Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Little League, Sixty Years Ago

It was 60 years ago, but I still see the ball hanging there, high above the outfield fence, and it never seems to come down.
by Charlie Leck

I’m pretty sure it had to be the summer of ’53. I would have been twelve years old. The Little League had come to my town just in time to give me one year of qualification to play. It was pretty exciting. Up to now I’d hit thousands of balls and probably fielded as many but it was always just in pick-up games between the kids in town. You know, two captains begin picking their teams in turn and some poor slob has got to be the last kid chosen and then is condemned to carry the psychological scar for the rest of his life. Sports, they say, can build character, poise and confidence. Let me tell you, it can also destroy a lot of all three.

Well, the arrival of Little League baseball meant that we little ballplayers were going to have real bases to run around on, and lined fields, and fences delineating the end of the outfield, and umpires to call real strikes and balls, and keep count of both. There were going to be flags flying and, sometimes, an announcer introducing the teams and the player at bat. Wow! We were going to wear real uniforms, with the name of our town printed across the front and a number on our backs. Number 15 they gave me, the uniform always reserved for the biggest kid on the team.

I’d only get a year of this Little League stuff, but I was going to take advantage of the fun.

I had just squeaked in under the wire in the age regulation department. Had I been born one day earlier, I would never have experienced Little League play. And, therefore, I was one of the biggest kids on the team that my town finally put together. Mose Barkman volunteered to manage the squad and, getting us ready for the first game, he put us through some rigorous practices and hollered at us occasionally when we did something stupid. Mose’s kid played first base and he got hollered at in a different way than the rest of us. Mose wanted his kid to be really good – danged good – and he was relentless in drilling him and correcting him.

It was pretty exciting when we drove over to Brookside to play our first game. I was so energized that I couldn’t stand it. It was like I was getting a chance to amble on up to the plate in a miniature Yankee Stadium. To me, on that sunny, summer day, it was even bigger and better than that. The Brookside ball field was situated just as it should have been; it was right alongside a little brook that ran beyond left field. The fence out there made that side of the outfield play somewhat shorter than right field and right-center.

Our team came up first ‘cause we were the visitors – just like they do it in the big leagues. I was inserted in the fourth spot – the clean-up spot – in our batting order. It was probably because I was the biggest and oldest kid on the field. Tommy Pew, a graceful looking athlete with a wonderful wind up, was pitching for the Brookside team. He was an awfully good guy and I’d try to build a friendship with him in our post little league years, but we didn’t pull it off very well. Tommy had one of the classiest walks I’ve ever seen. He strolled along and sort of shuffled his feet, never lifting them very far off of terra firma. His arms swung, in an exaggerated way and in time with his legs, as he walked; and his hands flicked a little bit just as his arms reached the top their swing on either side. It was cool, man. I’d never seen any other earthly soul walk in such a graceful and self-assured manner.

But, Tommy couldn’t throw a fast ball. He was a very accurate pitcher and could put the ball over the plate every single time he threw it; and a clever batter figured that out. It simplifies things when you can be assured that Tommy’s pitch is going to be right here just about every time. I watched carefully as he pitched to our first three batters. Right there, just about right down the middle of the plate, he threw it. He got our lead-off guy to pop out on a weak fly ball in the infield. Buddy Thompson spanked a ground ball single right over third base. Mose’s kid, batting left-handed, banged a line drive that almost took Tommy cap off.
People from our town were shouting and screaming. There were a few flags fluttering and I could hear them when I came up to bat. I was struck by the beauty of everything. The uniforms on the Brookside players were brand-spanking new and they were whiter than the drifting clouds overhead. I could see the freckles on Tommy’s face and I heard Buddy calling out something to me from where he stood on third base.

Mose was coaching down at third base and I heard him call out a reminder to me: “Wait for a good one! Make a pitcher out of him!”

I thought about that as I stepped into the white-lined batter’s box. Tommy hadn’t thrown anything but good ones on every pitch so far. The kid was a machine. His wind-up was so mature. Very gracefully he’d raise both arms over his head and his left leg rose high up off the ground. Then his arms and leg would come down in such a synchronized way and I could watch his hand, holding the ball, come from behind his head.

“Pick the ball up early,” Mose had preached to us in our batting practices. “Pick up that ball while it’s still in the pitcher’s hand and keep your eyes on it all the way.”

Well, I didn’t have any trouble with that. I saw the ball, gleaming white, right up there in his hand, by his right ear, and his arm and hand were moving forward so gracefully and smoothly. It was like everything was in slow-motion and my mind was locked in on the moment – one of the grandest, happiest moments of my whole life.

And then the ball left his hand and lazily moved toward the very spot to which every single one of his pitches went. It was slightly above belt high and right down the middle of the plate. It didn’t have a high rate of spin, which meant it wasn’t coming very fast. Everything was still in slow motion and my swing felt that way when I brought the bat around and slammed the white sphere as squarely as I could.

The ball rose high off my bat and drifted out toward left field and on toward the fence and on out toward the little brook that gave the town its name. Buddy trotted home slowly and Mose’s kid ran more quickly out there in front of me. I tried not to look too excited. I kept my head down, looking just at the dirt in front of my trotting feet, glancing up only enough to make sure I was on a line from base to base. Mose clapped as my feet touched third and he put his hand out to give me a shake as I ran by.

“Good swing,” he shouted, “good swing!”

I looked over at Tommy as I neared home plate. He was looking toward centerfield and his back was to me. He had his hands on his hips. The back of his ears were red.

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Now, sixty years later, I can still close my eyes and see the ball rising and drifting out over the short fence. In my mind’s visions now, the ball just hangs there, above the fence, and never seems to come down. Tommy watches it painfully and I still want to jump up and down as I head out around the bases. I resist.

There’s no more running for these old legs. I just amble along slowly these days, trying to imitate that wonderful, graceful walk that Tommy had when he was a boy.

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1 comment:

  1. Slugger Leck - atta boy! Great story to have your reminiscences.