(Boulevard Park, photographer unknown, 1902. Courtesy of Special Collections, Pikes Peak Library District. Image Number: 257-6464.)

The Middle Distance 9.2.11: All Baseball, All The Time

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photo by Sean Cayton

When we were kids, the long, slow drawl of baseball colored our summer afternoons. Red clay dirt. Freshly drawn baselines of powdered white chalk. Little League Cardinals in red and white; Orioles in orange and white; Pirates in green and white. Fingers stained by the artificial coloring of Pixi-Stix from the concession stand.

Hard to believe, out here in the middle distance, that an entire summer has passed and I haven’t seen a single baseball game besides a glimpse of the Little League World Series on television. Half a century ago, summer was all baseball, all the time.

In southern Kentucky, circa 1960, we spent our afternoons playing on the schoolyard across the street from our house, awaiting 4 o’clock and the preparation of the baseball field for a double hedder. A mother with a thick rope of keys unlocked the equipment shed, the concession stand, and the chain link doors to the dugouts. An umpire in crisp black and white stripes walked the baselines with a rolling metal box. Uniformed players began slowly tossing balls in the field beyond the fence.

My sister, Kim, and I are among the first kids to arrive, to claim the job of scorekeepers for the afternoon. From the equipment shed we retrieve a heavy box of metal squares imprinted with large white numbers. We lug the box to the right field fence.

Here come the mothers, dressed in cotton blouses and baggy shorts, toddlers dangling from their suntanned arms. They fill the bleachers and face home plate, chatting and handing out nickels, dimes, and quarters to the band of beggars huddling at their feet. A few kids race up the tall backstop fence and dangle like monkeys until the umpire shoos them down.

Players take the field now for a quick practice. Fathers in jumbo-sized replicas of the team uniforms bunt and lob balls to infielders who expertly pantomime the tag out and the double play. Finally, players and coaches from both teams stand in rows along the first and third base lines and place their hats over their hearts for the National Anthem, and the ump yells, “Play ball!”

My sister and I sit balanced atop the right field fence, the box of numbers between us. When someone scores a run, one of us stands carefully, balancing on the metal bar, and stretches up to hang a number from small nails across the scoreboard grid. We are bored and sad when we have to hang a zero, but this is Little League and more often than not we are scrambling to keep up with the accumulating score.

During a lull, one of us runs to the concession stand to load up on candy. Kim has a Brown Cow and I have a Sugar Daddy. The game rolls on, punctuated by the rise and fall of the fans’ voices, thundering and retreating. From where we sit, we can hear the chatter of the players on the field, psyching the pitcher and psyching out the batter. In the outfield, lazy bees drift from clover to clover and all is slow motion. From time to time, a home run arches upward and drifts over the fence and one of us jumps down to retrieve the ball.

Late in the day, when the sun is sinking in the western sky, the second game ends. We clear the scoreboard and haul the box of numbers back to the equipment shed. Parents eager to get home for dinner quickly and efficiently clean up and batten down the ball field. Our brother, a Cardinal, walks home beyond the center field fence, his glove dangling, his white pants stained with red clay.

The park is silent as my sister and I open the gate and take the deserted field. I stand on the pitcher’s mound and she takes a batter’s stance at home plate. I pound my imaginary mitt and wind up like a pro. She swings and misses. I wind up again and this time she hits, pausing to toss her imaginary bat toward the dugout before racing to first base. I tag her out and we switch places.

We practice sliding into second base. We slither on our bellies beneath the dugout door and drop into the cool concrete cellar. We sit on the bench and finger dried wads of bubble gum stuck to the smooth wood. It is nearly dark now and we hear our mother calling. We slither back out of the dugout and race through the gate, around the ballpark, past the center field fence, tired and dirty, bounding toward home.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.

 

10 Responses to The Middle Distance, 9/2/11: All Baseball, All The Time

  1. Bipaswi says:

    Really does take you back in time … What a way to start a Friday by reflecting on the past… Thanks Kathy, enjoyed it!!

  2. Mary says:

    I remember fast-pitch softball in small town Minnesota in the 1970′s when I was in high school. Very serious stuff. The girls were finally playing, and they played as fiercely as any boy. The girls from the little dutch town down the road were very scarey. But some things are different for girls, I think. My last game was the day I drove the ball into the pitcher’s forehead and she went to the hospital out cold with a concussion. I was ok with getting hurt myself, but all confidence was lost thinking I could hurt someone else.

  3. ellie bontrager says:

    Shouldn’t it be ‘double header?’

  4. Kendall says:

    Great memories! I grew up in a town that hosted the JUCO World Series every May. My friends and I always went to the games in the evenings, but most of the time was spent talking to boys under the bleachers. I always made sure to catch a bit of the game and the final score, so I could replay it to my dad – making him think that I had been watching the game! Loved those baseball, college boys, but loved the action under the bleachers more!
    Oh the joys of growing up in a small town! Great column Kathryn!

  5. Liz says:

    Oh my goodness! Don’t know why Kendall’s name appeared on that! It was from me! I sure hope she doesn’t hang out with boys under the bleachers!

  6. hannahfriend says:

    For me, an entirely different baseball memory. My old Italian grandpa used to listen to the games on the radio — turned up real loud because he was nearly deaf. Even so, he’d fall asleep, always with his mouth open. There we’d find him when it was time to call him for dinner.

    Kathryn, I love your stories of childhood.

  7. Paula says:

    Recently there was a post on my FB highschool site asking what sport everyone participated in. Those of us in the “older” crowd commented that there were no official organized sports for girls when we were young. We did, however, have our neighborhood baseball pickup games,where we all got to play. I am still friends with those kids from fifty years ago.

  8. Philip says:

    Thank you Kathryn. You have an innate ability to paint so vivid a picture that I swear I can smell the freshly mowed infield grass along with the popcorn and hot dogs from the candy shack. Thanks so much for bringing me back to those memories that are me. Cheers!

  9. Debra Beck says:

    Kathe,

    Pitch perfect and beautiful — this is such an evocative piece on our lives in the 1960′s. You are a stunning writer. I’ve missed you, dear friend.

    Debbie

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