A bit of baseball humor the first day of high school baseball tryouts in South Carolina.
There were no baseball cups at my high school in 1967 or 1968 or if there were, no one took any time to explain the need for one to me. Instead, we had a chest protector with an extension that hung down between our knees when we went into a squat. This chest protector probably had been acquired when catchers still set up ten or twelve feet behind the batter and caught the ball on a hop in the early 1900’s.
IT WAS AN ILLUSION OF PROTECTION! IT WAS A BELIEF IN A FALSE GOD!
Take a common household sponge and rest it against your face. Now let me uncork a baseball into it. Really, no one wants to do that. You know you are going to get a broken nose, black eye or lose some teeth. I should have known that a little extension, the thickness of a common household sponge, would not protect my little “floppies” but bought into the belief that if struck by a bounced pitch or foul tipped ball, the little boys would be ok. In other words, the seventeen-year-old me was A DUMMY!
Just so you know a foul tip on to a cup will still take your breath away. A foul tip to an unprotected man part will make you contemplate suicide to make the sickening pain stop. To quote a friend who had tried to cauterize a wound with a red-hot poker, “the pain was exquisite.” I knew exactly what she meant as I remembered a foul tip that bounced off the plate and up into my chest protector extension making solid contact with my man parts. One definition of exquisite is keen or intense. Yes, the pain was exquisite in its intensity and sharpness. It was also sickening to the point of regurgitation, and it wasn’t even a direct shot. Sick, Sick, Sick!
Strangely, somewhere in the small portion of my brain that was not dealing with pain receptors, I remember thinking, “Don’t grab them. Don’t grab them.” This I thought, despite the almost uncontrollable urge to do exactly that. “DON’T RUB IT! IT MIGHT SPIT AT YOU!” That was not likely to happen for a long, long while. Even today there still seems to be an unwritten rule that keeps a catcher, or any other player for that matter, who has just taken a hundred mile per hour shot directly off his cup, from grabbing his little danglies.
Sportscasters will skirt the issue by saying, anything other than “OOOOh, he just took one off the nads!” Well, Bob Uecker might but Curt Gowdy would say something; like “…a glancing blow to the groin” or “he has just got the air knocked out of him” as the poor catcher was being led stiff legged into the dugout for an “equipment adjustment.” As the replay unwinds, over and over, you can almost hear the collective intake of breath as millions of male baseball fans react to an event that we are all too familiar with.
Just in case you are ever in a sports trivia contest, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench holds the dubious career record for broken cups, seven. From someone who knows the truth, this should be one of his least coveted records.
Historical note: According to the Baseball Book by SI, the first protective cup was worn by Claude Berry in 1915 while catching for the Pittsburgh Rebels. Protective baseball helmets were not required until 1971. We now know which head was most important.
“Middle age is when a narrow waist and a broad mind begin to change places.” – Anonymous
At best I’ve never had a narrow waist and my mind may be broader than it has ever been. Middle Age? I passed that landmark a while ago.
My body was never a temple, more like an old barn, some of its weathered cladding falling off, the tin roof turning reddish brown with rust, and one door sagging on its hinges like a drunken sailor on liberty. If I could see inside, broken down stalls would be filled with old, dried-up horse apples and cow patties. Let’s face it, middle age is in my rear-view mirror along with a steadily approaching figure known as the grim reaper.
With the approaching fall, the dreaded “physical” season is upon me. It began midweek with a full body “search” for nasty squamous cells, basil cells, or any other carcinoma that might be found. As I looked into a strategically placed mirror, I saw an alien old man who’s pale and scrawny shoulders and chest had fallen into his waist and his waist into his ass. My only six pack is cooling in the fridge. Not a pear shape exactly, more of a triangle. Note to self, stay out of eyeshot of mirrors, it is easier to lie to yourself that way and not as depressing.
The scan went well considering. I stood in my underwear in front of my extremely attractive and pregnant dermatologist and her attractive nonpregnant nurse. I didn’t know I could suck in my stomach for that long. Oh, the vanity of it all and they are young enough to be granddaughters.
One suspicious area was biopsied and three pre-cancers burned off, one squarely in the middle of my forehead. Cue the “Did you forget to duck” comments.
Early next month I have my general physical with all its bloodwork and a week later a physical with my cardiologist with the sticky and ice-cold patches reading electrical impulses for the EKG. It is a known fact they store them in a freezer. I don’t expect any unwelcome news, but they do trigger reflection. The physicals will all confirm what I already know, I’m old…but I’m still alive.
Two quotes about aging by baseball great, Satchel Paige are stuck in my head. Born in 1906, Paige pitched his last professional game in 1966, just weeks before his sixtieth birthday. Due to the Major League’s color barrier, he pitched for over twenty years combining time with the Negro Leagues, barnstorming and semi-pro ball before getting an opportunity to pitch in the Majors for the Cleveland Indians. Owner Bill Veeck knew a draw when he saw one and knew Paige would put people in seats.
Paige was forty-two and two days old when he threw his first pitch, still the oldest rookie to debut. When reporters asked about his age, Paige replied, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” Sage words. Time is a human construct used to torture us with thoughts of our own pending mortality.
In the two and a half months left in the 1948 season, Paige finished with a 6–1 record and a 2.48 ERA, pitched two, nine inning shutouts, struck out forty-three against twenty-two walks and gave up sixty-one base hits in 72 and 2⁄3 innings. And Cleveland? They won the World Series in six games; the last time Cleveland won a World Series. Not bad for a rookie of any age.
The second notable Paige quote rattling in the empty drum that is my mind, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I know the grim reaper is drawing closer, but I rather not know when he will place his bony hand upon my shoulder. No need to dwell on the inevitable. I hope I wake up dead one morning with a surprised look on my face.
Three additional quotes from Satchel Paige:
“You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.” (Metaphor for life)
“I ain’t ever had a job, I just always played baseball.” (When you enjoy what you do it is hard to call it work)
“Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way. And don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.” (Don’t just pray when things are bad.)
I used an old saying I had heard all my life in my latest endeavor to write the greatest American novel. My stalwart hero used “A ghost walking across your grave” to describe a shiver felt by my heroine. I found myself on one of my pig trails. The path twisted and turned before falling into a rabbit hole of old sayings, superstitions, and baseball as I researched where the saying had come from and my own genetics. Once and a while, a blind pig might find more than an acorn.
One side of my family is diverse if family traditions are to be believed. A large piece of my genetic pie on my mother’s side of the family is Scot Irish. According to family lore there are dashes of a Native American princess and an African seaman to spice up my pie. I haven’t had a DNA test and may not. I’d rather trust what I believe than find out the stories are fairy tales or out and out lies.
I am certain about the Scot Irish piece of the pie. All I have to do is look at a picture of my red headed, freckled faced, alabaster skinned mother and early pictures of my red headed and bearded brother. When I gaze into my own mirror, I see an argument for more than a dash of Native American or African seaman…or maybe an argument for a Bavarian named Miller or Müller on my father’s side…ah diversity.
In the early to middle 1700s settlers with the names of Perry, Rogers, Griffin and Morrow made their way South from the chilly North through Virginia’s and North Carolina‘s Appalachia. Eventually they would settle in the fertile area around the Catawba River in northern South Carolina and bring sayings and superstitions picked up along the way.
I ’m not sure how the side of my family with the surname Miller got here. There seems to be an argument over its English or German roots. More research is needed.
Shivering a bit, I found that the saying that sent me down my rabbit hole should have in fact been, “A rabbit (or goose) ran across my grave.” According to Appalachian lore, your final resting place is preordained and anytime an animal runs across the site of your grave to be, you shiver.
I don’t remember my family being overtly superstitious…well my father with his Miller surname, always spit on the windshield of our car (yuck) and made the sign of an X any time a black cat crossed our path.
From the Appalachians, the practice is believed to ward off any bad luck that some say follows the four-legged creature, long seen as an ominous sign of bad luck in the Southern Appalachians. From my research, it appears that the sign must be made three times and that spit is not needed to ward off the bad luck.
Also, from Appalachian folklore, toss a pinch of the spilt salt over your left shoulder into the face of the Devil who lurks there. Always leave a building using the same door as you entered to avoid bad luck. “Nevah, evah” nudge an empty rocking chair lest you invite the wrath of evil spirits.
My favorite might be holding your breath as you pass by a cemetery so you do not accidentally inhale a recently departed soul. That makes sense. I have enough voices in my head without adding a departed soul.
One that didn’t make sense to me was gathering acorns amid a thunderstorm and placing them on the windowsills to protect their home from lightning strikes. Not sure about that one, seems gathering acorns from under a tall oak tree during a lightning storm might be counterproductive as in dangerous.
Another, for those of us with apple trees, remember to leave a single apple hanging from at the end of the harvest, lest they attract the Devil.
I coached baseball most of my teaching career and while studies show that the passing on of Appalachian superstitions is in cultural decline, I assure you, in baseball superstitions are alive and well. Much effort is made attempting to please the baseball gods.
In an age of non-wood bats, if someone goes on a hitting spree; everyone wants to use his bat. Anyone in a zero forever slump, their bat was avoided like the plague.
If a pitcher is pitching a no hitter late, never mention it, don’t talk about it even in whispered voices. In fact just ignore the pitcher totally.
One of my teams used a “rally monkey”, dugout Ju Ju in the form of hand jives, and even had a model toilet to flush their frustrations down. Anything that might help appease the gods of the diamond.
As a manager, I never stepped on the white line entering or exiting the field of play. That is bad Ju Ju for sure. No, I don’t know why?
I always looked for a red head to rub for good luck. Not sure the young lady in the first-row bleachers seats appreciated me rubbing her. A bad joke. I looked for a red headed player to rub his head.
One of my biggest superstitions was to make sure I changed everything except my uniform when on a winning streak. Baseball players are notorious for wearing the same underwear or socks, over and over again, unwashed until a streak comes to an end. I made sure I stayed clear of dirty socks or underwear.
One of my teams went on a twenty-two-game winning streak. No one washed their socks…except me and I only washed mine. I didn’t check their underwear. I changed everything every game. Socks and underwear as fresh as Arm and Hammer could make them. My players? The aroma from their socks was strong. Left unattended the socks might walk off on their own. When the streak was over, we had a ceremonial burial of the socks in the deep centerfield outfield. Grass still refuses to grow there.
There are plenty of superstition in baseball. Eating special pregame meals, jumping over foul lines, putting an X or writing a message in the corner of the batters box or behind the mound, talking to the ball or bat while going through batting rituals, ala Mike Hargrove, the “Human Rain Delay.”
My favorite baseball film is the 1989 comedy, Major League. Much was comedy but so much of the comedy happens in real life or at least real baseball life. The reason it is a favorite is the character Pedro Cerrano, the Cuban player who couldn’t hit a curve ball believing his bat was afraid. Pedro tries to cure his bat by using chicken bones, snakes, and a nonexistent Vodun god named Jobu.
From the movie:
Pedro Cerrano : Bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straight ball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come.
Eddie Harris : You know you might think about taking Jesus Christ as your savior instead of fooling around with all this stuff.
Pedro Cerrano : Jesus, (Hey Suse) I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.
Eddie Harris : You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?
I had a player who carried around chicken bones in his bat bag hoping the bat would gain favor with the baseball gods. No snakes, no cigars or rum…may be. I don’t know how he felt about Jesus Christ but he was Catholic. Like most players, he struggled with hitting anything that bent unless it bent badly.
Me? In a Pedro Cerrano voice, “I like to drink de rum and smoke de cigar. That is good Ju Ju for me.” I couldn’t hit a curveball consistently and I don’t think it was the bat’s fault. And Eddie Harris, I’m not sure Jesus could hit one either.
When the news came across my feed I felt as if I had lost part of my childhood. Henry Aaron was dead at eight-six. I knew his days were numbered at that age but still. I had just seen pictures of him taking the Covid-19 vaccine to help other African Americans make the decision to do so. Henry “Hank” Aaron was never just a baseball player. His legacy is much more than the game he played.
He was always larger than his historical moment. The moment he hit Al Dowling’s pitch into the left field bullpen on April 8, 1974. It was an early birthday present to me. The day after Aaron’s name went into the record books as the “Homerun King” I turned twenty-four. Since that date others have had their names etched in above his, but no one hit more home runs in the pre-steroid, pre-juiced up ball, pitcher’s era. To me he will always be the “Homerun King”…and much more.
He was a quiet man…soft-spoken, a man who let his glove and bat do his talking. He never liked the moniker “Hammerin’ Hank.” His mother named him Henry, that was good enough for him. Aaron never doubted his own ability but never felt the need to toot his own horn. He was a team player on some pretty bad teams.
He hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, a pitcher’s era, and he is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least fifteen times. He also earned three Gold Gloves during that period. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Aaron fifth on its list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players”. Considering the man, they ranked him too low. He was so much more to a white kid who so much wanted to be a baseball star.
He was the baseball definition of grace. There was an elegance just walking into the batter’s box or jogging around the bases. Loping after a fly ball. He had a beautiful, artistic swing, whether a swing and a miss or a ball roped into the left field bleachers. It was about the finish. Art frozen on a photograph.
My brother put it this way, “Mr. Atlanta Brave has passed away. As a lifelong Brave fan, it is a sad day. Been a sad month or so with Phil Niekro and Don Sutton passing before him. Hammerin’ Hank will always be the true Home Run champ, not the juiced-up cheaters who currently are ahead of him. I can see him now with batting helmet in hand, slipping it on his head, taking three practice swings before stepping in the batter’s box. It was a thing of beauty.” I agree.
I remember when the Braves moved from far away Milwaukee to not quite so far away Atlanta for the 1966 season. We finally had a team. I was an instant Braves fan…but it was hard. Every season began with hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams that were usually crushed by the All-Star break. But we had Hank, “Hammerin’ Hank”, Henry Aaron.
My father took my brother and I to a Sunday double header that first year. I was stoked. Not only would I get to see Hank but Willie Mays’ San Francisco Giants. What a day. To see two of my childhood idols. Hammerin’ Hank versus the Say Hey Kid. Baseball nirvana. Aaron didn’t see the field that day and Mays only pinch hit late in the second game. Instead, I got to see Atlanta pitcher Tony Cloninger hit two grand slam homeruns…I say that as if I have swallowed something unsavory.
When Vin Scully, the great baseball announcer, retired I wrote about Vin and his call of Aaron’s historic homerun. As Aaron rounded the bases, Scully said into his microphone, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
As I listened and cried a bit, Vin’s words troubled me because I have seen an increase in the words and actions that motivated his descriptions. Aaron was subjected to a road littered with racial landmines as he moved closer and closer to Ruth’s hallowed record. Racial abuse and death threats followed him around those bases but somehow, he managed to stay above it all. As a man he was much greater than the stage he played on.
“I had many, many, many death threats. I couldn’t open letters for a long time, because they all had to be opened by either the FBI or somebody. I couldn’t open letters. I had to be escorted. In fact, just recently I went to a funeral, Calvin Wardlaw, who was the detective — the policeman — with me for two years, passed away just recently. He and I got to be bosom buddies really, but that was the hardest part. I wasn’t able to enjoy — you know.” A real shame, “I wasn’t able to enjoy…”
I wish I had taken the time to have written Mr. Aaron. From an old white Southerner. An apology of sorts just to let him know how much his exploits meant to me…meant to most of us, I think. I would remind him of the joy I received living through him. He was a towering hero on and off the field. Unassuming, quiet but forever inspiring.
There are many pictures of Henry Aaron, but I have a favorite. It is not a picture of my idol wearing a Milwaukee or Atlanta uniform, hitting or fielding. It is of a young Henry Aaron standing in front of a train car. He is about to embark into his future…his destiny. He would step onto that train and head to Indianapolis to play shortstop for the Negro League “Clowns” for two hundred dollars a month.
I feel I HAVE lost a part of my childhood. So many have transitioned over the last year. Tonight, I will gaze at the night sky hoping for the flash of light. Scientifically I know it is a meteor burning up in the atmosphere. In my heart I will know it is Henry Aaron hitting another one out of the park.
A former player and I were conversing via social media. At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for putting up with the knucklehead he had been during his youth. Knucklehead was his word but he used it honestly. At the time, twenty years ago, I probably would have said worse…but with all the love in the world.
Damn him…his comment took me down a rabbit hole populated with knuckleheads jumping out at me as if I were riding a tunnel of horrors…well, not horrors, a tunnel of laughs. Instead of ghouls, skeletons, and ax murders, they were former baseball players dressed in clown paint with big floppy shoes. Ah, the memories.
My years as a high school coach were packed tighter than a sardine can with knuckleheads…as if I might have attracted them. Knuckleheads…not sardines. I would have never used the word knucklehead but I’m trying to remember what I would have used…that is fit to print…Goofy blond headed kid? Not likely.
I can slide backward in time and find one or two knuckleheads for every one of the forty-four years I coached. Some years entire teams were filled with knuckleheads. I’m sure it had nothing to do with my personality.
I had them in all of the sports I coached, but with the down time associated with baseball, between innings and when we batted, it seemed my dugout cup runneth over with knuckleheads…or maybe it is just the game of baseball itself. Baseball is a game fraught with player shenanigans.
It is funny odd. With all the successes associated with those days when I talk to former players, invariably, the conversation turns to “Do you remember when ‘so and so’ did ‘such and such’?” Yeah, I remember. During those days, I feigned anger when I really wanted to laugh…sometimes I feigned badly and laughed anyway.
As I continued down my rabbit trail, I realized that all the really good teams were loaded with knuckleheads, many as crazy as bed bugs, usually pitchers. If I were to award an All Knucklehead Team, the top five would include…four pitchers. I can think of two immediately who were crazy as bed bugs.
They all used their craziness to defuse tense situations…for themselves and their teammates. Gatorade bottles fill with rock noisemakers, Gatorade cup binoculars, rally monkeys, fins up hats, and hand jives. Dug out Voodoo one team called it. At least they didn’t cheer like softball teams.
The teams were much looser than I was or at least they hid it better. I sat on my ten gallon baseball bucket undergoing butt pucker while they chilled under fire, shaking their noisemakers or dancing with the rally monkey.
The teams taught me as much as I taught them, maybe more. Over time they taught me I didn’t have to be a cross between Attila the Hun and Billy Martin to be a good coach. I could use my own personality; I could be me no matter which version I was at the time.
They taught me that getting close was better than remaining distant no matter the pain closeness sometimes brought. Mostly they taught me it wasn’t about the game but the people who played it.
The knucklehead I was conversing with almost caused a brawl when he laid a bunt down late in a game we were well ahead in. He had broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules. You don’t rub another team’s nose in it, instead you call off the dogs.
My next batter received a fastball between the shoulder blades because of the faux pas. Ordinarily, such would not go unanswered, but it seemed an appropriate response at the time even if the wrong knucklehead got hit. To the original knucklehead’s defense, we failed to tell him the dogs were off…I guess I was the knucklehead.
I have learned a few things since retiring. Mostly I’ve learned I miss the camaraderie from those earlier years. I miss the youthful exuberance of teenagers. I miss watching them play the game. I still watch the game but it is not the same. I don’t know the players. They aren’t mine.
I don’t miss the long hours, the foot numbing cold of the early season games, or the long rear numbing bus rides to and from games. What I miss are the kids…the young men who grew from knuckleheads into successful citizens. I’d like to think I might have contributed to some of their successes.
My first attempt at writing badly was, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” It chronicalled many of the knuckleheads I was blessed to have coached. Winning wasn’t the only thing but it was written about the winners who made winning possible and my life much sweeter.