Sweet summer baseball in the good, old days

Once upon a time, kids played baseball all day, every day. Photo: Stan Musial in the Cardinal locker room, 1963 AP photo

WASHINGTON, September 25, 2013 — A father recently told me: “When I was a boy, my parents couldn’t get me inside; today, I have a hard time getting my two boys to go outside.”

I knew exactly what he meant. When I was a boy, baseball was as much a part of my hometown as the steel mill that supported half the townspeople directly and the other half indirectly.   

My childhood friends and I would play baseball throughout the day and into the evening. And then we would play “a couple innings more.” Although we couldn’t always see the ball after twilight, nevertheless, we played on.

Early on any given summer morning, the screen door would bang behind me as I ran across the porch and down the three steps to the Chestnut Street sidewalk. About that same time my friends came pouring out of their respective homes. My baseball glove would be tucked under my arm as I choked down the last bites of a piece of toast with apple butter on it. 

Out or Safe?

Along the way to the sandlot at the corner of 6th and Elm Streets, we picked up other players. The lot was part of the railroad yard where freight and passenger  trains came and went and, mostly, passed by on their way to Philadelphia.

The lot consisted of a huge sand pile and also stored stacks of telephone poles with black gummy tar deposits, which we sometimes chewed like Black Jack chewing gum.  

Across from the playing area stood a lumberyard. Most important to my childhood friends and me was the rolled-up hose. When we got thirsty during the double- or triple-headers, all we had to do was unwind the hose a little, twist the spigot and put our lips to the spout.

Gushing water filled our mouths and throats. It was not cold water, the hose baking in the sun, but it was wet and we could hardly stop drinking once we started. The last mouthful, however, we spit out on the ground, because we were told you shouldn’t drink too much water and go back to running. 

We played ball all day during the summer, and especially on Sundays. We either didn’t break for meals or we ran home, gobbled up something, and hurried back to reclaim our former position on the field. Our parents didn’t seem to worry about us. My brother Lew who was staying with us after his wife died called me “all-boy,” whatever that meant. I didn’t know any half-boys.   

Stepping into the batter’s-box, we imitated the batting stances of our favorite big-league players. Mine was “Stan the Man” Musial of the Saint Louis Cardinals. When he stood in the box, he rotated his bat in a circular motion rather than the back and forth movement most other players use. Even though he batted left and I batted right, I copied his batting stance and motion. It did not, however, produce anything similar to the hitting results of “Stan the Man.” 

As far as the big leagues were concerned, those games were accessible to us only on radio. The one exception was when the YMCA sponsored charter-bus trips to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. There we saw either the Philadelphia Athletics in the American League or the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League. 

Amish boys bring baseball to a farm field.

My favorite Phillies player was center fielder Richie Ashburn. My favorite person to see at the A’s games was old Connie Mack, the owner and manager of the team. He always wore a black suit, a white shirt, a thin black necktie, and a dress hat.

He carried a clipboard at all times, and before each game he stepped out of the dugout when his name was announced and raised his clipboard toward the stands.

Otherwise, he never came out on the field. Nicky said that he wasn’t allowed to because he didn’t wear a baseball uniform like the other managers. Another thing we liked about him was his name. Connie Mack was just a nickname version of his real name which we enjoyed knowing and proudly pronouncing, Cornelius McGillicuddy. 

We always sat in the cheap seats, the leftfield bleachers. Often we brought our baseball gloves along so we could better catch a homerun baseball hit into our section of the stands. We, of course, shouted and yelled, sure that the Philly team could hear us. We’d buy a hot dog from a guy with a huge red box. Then came the balancing act of trying to have our gloved left hand ready to catch a fly ball while biting into a hot dog slathered with mustard held in the right hand (to be sacrificed, of course, if a homerun ball came flying our way. 

Our pick-up games went on till dark. Then the cry went up: “One more inning!” And so we crouched  in the outfield, waiting. Waiting for the ball. We knew we would not be able to see it, but the loose, dangling adhesive tape holding the ball together would flap as it powered its way through the night air, and we would be able to gauge its distance, direction, trajectory, and velocity, as the ball came toward us. 

Up would go our hands and sometimes, incredibly, we would hear the ball thud into our mitt, we would squeeze, and shout, “I got it, I got it. You’re out!” 

Game over. Time to go home. What a game. What a day. Now, time to go home, spoon down some Wheaties, and snap on the radio to “Red Skelton” followed by “The Jack Benny Show.” Then bed. Then tomorrow. Tomorrow we could do it all again. 

The great thing about summer was that it lasted the whole summer long.

And there would be another one next year.

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Shirley Povich. 


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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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