of the early 1950s Pirates. When Roberto Clemente came on board, respect and awe became part of my baseball observations.

Perhaps my biggest baseball thrill was in 1969 while working in Chicago for Campbell Soup when I met Ernie Banks. I was managing the company’s basic education program for employees. Ernie was under contract with a Campbell ad agency who supplied him as a speaker at our spring “graduation.” Ernie had been dropped off at the corner of 35th and California where the old soup plant was located and found his way up to the 7th floor cafeteria on his own...being interrupted along the way. Once there he ate with the “students” who were all adults trying to either learn to or improve their reading skills. He very casually stood at the mike and made appropriate remarks. I was there, of course, but was not scheduled to interact with him. When the event was complete, Ernie hung around to sign autographs. The book was a Campbell produced paperback of baseball history and facts.

When the signing died to a trickle, Ernie looked up at me and said, Could you show me where all these wonderful people work?” I was completing a full year and new the plant well, so I jumped at the chance. For the next 45 minutes Ernie and I tramped through the old plant starting at the top where the raw materials came in to the bottom two floors where soup was put into cans and then warehoused. When we finished he shook my hand, thanked me and drifted off to find his ride.  

Baseball transitioned slowly in the early 50s to television. First, it was the All Star game, then the World Series and finally weekend games by 1955 and 56; black and white, of course. We didn’t have TV until I was in 6th grade in January 1953. That meant that until then I was only able to watch at a neighbor’s house, when invited. When the opportunity came, I jumped at the chance.

I had chances to play ball in ensuing summers, but did not take the opportunity. I was a farmer kid and did not wish to be burdened with practices and games all summer long. Back then, New Castle High did not offer baseball, so there was no opportunity to play even if I wanted to. NC was a football and basketball school. By this time I was engaged in music.

Of course, my love of the game continued and I played organized ball in the Navy, albeit softball, and again slow pitch up until I was 44.

I am sharing all this because as I get more mature and the game changes I reach into my past to understand my love of the game and its traditions...the national pasttime.

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