Baseball and the Skid Row Bum

His name was Frank and he was a bum. There’s no way to varnish that. The man was a classic rendition of a skid row bum. He was alcoholic, generally dirty, just plain seedy. But he did a good turn for us.

Back when I was growing up, I lived in two towns. They were in adjoining states and each was different. The second one was larger and more prosperous. But like the first one, it had a Main Street Mission. Some of you may remember these. A few of them are still around, although they’ve changed locations and usually have newer, fancier names. Most were run by churches (ours by the local Methodists). They served the down and out of the community. Generally, the clientele could show up, get a hot meal, a warm bed, and a sermon. Frank once  told me he’d been “saved” six times and every one of them was worth the meal and the bed. He’d also memorized two verses of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” I’m not sure how much religion the men, and they were all men where I lived, actually took in, but at least they were warm and fed.

One of the problems they had was a lack of employment and, frankly, a lack of employable skills. In my hometown, some genius came up with a solution that seemed to work. The local mission had joined with the local Optimist’s Club to find menial tasks for the men. It gave them a chance to do something meaningful, to get a few dollars, to keep them off the streets, and to help the mission meet some of its expenses. Some of them worked the ball fields. Frank was one.

The Optimist’s Club ran the local youth baseball (and football and basketball) programs. Most of the work was strictly volunteer and a lot of the Optimist’s didn’t have a lot of time to do a lot of actual work to help the local leagues. On the whole they were good people who would shell out money for uniforms and the players appreciated that, although I suppose it’s true that most of us never really thought about who paid for our uniforms. Or they would buy new equipment for the teams, but to actually go out and work on the fields to prep them for games, well, most of them didn’t do that. They claimed they didn’t have time, which was probably true, but many of us secretly anarchist ball players thought they just couldn’t be bothered with actual labor (Yeah, there was a Marxist streak in a few of us). So someone decided to enlist the aid of what we lovingly called “skid row bums” to work on the fields.

The Optimist’s Club would send a van down to the mission in the afternoons and a handful of men were brought out to the fields to get them ready for the evening’s games. They’d mow or use the roller to flatten the infield. They might repair a fence, paint a foul pole, or clean out the dugouts. It was simple work, but it had to be done. And by and large the “bums” did a pretty good job.

Frank was the roller man. I don’t believe I ever knew his last name. He had this big metal roller that looked a lot like a beer keg turned on its side. There were a couple of metal poles attached, one on either side, and a handle joined them (bet you’ve seen one at some point). I always wondered if the beer keg look caught Frank’s attention and he gravitated toward the roller job. He was good at it. The fields were level, the rocks and pebbles gone, the dirt smooth. As a first baseman, I really appreciated Frank’s work.

a ball field roller. Ours wasn't painted and didn't attach to a tractor.

a ball field roller. Ours wasn’t painted and didn’t attach to a tractor.

A handful of us, when we had nothing better to do with our time, hung out at the ball fields doing nothing at all special. That’s how I met Frank. We would watch him roll the fields then he’d stop for a drink of water in a thermos that the Optimist Club left for him (and the other guys out working on the fields). We’d wander over and he’d regale us with stories. Some of them were probably true. He’d been in World War II. He was Army and had been in the Pacific. There were no stories about him being a hero or anything, just things about how he’d gotten on and the people he’d known. He never blamed the military for his current condition. Somewhere along the line there’d been a girl, but apparently it had never amounted to much. He’d had a series of odd jobs, lost them (we figured from the drinking, but he never said), and ended up out on the fields with his roller. Occasionally, after a particularly good story, we’d put together a handful of quarters and give him some money for a meal. We knew he’d buy booze with it, but we couldn’t force him to use it for something other than a cheap bottle of Ripple.

When the games started, he’d stay around some times and watch the early game. He always sat alone. I don’t think any of the parents wanted to sit near him and certainly didn’t want their kids around him. I think they felt that alcoholism was catching. He never stayed for the late game. I guess he went back to the Mission or to the streets, whichever pleased him most that night.

After I was done with youth baseball I would see him sometimes on the street. I waved at him a couple of times, but I don’t think he ever waved back. I don’t know what happened to him after I left home for the Army and college. I haven’t visited the town in years and presume he’s dead now. I’d like to say he gave me some great insight into life, but he was a drunk and I was a dumb kid. He did make me a little more understanding of the wretched of the earth. You know, that’s not a bad legacy for a skid row “bum”.

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3 Responses to “Baseball and the Skid Row Bum”

  1. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Just testing to see if my comment posts, V. If it does, feel free to delete it. As I mentioned, I was having trouble posting comments on here for whatever reason.


  2. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Nice “slice of life” piece, V. Well-written and a fine story.


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