by dozens of writers. It’s understandable, if a bit over the top at times. I
see baseball as a rung in the ladder of opportunity, a ladder that for many has
broken rungs making the climb up harder than it is for others.
Baseball is often romanticized and idealized. That’s understandable. It’s a wonderful game of skill and team effort. It’s a strategy game, a thinking game. If your head’s not in it, you could get whacked, embarrassed or put out unceremoniously. It’s a metaphor for life that has resonated in this country for years.
I was a fairly decent third baseman. I liked the hot spot at third because the balls come faster and harder. That’s because the distance from home to third is shorter than home to second. It’s also where right-handed hitters pull the ball. That means a greater chance for action. I liked that, too.
My earliest memories of sports are playing baseball. It was the game that I and a lot of other kids in small town Oklahoma aspired to play well. It was accessible, affordable and organized, to a degree.
It was a working class game. African-American, Native American and working class white kids got together and became as one. They worked on individual skills and practiced team skills such as turning double plays, shifting positions according to hitters, advancing base runners with sacrifice bunts. Imagine a game that teaches an individual to sacrifice his advancement for that of another.
I remember getting up early on crisp fall mornings to get to school in time to go the football field where “Blue” Gaither, our highschool principal, would hit towering fly balls with a long, slim fungo bat to a dozen of us who brought our gloves to school with us. He had to call out names, it was so competitive.
Imagine kids coming to school early, pumped to play baseball–at the start of football season, no less. In the crisp autumn air, on green grass, in the great outdoors. I know what the songwriter meant when he penned the line “I’ve never been to heaven, but I’ve been to Oklahoma.”
The kids who played baseball were, for the most part, rough and tumble types. We lived across the tracks, or in the country, or at the edge of town, literally and figuratively. We didn’t leave town during the summer for vacations, as some kids did. Vacations were a luxury others could afford. Given economic realities, we were there for the long, hot summer, which meant we were a reliable pool for a baseball team.
And adults with savvy knew it was best for us to be engaged in something to keep us busy and out of trouble. So they coached us and wheeled us around to games in neighboring towns and gave us an outlet for our energies that was the only one many of us had.
They were smart people. They knew it takes a village. And they knew they were the ones who had to shoulder responsibilities. They didn’t do a lot of analysis, they just did it. “It” means teaching us about good conduct, fair play and getting along with each other. And we did. They even had us work on maintaining the field so it would be in good shape when we played. And the amazing thing to me is that it worked.
They told us we could become better at the game, and we did–through practice, work and concentration. And that lesson spilled over into other areas, even if we didn’t intend it. They taught us they cared about us without saying it. We knew. Even when they were angry at some bonehead thing we did, we knew.
They were shrewd. While he was hitting fungoes to us, Blue was also assessing our behavior and character. We didn’t know it. But I found out one day when I was called into his office for doing something stupid like playing hooky and showing up on Main Street during school hours. Word got to him immediately, of course. His remarks about my need for education were so searing that I can still feel the embarrassment of having let him down. He knew me and how to ring my bells, in a way that still leaves me chastened.
It took only one other episode to turn me around. This was a more egregious offense, for which I was called in to give an account and face the music. This was in the days of “corporal punishment,” otherwise known as paddling. I had committed a paddling offense. When he re-counted my opportunities and how I was blowing them, I prayed for an end to the speech and for the pain of the paddle. That would hurt less. I had let myself down. I had let down the school. I had let him down. I had let down my teacher. I was letting down Western civilization. This hung heavy on my soul.
I knew he cared. It wasn’t just words. I knew others, whose names he invoked, cared. They showed up and stood by kids like me when it was hard to do. I’d let them down. I was muffing an opportunity.
“When those balls come screaming at you at third, Larry, you gobble them up and get it across the field to first base and you throw the runner out with a perfect strike. You take advantage of that opportunity, but here you’re muffing it. This is stupid. You think it’s cute to shoot Mrs. Harris in the butt with a spitball? It isn’t. Do you think the coaches with scholarships are going to ask me if you can hit your teacher in the butt with a spitball or get the baseball from third to first with speed and accuracy? Now, you bend over here and think about this the next time you get the urge to be cute.”
I can tell you the reprimand hurt ten times worse than the paddling. And it left a deeper impression. I’m not making a case for or against paddling and I’m not advocating psychological abuse. But I am saying that this man had a relationship with young people in his care that allowed him to inspire them to be better than they thought they could be and allowed him to call us to accountability when we were patently in need of accountability. And I’m glad for that.
Baseball also gave us a view of a wider world than the circumspect little town by which we were bound. My first foray into the world was to Busch Stadium in St. Louis when I sold enough subscriptions to the the Tulsa World and Tulsa Tribune to earn an expense-paid weekend to see the Phillies and the Cardinals. Stan
Musial at first base. Until that time I had never been further east than the fifty miles from Stroud to Tulsa. Did you know they open the stores on Sunday in St. Louis!
Baseball gave us people to look up to. If you’re a baseball fan you know these names: Mickey Mantle, Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, Allie Reynolds, Dizzy Dean, Daffy Dean, Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner and Pepper Martin. These were guys like us (we thought) who made their way from small towns in Oklahoma to the majors playing this game. If they could do it (we thought), so could we. (If you’re not a baseball fan, these players were each unique and superb in his own way–hitting, fielding, or pitching. Most were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.) And, of course, they had superior talent, far beyond what we possessed. But they loomed large in our imaginations and they were from the same red dirt that nurtured us, so we could identify with their exploits and imagine that we were capable of the same, even if it were not true. We could dream, and that’s more important.
Mickey was hitting enormous long balls out of Yankee Stadium. Dizzy had moved from peerless pitching for St. Louis to providing Saturday game-of-the-week commentary on television, irritating every English teacher in the nation with his ungrammatical constructions. “He ‘slud’ into third base.” We knew what he meant. We could conjugate the verb–slide, slid, slud.
It didn’t occur to me until years later, long after I’d gotten through graduate school and was able to reflect back on those youthful days, that poor kids (we honestly didn’t know how poor we were), had few rungs on the ladder of opportunity upon which we could climb out of poverty. Athletics was one. Education another. The church another.
Each provided experiences that enlarged the world. Each was conducted by engaged adults who demonstrated mentoring skills that we didn’t have through other means. Each offered us opportunities for education beyond high school through scholarship assistance that we didn’t have otherwise.
It’s this background that makes me so concerned to preserve effective public education. It’s one of the few rungs on that ladder that has few steps accessible to the poor.
It’s why, in part, the church must be concerned to reach kids who aren’t in the middle class and don’t have the same opportunities that more privileged kids have.
And it’s why baseball is so important.