Posts Tagged ‘high school baseball’

Travelling with the Team

August 23, 2018

1960s era motel

Way, way back in the 1960s I worked for my high school newspaper. Among other things, I covered the school baseball team. It was fun, but fairly thankless.

I’ve written about this team occasionally. It was, as a rule, pretty awful. In an eight team conference it generally finished somewhere in the middle of the pack. So I would attend the home games, keep score, and write-up a tale about the latest loss. For away games, I had to check with the coach the next day, because the school didn’t send a reporter with the baseball team when it travelled. The football team, on the other hand, had a guy who went to both home and away games and travelled with the team on the same bus (actually the football team took about 3 busses because of the size of the team and the amount of equipment). The basketball team got the same treatment as the baseball team.

But finally in my Junior year the school found a baseball savior. His name was Harper (I’ve done a couple of stories involving him) and he had a curve that fell off the table and a fastball that he could blow through a brick wall. I don’t recall his record, but he was something like 10-0 and the rest of the staff did just well enough to get the team to a conference championship. Harper had moved in from Kansas and I became one of his buddies so I was able to get inside information on the team that made my stories better (OK, this is high school, not the Denver Post).

Well, no one quite knew what to do with a championship. We’d never won one before. The state of Texas had a state championship and all the conference champions got to participate. First, you had to win a regional of four teams, then all the regional champs (I think there were eight) went to the state tournament with the winner becoming the toast of Texas High School baseball (such as it was). When the football team played, there was a big “pep rally” with bands and cheerleaders and a lot of “rah-rah” stuff. For us, we got to leave without a crowd to send us off.

So the team got on a bus and headed south to the regional tournament. In a fit of hubris they decided to request the school paper send along a reporter (that would be me) to cover the games (it was double elimination, so you were guaranteed two games). It was also the only time I got to travel with the team.

We took one bus (there were about 15 guys on the team) with the entire team, the head coach (the assistant coach drove and carried the equipment in his car), and me on the bus. We ended up with a bit of a problem. The team had an odd number of guys plus two coaches, so one of the players would get a room to himself. As the star, Harper got the single and insisted I bunk in with him. That meant that we had a chance to talk a lot of baseball, a lot of school stuff, much of which revolved around girls.

It was one of those 1960s motels that had two stories strung out in front of a parking lot with the vending machines in a breeze way that was in the middle of the row of rooms and an office at one end. There was a restaurant that shared the same parking lot, but wasn’t officially attached to the hotel. The picture above isn’t the same one we stayed in, but it looks enough like it for you to get the idea.

The room was pretty standard, a couple of beds, a mirrored dresser with a few drawers, a round table with two chairs, and two tables set one beside each bed with a lamp on each and a Gideon Bible in one of the drawers. The bathroom had a simple sink, a tub/shower combination, a toilet, a mirror, and a couple of towels that had seen better days. I have no idea how much the rooms cost because the school paid for them. We got there in the evening and the tournament started the next day.

Harper drew game one, a morning game, and we beat the other team. I don’t remember the score, but I do remember that he gave up only one run. Everyone went a little nuts. No one could ever remember our team winning a state tournament game ever. The coach was going crazy, the few fans in the stands (the parents of a handful of the players) were going crazy, I was bouncing up and down on the bleachers, Harper was taking it in stride.

The problem was that if you pitched in a game, the state rules required you get 36 hours off before you could pitch again. You could play, you just couldn’t pitch (Harper went to second base in the next game) and the next game was an evening game against the other winning team.

Of course we lost. I don’t recall it being particularly close. That meant we went to the losers bracket where we played the survivor of the other losers bracket game. The problem was that it was a morning game the next day. That meant our ace couldn’t pitch game three (if we won, he could pitch game four, which was the evening game).

You know where this is going, don’t you? We got clobbered in game three and thus finished 1-2 for the tournament and third overall. The school had paid for that night so we stayed and watched the evening game. The team that was undefeated went on to win it and won the tournament. They later went out early at the state level.

Mostly the team was upset, but Harper took it well. He’d done all he could and told me he didn’t feel bad. What else could he do? It was to be his last game. He got a scholarship offer to one of the schools in Texas, but went back to Kansas to go into pre-law. The rest of the team cried a lot, I cried a little.

The next morning we packed up, got back on the bus, and headed home. It wasn’t as joyous a group as when we left, but the funeral atmosphere had worn off by then. We got back in the afternoon. There was no crowd to applaud us when we arrived. Harper had a car; I didn’t. He drove me home.

Taking Down the Sign in Left

April 3, 2014
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.

The Peace That Passes Understanding

January 22, 2014
our backstop's condition wasn't nearly this good

our backstop’s condition wasn’t nearly this good

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.

“Family?”

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.”

“Harper’s good.”

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?”

“Yeah.”

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.

Is it a Perfect Game if No Body Sees It?

May 16, 2012

our field didn’t look this good

I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas where the great quintet of life is God, guns, pickups, liquor, and football and the order depends on who’s on the other end of the conversation. It’s a place where churches cover the picture of doves in their stained glass windows during hunting season, and where high school football is king of sports. It doesn’t matter how bad your local team is, it’s king of the city. My hometown team was terrible. We won four games in my three years in the high school. Our basketball team won two state titles and no one noticed. The baseball team was sporadically good, the track team did OK in some events, lousy in others. None of it mattered because football was king. With a single touchdown and a missed extra point, the year after I graduated the team scored six points all season (Geez, I scored more often than that with the ladies and no one calls me Don Juan, then or now) and the team still outdrew all the other high school sports combined.

I wrote for the high school paper. Normally I did things like cover the student council or some teacher who did something, but no one else wanted to cover the baseball team, so I took the job. I brought along a score book, kept stats, and wrote up the story of each game for the paper. At least for each home game I did all that. For away games I had to rely on the coach to give me the info. The guy who covered the basketball team had the same problem. The guy who covered the football team had a seat reserved on the team bus. I got a seat in the home bleachers.

And there were plenty of seats to pick. You might have put a couple of hundred people in the bleachers that ran down both the first and third base lines if ever there were that many people. There were none behind home so parents could set up lawn chairs there to watch, except that there were no parents watching. The crowd averaged 10 or less (is 10 a crowd?). There was a little grass in the infield, but not a lot. The outfield was green and sometimes I wondered how much of that was paint. Of course there were no lights. The hgh school football stadium (and it was a stadium) seated a few thousand, had lights, and was kept up by a professional service in town.

Our coach had been there since Alexander Cartwright and knew there was only one way to play ball; you found a pitcher and eight big hulks that could hit the ball a mile but would lose to a slug in a race. Of course for a town that adored football, you tended to have a lot of big, slow guys who could and did play both sports. That meant you saw either a lot of home runs (which almost never happened) or the team played station-to-station ball which meant the games were low scoring. For low scoring games you needed a real pitcher.

His name was Harper and he was new in town. He was a senior, I a junior, and he’d just moved in from somewhere in Kansas. I interviewed him once for the paper. He loved baseball and thought football was silly, “any idiot can knock someone down.” He could also pitch.

About midway through the season, I got to the field to keep score and watch. Harper was pitching and there were about five people in the stands. He had this good fastball and a curve that Sandy Koufax might have noticed. And for seven innings (the regulation length of a high school game then) he was dominant. There are 21 outs in a seven inning game and he struck out 15. He didn’t walk a man and didn’t give his team much of a chance to screw it up for him by making an error. One opponent hit a little tapper back to the mound and another fouled out to the first baseman. That meant only four balls were hit even vaguely hard and only two of those got to the outfield where our big, slow left fielder was able to track both down. Harper had thrown a no-hitter, a perfect game, still the only one I’ve ever seen live. The coach was beaming, the team was proud, all five of us in the stands applauded. It was a great achievement and no one was there to note it.

The team won the conference title that year with Harper going something like 8-0 and the other two pitchers hovering around .500 or so. We won a district game (I still remember that Harper threw a three hitter), then got knocked out of the playoffs with consecutive losses (double elimination format) before he could get back to the mound.

He graduated in May, went off to college on some non-athletic scholarship. I never saw him again, but heard he took the low road and became a lawyer. I don’t know if he was successful, heck, I don’t even know if he’s still alive. But he was good, really good and no one ever saw him pitch. That’s a shame because for one day was the best damned pitcher I ever saw.