1950s Little League Baseball – The Second Most Embarrassing Moment in My Life!
I’ve often been asked by students when I substitute teach, “What were the 50s really like?” I usually say, “Watch ‘A Christmas Story’ and the 1950s Little League Baseball movie called ‘The Sandlot.’” Although I had different experiences as a kid, those 2 movies are accurate portrayals of the life and times in the Middle West during those years.
When I was young, we lived on 2 acres surrounded by a 6-foot high fence to keep our 2 horses from escaping and ruining other folk’s yards. Our backyard included 5 apple trees, 2 pear trees, 2 cherry trees and a plum tree. It was my job to pick up all the fallen fruit while fighting bald hornets, wasps, bumble bees, honey bees and yellow jackets. Although continually terror stricken, never once was I stung.
I used to throw the apples in other yards at a great distance. Matter of fact, I threw anything I could get hold of including rocks. My Dad was so busy traveling through many states that he’d only be home every other weekend, so didn’t have time to play catch with me. Eventually, I’d throw tennis balls against our two-car garage door, fielding the rebound. Dad was really irritated because he was concerned about damage to the door.
The Pitcher’s Mound and Targer
When I was about 8, he thought of a solution. It would protect the door and take the place of playing catch with me and help be develop my skills as a pitcher. He stacked three bails of straw in the back of our side yard, supported with two 8-foot fence posts pounded 2 feet into the ground. Next he tied a pair of my old underpants to the center as a target. We carefully measured the distance from the underpants and set up a pitching mound with a thick piece of lumber as a pitching “rubber.” Finally, he bought 15 hardballs, so I could practice. Each spring Dad would take out new bails of straw and I’d begin pitching.
Through baseball season until I was in high school, I’d daily spend hours throwing 9-inning games for both sides of major league teams. In my imagination I was pitching for the Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox against the Yankees, Tigers, Dodgers, Giants, Reds, etc. I carefully followed every team in the newspaper so had all the line-ups memorized. Naturally, I didn’t pitch as well for the opponents, so my team would always win. In that way I gained very sharp control of my pitches.
Without TVs in the summer, our little town of Northbrook, Illinois, focused on 50s Little League baseball. Almost every boy age 9-12 played Little League. Weekly, the games were written up in the town’s newspaper, The Northbrook News. I played 4-years in a heavy, gray, wool uniform with Culligan (Softwater) emblazoned in red across my chest. (Culligan’s national headquarters was in Northbrook.) On my back was a big 13.
At practices and before games we’d often play “peggy-bounce-up” with one of the coaches using a “fungo” (long skinny) bat to hit fly balls to the outfielders. I’d constantly win the games and got “cocky.” At age 8 as I was showing off, I misjudged a “fly ball.” It struck me in the eye and gave me an outstanding “shiner.” It took weeks for my face to recover.
I became a very good fielding outfielder and 3rd baseman, but couldn’t hit “worth a lick.” In my final year as a frustrated hitter I had my chance to hit a home run. I absolutely crushed the ball into dead center. Back, back, back went the centerfielder, Bobby Bachman – to the fence. The fence flexed, the momentum threw his arm back and he snagged my drive in the webbing of his glove. I was brokenhearted! Sadly, that drive was the only chance I ever had to hit a home run.
The Embarrassing Moment
At 10-years-old I started pitching and did very well (batting last was very appropriate). Often at that age, kids get together and plot “never-fail” schemes and plans. One day my sister’s older “boyfriend” – Freddy Witsup, came to visit. He hatched a plan to pull the “ol’ hidden ball trick.” I trusted him implicitly, because he was 12 and I was only an innocent 10!
His idea was if anyone got on 3rd base, all the infielders would gather on the mound to discuss the situation. Then I was to sneak the ball to Freddy and he’d go back to wait for the runner to get off the base. Then he’d tag him out! Wow! I thought “What a brilliant plan!” Little did I know that the opportunity to put the plan into action would take place that very evening against Northbrook Lumber!
Their star player, dressed in gray with dark blue lettering, was Dicky Lutz. As I pitched, he hit a single. But he could run like the wind, so immediately, stole 2nd; then 3rd. At this point Freddy called “time-out” and all the infielders gathered around me for a conference on the mound. I slipped the ball to Freddy, who hid it deep in his glove and took it back to 3rd base.
The umpire called – “play ball.” I looked at Freddy and he just shrugged. So, I pretended to “rub up” the ball. The umpire called out, “PLAY BALL!” I looked at Freddy; he just shrugged again, so I kept rubbing the ball.
Now, the umpire was getting angry and stepped out in front of the plate, pointed his finger at me and yelled “I said PLAY BALL!” Well, I looked at Freddy and he just shrugged again. So, I stepped on the mound and threw NOTHING!
The players went crazy! The stands went crazy. Everyone was yelling, laughing and hollering at me – just a poor little kid. Even Freddy was yelling at me! The umpire called it a “balk”, allowing Dicky to advance and score. Needless to say, it was the last hidden ball trick we ever tried.
60-years later, as I relive one of the most embarrassing moments in my life I’m still haunted. Trying to avoid the thoughts of 1950s Little League Baseball, I try to redirect my thoughts elsewhere – to ANYTHING. But . . . I did learn one thing! Don’t trust another kid just because he’s older. Seek out/rely the wisdom of a clear thinking person, like your parents, coach, minister, teacher or – – – wife!