If it’s true what people say, that a person becomes a force of habit, then I’m a typical man. That’s true, at least, as far as this time of year is concerned.
Those magical words have come to mean just one thing for more than six of my seven-plus decades on this earth.
I’m sure I drove my wife nuts in the days leading up to that magical hour when Spring Training ended and teams began playing games in earnest. Granted, it’s a long season, lasting until well into Fall. But April brings with it a time of eternal hope for baseball fans from Massachusetts to California and Florida to Minnesota.
My love of baseball nearly pre-dates television. My connection with the sport began when the older boys in Duncombe began tossing a baseball around in the grassy area surrounding the old school. Having gone to country schools for my first three years, the sight of those teens became my first indication that there was a game being played with a small, hard white ball and lathed sticks of ash wood.
It was during that same school year which began in the Fall of 1951 that my father brought home our first television set, a small magical box on which grainy images appeared and kids my age began watching such weekend staples as “Superman,” “Roy Rogers” and “Hop-a-long Cassidy.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but the game introduced to me on the playground of the old Duncombe school would become an almost vital part of my life. When the first Major League Baseball “Game of the Week” was broadcast, I was mesmerized by the spectacle shown on that small black and white Admiral television set.
I had never experienced such joy in my lifetime and I became quickly addicted. I literally lived for Saturday to arrive and with it the game of the week. In those days, of course, most television shows originated from New York City; hence, most game of the week broadcasts involved the New York Yankees, the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants. My complete absorbance of those few hours of television on Saturday afternoons were quickly augmented when I realized I could, for just a penny, buy a packet at Fisher’s Drugstore that held a piece of sickly sweet bubble gum and a single baseball card.
Those cards, in color, brought a wide assortment of cards, each depicting a player on one of the eight Major League teams of the day. When I opened one of those packages and saw, for the first time, the Royal Blue and cloud-white uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, I was hooked. I became an instant Dodger fan, more because of what I thought were the beautiful home uniforms than for any player. I didn’t know Jackie Robinson from Whitey Ford, didn’t realize that Jackie Robinson, only a few years earlier, had knocked down the color barrier.
Shoot, I was too young to realize that Jackie Robinson was a black man and that Whitey Ford was a white man. No, it was a couple years later that I realized that difference existed not only in baseball but everywhere in America.
But, in the first year when I discovered baseball, everything was colorless, just like the images I saw on the small black and white television at home.
I wanted to play the game and I silently stood on the sidelines as older boys in Duncombe played games on an old dirt diamond adjoining the schoolhouse. I must have been a nuisance, or maybe I was just another “body” to fill a position in a game that used 18 players, but rarely had more than seven or eight.
“Stand out there in right field,” one of the older boys pointed. I obediently took up a position not far behind first base (there was no first baseman as I recall; a runner was out if a player fielded the ball and threw it toward an open space between the runner and first base). The first time a ball was hit in my direction, I ran toward the ball, didn’t hear the warning shouts of others and ran smack dab into a telephone pole, coming away with a bruised cheek and equally bruised ego.
Despite that inauspicious debut in organized baseball, I became hooked. I got better with age and played baseball in junior high, high school, college, and on various town teams. I even played throughout my Military years and spent a summer in Sweden pitching for the Swedish National Champion team in the small village of Leksand. I was even fortunate to have pitched the first no-hitter in Swedish baseball history that summer of 1968.
Even after my playing days ended, Springtime has remained an important part of my life. I’ve watched winters come and go and new baseball seasons begin for almost 70 years now, and I never tire of the openers.
As a sportswriter in Wausau, Wis., I even sat in the press box at Milwaukee’s County Stadium and covered the first game ever played by the Milwaukee Brewers (Milwaukee, as I recall, lost to the California Angels that day, 10-0). I continued playing the game until finally damaging my right shoulder to a point that I no longer could throw without pain. It was only then that I quit.
But my love of the sport has endured. My love of the Brooklyn Dodgers soon became a love for the Chicago Cubs. I’ve now lived long enough to see the Cubs win a World Series.
Still, during my 70-plus years, nothing stirs the emotions, nothing sends my mind racing through years past, nothing spurs thoughts that “this is the year” and nothing evokes memories of grass-stained baseballs and leather gloves as do those most reverent of words: “Play Ball!”