A Lifelong Love Affair With Baseball

Posted by on Feb 2 in Baseball Memories

I’ve loved the game of baseball since I was a kid – it’s in my blood – a summertime game that has chronicled my youth and become a passion as I’ve grown older.

I’ve played the game, and I’ve studied the game from almost every angle – It’s stars, stats and scandals, and in spite of the many attempts by the “gods of the game” to kill their creation, I’ve never lost the love. So what was the spark that ignited this love affair?

I suspect it was the time I grew up – an era when Baseball ruled American sports. Our East Side neighborhood had two spacious, sandbur-filled sandlots that we referred to as our “home and away” fields, with permanent ruts for base paths, houses framing both foul lines – and yes, there were broken windows that we all ponied-up to pay for, providing we got the ball back. And a rickety old outhouse we used for a back stop – lots of natural resources.

And kids – many kids. This was also the era of big families. The houses in our predominantly Catholic, blue-collar neighborhood looked like college dorms with each family housing their own baseball team. We had it all.

Except equipment. One baseball and one bat lasted a summer, and at summer’s end the ball had been resown and taped so many times that it was impossible to find any semblance of leather showing. The wooden bat had been broken so many times it was held together with screws, glue and more tape.

I became an East Side legend one summer with a job sweeping the minor league ballpark stands – getting paid 25 cents an hour. But I discovered a huge “find” –  infield balls that were left in the dugouts from the previous night’s game. I stuck those little jewels in my pockets, got on my bike and raced home to furnish several neighborhood teams.

GloveA baseball glove was a precious possession if you had one. You formed a pocket in the glove with spit and oil, and that glove would last for years. I used one glove through Optimist League, High School, Legion and Semi-Pro Baseball – a total of 10 years.

Our summer days were endless baseball games, finishing in the dark when pitchers plunked enough of their pals and fights ensued, or when a “leather-lunged” mom called her kids home for dinner. This was sandlot baseball – no formal teams – sometimes 12-15 kids on each side, making it tough to hit a single up the middle through 10 infielders. There were always arguments – we argued about everything baseball, and there were fights between brothers, usually with the fury of a couple of enraged moths.

Then came Optimist League Baseball with teams named after Major League clubs. We had coaches, and the games were umpired. We were given uniforms that made you feel like you had made the “Bigs” – and, indeed, you were the star of your neighborhood. You silenced the soda fountain crowd when you walked in wearing your uniform. This was the most incredible thing to ever happen to a kid growing up in Waterloo, Iowa.

That first summer of ’47, 300 kids tried out for 8 teams and 96 were selected – I was one of those chosen and was handed a Dodger uniform. What a thrill – I slept in my uniform, refusing to take it off, fearing they’d ask for it back.

As I write, I’m reminded of James Earl Jones’ eloquent description of the game of baseball in the movie “Field of Dreams,” and the works of many great writers whose books on the game line my library shelves. I do not have their talent, but I share their love of baseball.