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Steve Massey’s voice came floating across the lawn one hot summer evening. “Hey, Tom,” it said, “there’s an exhibition game gonna be over at the ballpark. Grab your mitt, let’s go!”
“No thanks,” I hollered back, “I don’t think I can stand that much excitement tonight.” I had just come back Stateside from eleven months chasing Hitler’s armies back to Berlin, and I was still getting used to being able to loaf around without getting shot at.
“Aw, come on,” Steve pleaded. “It’s some traveling team, the Illinois All-Stars I think. They stuck up a poster down at the hardware store, it says they’ll play against any nine we can field. Bob says the only reason they’re here at all is their bus broke down and they can’t get to Terre Haute until somebody comes over from Crawfordsville tomorrow to fix it.”
“You go,” I said, “I’ll just stay here and enjoy being home.” A lot of my time those days was spent just swinging back and forth on the front porch swing with a cold glass of Champagne Velvet, getting reacquainted with my parents.
Now I’m not usually an impulsive kind of guy. You can ask my wife Jackie, she’ll tell you I’m kind of cautious, you know, I like to see where I’m going. I want to know what’s happening before it does, not after it did. I learned that in France. I miss some things, probably, but life is much quieter that way, and that’s how I like it. But Steve cheated. He went over my head to my mother. “Mrs. Knowles, make him go, please?”
“Thomas, go with your friend,” she said, and she gave me the eye.
I knew I was stuck. “Thomas” was for when she meant it. “Oh, okay, sure, let’s go,” I said. If I’d known what was going to happen I’d never have agreed. I’d have run the other way. But I didn’t, so I hauled myself up out of the porch swing, picked up my first baseman’s mitt from the railing where I’d left it after playing catch with my dad earlier, trotted down the front steps, and joined Steve for the half-mile walk to the ballpark.
Our town had a really nice ballpark back then. It’s gone now, modernized into a brand new shopping center, with a big IGA and a Hook’s and three or four other stores. There’s even an A&W. I miss the ballfield. Old Mrs. Hanfield donated it before she died, and we may have been a jerkwater whistle stop on the Wabash, but our baseball field was as nice as the Class A one in Terre Haute. There was a grandstand, with a real concession booth underneath, and an announcer’s booth up top where Ed McChesney’s dad used to call the names of the players over the PA. We had lights, and a real scoreboard, one with numbers that slid into position, not a cheesy one with blackboards and chalk.
The Illinois All-Stars looked good. They looked scary good. Their manager was hitting fungoes to the outfield while the infielders pegged a ball back and forth across the diamond. Even the manager looked good. He was dropping his flies right into Texas Leaguer territory, to make the outfielders work. As we walked up, I saw the shortstop fire a shot to first base hard enough to make a loud smack when it hit the mitt. And then I noticed. “Steve,” I said, grabbing his elbow, “They’re — ”
Steve held up his hand, with his fingers outspread to warn me off. “Don’t!” he said. “We’re not supposed to say anything. Mr. McChesney said it wouldn’t be polite.”
I shut up. But I wasn’t sure it was all right to play against that team.
My doubts disappeared as the All-Stars came jogging in to their dugout — they’d taken the home team’s dugout along the first base line — and we took the field to practice. I was at first, of course, because at six-four I was the tallest player we had, and Steve strolled out to the mound, looking as cocky as he could. Bob Willets picked up the catcher’s mask and stood in behind the plate. On second was Ed McChesney, and Robbie Ellison was at short. Ed Hanfield — the “other” Ed, whose rich grandmother had given us the park — played third. In the outfield I saw Frank Olds, Gerry Taylor, and Stan Tuttle.
It felt good to throw the ball around. I’d forgotten how good. We’d played in France, naturally, but it’s not the same game when you have to keep your rifles and helmets in the dugout. Or what passes for a dugout, anyway, usually just a few folding chairs a ways back from the foul lines. Here, in the half twilight of an Indiana summer, it was heaven. The lights came on, and I forgot all about any reservations I’d had. We still looked as good to me as we’d been before I went away, and we were going to play the Illinois All-Stars, and we were going to beat them.
We warmed up for a while, then we came in to go over the ground rules. Mr. Willets was elected to umpire behind the plate, and the All-Stars’ manager, whose name was Sparky Elliman, would umpire in the field. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Tuttle trotted out to the coaches’ boxes, and nobody said anything, so that settled that. The All-Stars took the field, and the game was on.
Robbie was our leadoff man. He was a big man with arms the size of most people’s legs, you get that way pitching bales on the wagon every summer, and he made a big production of picking a bat from the box and strutted up to the plate looking like Ted Williams. He reached down to pick up some dust, rubbed it on the bat — a huge black one — and between his hands for a better grip, and then stood in. The pitcher looked in, took a wind-up, and let fly. Robbie just stood there in his stance as it went by, chest high, at about 500 miles an hour. “Strike one!” hollered Mr. Willets. There was no way that pitcher could be throwing that fast, it wasn’t humanly possible. We all knew it, but we hadn’t been prepared for quite that kind of smoke, and that first strike had surprised us. Robbie tapped the plate, took a couple of slow practice swings, and glared out at the mound as he took his stance for the next pitch. The pitcher looked in, shook off the first sign, then nodded. The windup, the pitch, and CRACK! Robbie had nailed it, and the ball arched out toward center. For such a big guy Robbie was fast, but it didn’t matter how fast he was, because about the time he got three-quarters of the way down to first, the ball plopped into the center fielder’s mitt, and there was one away.
Gerry Taylor went down swinging on two fastballs and a changeup that had him so far out in front he fell down, and I managed to work it up to a count of two strikes, with a wild whiff and two fouls, before I got some wood on what I think was probably a fastball. It went rail-straight, right into the shortstop’s mitt. Three up, three down, and we hadn’t seen a single pitch outside the strike zone. The All-Stars were up and the Hometown Heroes were doomed.
They only got three runs in the first. Steve really wasn’t a bad pitcher, he had some amazingly good stuff. He could throw hard, and he had a really sweet curve, better than the All-Stars had any right to expect from a local boy who hadn’t even had a scout sniffing in his direction, and he managed to keep it low enough that a lot of the time their hits stayed on the ground. If we’d been better in the infield, we’d have stopped a lot more of those hot grounders. The one solid swat Steve let through came off their catcher’s bat, but Stan was playing fairly close in right. The ball dropped right in front of him, and he took it on a short hop and got it to me fast enough for the third out. We were all relieved about that one, the bases were loaded.
The whole game went like that. Except for the double play. In the bottom of the sixth, their pitcher tagged one that bounced off the scoreboard and hit the light pole before dropping outside the fence, a ground-rule double. That set up the double play. Their center fielder, the top of the order and a southpaw who really pulled the ball, came up for the fourth time. Steve’s first shot was a fastball at the knees, a pitch we were sure would go by. No such luck. The bat came around and met the ball, sending a real killer liner right at my head. I stuck my hand out, more for protection than with any hope of making a play, and damn if I didn’t catch the thing. It went SMACK! into my mitt, sending fire up my arm and into my shoulder. What happened next was like magic. Instinct took over before I could start thinking, and I yanked the ball out and shot it to Ed, who was trying, without much luck, to hold the runner on second. He snagged the ball, stepped across the bag, and made the tag in a cloud of dust as the All-Star pitcher tried to slide back in. I don’t think Mr. Elliman enjoyed jerking his thumb at his own player, but both umpires had already proven their fairness, and he did it. The victim trotted off the field, and I couldn’t help grinning. “Nice try!” I said, as I shook the pins and needles out of my hand.
“Thanks,” came the smiling answer. “Not too bad yourself.”
I could feel a blush starting, so I turned away, trying to look businesslike.
The final score was 23 to 2. Both of our runs came on home runs, one by Stan Tuttle that just barely cleared the fence and one by Ed Hanfield that we never did find.
Later we helped the All-Stars pack their stuff back in the bus, and most of our guys were making friendly overtures to our opponents, inviting them over to the Tavern for a short beer. I was standing next to the pitcher, so I stuck out a hand and said, “Looks like a postgame party, your team and our team, at the Tavern. Can I buy you a beer?” A handshake later, we were walking across the parking lot together, telling each other our life stories.
Suddenly I stopped. “Can I have your autograph?” I said.
“Sure. Got a pen? And something to write on?”
I dug around in my pockets, and I found that morning’s grocery list. I smoothed it out and put it face down on the hood of Mr. McChesney’s pickup. Then I fished out my brand-new Eversharp, a wine-red pen with a gold-filled cap, uncapped it, and handed it over.
“Pretty pen!” said the All-Star pitcher as the ink flowed onto the paper.
Remember what I told you before, how I’m not the impulsive type, how I don’t like too much excitement? Well I’m serious, that was twenty-two years ago, and I still have no idea why what happened next, happened. I said, “Would you like to have it?”
Dark brown eyes looked back at me. “Are you serious?”
I looked down at the autographed slip of paper, then I looked up again. “Yes. Marry me and it’s yours.”
The pitcher for the Illinois All-Stars didn’t say anything, she just clipped my pen into the neck of her baseball shirt. Then she looked up at me with a grin as big as mine. “If you’re crazy enough to propose like that,” said Jackie Blair, “I’m crazy enough to marry you.”
Later, as we sat there in the Tavern, with our friends showering us with congratulations, I decided that Champagne Velvet was very aptly named.
Peterson’s Scoremaster, from Cannon
Baseball, the American National Game. What better way to enjoy the subtleties of the game than by following pitch by pitch, scoring in the same pad the official scorer up there in the box is using? Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd!