|MEMORIES OF BASEBALL|
By Daniel Bailey I: Why Am I Telling You This?
All right, everybody get this straight. This is a sensitive topic for me.
I was 14. It was the summer of 1965, my second year of Pony League. I’m talking about offense now. You know? Don’t sit there pretending you don’t. All right, if you’re going to be that way, let’s make it simple: batting. You know. Me? A bat? Me holding a bat? At the plate? Got it?
I don’t even know why I’m telling you this. I reserve the right to call this off any moment.
Sorry. I can see I’m a little edgy here. It’s just—I mean—well, it’s been embarrassing. Like for the past 54 years.
So don’t rush me!
There was no foretelling it, I swear. Oh sure, I stepped in the bucket a lot back in Little League, who didn’t? All right you say many boys didn’t, but many boys did. And I was one. You’re a right-handed hitter facing mostly right-handed pitchers. So the ball, especially a curveball, looks like it might hit you. So you step away, right? Okay fine, if you insist, then I admit it: I was afraid of the ball. But pulling my front foot didn’t mean I couldn’t make good contact if the pitch was on the inside of the plate. My last year in Little League I had the second-most hits on our team. Forget that we were piss-poor hitters and only successful thanks to our great coach. The point is, I batted more or less okay. In Little League.
Got that? I was okay.
At 13, I missed a lot of my first Pony League season with arm trouble. Doctor’s orders. Then appendicitis.
At 14 I played all year. So far, you know absolutely nothing about my hitting in Pony League, right?
If you do, who told you? Just curious.
What a glorious start to my 14th summer! Everyone should have such an enchanted passage in their lives. When what you want to do you simply do, without hesitation, and the results are grand. You hold a girl’s hand and tell her how you feel about her. You tell a math teacher after school you’re completely lost, and she straightens you out in 10 minutes so you stop feeling like an idiot instead of not taking any more math classes for the rest of your life. You tell your parents that your football shoes from the school’s supply bin on the first day of practice hurt your short wide feet so badly you couldn’t run, and they take you to a store and buy you the shoes you need so you don’t skulk around for the next three weeks pretending to them you’re going to practice when you’re not. You do these things if you’re a boy who confronts his shame and fear. But even if you’re not such a boy, maybe you too still can have a hitting streak like the one I had.
Nothing was simpler. “He throws it, I hit it, what’s the big deal?” is how I put it to myself. And I did hit it, squarely, time after time. I was so confident I swung at one pitch over my head because I knew I’d smack it anyway, and hard: which I did, straight up very high for an out. I began the season 8 for 12 with three doubles and a triple. I was “the talk of the league” as a friend on another team later told me.
Don’t forget all that.
Then a Moses Lake squad came to Walla Walla for an exhibition game. Its pitcher was named Weza. Oh fatal day.
Weza was a tall thin boy with long arms. His wind-up was a complicated affair of spindly legs maneuvering in odd ways and arms likewise folding and unfolding bizarrely, and in general all four of his limbs were doing things in a sort of circular motion out there on the mound that made me think of a big spider. But nobody else on the ferocious Lions—we were undefeated all year—felt that way. Everyone else got at least one hit off Weza. I struck out three times.
Then I couldn’t hit for the rest of the season. Which, you know, was—nearly all of it.
Did I say you could ask me why? No, I didn’t. So just can that!
My bad habit from Little League came back with a vengeance. Step in the bucket? Now I was stepping into the next county. Suddenly I was half-terrified of being hit by a pitch. Though I’d never been plunked! After Weza the Spider, all pitches had me backing far away from the plate the moment they left the pitcher’s hand. There near the outside edge of the batter’s box, sometimes I’d double over at the last moment trying to contact the faraway ball by stretching out my bat with one hand. That didn’t work too well.
You wanted to know all this, right? Oh, you say you didn’t? Then why I am telling you? Then why are you reading this? I must be nuts, and you must be too.
I was the lead-off hitter at the beginning of the season. Which made sense: I was getting on base and I was speedy. As time passed and my slump deepened, I slipped down the batting order all the way to ninth.
That’s dead last for you non-baseball people. But even if you’re one of those—how could you not know such a basic fact of Americana?
Did I practice between games? Try bunting? Switch-hit even once? Ask someone for help? No. Just showed up for games hoping things would be different. They never were.
Meanwhile, the mighty Lions were devouring the league. It helped conceal my batting thing. People politely didn’t ask me about it, and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk about it.
So what’s wrong with me now?
Wilbur Boschker kept each of his players’ offensive stats neatly recorded game by game. At season’s end he presented us all with our numbers on individualized hardened sheets. Many years later, my brother-in-law happened to come across mine deep in the back of a shelf in the closet of my boyhood bedroom. He’s a quiet and courteous guy, but after he’d looked at my stats a couple moments he couldn’t help himself. “Whoa! Look at that! Hey Dan, is this for real?”
Can’t wait to find out what he saw, can you, you vultures?
Here’s a little context. Derek Jeeter retired after 20 years with the New York Yankees with a career batting average of .309. That’s quite good for a given year, let alone a whole career.
During the 2019 season, the 30 Major League teams batted a cumulative .252. That’s as average as you can get.
If someone is batting say .220, he makes up for it with extra-base hits and runs batted in or he’ll be expected to bring that average up. If he’s not a power hitter, his defense and speed on the base paths had better be good.
Once in a very great while, you see a guy come to the plate in a major league game batting something like .160. This is a sorry if fascinating spectacle. The wheels have completely come off this guy. He’s almost surely headed to the minors on a bus within 48 hours.
Come to think of it, if you bussed out of here right now, I’d be fine with that.
What my brother-in-law saw on Coach’s stat sheet was one of two numbers. I will never remember which. The sheet revealed that I—in the summer of 1965, playing Pony League ball on the magnificent Lions—batted—despite my 8-for-12 streak at the start—I say batted, over the course of that entire season—
.067. That is correct. .067. Or maybe not. Maybe it was .063.
So. Are you happy now?
I think I got exactly one more hit the rest of the year after Weza the Spider. There’s a hazy memory of doubling over and lunging out with one hand one more time, and by some miracle blocking a pitch into fair territory. Then running like hell to beat out a pretty good accidental bunt.
The main thing, of course, is: How can anyone, man or boy, professional or amateur, normal or not, over the course of an entire season, beginning with a hitting streak, bat .067?
Ladies and Gentlemen: reviewing all this, I see I’ve been more than a little rude. As I mentioned at the outset, I’m still sensitive about this. But a grown man should be over such a thing by now. I sincerely apologize.
Unless it was .063.
Just shut up already!
II: Wounded in Action
I played organized baseball in my home town from age 10 to 14. My Little League team was Newberry’s, a five-and-dime that went belly-up many decades ago but will live eternally in memory for its round rotating soda fountain stools and its oily, profoundly yellow popcorn in tall red-and-white paper bags that had nearly disintegrated into mush by the time you’d got to the bottom. The contents were to die for. It was Newberry’s that paid for my team’s caps, lettered uniforms, and knee socks. The first and last of these, plus the lettering, were fire-engine red set off against uniforms of Antarctic white. After a game, the elastic bands that held up my knee socks always made impressive indentations in my flesh just below the knees, and I would finger these proudly. It was like being wounded in action. The second great thing about these knee socks was the ovals just above the shoe—lower in front, higher in back—that permitted my high-riser white socks to peep dramatically through. May I ask: What is with the big-leaguers today who wear their pants all the way down to their ankles? How boring is that? No bright calf-hugging knee socks, gentlemen? No ovals? What are you thinking?
Our coach was a slightly stooped middle-aged man with a thin upper lip and gray eyes named Ardell McBride. He was said to have once played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. It was clear just from looking at him in any ballpark that he took his baseball seriously. Batting for the amateur Walla Walla Bears in Borleske Stadium one warm summer night under the floodlights (20% of which were burned out, because 20% were always burned out), he homered all the way into the shallow end of Memorial Swimming Pool. The shallow end. Multitudes of my little peers and I used to spend our summer vacations broiling ourselves brown as nuts in and beside that pool, so I knew within a few yards where that ball had landed. And was dumbfounded. That he could achieve such a feat was put down to the fact he was a left-handed hitter and had really gotten around on the pitch. The pool lay perpendicular to the right field fence (actually trees, if you must know), and the shallow end was the more distant end. His titanic homer was also credited to his having been in the Philadelphia Phillies organization—did I mention that? On the first day of practice of my 12-year-old and final year, Coach McBride said, “Bailey, you’re left-handed; pitch some batting practice.”
Me—pitch? An astonishing summons. I took the mound. Actually it was a slight depression with a thin rut in the middle running towards home plate, but we’re talking baseball here, so it was a mound. There was no catcher, just a distant backstop. I started throwing as Coach looked on.
It wasn’t so easy. There was the boy with the bat, there was the plate, smudgy with a dirt-obscured edge or two, and then there was—nothing. No target. Still I managed to throw a fair percentage of strikes. The next time Coach tapped me to throw batting practice there was a catcher up close with a big orange mitt to aim at. This, after pitching into the void, was a piece of cake. Coach approved. When Little League season opened I was in Newberry’s starting rotation though only, perhaps, because I was a southpaw. We had no other.
I had exactly two pitches. One was a deceptively effective fastball because it was so slow. I put my smallish 12-year-old body through a big full windup, taking care to tap the back of my neck with my glove and left hand just like I’d seen someone do on tv. I looked for all the world like I was fixing to release some real heat. Then I’d rear back and fire hard. As hard as I could, anyway. Which was—maybe I lacked that last drop of coordination which had already singled out the pre-teens in our town who’d become our next set of outstanding athletes. Or maybe I was not strong enough somewhere in my body. Whatever it was, my fastball was a football field from fast. But a whole lot of boys grimaced and braced and swung and missed, whiffing in front of the ball, which most of them never figured out.
The otherpitch was my specialty. “Bailey throws his change-up as a curveball,” Coach McBride resignedly explained to someone after he’d given up all hope I would ever throw a proper change-up. This second one got a twist over the top from very high just before release, like Sandy Koufax. It was a world slower even than the non-fast fastball.
Nowadays across the country and the world, many warn against Little Leaguers throwing breaking balls for the good of their still-soft bones.
This second pitch was so slow, gravity had a chance to do some serious work on it. The spin augmented this effect, at the same time drawing the ball left to right across one edge of the plate to the other. If I threw it waist-high, it was in the dirt before it reached the catcher. Boys bit and missed and died like flies, swinging over it, which most of them never figured out.
Though as I’ve stated—and truthfully too, I might add—that I had only two pitches, the fact is my control gave me, in effect, two or three more. Often as not I could jam a batter who was crowding the plate. I could tickle the outside corner if he was standing far away, like Roberto Clemente. I could miss anywhere on purpose. Why throw a fat one down the middle when an overeager kid was willing to lean over and tap out weakly off the end of his bat? I was a two-pitch junkballer who couldn’t overpower a nine-year-old, but I was effective.
It was the back end of a twin bill, and it looked to be a fantastic opportunity for me. I was just coming off the Disabled List. Having exhibited all the signs of classic Little League Elbow, the family doctor had ordered me benched for two weeks. But now at this Sunday double-header at our National League field (with an infield rocky enough to retire a shortstop’s dentist), the stands were full. Okay, there was only one stand—beside the first-base line. That was full. Coach McBride had given me the nod. Amid the throng of fans (some 25 to 30 parents) sat no less than three—three!—cool girls from my sixth-grade class. “Now warm up thoroughly, Bailey,” Coach McBride instructed me before the game. “Arm trouble comes from not warming up enough.” I went out on the grass beside deep right with another boy who took along a catcher’s mitt, as if he needed the extra padding.
It was odd, but the more I warmed up (and up and up, as per instructions), the more my elbow bothered me. First it was just a smidgeon of the pain I’d recently known. Then more. Why was this happening? Coach had said what he’d said, and he’d been in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, and hit a homer into the shallow end of Memorial Swimming Pool. So I kept throwing.
Show time! Bottom of the first. I took the mound, a real one. There was a breeze. Fleecy white clouds raced over the eastern higher end of town. Soon out that way if you keep going, still today you’ll pass through tender rolling hills covered in wheat green in June, gold in July. The other team was none other than the storied Holsum squad which had beaten us the previous season in a playoff game for the pennant. There was cheering from the stands.
By the way: I have decided to say stands, because this is baseball. And baseball has stands, not a lame stand, dammit. If you want a stand, there was a snow cone stand on the other side of the “stands” where both the winners and the losers were treated to the flavor of each boy’s choice after the teams had shouted in honor of the other three times “Hip hip, hurray!”. Congress should try that.
In the stands, then,I noticed that the three cool girls were sitting side by side in the middle near the front. My fire-engine red knee socks were securely in place, held up by their elastic bands. What could be better?
I faced the first batter. Strike One. Ow. My elbow.
Strike Two. Ow!
Strike Three. Got him. Loud cheering from the stands. My arm hurt bigtime.
The next kid digs into the batter’s box. I lean in for the catcher’s sign, nod yes, take my big wind-up. Strike one.
Four in a row! Now the crowd is aroused. I look at it. People are wearing colorful shirts, yellow, orange, green. Behind and above them, lapis blue and virgin white, vaults a sky scoured clean by the pristine breeze of boyhood.
Again I face Holsum’s second batter. Strike Two! My elbow is freaking on fire.
Stee-rike Three! The stands explode. All my stuff is working—the non-fast fastball, the lemming-like sinker, the teasing outside come-and-get-me pitch. But the last throw hurts like I’ve stabbed myself in the elbow with my fishing knife.
I motion for Coach to come out from the first-base dugout, the one the fans are sitting on. They hush. I motion again. They fall silent.
“I can’t pitch,” I tell him. “My elbow hurts.”
Ardell McBride, who played in the Philadelphia Phillies organization and homered into the shallow end of Memorial Swimming Pool, was clearly not happy to hear this.
“I can’t pitch because of my elbow.”
“Did you warm up properly?”
“I think so.”
Long ago, the man standing over me had taken a journey out the east end of town through all those tender rolling hills first green then gold, even so far as the shore of another great ocean. And there, day by day with the Phillies, hopes had vaulted in those gray eyes—hopes of a big-league career. But by the summer of 1963 he was back where he’d begun in a southeastern Washington town. The hopes unrealized, the career not to be, the eyes had turned solemn. At times bitter. The voice of this man now said over me scary-low, “You—think—so?”
I looked down at my feet. They were near the rubber. The rubber had its usual little in-season depression in front of it, but today it wasn’t deep enough to interfere with my delivery. I could feel Coach’s eyes boring a hole in my neck.
“Bailey. I want to get this straight. Are you telling me—look at me—that you can’t pitch?” Mixed with anger, I heard alarm.
I understood him.
This was not a practice game, this was a league game. Against our great rival Holsum. With whom we were topping the standings once again neck-and-neck. I was crapping out against Holsum in the first inning, for crying out loud? He wanted this game bad.
He’d done his part to get it.
He’d taught us the correct way to round a base. How to back up a fielder making a catch. How when a base runner tries to steal second the catcher rifles his throw low so the pitcher snags it and picks off the leaning man on third. He taught us to block grounders on one knee for safety in the outfield, to judge flyballs and catch them with two hands, and to hit the cut-off man. He taught us to protect the plate with two strikes just getting a piece of the ball. To choke up and back up against the good fastball, how to lay down a bunt moving the bat from high to low and how to hook-slide. To execute the run-down with three men, running behind the man you’ve thrown to while forcing the base runner in the pickle back near the original bag to make the tag or hold him there in case you don’t get him. He kept strict attendance at practices and had us shag scores of flies, turn scores of double plays. He taught us when to draw the infield in and when to issue the intentional walk.
In short, he taught us baseball.
Did winning matter? You bet it mattered. Because hard work and success matter, though the wait be long and bitter.
I respected him with all that was in me and wanted to help our team. But I knew I was done.
I lifted my eyes to his. “I want to. But I can’t!”
Silence on that mound over half a century ago. Coach Ardell McBride looked into a 12-year-old boy’s eyes and saw desire and hurt and frustration. Like a young man’s once beside a far ocean.
He understood me too. We were both of us wounded.
“Then we’ll get a fresh arm in here, son.”
The fans were murmuring as we walked side by side to the dugout. I concealed my eyes from the three girls under my red cap pulled down low.
On the bench, as my replacement warmed up, I took stock.
Today I’d come off the DL. Gotten the nod. Struck out the first two batters on six pitches.
Demanded to be taken out of the game. Against our arch-rival Holsum. In front of a lot of people including three cool girls.
I felt like a complete idiot.
Had I warmed up enough?
III: Darkness on the Edge of Town
I threw my fifth pitch at Freddy Campbell’s head. He was from the only black family I knew of in town.
Why at 14 I was pitching for—or even on— a Pony League team as good as the Lions still baffles me. Coach Boschker’s son Dave was one of our catchers. Our line-up was a product of father and son putting their heads together. Dave told his dad who the good athletes in town were, and the other coaches figured that he would. Wilbur figured they would figure that Dave would. So the night the men gathered to bid their equal allotments of points for new players, Wilbur made feints towards boys not on his son’s list. Bidding wars among the other coaches broke out while Wilbur kept his powder dry for Dave’s recommendations. When the night was done, Wilbur had assembled an All-Star team before a pitch had been thrown. Despite my incredibly feeble bat, we went 17-0 with one game called on account of darkness which we were about to win too.
Before facing Freddy, I’d made a throwing error which loaded the bases. My first pitch was a fastball down the middle. Batting left, Freddy creamed a vicious drive up the right-field line. It hooked foul by an inch.
Man! He’s not gonna see that pitch again!
True, our infield had my back, I knew. During one two-inning stretch in another game, all four players behind me made jewel-like plays. The other team’s parents had shaken their heads in disgust seeing their sons make such good contact getting so little for it. Today though, I felt it was mostly on me to get hard-hitting Freddy Campbell out.
Having just crushed a ball, maybe he’d be eager to swing again. I threw outside. A weak grounder off the end of his bat would end the inning stranding three.
One and one.
Okay, you laid off once. Let’s see you do it again. Same offer.
Two and one.
So. Time for my best pitch. Nobody takes this one. I threw Freddy my sinker waist-high to the inside corner. A more enticing ball sashaying its way up to home plate is hard to imagine. At two-thirds the way in, though, it cut sharply down and right crossing Freddy’s shins in the middle to find the dirt in front of Dave’s glove. This was my bread-and-butter pitch. It had whiff or harmless grounder written all over it.
Three and one.
I can’t believe that! Nobody takes that pitch! But Freddy Campbell just had.
Now what? The hurt he’d put on my first pitch still had me thoroughly scared. No more fastballs for him.
Ball four, of course, would force in a run. Walking up the mound to the rubber, my back to home plate, I considered.
There was only one thing left to do.
Throw it at his head.
The ball left my hand on line. Freddy would step out with his front foot into the proverbial bucket like all left-handed hitters did in that situation. My pitch continued on track. But as intended, and like the previous one, it too broke down and right arcing earthwards like a wounded quail on course to cross the middle of the plate thigh-high for an ump-proof strike.
But Freddy didn’t step in the bucket. He didn’t straighten up. He didn’t even flinch. He just crouched, poised in his batter’s coil, eyeing my looping pitch all the way into his wheelhouse. Then he ripped another hooking shot up the right-field line identical to the first. Except this one fell fair by an inch.
Stand-up triple. Three runs in.
What can I say? I threw the pitches I wanted to throw. He beat me.
The only other experience I ever had with a black person in my home town was during my senior year in high school. He was our assistant teacher-in-training for Seminar in Economic and Political Systems. After class one day at the end of term some of the students up front got to talking with him about his life, and some of us in the back moved up to hear. We learned he was about to finish his college education major but that our regular teacher hadn’t liked his performance with us and was going to write a negative report. “What are you going to do?” a girl asked him. “I don’t know,” he said. “But it won’t be teaching.”
The conversation continued. We learned something else. One late afternoon while walking alone through empty Memorial Park, a gunshot whizzed past his ear.
In addition to his triple and three RBI’s, Freddy Campbell made another contribution to his team’s cause that Pony League game in 1965. A play was going to be close at second. Freddy, the base runner, came in standing up and knocked the ball loose. The hard collision sent our second baseman tumbling. He needed a minute or two to recover.
It was a hard-nosed play usually seen at home plate, but it makes as much sense on the base paths. And it had just been perfectly executed.
But the crowd was not happy.
Some of us on the Lions heard much later that the night following this game, a man called the Campbell home. He reviled Freddy and spewed racial epithets at the whole family. Amid threats of violence. It was our assistant coach.
Everything grows near my home town, from soft white wheat through barley and peas to sweet yellow onions and strawberries red as blood. Nowadays there are vineyards too, over 200 and counting. Their wine is quite good.
Playing the national pastime in my home town was a wonderful American experience. I’m sure it still is. For white boys like me.
It wasn’t quite so wonderful for Freddy Campbell and his family.
Over the half-century since I pitched to him, the community has grown a little. But has its heart? That’s tougher to know.Like the chance of a black man getting shot in a large and lonely park in my home town. About the Author:Originally from Walla Walla, Washington, Dan Bailey is a semi-retired English teacher who’s spent half his life in Europe, Polynesia, Japan, and Latin America. He´s worked on a tramper in Bristol Bay, packed Christmas trees outside Missoula, Montana and taught at a university inside a gathering Venezuelan dictatorship. He´s a past chess magazine editor. As a player, he´s good enough to know how bad he is.