Today’s baseball isn’t the legend-making game it used to be

Published 8:54 am Wednesday, March 23, 2011

by Clarence Foster

No matter where you were, prior to the ‘60s, there was a rudimentary baseball field within six or seven miles.

These Saturday afternoon affairs included homemade ice cream, hot dogs, ham sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, barbecue, friendships and courtships, the rumblings and revvings of patchwork cars, homemade and store-bought liquors, players playing into their 50s, colorful catchers jabbering and showboating throughout the game, the occasional spectacular play, the occasional spectacular player.

Saturday: enjoyed Saturday afternoon, by the committed, and again Saturday night, by the truly committed. But, no more! Outmoded and outlived, broken on the wheel of progress. Things to do! Places to go! People to be!

But, then? We pick up the game with runners on first and second, and none out. The batting team trails by two runs in the ninth.

The batter, batting in his usual seventh position, observed, with some irritation, that he would be better off if both runners were in scoring position. “Really, how much more would it have taken them to reach second and third,” and mumbling on in disgust, “it’s always left to me.”

On first was a fleet-footed daredevil who could terrorize opposing pitchers. On second stood a relatively turtle like rally killer, who secretly resented the brash daredevil.

The ace fireballer, graying at the temples, could flat out hum it. The very molecules of the air trembled and fled. Old catchers: Either “Skin” Brown, or the dry wit of Leland Chapman . . . “It would hurry up.” Now, a nano-second slower, but at the height of his reputation as an absolute magician.

Tension mounted. The runners stepped off. The second base runner, desperate for a moment of his own, desperate to steal the spotlight from the arrogant snot-nose on first, ignored the signs, and broke for third.

The brash youth, having already read his forerunner’s body language, revved his engines and shot out from first.

The batter, tense, a marginal ballplayer at best; seeing things in motion, leaned in to his fate.

Our ace, with many years, many moments, had seen it all — playing with or against the Manry Clowns, the Berlin Eagles, the Ivor Tigers, the Franklin Braves, the Franklin All-Stars, the Zuni Blue Soxs, the Carrsville Woodpeckers, etc.

The week ran until noon. As the most tenured hand, he had been allowed to use the new tractor. It was secondhand, but head and shoulders over a mule. [Which is saying a lot. I came in, just as mules went out. When I started school in 1951 you could still see the odd mule and cart at church. A bit of an animal lover, I’ve always wondered how they were trained, and count it as a blessing to have never found out. Being head of household 60 years ago was no joke.]

He got his pay and was dropped off at home. Two or three of Henrietta’s biscuits, two or three pieces of chicken, all stashed away (with a warning to the children) awaited his return.

The foot tub, the washbasin, and hit the road. Mr. Sonnyboy would bring “the Hen” and the children along later.

Shoulders arched forward, locked in full stride, far into that Saturday state of mind, but slacked, and slowed as a ride rolled up along side.

Saturday, posed and paused, “They dare challenge me — and Henrietta here, too,” as the magician made his move.

The third base coach, Henry Hicks, withholding his double-steal sign until the following pitch, angrily, hysterically waved them back. The turtle whirled. The daredevil, arrogantly playing his own game, and now in no-man’s-land, raced the turtle to second.

The second baseman, fancying himself as the local Jackie Robinson, in support of “Big” Don Newcombe on the mound, and Roy Campanella behind the plate [Uncle Rubdell (Augustus Rubdell Joe, 1917-1971) had a brand new red 1951 Crestliner Ford. I recall being in the yard as two or three adults milled about, listening to a baseball game on the car radio. Something dramatic happened, and there was an instant of gloom, as the memory fades. Was this the famous 1951 Dodger playoff lost to the Giants? The historic homerun was hit by Bobby Thompson. But, did you know that the youngster, Willie Mays was on deck? It is also noteworthy that Campanella (a pulled hamstring) wasn’t around for the final pitch, nor Newcombe, who had gone into the eighth, on two days rest. Four black hall-of-famers, including Monte Irvin, adorned the game] also dove for second.

Rising from the clearing dust, the homemade Jackie Robinson held his clinched glove aloft. But, in the blaze of the moment, totally lost on all and sundry, was the simultaneous third out. A feat that will live on in the minds, the very souls, of all who were there.

You see, the move, so mesmerizing, the moment so tense, that the embattled batter swung — a legendary third strike.

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County, and 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.