My name is Dr. Wallie Jones, age 71. I am a retired dentist, 25 year American Legion baseball coach and ABCA member for 28 years. I currently own a “free” Christian based baseball school that concentrates on building boys and men first and players second. I didn’t know if you ever run into many stories on “yesteryear” baseball, but here’s mine:
One day in 2008, Eleven year old Bradley came into my dental office decked out in his full little league uniform, complete with rubber cleats caked with dirt and clay. I keep up with youth baseball in Sumter, South Carolina enough to know that all of the teams in his age group were finished playing for the summer.
“What are you doing with a baseball uniform on?” I asked. “I’ve got two buddies that walk over to Bobby Richardson Fields and we just throw, catch and hit.” Bradley replied.
“Do you have any coaches with you?” I asked, knowing that a gung-ho parent must be dragging three reluctant boys from their video games to the field to make them better ball players.
“No, sir, we just like to play.”
Bradley obviously is in a time warp. Surely the A/C is out in his house. Maybe he hasn’t done his summer book reading in preparation for year and this is his punishment. How will they ever know who wins without a coach, a scoreboard, stats or umpires? There is no team picture, participant trophy or even a snack after the game. The concession stand is shut down and the bathrooms are locked… you know what that means. I’m sure Bradley hasn’t thought through all of these things. If he had, he would have just told his Mom that he was bored and needed $5 to get over it.
“No, sir, we just like to play.”
That comment jogged a memory of mine from Pinewood, South Carolina, in 1958. Right around 9:00 AM every June, July and August morning (except for Sundays, of course), there would be a baseball game going on in the vacant lot across from the Hall’s house in Pinewood, a town of 400 at the time. Boys from “uptown”, downtown, across town, and out of town found their way to THE GAME.
“Crow”, “Jeep”, “Dog”, “Sweeney”, “Prune”, “Gude”, “Shupe”, the Hall brothers, the Jones boys, and others would gather for an all day game of baseball. The games never stopped. Each day we played a series of games. One game was over much too quickly. The summer heat was never an issue or even discussed. There were no air conditioners in Pinewood at the time, so we never had a contrast of being cool in the summer. Heat was normal. Our uniforms consisted of jeans and an unbuttoned button-up shirt or no shirt at all. Some of us wore high top black tennis shoes and a few had no shoes at all. Some of us had caps and some didn’t.
Each morning upon arrival at the lot across from the Halls’, there was very little greeting, not unlike plant workers checking in at work in the morning. After assessment of body count, we chose sides. The two best players would alternate picking a player for their respective teams until all players were selected…even if there was an odd number. Whoever had been playing the worst got chosen last. That’s the way it was.
"Home" and "Away" was decided by an elaborate bat tossing discipline, which would allow one of the teams to choose whether or not to hit first. And the winner would always choose to hit first- that way, you were assured of batting in every inning, even if your team was in the lead.
The bases on the field were usually flat pieces of board or just the worn bald spots in the grass. There were no fences to hit it over for a home run so you just kept running. If the ball rolled into the Halls’ open garage, we knew that we may have to battle the dog before hitting the cutoff man. At any time, “Dickie” – the town’s free-roaming Bantam rooster – may make an appearance. With no distinct foul lines, there were always plenty of differing estimates as to whether a ball was fair or foul- everybody was an umpire!
Once the game started, arguments abounded, mainly concerning the number of outs, the inning and the score. When one wanted to challenge the veracity of the call or inning, he would simply say “name um”, which meant to review the past inning’s action. These arguments never evolved into a stabbing or shooting. The worse thing I remember was someone being called “stupid” or “idiot”. Although technically we were a gang, we didn’t wear gang colors because we usually played without a shirt. The gang had to get along together because we needed each other for THE GAME. Pinewood baseball didn’t have a second string. There were no fat kids in our group- you were big or you weren’t. The miracle drug, Ritalin, had not yet been gifted to all of our mothers, but I guess it came in a different form- we played hard outside, all day long.
We did enjoy refreshments during the game. Water was from the Hall’s hose that went to the goat pen, home of “Billy” and “Foxy”. The water tasted like rubber since it traversed the long section of hose. Other supplements included blackberries and wild plums from the ditch bank.
When it was too dark to play, we piled about 12 boys on 6 bikes with one “pulling” and one riding on the handlebars. When you didn’t have a bike, you weren’t labeled as poor, disadvantaged, less fortunate or underprivileged. You were simply labeled as “he needs a ride”. There were no government bicycle grants back then so you walked or caught a ride. Who knows, this destitute life of not having a bike may have led some kids to cut grass or pick cotton to make money to buy a bike. Santa didn’t always have a bike for every kid. Usually Santa’s gifts were limited to tangerines, Brazil nuts, chocolate covered cherries and some school clothes. Something “being free” in 1958 meant that you were free to work for whatever you wanted.
Nowadays, our “stadium” is covered with 30 foot-high pine trees. Billy and Foxy have made their trips to goat heaven and the pen has rotted, and Dickie no longer roams the town. Many of our “players” are now wearing new knees, hips and valves. Our tacked, taped and nailed wooden bats have been replaced by aluminum and composite bats. No one plays with a baseball held together with friction tape anymore.
So, to all of the Bradleys out there- I hope you never outgrow loving to play. I haven’t. Thank you for wearing your uniform to the office that day and allowing me to get on a magic carpet and fly to the “Stadium” in 1958. We were just like you. We just liked to play.