Summer brings so many memories. Maybe it’s the smells, or the heat, or the light as the day settles down to its Daylight Savings end. Whatever the cause the result is the same: Sights, sounds and even smells of things that happened many years ago intrude into the present and demand attention, without regard for my need and desire for an afternoon nap. Lately the play list seems centered around my years of playing Little League baseball.
Rolling Meadows, the Chicago suburb where I grew up, was a pretty well off place to live. We didn't actually know this until much later, but it seems that the average per capita income was above the average for the rest of the suburban landscape. In the late 1950s this didn't show up in day to day living, mainly because we didn't spend any time in the other suburbs so that we could make a comparison. We just thought that our Little League field was like every other field. Didn't they all have outfield fences and huge chain link backstops and concrete dugouts? Didn't they feature bleachers and manicured infields? Well if we thought about it at all we assumed the answer was yes. So please understand that while my Little League experience may not have been typical it was all I knew so it was typical for me.
My team was the Braves. We had gray flannel uniforms with all the matching accessories from caps to high rise wool socks to rubber cleat shoes. We looked good! I remember standing along the third base line as the National Anthem played from the speaker on top of the announcers/press box. Did I mention the announcers’ box? Anyway, the recording they used had a nice, un-embellished, vocal by a choir so we could hold our ball caps over our hearts and sing along at the top of our lungs. To this day, every time I hear the last line of the anthem I hear “and the home of the Braves,” since that’s the way we always sang it.
We had a pretty good team, too. I seem to remember that we won a lot of games in our particular division during my time on the team. This may have had something to do with the players that we could put on the field. Our first baseman was also one of our pitchers. He seemed to play all of every game and I guess that he was an okay player. He was also the manager’s son, but I’m sure that had nothing to do with this kid's playing time. We had three other memorable players who I’ll call Bill, Ed and Moose. I have to believe that these guys had shown their birth certificates when they signed up and that they were, thus, legal. But boy, were they big! I’m talking high school big. At least that’s the way they looked to a pudgy (I preferred husky, thank you) preteen wrapped in pinstriped flannel waiting to get into the game.
But big they were, and talented. Bill also pitched and played first base. Little League, even way back in the day, had strict rules for resting pitcher’s arms. This meant that we needed at least four pitchers to make the rotation. Anyway, Bill was a pretty good pitcher and could also hit the ball to get on base. Considering that he was a foot taller than the kid pitching to him I guess that shouldn't have been too surprising.
Ed was a tall, lanky redhead who could throw a mean curve ball and play better than most at shortstop. Lucky for us he had another talent. He could play catcher.
Which brings us to Moose. Moose was our regular catcher. He could catch anything the other three could throw and if an opposing player even thought about stealing a base that player learned that our Moose could also throw. Nobody ever stole a base on Moose. He was also big. Very big. Big like he shaved twice a day just to look scruffy. We really liked having Moose in the lineup.
Our Little League learned pretty quickly that tie-ins with local businesses paid off. The outfield fence was decorated with signs advertising the local Chevy dealer and dry cleaner and several others I can’t remember. From the players point of view, though, the best tie-in was with the local Pepsi distributor. The deal was that any player who hit a home run received a case of Pepsi. Understand, when I say case I mean a low wooden box with hand holds cut on each end, filled with 24 six ounce bottles of liquid rocket fuel. This was great motivation for 9 to 12 year olds to swing for the fences every time at bat, regardless of the Manager’s instructions. With Moose it didn't really matter.
When Moose stepped up to the plate he made the opposing catcher look like a toddler. Hell, he made the grown man umpire look like a preteen. Moose was walked pretty much every time he came to bat, either intentionally or because opposing pitchers lost any sense of ball control that they may have entered the game with. This boy was scary. But sometimes they had to pitch to him. Our dugout would get very quiet. We would sit or stand in rapt attention just waiting for what, to us, was the inevitable outcome. And sooner, rather than later, the crack of the bat signaled that outcome. Moose had hit another one out of the ball park. We were drinking Pepsi tonight!
That strict pitcher rotation that I mentioned meant that every couple of weeks or so we would run out of pitchers. So on those evenings we were treated to a very special lineup: Moose would have to pitch. This caused a few other changes in the placement of our fielding staff since the Manager learned early on that our backup catcher couldn't catch Moose. I mean, literally, Moose’s fastball would knock that poor ten year old back on his ass every time. And good old Moose only had that one pitch, a fastball right over the plate. We had a problem. After a quick huddle, and some hurried changing of gear, Ed was in a squat behind the plate and Moose took his place on the mound. It wasn't even close to a fair fight. Moose would twist himself into a not at all pretty corkscrew and let fly a fastball right in the sweet spot over home plate. The sound of that ball hitting Ed’s extra padded catchers’ mitt was like a gun shot. Two more gun shots and an opposing batter took his seat in the dugout. This was repeated, with an occasional foul ball by the braver kids, until another half inning ended and it was our turn at bat. The games that Moose pitched pretty much always ended in a Pepsi party too, since opposing teams just couldn't wrap their heads around walking the pitcher. They learned quickly how wrong they were.
So that was the team that I found myself a part of. I was not a regular starter for the Braves. I was not a starter at all, actually. In fact, had the league not had a rule that every player got to be in the game for at least three innings (out of the six we played) I doubt that I would have played at all. I was very, very bad at baseball. I had only two memorable games in the three years that I played. Ya, I was that bad.
When I came up to bat, usually once in the last three innings of a game, we would be ahead by several runs. Our trio of giants saw to that in the first three innings. I’d step up to the plate and the infield players would move forward to the infield grass while the outfielders would take up positions that looked like a regular infield. This was somewhat intimidating to chubby little me, but given my record at the plate, not really unexpected. My string of strikeouts was almost legendary. That is, until one game late in my final season.
We had a man on base when I took my place in the batters’ box. The fielders all made their shift to the “this guy can’t hit,” position and things went along pretty much as usual. I swung and missed the first pitch to no one’s surprise. I keep the bat on my shoulder for the second and received a called strike for my trouble. “Here comes number three,” I thought, but then, for reasons that I didn't understand then, or now, I stuck my bat out in a very poor attempt at a bunt. Man on base, advance the runner, those thoughts may have floated through my mind. Much to everyone’s surprise, including mine since I had closed my eyes, the ball made full contact with the bat, and took off as a pop up to short center field. An easy out for just about any fielder in the league. That is, any fielder in a normal fielding position. But all of these guys were in the infield. There wasn't anybody in the outfield to even make a diving catch at this ball. I stood in stunned silence for a second or two until the rest of my team screamed as one, “RUN.” So I ran. When I finely made it to first base, somewhat winded but no worse for ware, it struck me that I had a base hit. In an actual game. I was stunned. The rest of that game is a total blur. I don’t think that I scored, but it didn't matter. I had gotten a base hit!
The other memorable game involved the other aspect of baseball: Fielding. By now you might guess that I wasn't a great fielder. I wasn't even a good fielder. I stunk! My reward for being such a quality player was a permanent assignment to right field. Unlike the big leagues, where switch hitters can hit to whatever area of the field they want (assuming they get the right pitch), Little League players tend to hit to their dominant side: Right handed batters hit to left and center field while lefties hit to right and center. There being far more right handed people than left handed means that the right fielder gets very little action. A perfect place for a less than stellar player.
I didn't help matters, either. Being in right field turned out to be pretty boring. The action was all somewhere else, which lead to, shall we say, my mind wondering. I'd watch airplanes heading to who knows where. I'd count ants as they ran in and out of an anthill. I'd pretty much do anything but pay attention to the game. But then one day something changed.
I had staked out my usual spot. Sort of short right field sort of faded toward center. This was not because I knew anything about the kid at bat, but because it just seemed like a nice compromise place to stand. Right field was quiet that day. The wind must have been blowing the usual “Hey Batter, Batter,” chatter toward the infield so that it was just a dull hum. The sky was clear and perfectly blue, and I had no idea what the balls and strikes count on the batter was, or even how many outs there were. Heck, I didn't even realize that the batting team had runners on first and second base. A perfect day for ant counting.
Just then, out of the blue, the batter connected with a well placed pitch. The ball arched up into that perfect blue sky in the direction of short right field. In fact, the ball was hit right to the spot where I was standing. I raised my mitt, closed my eyes (I seemed to do that a lot), and the ball landed in my open glove. I had caught a fly ball! That felt really good, so with a huge smile on my face I chucked the ball to the second baseman, who was standing on second base, for the usual toss the ball around the infield tradition that ends with the ball back in the pitcher's hands. He turned and fired the ball to the first baseman who was stretched toward second with his foot on the base. I could hear some cheering, and figured our fans and families were happy, and somewhat surprised, that the chubby right fielder with glasses had caught a fly ball for an out. I was wrong.
Remember, I had no idea how many outs we'd already notched. Well, it seems that the correct number was... none. The opposing base runners had seen the ball heading my way and did what any ball player would do when said fly ball had pretty much a zero chance of being caught: They took off at a dead run for the next base. I'm sure that they figured on scoring at least one runner and, given my credentials, maybe two. What the didn't figure on was little old me catching the ball. See, the rules of baseball say that before a runner can advance after the catch of a ball on the fly they had to touch the base they were leaving from after the catch. These guys knew who was in right field, so they just took off running.
When my casual toss to second base reached the second baseman the runner who had headed to third was out. When he fired the ball to first, that runner was out. Now, I was still glowing from catching a fly ball and still had no idea of the number of outs. As my team all started to run toward the dugout, somebody looked out my way a waved me in. I shrugged my shoulders and trotted toward the infield. It was only then that it hit me: My catch was one out, the second baseman made the second and the ball fired to first was three. I had started a triple play!
No, I didn't get a case of Pepsi for my trouble. In fact, the team was sort of unimpressed with the whole thing. I think maybe two of my teammates patted me on the back and said, “good job.” And that was it. My turn at bat came up and my usual strikeout was the result. The world was back to normal. That was my last season playing Little League baseball. My interest moved on to Amateur (Ham) Radio. I'm sure the Braves did just fine without me, but I bet no other player started a triple play. At least I don't think they did.