28 March 2008

Baseball memories

I was reading the coverage of the Minnesota Twin on the Minneapolis StarTribune site this morning, and ran across an article that talks about how some of the current Twins players got started playing ball, as kids. The comments section was full of other fans recalling their own childhood experiences learning about baseball and how to play ball, and that got me thinking about mine.

Baseball first popped up on my radar when, in 1961, I was at my grandparents house and saw a box of Post Toasties with cut-out baseball cards on the back. Having lived in Northern Ireland for a good part of my young life (we returned in 1959), I had no idea what baseball was. My grandpa, who played city ball when he was younger and who, I discovered, was a great baseball fan, explained it to me as best he could.

He let me cut out the cards, even though there was still cereal in the box, and I remember going outside with my new treasures in hand, to show them off to any of the other neighborhood kids who might be outside.

The only card I remember from that batch is Jerry Lumpe, then of the Kansas City Athletics. He was my favorite, because, as i recall, he'd scored more runs than any of the other players on the back of that particular box. Not that I had a clear idea exactly what runs might be. But it sounded good.

I went out to stand by a big elm tree where the sidewalk on Hancock Street met the the driveway at the back of my grandparents house--a spot where the grown-ups could see me and from where I might see some of the other kids. There was a puddle on the sidewalk there, where the pavement had buckled a little, that looked like a square head with a rectangular nose . That Jerry Lumpe card and the puddle on that gray spring day are where my lifelong love of baseball began.

I think it was Ronny Bastyr, who lived a few houses down Fourth Street, who happened by. I showed him the cards, he showed me some other ones he had (in those days kids carried baseball cards around in their pockets, we didn't keep them in ring binders with Mylar sleeves around them) and I seem to recall that we traded a one or two. That was it, I was hooked.

As it happened, that was the same spring that the Washington Senators arrived in Minnesota and became the Twins, so there was a lot of baseball talk going on, even though as a kindergartener, I didn't understand a lot of it. But my grandpa and my uncles watched the Twins whenever they were on TV and it seemed like there were radios tuned to the games in every basement and garage. Evenings, you could walk down the street and follow a game, just listening to the sound of the broadcasts coming from the front porches and open windows.

And eventually, I found a Minnesota Twin or two on the backs of other cereal boxes (and Jell-O boxes too!). They became my favorites, and Jerry Lumpe was forgotten.

Naturally, I wanted to try PLAYING baseball. So my grandpa dug out a couple of his old mitts and took me out in the side yard to throw. One was a big, overstuffed catcher's mitt with a patch on the top front where the leather had worn through, and the other was a small fielder's glove. Both dated from the early 1900s, so the catcher's mitt didn't flex at all and the fielder's mitt had no webbing and was barely larger than an adult hand.

On the other hand, I'd never seen a baseball glove before, so those were just fine with me. And I learned to throw and catch.

Over the course of the summer, I discovered that the other kids in the neighborhood had very different kinds of baseball gloves--bigger, with some sort of pocket between the thumb and index finger, and a kind of hinge that let you flex it closed to hold the ball. But by that time, the season was over and everyone was putting away their gloves and starting to play touch football in the side yards.

By the following spring, I discovered that baseball cards weren't just something you could get off the backs of cereal boxes, you could also BUY a two-sided variety that came in a pack of five with a stick of gum. These could be found on the candy rack at Hooley's Supermarket, just a block down the street. Even better, Kearney's Grocery--on the corner opposite Hooley's--carried penny packs, with one card and a stick of gum in each. So for your nickel, you could get five cards AND five sticks of gum! It was a great world, and I think I'd probably had my first lesson in economics.

For my birthday that spring, my parents got me my first baseball glove—a Hawthorne, with a "Snag-Em" pocket— a 31-inch black bat (the handle of which I taped with white adhesive tape) and a brand-new baseball, all from "Monkey Wards." I'd take those to school with me and join in the games we played on the fields out back and down below the hill.

I think it was that summer when we began playing two-on-two or three-on-three out in our side yard. Most of the houses in our neighborhood were on double lots, and all of the ones that had kids also seemed to have something resembling an elongated baseball diamond worn into the grass--longer from home plate to second than they were from first base to third, because that was the shape of the yards.

Danny Swanson was my next-door neighbor, living in the house behind us, and he had such a field worn into his yard, but because he was the third child, his parents had already endured years of torn-up grass and broken windows. So we weren't allowed to play over there (although we WERE allowed to throw the ball around, just not hit it).

So we made a field in our yard instead.

Home plate was a spot we picked that we figured was far enough back that every pitch we missed wouldn't necessarily roll into the street, but close enough to the sidewalk that there'd be enough yard for the rest of the field. I asked my grandpa to make me a "real" home plate out of a scrap of white formica countertop he had in the basement, and he complied. It was only about half the size of a real one, but I was a kid, it was white, shiny and the right shape, and I was thrilled.

First base was next to a birch tree over by the house. We wore away the grass there, and occasionally put down a scrap of wood or a piece of cardboard, but mostly we just used the worn spot. You couldn't really overrun first, though, without getting a face-full of tree.

Second base was set far enough back so an infielder wouldn't get killed by a batted ball, but where we'd still have room for an outfield, in line with home plate.

Third base was next to a maple tree, right at our property's edge, so any foul balls usually went into Campbell's yard.

Fouls on the first base side were problematic because that's where our house was, with windows, windows, windows all along the side, and we rarely got the storm windows down and the screens (which offered SOME protection) up as early as when we started playing out there each year. Fortunately, we all were right-handed hitters, so we didn't hit a lot over toward the house, but we did manage to break 2 or 3 windows over the years.

When we played, we never needed a shortstop because there was a big elm tree there. And there was a picket fence between Swanson's yard and ours. We confidently said any ball hit over that fence would be a home run, but none of us was able to actually hit one there until we were older and long-since had outgrown the dimensions of our side yard fields.

The first year I remember playing out there we had two "permanent" teams: Danny Swanson and Earl Gersting (who as a year older than us, and lived just up the street, on the other side of Campbell's house) versus Pat Junker (whose dad was the local candy supplier and had a big candy warehouse in their back yard, a block down from us) and me.

We pitched slow and hit as hard as we could and had a pretty good time.

Sometimes Kenny Campbell, one of the older kids in the neighborhood, whose bedroom faced our yard, would open his window and act as our umpire, or at least try to settle the inevitable arguments about fair or foul, safe or out.

Kenny also had a baseball-like game that he and the older guys played in his back yard.

Campbells had a big house, that was set pretty far back on their lot. And the lot itself extended the width of the block, from Third Street to Fourth Street. The house had seen at least two shed-like additions on the back, and there also was a small four-unit apartment building set right up against the sidewalk on the Fourth Street side. Between the sheds and the apartments was a big dirt driveway/parking area.

Kenny had chalked a strike zone on the shed door facing that area and had paced off where a pitcher's mound should be. There were no bases--the apartments were probably only 30 feet behind him to his left, and the driveway out to Fourth Street was on his right. Behind him and farther to his right was a hedge that ran along the edge of the property.

Kenny would spend hours out there throwing a tennis ball at that strike zone. When others of the older kids were around--Kurt or David Swanson, Ronny Minks--they'd step in and bat against him, using a broomstick with an electrical tape grip to try to hit. Kenny would call balls and strikes, based on where his pitches hit in or out of the chalked strike zone. If he walked you or you actually hit the ball, you got a ghost runner. If you managed to hit the ball over the hedge, it was a home run and you cleared the bases.

At first we younger guys were only allowed to watch. But as we got older and learned to hit better, he'd let us bat as well. At least when the older guys weren't around.

Kenny was also the guy who was responsible for my first cache of older baseball cards. In those days, last year's cards weren't particularly valued. They'd end up in bicycle spokes or parked in a drawer or even just thrown away. But I didn't care what year they were from--I had the collecting mania even then, and was learning about baseball and teams and even some history from them. So word got back to Kenny that I'd trade "this year's" for older cards. Because the older ones were considered worthless, I got something like 5 for 1 and ended up with a bunch of random Topps (and a few Fleer) cards going back to 1958.

One of the cashiers down at Hooley's, Mary Gedatus, also took note of my enthusiasm for baseball cards. She mentioned that her older son had a bag full of them that he'd left behind when he moved out, and asked if I'd like them. Of course, I said yes! She said she'd bring them in, so for about a week, I went down to Hooley's every day and asked if she'd done so. Finally, she told my mother that I was "hounding" her about the cards and Mom told me to stop. The next time I was in the store I didn't ask Mary about the cards, but she brought them up and told me if I'd stop by her house (which was only a couple of blocks away) she'd give me the cards.

I still remember her handing me that crumpled paper bag. In it were both Topps and Bowman cards going all the way back to 1952.

Anyway, as a postscript to that story, I probably should explain what eventually happened to all of those cards, plus the ones I continued buying through 1969. At some point in maybe 1968, Danny Swanson and I combined our baseball card collections. We counted more than 4,000 cards, dating all the way back to those early Bowmans I'd gotten from Mary Gedatus. But there wasn't a single complete season set among them.

In 1969, when the New York Mets won the World Series, Danny and I decided we'd seen it all. The Mets had been the expansion team and punching bag of the National League for most of our childhoods, and now they were the world champions. (And the Twins STILL weren't.) We figured this was some sort of cosmic sign and we needed to do something to recognize it.

So we called all the younger kids in the neighborhood together, took our box of baseball cards out in the back yard, and started throwing them up in the air, telling the kids to take whatever they wanted. Then we raked up the rest, mixed with the leaves that had fallen from the trees, and... Well, I'm not entirely sure what we did with them. I could guess, but my guess would make anyone who collects cards from that era really cringe.

A year or so later, I ran across a small box--not that it matters, but it was a box that some plates had come in--filled with random cards that somehow survived--maybe a couple hundred, total. And not long after that, while looking through the want ads for people selling comic books (my latest collecting obsession), I ran across an ad from a guy who wanted to BUY old baseball cards. I called him, told him what I had, and he drove out from St. Paul to look at them. He offered me $25 for the boxful. I was stunned that they were worth that much, but gladly took his money. Looking back, I suppose they were worth a lot more, but at the time, they were all but worthless to me. So that $25 was like found money, at a time when I was earning $15 a week as an usher/janitor down at the Auditorium Theatre.

Anyway, there's fresh snow on the ground here in East Lansing, even though it's baseball season again. When I was a kid, and the side yard was our baseball field, we often got out there to start playing when there was still snow on the ground, but spring training was under way and we just couldn't wait any longer. And usually the grass was still brown on opening day as well (if it wasn't still under the snow). But we always thought it would be cool if we could go out and paint it green, like they did over at old Metropolitan Stadium. Because the grass SHOULD be green when it's baseball season.