In the photo, I’m standing in front of a large tree. I’m bent over, in the classic baseball-card shortstop stance, head up, mitt down. My uniform is a glistening white — I never did anything in that uniform that could possibly make it dirty — with red trim. The cap was red with an E on the front. I think we were sponsored by the Elks.
Baseball has been my favorite sport as far back as I can remember. My parents took me to Cubs games when a large crowd at Wrigley Field was 4,000 fans. But they used to take me to basketball games at Wheaton College too, and I’ve never cared much for basketball.
We didn’t have a TV, so I’d listen to the Cubs’ games on the radio, starting about noon. Which was odd, because the games didn’t begin until 1:20 pm. I’d hear the news, and then the Farm Report with Orion Samuelson (seriously, has that guy been around forever?) and then a five-minute message from a Chicagoland preacher. There were always a few fence and carpet and garage commercials and then finally …
“Let’s go! Batter up! We’re taking the afternoon off …”
Which only meant that there would be another half hour of interviews and line-ups before the game actually started.
We had one of those narrow slots next to the front door through which the mailman would cram envelopes, catalogs and packages that were twice the size of the opening, and we’d disjoint a shoulder and an elbow reaching up pry everything out. I’d run an extension cord through the mail slot, prop my transistor radio on the front step and play catch by myself while listening to the game.
This consisted of throwing the ball up in the air as far as I could and catching it. As practice goes it lacked variety, but I’ve always been very good at corralling pop-ups. My folks bought me one of those pitch-back frames with the strike zone woven into elastic netting, but I wasn’t terribly good at throwing a ball where I wanted it to go. On the few occasions when I used it, I spent most of the time walking behind it to retrieve my errant pitches.
I know I was out in our front yard catching pop-ups on April 8, 1969 (my 11th birthday — just in case you invent a time machine and want to go back and alter my destiny or something.) when Willie Smith (who?) hit a two-run homer in the 11th inning to give the Cubs a 7-6 opening day victory.
Catching pop-ups in the front yard was exciting, sure, but too much of anything, no matter how exciting, can grow old. I was soon ready for a deeper baseball experience.
This consisted of walking two blocks to the local junior high and throwing a baseball against a brick wall. Some enterprising individual had painted (not just chalked — painted) a strike zone on the wall, about four feet from an alcove with a door that had a small window in it, but we won’t talk about that.
I spent hours — mine was a largely solitary childhood — throwing a baseball against that wall. I’d throw entire nine-inning games in which I’d strike out every batter. This was pretty easy, because the imaginary batters never caught up with one of my fastball and after three balls, they always swung at pitches outside the strike zone and hit imaginary fouls. If you think I was good at catching pop-ups, you should have seen me fielding four-hop grounders off that wall.
I don’t think they let kids throw balls at school walls anymore, which is a shame. I was outside, out of my parents’ hair, I was exercising, I wasn’t getting into any trouble (one small window notwithstanding) and I was dreaming big. If you do invent a time machine, let me know. I want to go back and give the younger me a chance to strike out a real batter.
My Dad knew how much I loved the game, so when he had time after supper, we’d go out in the street in front of our house and play catch. He was legally blind, so this meant that I had to toss the ball back to him softly, up in the air where he could see it against the sky. But this meant that if he didn’t see it, it would hit him in the face, which always made me feel guilty. He’d throw me ground balls and pop-ups and soft liners until it was almost dark. The last throw would always be a challenge — Catch this and I’ll give you a dollar for baseball cards. He’d throw it up in the air as far as he could, and since he was athletic and spent part of his life unloading railroad cars by hand, as far as he could was very far. It wasn’t just the height and distance and looming darkness that made it difficult. There were also the huge Norway maples that formed a canopy over most of the street. The ball would ricochet around from branch to branch while I staggered around underneath like a drunk. To be fair, I generally got the dollar whether I caught the ball or not — Dad would have me walk the half mile to the 7-11 and buy a package of Necco Wafers for him and the cards for me.
And then there was Little League. Mr. Semler attended our church. He was a gym teacher, and looked it. When he was born, the doctor turned to his parents and said, “Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Semler, you’ve just had a gym teacher.” His light-colored hair was cut short. He was large-chested and stocky and talked in that distinctive gym-teacher drawl. During a conversation with my Dad, he let on that he coached a team. Dad decided it was time for me to play real baseball. He had Mom drive me to practice. That’s all I remember about that day — that Mom drove me to practice.
Mr. Semler called a few days later to say that I’d made the team. Even at the age of 12, I was smart enough to know that I’d been chosen, in part, because Mr. Semler couldn’t very well reject the son of his pastor. I picked up my uniform at the park district field house.
There was another man who attended our church. I remember that his first name was Chuck but can’t recall his last name. He was an illustrator of catalogs and needed a few sketches of a boy in a baseball uniform. He came over one Saturday and took photos of me in the yard — posed like a shortstop in front of a large tree. He sent me a copy of the catalog when it came out. There I was, in black and white, advertising something or other. This led to a lucrative career as a model. (No it didn’t.)
Soon the Little League season began. A basic problem presented itself right off the bat, so to speak. At least half the games were on Wednesday evenings. Church was also on Wednesday evening. I wasn’t a starter, so I began every game on the bench. Then, about the fourth inning, my Mom would come by and pick me up to take me to church. In other words, I wouldn’t play.
The rest of the games were on Saturday evenings. I sat on the bench for these too. In fact, I can only remember getting into one game. I was stuck out in right field, where the lousy kids are always positioned. Some kid hit lazy fly ball in my direction. It looked a lot like a pop-up, so I was all over it. I caught it and tossed it into the infield and stood there proudly until Mr. Semler yelled, “Massey, that’s three outs. Pay attention.”
I made it to bat in that same game. I swung late and hit a weak, looping liner down the first-base foul line just over the first baseman’s head and stretched it into a double, no doubt aided by the fact that the other team’s coach put his lousiest player in right field too. I don’t remember if I scored or if we won the game or much else about that season. But I genuinely believe my Little League career fielding and batting averages are both 1.000.
I have one other memory of that season. About halfway through, my parents packed me off to the summer camp where Dad the speaker. My baseball career was over. My team went on to win something or other, I don’t remember what. Later in the summer, Mr. Semler stopped by the house to give me my trophy. With Dad and Mom safely out of earshot, he handed it to me with a gruff “If I knew you were going to miss so much of the season, I would have picked somebody else.”
Imagine — and me with the highest batting average on the team!