Thursday, December 09, 2004


I love baseball.

As a young man, much of my life focused on the game once considered America’s pastime. Growing up in Cincinnati didn’t hurt either—the Cincinnati Redlegs being the first professional baseball team, and, in my youth, often a contender.

Yes, I said Redlegs, not Reds. You see, “back in the day” that was the team name. In fact even when I was a young man growing up in the Queen City, our team was often referred to that way. Here is their 1958 logo.

Founded just after the Civil War in 1869, the team—first called the Cincinnati Red Stockings—took the field for the very first time on May 4th of that year. They won that first game, beginning a streak of victories. And they won another 129 games without a loss, until falling in extra innings to the Brooklyn Atlantics on June 14th of 1870 by a score of 8-7—130 straight victories!

In 1876, Cincinnati became a charter member of the newly formed National League.

Crosley Field opened in 1912 and served as the home of the Reds for 58 years until 1970, when the team relocated itself to Riverfront Stadium. Crosley Field featured a double-deck grandstand, and was the first field where a night game was played under the lights on May 24, 1935. The stadium accomodated about 30,000 fans—small by today's standards.

As a young man, Dad took me to see the Reds play at Crosley Field more than once. We went to several games between 1958 and 1960.

At the most memorable outing, one of Dad’s good friends from work joined us at the game. We sat in the upper deck on the third base side, about halfway between third base and the left-field wall. I brought my huge first baseman’s glove, hoping to shag a foul ball. And believe it or not, one came our way—quickly rising down the left field line and into the upper deck. We scarce had a moment to react. And guess what? My Dad’s friend snagged it—barehanded. Then he turned and put the ball in my glove—a gift from my Dad’s kind-hearted friend! What a thrill! I held on to that ball for years but have since lost it. Sad.

Another memory, oddly, was the foul smelling men’s bathroom. Today, men’s rooms have private urinals, often separated by a panel. But at Crosley Field all the men lined up facing the wall and did their business in a wall-length, common urinal. And that place stunk to high heaven. It’s an odd memory indeed, but one that has never left me.

Something else I remember quite clearly was the overwhelming number of black men at the games—not on the field, but in the stands. Back in those days, we did not use the term “black,” but rather referred to our dark-skinned countrymen as Negroes. I had of course seen Negroes before, in fact my school was integrated, and one of my best friends, Donald Mitchell, was black. But I had never seen so many blacks in one place at one time and the experience awakened me for the first time to that whole realm. It is one thing to live in a predominantly white neighborhood peppered with a few black families. But to be in an environment where you are basically in the minority—that’s another matter altogether.

Crosley Field sat at the intersection of Western Avenue and Findley Street, not exactly the upscale section of town. An alley ran right behind the center field wall, and kids would hang out there during games, hoping to grab a home run ball. From our seats in the upper deck, we could just barely see into that alley. And I remember clearly a couple of home run balls going over that wall and the mad scramble of the kids, most on foot, some on their bikes, rushing toward a treasured prize.

After one game we somehow got down to the gate where the players exited the field to go home. And I was able to secure the autograph of a lesser-known pitcher named Jay Hook. I have since lost track of that prize as well.

For a young, wide-eyed boy, the whole experience of going to a professional ball game is an irreplaceable episode in one’s life, a memory to cherish forever. I will never forget sitting in the stands, next to Dad, glove on my hand, with the man on the PA system announcing my favorite players coming to the plate—Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Gordy Coleman, Joe Nuxhall, Elio Cardenas, Jerry Lynch—the roar of the crowd, the lights, the scoreboard, the smells, the cry of the vendor—“Hey, get your cold beer! Cold beer!”

Of course, part of the ambience is the way the beer man says beer. The two words “cold beer”—two syllables really—rise in crescendo. The “R” in beer is never uttered. And oh, those hot dogs—those incredible ballpark hot dogs. Big, juicy, smothered in mustard, doused with onions and relish, and wrapped in tin foil. What a treat. Yes, it was a marvelous experience, one which I will always treasure.

I especially liked Gordy Coleman, the Reds' first baseman. When I played organized ball (see below) I wore a No. 9 jersey, just like Gordy, played first base, just like Gordy, batted left and threw right, just like Gordy. He was my hero.

And the games we did not attend, which were most of them, we would sometimes watch on television. I remember Saturday afternoons at my Grandma Weaver’s house, sitting in front of her little black and white television, watching the game with my grandpa, my dad and my uncles—Uncle Bill, Uncle Bob, Uncle Cecil, Uncle Willy, and sometimes Uncle Gerald or Uncle Jack. They set up kitchen chairs a semi-circle on the linoleum floor in Grandma’s living room. They gathered around the little T.V., beers in hand, laughing, joking, and making cracks about a play or a player. Sometimes they smoked cigars. Meanwhile, we kids—my cousins and I—wandered in and out of the house through Grandma's front, screen door.

And when the game was not being broadcast on television, we’d often listen to it on our radio. I remember tuning in regularly to hear Waite Hoyt and Jack Moran give their play-by-play and analysis on the air.

“I’ll give you a Whitey Ford and a Warren Spahn for a Mickey Mantle.”

Such were the day-to-day summer dealings of us young boys on the block. We anxiously awaited the daily visit of our “ice cream man.” He drove an orange van-like truck with decals pasted all over. As he turned the corner and began to head up our street, he rang his bell so we kids could hear him coming, beg some change from our moms or dads, and run out to meet him. He sold not only popsicles and dreamsicles and ice cream bars, he sold the most important commodity of all—Topps baseball cards.

Now the baseball cards came in five-card packs, with a flat, pink slab of bubble gum inside the wrapper. And yeah, we liked the gum. But our real pursuit was those precious cards inside the pack.

We traded them, we flipped them, and we even clothespinned them to the frames of our bicycles so they fluttered in the spokes of the wheels when we rode our bikes up and down the street. We thought our bikes sounded like motorcycles.

We used to store them in cardboard shoeboxes, often bound together by rubber bands and categorized by team, or by year. Today, collectors keep them in sealed plastic, and handle them with tweezers. Times have changed.

Sometimes the card of a lesser known player—say a Bob Purkey—could become just as valuable as a Mantle or a Willy Mays. A 1959 Purkey card might be the only card needed to compete a set of that team for that year.

Like a dummy, when I became an adult, I gave my baseball card collection away to a young boy, thinking that my collection was useless to me. If I had those cards today, I’ll bet they’d be worth at least $1,000. Regrets.

Going to professional games was fun. Watching them, and listening on the radio was fun, too. And I of course enjoyed collecting and trading those baseball cards. But the real joys of baseball came in actually playing the games.

At about the age of eight, Dad got me involved in the local Cincinnati Knothole League. The word “knothole” in the title came from the little holes sometimes found in wooden fences from where a knot in the board had popped out. The classic image is that of a young boy, sneaking a peak at a professional ball game from outside the fence, looking through a knothole.

Due to my above average height, the coach selected me to play first base. And Dad, though not officially a part of the coaching staff gave me all kinds of tips and pointers about the game. He taught me how to straddle the corner of the bag as I was waiting for a throw. That way I would be prepared to stretch either way should the throw from shortstop or the second baseman be a little off. And after my first summer of play, Dad bought me a huge first baseman’s glove. Hands at my side, the tip of that sucker reached to my knee.

Dad taught me how to hold the bat, how to plant my feet, how to swing. He even taught me how to place the ball. We often played catch in the backyard. And sometimes he would hit pop flies to me.

By the time I first began playing organized ball I had already learned much about the game. I knew about the infield fly rule, tagging up, sacrifice bunts, strike zones, and balks.

Aside from being a test of athletic skill, baseball requires thinking on your feet. As a fielder you need to know at every moment what to do if the ball comes to you. Where do I throw it, and why? If you’re the batter, and you get a hit, you need to run smartly, not taking an unnecessary chance of getting thrown out. And if you’re the coach or manager, you need to know how to play the right group of players against your opponent, and how to adjust your fielders to their best location for each batter.

When we moved to Texas, I played the summer of ’62 on the Kiwanis Club team. Dad joined the coaching staff and coached the runners from first. As before, when our team was in the field, I played first base.

The highlight of my baseball career came that summer when I hit a grand slam home run in the championship game and our team won the championship. I still have the trophy.

I did not play organized ball again until our church, New Life Community, formed a softball team in the late 1970’s. Once again, I played first base.

Now that D.C. has finally gotten a professional baseball team—the Nationals—I am looking forward to following them throughout the season. I even hope to get to a game or two. It will be fun. Maybe I can even catch the Reds when they come to town.


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