A Baseball Memoir ~ by Dell
I sit with my mother a few feet behind the screen and the field and we
are surrounded by the wives and children of my father’s team mates – the Gene Handley’s,
the Mike Sandlock’s, Chuck Stevens’, Jack Salveson’s. We are an intimate island unto
ourselves, an extension of the royalty spotlighted on the lush green field below. Murray
‘Big Moe’ Franklin, my dad, walks up to the plate and spreads his legs, digging his rear
right foot into the dirt. He pumps his bat twice before settling it on his right shoulder,
staring at the pitcher. There is a sense he is relaxed and sure of himself, and yet he is
coiled when the pitcher goes into his elongated windup. He lifts his front foot slightly
and steps forward as the pitcher unleashes a ball that spits past Dad with a violent hiss
that makes me cringe and crashes into the catcher’s mitt and the umpire raises his
right hand and bellows “STEE-RIKE!” I hear voices from the stands – Hollywood, California
you take the good ones and swing at
the bad ones! No wonder you aint hittin yer weight! YER
A BUM!” Franklin
“You aint got a hit in two weeks
– YER WASHED UP!” FRANKLIN
That is my first memory of baseball, and it is as if that was my first day alive in this world. Everything bright technicolor as if I’d just hatched from an egg or emerged from a cocoon. I knew nothing else at the time. I did not understand that my Dad was in the worst slump of his career and local sports writers were excoriating his performance as well as the Hollywood Stars front office and manager Fred Haney, who’d gone out on a limb to sign him to the roster for a stretch drive in chase of a pennant. Dad had been injured, and suspended from baseball for a year for jumping the big leagues in 1946 to play in
He’d been just recently reinstated and, at thirty-five he was not and would never be the ball player he’d been before the war.
Dad wasn’t one to stay in shape when out of the game. Trying to make ends meet after moving into a tract home in
In time, Dad took me to the clubhouse, a private sanctum suspicious of outsiders, where acceptance had to be earned, even by me, a seven year old. Grown men amble about naked or half naked, revealing pale legs and torsos, only the necks, forearms and faces baked dark by the sun. They were not heavily muscled, though strong in the arms and legs – men who moved with a graceful assurance uncommon among men on the streets. Smells of liniment and logangesic balm wafted from the cramped trainer’s room and neutralized individual odors of sweat, flatus and sour feet.
I came to feel a part of the clubhouse. Dad gave me an old glove and the clubhouse attendant, a Japanese named Nobe, restrung it with rawhide, oiled and placed it on my hand, a large swatch of flimsy leather into which I worked my tiny fingers, flapping the glove like a duck flapping its wings, then pounding the pocket with my fist and then a beat up practice ball. Soon I was bouncing the ball on the concrete floor and catching it, then firing it against the cement walls, snaring bouncers as players dodged out of the way, until Dad ordered me to quit tearing up the goddam clubhouse and scaring the hell out of everybody.
Johnny O’Neill and Gene Handley sort of adopted me and gave me the nickname of ‘Little Meat’. They tossed balls across the clubhouse floor for me – and I was a fetching dog pouncing for his master, imaginary tail wagging.
The oldest player on the Stars, a rotund relief pitcher with limitless patience and a passel of kids, the beloved ‘Kewpie’ Barrett, taught me to tie my shoe laces, an assignment handed him by my father after his own effort failed. “Yore daddy makes you a little nervous,” he said. Barrett spent a batting practice in the dugout making me tie my laces over and over until I got it down. When I took time off from that exercise it was for a trek to the drinking fountain, which proved an obstacle course of players spurting tobacco juice at me. They sat on the bench working on large chaws, aiming and arching their salvos of dirty brown spit, building puddles beneath them on the cement floor littered with Beechnut wrappers, gum wrappers, wadded gum, regular spit, cigarette butts, clods of red clay, old line-up cards, pages from the Sporting News…
“Hey Meat, wanna plugga tobacky? Grow hair on yer chest.”
Dad warned me that if I chewed tobacco my teeth would fall out and I’d be ugly like the tobacco chewers on the Stars. He flashed his pearly whites in a smug grin and showed me his pack of Spearmint. “Keeps the mouth clean and wet.”
“Now ya can kiss the girls like a lover boy, Little Meat,” a player goaded.
When the stars donned shorty uniforms, Dad had the club make me one. He showed me how to roll my long sanitary socks to keep them from slipping to my ankles (which looks bush), without using a garter, which Dad claimed cuts off circulation in your feet. Over and over Dad rolled his own sanitaries into his stirrups and then did the same for me. I had skinny legs, and when I rolled my own socks they immediately drooped to my ankles. Dad grew impatient with my ineptitude; and finally Gorman slipped me heavy rubber bands when Dad wasn’t looking.
After weeks of begging Dad to coax management into allowing me onto the field during batting practice, Haney agreed, providing I stayed deep in center field with infielders Handley, O’Neill, Buddy Hicks, Jim Baxes, and Dad. Here they played pepper, which involved one man hitting the ball back to team mates who stood perhaps ten yards away, fielding each ball they tossed to the hitter, who placed the ball firmly, going
from player to player. Each player got to hit – all exercising precise control of the bat. The fielding and throwing were of a particular rhythm that picked up speed and acrobatic flourish as the game gained momentum. They were doggedly competitive, bantering, goading, gambling for sodas and beers. From time to time, to break up the magical domination of an exceptionally adept hitter, they lobbed a ball wide or zoomed it low, and the hitter was always prepared. They were like magician jugglers. Flipping balls behind their backs with uncanny accuracy. Faking throws. Handing off. They laughed and joshed and spat, and while doing these things they groomed me to field, and only field, instructing me to stay low and keep on the balls of my feet and make sure my ass was down, glove open and out in front, throwing hand perched above the glove in case I needed to bare-hand a bad hop or a boot. At first they slapped me soft grounders and made a fuss over my snares. But soon they recognized my intensity and hit balls harder, putting a little spin on them, and then it became a challenge for me to flag down every ball, wanting more and more.
One day Dad instructed me to choke up on a smaller bat and hit pepper. “Don’t try and place the ball like we do. Just watch the ball into your bat and meet it, like a bunt, but hit it a little harder than a bunt.” His team mates encouraged me. So I stood against the fence and eagle-eyed each ball lobbed to me and met it with the barrel and heard the clean sweet knock and watched the ball jump in a straight line or bounce in front of the fielders who snatched the ball and showed it to me before flipping it overhand on a slow arc so I could adjust and knock it back. I grew more confidant with each pitch. They were elated with my progress, my father beaming. I became more and more adept at the bat, now trying to place each pitch to a new player, going down the line just like my mentors, who seemed to be accepting me unconditionally into their established domain.
Walking off the field after pepper, Dad placed his arm around me as we approached the dugout, which was mobbed by kids hanging over nearby railings wielding fifteen-cent scorecards for autographs. Their eyes suddenly switched to me, hawk-like, curious, unforgiving. Dad and my mentors signed the kids’ cards, asking them if they wanted to be ball players when they grew up, patting their heads fondly when they exclaimed that they did. Then the players headed for the batting cage or their positions on the field, and I found myself eye to eye with the knothole kids. A hot sinking feeling flashed through my stomach. I nodded at them. None of them nodded back.
“Who’s that?” one kid grumbled, eyes black agates.
“Aint he cute in his little shorties.”
“You a sissy boy?”
“He aint no ball player.”
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