I was a reporter for my High School newspaper. One of my jobs was to cover the school baseball team. It was a pleasant enough job. I had my score book, watched some decent high school baseball, and could sit in the sun and feel the breeze on my face. I had no visions of being Shirley Povich, so I could just enjoy the games alone.
And I stress alone. If we were lucky, there were 10 of us in the stands. There was an old wooden bleacher set up on the first base side that could hold about 50 or so people, another on the third base side, and room for lawn chairs to be set up behind home. I don’t know where they got the bleachers, but someone brought them in from somewhere else. They were an old wood with a few rotten places, but were, as a rule, sturdy. They’d once been painted because there were little patches of orange here and there on the seats. Orange wasn’t one of our colors, so that’s how we knew they were brought in from somewhere else. There were few lawn chairs, few fans in the stands. There were a couple of reasons for this. It was a football town and the football team got everything. The football stadium had a new paint job every year while the baseball backstop had flecks of rust on it. The baseball games usually started about 3:30 and fathers were working, mothers were home with other children or cooking. And, frankly, most families only had one car and dear ole dad had that at work. So a crowd of 10 was a big deal. Well, except for this one time.
I got to the ball field as usual and sat at my usual spot, on the home plate end of the first base bleachers (that was the home team side). I generally sat one row from the top so I could lean back between innings and soak up the sun, rest my back, and just generally goof off. There were a couple of other people already there, but it was the usual crowd. The game started. Harper, our ace, was on the mound (way back on 16 May 2012 I did a story about him). He struck out the first couple of guys, then had a pop out to end the inning. I started to lean back when I suddenly realized there were about 30 people in the stands and a handful more were wandering our way. Now that was unusual. And equally unusual, they were all male students. Not a parent in the lot. I knew a couple of the people sitting there, including the guy sitting directly in front of me. So I tapped him on the shoulder and asked, “What the heck is going on?” (after 50 years, all conversations approximated)
He looked up at me and nodded. “There’s gonna be a fight over at the graveyard at four. Elmore is gonna duke it out with Pettit. Most of us thought we’d sit here until they came by, then go over to the cemetery and watch.”
The ballpark sat in a lot owned by the school. That lot was about midway between the school building and the local cemetery. It was a common thing for two guys wanting to fight to head over to the cemetery so they’d be off school grounds and not subject to discipline. As long as there was no funeral going on no one seemed to care if the cemetery was used, so long as the fight was in one of the open areas rather than near a grave. Heck, the gravediggers sometimes came over to watch. I always wondered if they were trying to drum up business.
It’s too much to say either fighter was a friend of mine, but I knew both guys. I had a class with Pettit and several with Elmore. So now they were going to fight and a crowd was pausing on the way to the fight to watch a game.
Elmore showed up first. He had a couple of guys with him, sort of a latter-day posse. They were all, including Elmore, part of the local toughs. There weren’t any gangs around, but we’d all seen “West Side Story” and these were guys who liked to pretend they were in a gang. I had no idea if they “rumbled”, but I imagined that if they did, they did it to music. Elmore spotted me and wandered over to the bleachers.
I’d known Elmore for a couple of years now. Our High School comprised tenth through twelfth grades (ninth was in the Junior High) and Elmore was there when I got there. He was in his fifth year at the high school and had quite a reputation as a tough guy. He was smart enough to graduate, but he just didn’t care enough to do homework or finish tests. I’d helped him a little in class and he seemed to appreciate it, but ultimately he just didn’t care about school. Apparently his mom made him come.
“Hey, scoot over so I can sit,” he told me.
I obliged. “What’s up, Mike?”
“Gotta fight that dumbass Pettit. We’re on the way to the graveyard, but we’re early.” Apparently something was sacred about fighting at four rather than three forty-five.
“Oh. What’s it about?”
“An honor thing.”
That was the worst, an “honor” thing. It meant that there had been some sort of insult that had to be avenged and you just couldn’t let it go. It was irrational and angry and vengeful and all that so you had to go to the cemetery to redeem your “honor.” Something about doing that in a graveyard seemed both screwy and acceptable at the same time.
Elmore looked over at me with one of those grins that angry people get when they laugh, “Yeah, my sister.”
I nodded. Damn. Worst kind of honor issue. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”
“Yeah. She’s twelve and bright.” He actually smiled a real smile this time. “She’s not at all like me.”
“Sounds like a nice kid,” was all I could manage.
“How’s the game going?” Elmore asked.
I’d been keeping score right along. “Harper got through the first inning without a hit.” I flipped over the scorebook. ” We did nothing in the bottom of the first.” Then I flipped the scorebook back over. “He’s got an out in the top of the second.”
I nodded, then pointed. Pettit had appeared. He too had his posse and was heading toward the cemetery.
“He’s early too.” I told Mike.
Pettit wandered by us, looked down at his watch, then motioned for his followers to head to the other end of the bleachers where they took seats. That made about 40 people on the bleachers.
Harper struck out the next two men (I’ve still got the score book, so I checked). Then we came to bat. The first guy singled, the next struck out, then the next guy popped a two-run homer to left field. The stands erupted. We tacked on another run before the bottom of the second was over.
Then Harper went to work. He pitched magnificently. He threw a shutout, giving up three hits, walking one, with 12 of 21 outs (seven inning games back then) being strikeouts. No one got beyond first. We added two more runs in the later innings and won 5-0. The crowd was roaring at every strikeout and every run. When the game ended with Harper’s final strikeout, the bleacherites stood and cheered. Harper grinned and waved at me. I gave him a thumbs up.
And the game was over and the fight was late. It was after five and there’d been no fight. I looked over at Elmore who was applauding as loud as everyone else. “So you fight now?”
“Huh? Oh, hell, I forgot that. Pettit, isn’t it? Yeah, that’s who it was.” Mike did a lot of fighting and Pettit was just another in a long line.
I shrugged and looked down the bleachers toward where Pettit was sitting. He was already up and heading back toward the parking lot where he had a car. He’d forgotten the fight, and so had Mike.
“Maybe I’ll catch him tomorrow,” Elmore said to me. “Heck of a game, wasn’t it?”
I started to leave. I had a story to write for the school paper.
“You got a car?” Elmore asked. He also had one.
“No. I’m walking.” I didn’t have a car.
“Well, come on with me and I’ll run you home.”
We wandered over to the parking lot. Pettit was already gone and Mike’s posse was disbursing too. The cemetery was between the school and where I lived. We drove by it and no one was fighting. God love a good baseball game.
Tags: high school baseball