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.
Tags: high school baseball