Taking Down the Sign in Left

Signs on the left field wall (not our field)

Signs on the left field wall (not our field)

Our high school was so football oriented that no one cared much about the baseball diamond. The backstop was chicken wire with an occasional hole in it, particularly at the bottom where the wire had come loose from the frame and curled up toward home plate. The frame was painted green at one point, but by the time I got there the paint was peeling and rust spots showed up at various places. The dugouts were a couple of wooden benches that I was convinced had been used by the original Red Stockings in the 1870s. They were covered by a corrugated tin roof held up by four fat poles that were once white but now tending toward gray. There was no wire in front of the dugouts so the players had to pay close attention to the game. The outfield was kind of green by late in the season, but most of us were convinced it was half grass and half paint. We had no lights. But, by God, we did have signs.

Our outfield wall consisted of a tall round pole painted with aluminum paint every year and as the wont of aluminum paint needed to be repainted the next year. Then there were these square wooden posts driven into the ground at eight foot intervals (including one in front of the round poles) that went in something approximating an arc around to another round pole at the other end. The poles were, of course, the foul poles. Every year the coaches and a few of the players would head over to this old maintainance shed where the lawn mowers were kept and pull out these big four-foot by eight foot pieces of plywood and nail them up around the outfield to create an outfield fence. Each of the plywood pieces was decorated on one side with an advertising sign.

A few years before I got to high school, some genius had gotten the idea of selling advertising space on the outfield wall. You’ve probably seen this in minor league parks and in pictures of old Major League ballparks. A lot of places in town bought a board and someone designed a sign that was painted on the plywood then the signs were put in place in the outfield. They never changed in the three years I was in high school. I only remember two, but I remember that they were all the same every year. The First National Bank had the sign in the left field corner that was right in front of the foul pole and a local automotive parts store was next to the bank sign. I remember the auto parts sign because one year some dimbulb put it on upside down and no one noticed until the team was warming up for the first game. At least we figured no one had noticed. Considering some of the people on the team, it may have been done on purpose. They had a mad scramble to fix it before the first pitch.

The 1950s and early 1960s were halcyon days for Texas politics (this is germane, I promise). Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader of the Senate and Sam Rayburn was Speaker of the House. Johnson went on to the Presidency and Rayburn joked that Johnson had taken a step down in power (Rayburn today is most noted for coining the phrase, “To get along, you gotta go along.”).  What this meant is that if you had a kid in school in the Texas Panhandle in those days, and your name was Rayburn, you could guarantee he’d be called “Sam.” Our Sam played left field.

“Sam” Rayburn (I think his real name was Jim) was a big guy. He played right tackle for the high school football team and was supposed to weigh in at 200 pounds. He was a least a few pounds on the several helpings of gravy side of 200. He was slow, but then our team didn’t pass much (or score much) so all he had to do was fire out and knock down the guy across from him. He did that well. His size got him a tryout with the baseball team. Our coach believed that you found a pitcher then eight hulks that could mash the ball a mile and then you beat the other team to death. We had three offensive linemen in our starting lineup (plus a linebacker). Sam fit into the mold well. He was the five hitter and could smash a baseball really hard. But he, like the rest of the team, was slow; really slow; really, really slow. So there was a lot of station to station ball and it also meant that most of the team was pretty stationary in the field. Oh, the shortstop could move, the first baseman could catch, but there were no rabbits in the outfield. Rayburn could catch the thing, if he could get to it. It was the getting to it that was the problem.

The third home game of the season started out as a game normally starts (I still have my old score book, so I checked) with us in the field, them at bat, and me in the stands with my score book getting the story for the school paper. We got through two innings without incident, then came the top of the third. With one out, the other team’s hitter laced a long one to left field. Sam wasn’t playing very deep so he started to go back on it. He raced after the ball. Well, “raced” is too strong a word. He trundled after it. Then trundled some more. To those of us in the stands it was obvious the ball was going out for a home run. But our intrepid right tackle, all 210 pounds of him (he’d eaten that day) was sure he had it. Paul Blair mighta had it, but not our speedy Rayburn. The ball went over the fence, but Sam, well, he didn’t. He plowed right into the First National Bank sign and both he and the sign went down. You heard a thump, a thud, a crack, and a tearing sound. No one was quite sure which was Sam and which was the sign. Out went the coaches to check. We weren’t sure which they were more worried about, Sam or the sign.

Rayburn sat up, looked around, looked at his glove (Some wise guy in the stands yelled, “Ball ain’t there, Sam,”), looked at the coaches. They got him up. He was bruised but alright.  We fans, all 10 of us, were having a major discussion about whether to cheer or laugh. We finally opted for cheering.

So Sam was Ok, but the sign was a different story. He’d managed to break the plywood so that the sign was in three pieces. Not neat little pieces with “First” on one part, “National” on the second, and “Bank” on the third, but really broken with splinters sticking out at all angles. They moved the sign out of the way and were now stuck figuring out what to do with the hole in left. One of the janitors was near so he found a piece of wire in the shed and strung it across the gap. The ump declared that a ball over the wire was a homer and one under the wire was a double (how he was going to tell the difference on a liner I never knew).

I’d like to say that it didn’t matter, but a couple of innings later the same guy let loose on another. The ball went back and over. Our favorite left fielder also went back. He caught the wire just right and went over too landing with a resounding thud. This time there was blood as he’d busted his chin. One of the parents took him to the hospital while a reserve went to left. The next day Rayburn showed up with a big bandage and a handful of stitches on his chin. He considered it a badge of honor. Some wag with an English bent nicknamed it his “Red Badge of Courage.” We snickered at that, but Sam liked it. We guessed he’d never read the book.

But we still had a hole in the fence and there were more games. The coaches bought and nailed up a new piece of plywood, but now it was just a blank piece of wood that stood out more than the signs ever stood out. The head coach went to the bank and asked if they’d sponsor another sign. They told him that they’d sponsored one sign in the last 10 years and that was damned well enough. So we ended the season with the left field foul pole sitting behind a bare piece of plywood attached to a couple of posts. And Sam? He was back for the next game. Someone suggested they paint a  Stop Sign on the plywood so we wouldn’t have to buy another piece.


4 Responses to “Taking Down the Sign in Left”

  1. Gary Trujillo Says:

    funny stuff!

  2. steve Says:

    I enjoyed this and enjoyed? a similar experience with football getting all the pageantry and rah rah rah rallies and our baseball field having no home run fence and no dugouts; just a bench to sit on.

    There’s nothing more sobering than hitting a tape measure job and watching it roll rather than disappear. I wouldn’t know from experience, but it’s what my teammates told me.

    That was Wisconsin-not exactly a hot bed for athletes like Texas. It’s more funny than a complaint because in comparison to other neighborhoods, we were very privileged-almost spoiled, but baseball was low on the totem pole of importance. I preferred it that way. Way less hype and complication.

    One of the obstacles to playing any organized sport is the politics involved. In my opinion, it requires a lot of psychological strength to endure and it plays a role in ruining careers.

    • verdun2 Says:

      While in high school our men’s basketball team won a state title. Football was so important, no one noticed. The baseball team got to post season one time. I did a post on it (“Is it a Perfect Game if No Body Sees it?” back on 16 May 2012). Again no one noticed. Damned shame how much work some kids put into doing something for their school or town or whatever and no one cares.

  3. glenrussellslater Says:

    I can relate, V. I was a member of the track team in my high school, and we were very, very good, and we received no recognition and the team received no funding, whereas the football team, which had a losing record for years and years, got new shoulder pads, new uniforms, new EVERYTHING every single year!!! We didn’t get appreciated at all!

    My mother’s area of Western Pennsylvania is like a microcosm of Texas in terms of football. Football is the ONLY thing that counted for anything out there. She’s from Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and if you look at a map of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, you’ll see that it is BIG football country. Beaver Falls produced Joe Namath and Joe Walton, who was the head coach of the Jets (but not while Namath was playing; in the 1980s), and others. Babe Parilli, who was Namath’s backup on the Jets Super Bowl team, came from Rochester. Aliquippa produced Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett, and and a whole lot of other NFL players, as well. (and, for the record, Yankee Doc Medich, and basketball great Pistol Pete Maravich, too.) New Brighton was an unusual town in Beaver County in that it produced no NFL players, but two prominent baseball guys (Jack Clark and Terry Francona). I’m sure there were plenty of NFL players from Ambridge, as well. Incidentally, Jim Rooker opened up a bar in Ambridge while he pitched for the Pirates. My mother told me that Joe Montana was from Rochester, which is also in Beaver County, but I looked it up and I don’t see any documentation of that, but my mother is (almost) always right, so I’ll take her word for it!

    Most importantly, Ambridge and Ambridge High School was where football coach Moe Rubenstein presided over, and he was the most revered man in town. (He was bigger than the mayor). He was the football coach, and the football coach in Ambridge, Pennsylvania is a real big deal. For crying out loud, Ambridge had Friday night football, in a stadium with LIGHTS, back in the 1940s, when my mother was going to school there. No one was ever home on Friday nights, my Mom says. They were at the football stadium, watching the Ambridge Bridgers play. Beaver Falls was their biggest rivalry. And not to mention that Coach Rubenstein had a close friendship and connections with none other than Bear Bryant, according to my mother.

    My mother was unhappy growing up there because she wasn’t a football player (naturally) or a football cheerleader, and they were the only ones who seemed to count in high school. Her high school was very poor academically; ALL of the money went into football, and hardly any into academics.



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