The Ball Field and Summer Days
Dr. Danny Fulks asked that I write something about my childhood. I got so excited about my new editor I forgot to do that for a while. The other day I drove past our old ball field, and decided to tell you about it.
Back when I was a kid we didn’t have any kind of organized ball until we were old enough for Little League. No one had ever heard of T-ball. We just got in the morning, threw on a pair of shorts and went to ‘the field’ to round up a game.
The field was a vacant lot between our house and the neighbor’s. We had to make do. Home plate was large flat rock, so you didn’t slide in unless it was real important. A pear tree served as first base. If you grabbed ahold of it just right as you made the turn, you’d get some extra momentum and get a leg up on a double. The base baths were were beat down red clay from where we ran all day. Later in life I loved the Nashville Bluegrass Band song ‘Red Clay Halo.’ It reminded me of those days.
We had to chop all the weeds down to make any semblance of a ball field, and had no access dirt movers or heavy equipment. Our Dads were too busy working to fool with it, so the field wasn’t level. I guess you could call it split level ball field, ’cause from second base on out there was a gentle drop off, and then the outfield leveled out a bit, and settled in at four or five feet lower. If you could hit it out of the infield, the ball would tend to run. If you hustled, you could make an in-the-park homer ’cause the outfielders had to throw the ball back uphill. I’d run fast to try to avoid a slide into home. One time we found out the neighborhood juvenile delinquent smoked cigarettes on the sly when he slid into home rock and the matches in his pocket caught on fire.
Over time I broke several of the fingers in my hand and a couple of arm bones. I didn’t know you called it a supracondylar fracture at the time, but I was lucky; it healed up fine. My Dad set it. Back then the Country Docs did all orthopedics; we didn’t have a specialist. The cast was plaster, and all the kids signed it. It made me a local hero for a while there. We played on and didn’t think too much about injuries, but my mom kept watch from the kitchen window. She’d holler out, “Tommy, I better not catch you using that arm.”
No boy wanted his mama to comment on his baseball game from the kitchen, so I learned to bat with one hand pretty quick. By the end of that summer, I could get a ground rule double, but I never did hit a homer with one hand. By the time my arm healed the odor of the cast was a hot and sweaty horrible. I was lucky and never broke a leg, not even sliding into the rock we had for home base.
One time I broke my right pinky and my Dad put a splint on it. I’d take it off by day so I could play, but then put it on again at night for supper so he wouldn’t know I wasn’t complying with his treatment. I never did tell him it mended a bit crooked, but it turned out to be a blessing, ’cause it made a perfect crook for a Vardon grip when I took up golf a few years later.
We only had a few ball bats, and we nursed them along through as many seasons as we could. When my favorite Louisville Slugger got splintered, I used little bitty nails to mend it back together, and then wrapped it as tight as I could with some black friction tape. We weren’t ingenious enough to cork ’em, and never heard of that till years later.
At the end of the field there was a sharper drop off. Now it only seems to be a slight incline, but we called it ‘The Cliff.’ If you bounced one over the cliff, it was ground rule double, and if you flew it over it was a home run. The face of the slope was covered with honey-suckle, and sometimes the ball would get lost in the tangles of vines. We usually didn’t have two baseballs, so we’d have to hunt for it to resume play. At times we’d just lay on our backs and rest in the honeysuckle, at least if the bees didn’t get after us too bad. We’d look up at the big white cumulus clouds, and dream up what kind of animals they looked like. I suppose nowadays kids would say they looked like the Michelin man, but he hadn’t been invented yet. I guess sex had been invented by then, but we weren’t old enough to realize some of the formations had suggestive curvatures.
On the extra hot days sometimes we’d ride our bikes over to the Park Pool. You could swim all day for about a dime. If we’d played ball real hard earlier, we’d look like little dirty beggars. The pool manager would make us wash the red clay dust off out feet before we got in the water.
We had to change the ball game rules as we got older. Some of us got to where we could hit the ball over the cliff every time. When you got that good, you had to bat left-handed. Once you could hit it over left-handed all the time you had to quit, but that meant graduation to Little League. Micky Mantle was our hero ’cause he was a switch hitter. We’d argue about whether he could hit it over the cliff. I’m sure he coulda hit it out of the neighborhood.
As we got older we could ride the wind, as it usually was at our back and favored us. We’d hit the ball too far, and it would wind up in old lady Power’s flower garden. She would confiscate it if she got there first. Baseballs were hard to come by, and if you hit one there, we couldn’t run fast enough to get it back before she snatched it up. She wouldn’t give it back either. We thought she was mean, but I guess she was just trying to protect her flowers from a bunch of boys trampling through them.
On those windy days we often took to flying kites instead. Sometimes they were store bought, but often we made ’em out of paper and sticks. The tail was the most important part; they provided a stability we learned to harness very early on. I’d stand at home plate and let out some string. If there was a little less breeze we’d have to run around the infield, but we had no trouble getting them aloft. Once it was airborne we’ d let the younger ones fly it. We had a giant ball of string, but on a good day we’d run it all out. The little ones would just squeal. “Tommy, Tommy, what are we gonna do?” There wasn’t much to those kites, but we never wanted to lose one.
I’d leave it with two kids in charge and run down to the store around the corner and buy a couple more balls of string, then tie on my best knot and keep her flying. Every so often the line would break and the kite would flutter out of sight, but most of the time we could reel it back home to fly another day.
And that is how I spend almost all my summer days until my teenage years. Might not have been much training to be a doctor, but that is what it was.
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