It was an unusually hot summer. It was 1959. We lived on an ordinary street in a middle class neighborhood where all the houses kind of looked alike, except for the numbers on their mailboxes. Small brick houses. Mostly mortgaged by the Veterans’ Bank. None of us had money. But the one thing that Jack Carter, Tom Brady, Sam Miller, Teddy Smith, and Sol Lewin, (that’s me), had in common was a love of baseball. We had all passed the fifth grade and were looking forward to a summer of playing baseball, just as we had done every summer since the third grade.
The sun was already blazing hot at 9:00 in the morning. My seven year old brother, David, and I were sitting on the steps that lead to our screened in porch. “You goin’ to play baseball today?” David asked.
“I guess so,” I replied, ”when the guys come by.” He asked me if he could come with me. “Sure,” I said,” when we hit ‘em over the fence you can go get ‘em.”
“Okie dokie!” David said. He jumped up and ran into the house. I sat there, staring down the street hoping to see one of my friends. It was hot and there was sweat dripping down from my hair underneath my Yankees’ ball cap. David came out of the house, slamming the door behind him. He had two bottles of Orange Crush, one in each hand. “Momma said we could have them?” I asked.
“She didn’t say,” he said. “I didn’t ask.” I laughed with the soda pouring out of my nose.
On the next street over was St. Agatha’s Catholic Church. It faced K Street. Behind it was the best sandlot where we played ball. The church was big with stained glass windows. The priest, Father Frederico, was from Italy and could hardly speak English. There was Bingo at Agatha’s every Tuesday and Thursday nights. Dad called the letters. David and I liked to go with him.
Dad liked to see the Birmingham Barons play baseball at Rickwood Field. The Birmingham Barons was a Double A Team for the Detroit Tigers. Dad took David and me to the games. I think he liked having his boys with him, doing the father/son thing. One night as we were leaving a game that the Barons won, Dad reached over David and handed me a Birmingham Barons ball and gave David a baseball cap. He said,” Just so you boys will remember tonight.”
‘Hey yourself,” I said to Teddy. Not much bigger than a corn cob. Teddy always had a smile on his face. His chopped-off red hair was hardly covered by his Alabama cap. “You guys up for a ball game?” “Sure,” David and I responded together.
“I got a bat,” Teddy said. Just then Jack, Sam, and Tom came walking up. “You guys ready?”
As we were walking toward the field, the other guys and some guys I didn’t know came along. I talked to David as we walked along. “David, remember you ain’t gonna play. You’re going to collect the balls when they go over the fence.”
“What fence you talking about?” David asked.
With a deep sigh I answered like he was just plain stupid,” The fence that goes behind the field. Everything that goes over it is a run and we need someone to pick up the balls.”
“So I’m just a ball boy, is that it? That stinks!”
“No, Dufus. It’s the first step in getting in good with the boys. Then they’ll let you play.” David walked away hanging his head down. I felt sorry for him, but that’s the way it was.
There was a bit of grass surrounding the home plate. My team included Moose Miller and believe you me he was a moose. He must have been left back a grade or two ‘cause he was a lot bigger than the rest of us. Moose liked to pitch. He hated to run. His legs were short compared to the rest of his body. He had a big head and real strong arms. He could hit a ball a mile long. Of course, it took him more than three minutes to run around the bases. It was closer to five. We always came up with some lame excuse to have a pinch runner for him. Like he was having stomach cramps or he had sprained his big toe. The guys on the other team never believed us but they let it go.
Moose met us behind home plate. He’d brought his baseball with him. Jerry McMullen met me out where the line in the dirt had been drawn behind the plate. I said,” I see you got all your boys here.” “Yeah and we’re plannin’ on beating the crap out of you guys.”
“Not likely. Evens or odds?” I asked.
“Odds,” he replied. “Two out of three. Once, twice, three, shoot! ” I stuck out two fingers. So did Jerry. That was one for me. I thought, “We are going to whip your butts!” Again, “Once, twice, three, shoot.” I stuck out two fingers again, but Jerry only stuck out one. That was his. Last shoot out was going to decide which team would have last licks and which team would be up first. Once, twice, three, shoot! We both stuck out one finger.
“We’ll take last licks,” I told him and motioned for my guys to come out onto the field. David was hanging around looking like he had lost his best friend. “David,” I shouted, “Go so that you’ll be ready when a ball comes atcha.” He shrugged and started walking toward the fence.
I played second base. I could throw as far as anyone else. I also had great peripheral vision . I was known to put a man out even before he had thought of running. I was great at scooping balls up faster than you could say, “Jackie Robinson. “
Moose was our pitcher. He was one hell of a pitcher! Fast as lightning! He could make the ball dip at just the right moment and more often than not, the batter would swing at it. When that happened everyone knew it was a strike. We didn’t have an ump. We hardly had enough guys for two teams. Most of the time we all agreed on whether the pitch was a strike or a ball. Most of the time.
“Let’s go Moose!” I shouted. The rest of the guys took up the chant. Moose’s first pitch was a fast one. Reilly missed and spun around. “I wasn’t ready!”
“Stop your belly achin,” Carter, the first baseman yelled.
Moose looked down at the ball in his mitt. He knocked some dirt off his shoes, wound up and gave it all he had. I swear we all could hear it whizzing pver the plate. Reilly missed again. Carterr shouted,”I guess you wasn’t ready that time either.” Reilly gave him a go-to-hell look. The third pitch was low, but Reilly tried for it anyway, and missed. One out. We all grinned at each other.
The next guy up was Jackson White. He walked up to the base, took a few swings and stepped away from the plate. Carter hollered, ”Let’s go Jackson! We don’t got all day, ya know!”
White stepped up to the plate. Moose let go of a slow pitch. I was thinking it wasn’t going to go over the plate. White held on to both ends of the bat and bunted it towards third base. Teddy ran in from third, picked it up and threw it to Carter just in time. Two out.
I thought I heard David. Sure enough he was sitting on the grass. “I’m bored!” he whined.
“Get up David! You’ll never be asked to play.” He said something. I couldn’t hear him. Probably was a good thing.
Standing at the home plate was Slugger. This guy had muscles on top of muscles. I don’t think he ever went to school. Must have spent all of his time at Joe’s Gym over on Main. He was a beast. He didn’t just have one bat in his hands but two. Slugger was known for hitting runs. “Get up David!” I shouted. “This guy is a powerhouse! Get ready!”
Moose stared at Slugger and shook his head. He was probably trying to decide what to throw. Slugger slung a bat behind him. He posed with one bat on his shoulder. He hollered ,”Are you gonna pitch or what?”
Moose replied,” Keep your pants on.” He reared back and let go one of the fastest pitches I’d ever seen fly. Slugger stepped in but didn’t break the plane. It was a ball. He took a step back out of the batter’s box. Moose shook his arms as if to loosen them up.
The next pitch was exactly like the first. Slugger just shook his head. I started wondering if Moose was just going to walk Slugger. He’d be easier to get out that way. Otherwise Slugger would probably hit it over David’s dumbass head. And they would have a run. Maybe Moose wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
Sure enough. Slugger walked. But not before he yelled at Moose,”I’m gonna kill you!” Moose cupped his ear like he didn’t hear him.
The next guy up was Russell. He wasn’t much of an athlete. He always won the award for reading the most books over the summer. Poor Russell usually struck out. Today was no different. Moose struck him out one, two, three.
Two away. One more to go. Stanley Smith came up to bat. I kind of liked Stan. He sat next to me in school and kind of moved his hand away from his answers when he saw me struggling. And that was often. Moose stepped off the plate and pitched perfectly. Stan stepped in and the crack of the bat echoed through the field. Everything was in slow motion. David just stood there behind the fence turning in place as he watched the ball sail over his head. It landed in the street and then it was gone.
Gone. Down the drain. The city had drains built out of cement on the sides of the road. I guess the street crew had cleaned the drains. The ball was gone.
Both teams came together. “Maybe it’s under a car,” “Or a dog picked it up and took it home?” “Or David picked it up and it’s in his pocket.”
I said very loudly,” It went down the drain!!!”
Carter asked ”Do any of you guys have a ball at home?” I thought about the baseball my dad had given me. I really loved that ball. I don’t know. It meant a lot to me. I would cry my eyes out if I lost it.
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I should leave the it right there on top of my dresser.
Suddenly, David piped up,”Solly’s got a ball. It’s on his dresser.”
I spun around and growled, “Shut up David!”
Moose asked, “Solly, you gotta a ball? Go get it.”
Boy was I trapped! I stood there like a statue. What if it went down the drain? What if someone hit it and it went through one of the church windows? What if someone hit it somewhere and we couldn’t find it? Dad would find out and I’d have to listen to the I’m-so-disappointed-in-you-son speech which I hated.
“Yeah Sol. Go get the ball. We got a game to finish,” Carter pointed out.
I sighed hard. “Okay. But we gotta be careful with iit”
“Just go get it.”
The score was 1-0 with two outs. The ball was heavy in my hand. Reluctantly, I handed it over to Moose. I felt like I was in a movie. Everything was moving in slow motion. I took my place on second.
Roger was up at bat. He was an okay player. We never knew what he was going to do. Usually he struck out. Sure enough. Moose sent the ball flying over the plate. The first ball went foul. He missed the second one. Roger shouted, ”Get ready boys! This is going to be a humdinger!”
Humdinger my butt. He hit the ball straight up in the air. Moose put out his glove and caught it. Three out.
Carter was up. FrogFace was pitching. He was a pretty good pitcher. Not consistent but good. He did this thing where he stood and looked around like the pros did when bases were loaded. But no one was on base now. “Comon, pitch the damn ball!” Carter yelled.
Frogface slowly pitched the ball. It barely made it across the plate. Carter didn’t even bother swinging at it. He stepped away from the plate and took a few practice swings.
I didn’t know what Frogface was doing. Suddenly, he wound up and let it rip. Carter swung at it. It flew like a bird over to third. Jack, the thirdbase man was staring at the giggly girls who appeared out of nowhere. He had to run, pick up the ball and throw it over to the first baseman, DeMaggio Smith. Meanwhile, Carter got on base.
Teddy was up next. He took a few practice swings. Sweat was pouring down Frogface’s face. He peered over to see where Carter was. Carter still had his foot on first base. Slowly, Frogface turned toward Teddy. Carter real sneaky-like started to steal. Frogface pitched. Teddy hit the ball to third . Carter ran to second. Men on first and second.
Tom’s turn to bat. Looking at Tom you wouldn’t think the boy could hit, but the boy can hit! The earth trembles when Tom comes up to bat. He took a few practice swings using two bats. Frogface looked down at his mitt. He wound up and let the ball go. It sailed right over the plate. Tom stepped in. The bat broke in two as the ball floated through the air like a bird. Over the fence. Over David’s upturned face. Into the street and down the drain.
My heart stopped beating. My eyes closed in disbelief. My beloved ball was no longer. My father was going to kill me.
Everyone came running. “What are you going to do?” “You got another ball?” “How you goin’ get it?”
I knew there was a flat edged shovel in the garage. I would’ve told David to go get it, but I wasn’t sure he’d know what I was talking about.
When I got back with the shovel, most of the guys on the other team had left. That was fine. The game was over. I said,”Carter, Moose come here. I’m going to use the shovel to pry the lid up. Okay?” After I pried the lid. Carter and Moose placed it next to the hole.
All of us peered in. There, in a very shallow puddle was my priceless ball. Moose said, ”Ya see it?”
“So Sol what are you gonna do now? You can’t jump down. It’s gotta be twenty feet,” said Carter.
“Shhh. I’m thinking,” To tell you the truth, I didn’t have the foggiest idea. I just knew I had to get the ball back.
David walked over. “Oooooo you’re in trouble. Dad is going to kill you.”
‘SHUT UP DAVID!”
Then a light went off in my brain. Get a rope. Tie it around one of the guys. Lower him down and pull him up, ball and all. “Hey any of you guys got a rope at home?”
Teddy said he thought there was one in his garage. “What are you standing there for? Go get it,” I said.
When Teddy returned, I said, ”Teddy, I need a huge favor. What I want to do is tie you up with the rope, lower you down into the hole, and, as soon as you pick up the ball, we’ll pull you up. I know it sounds scary but between Moose, Carter, and me there’s a ton of man power to let you down and bring you back up. I know this will work. I would use David, but I’m sure he weighs more than you.”
Teddy took a step back and paused. I could tell he was thinking about it. Suddenly, he said, ”Sure. I trust you. Nothing will happen to me.”
“I hope not,” I thought.
Carter and Moose were shaking their heads in agreement. We tied Teddy up. Moose was our back man. We knew he had enough strength to do the deed by himself. Carter was next. I was closest to the hole.
Teddy crawled close to the hole. He said” We got this.” As he lowered himself down, we held on tightly and let out the rope slowly. David stood over the hole giving us feedback on where Teddy was. Finally we heard, “Got it!!!”
There was a unified big breath of relief. I shouted down to Teddy ”Great! Get ready! We’re bringing you up!”
Pulling Teddy up was just as easy as letting him down. Moose, Carter, and I worked as a team. Moose chanted,”Heave ho!” like we was pirates pulling up a chest of treasure. Teddy reached the top and crawled on his belly to get out of the manhole. He held onto the baseball like it was a brick of gold. Once we got him untied, he handed the ball to me. “That wasn’t too bad ‘cept for the snake!”
Moose said, ”What snake you talkin’ ‘bout?” He said it real loud like he was scared of snakes.
Teddy smiled, ”Just pullin’ your leg.”
I thanked Teddy. “I owe you a big one!” Just then here comes a skinny woman looking like she was mad at the world. Teddy’s mother. She walked up to Teddy and shouted, “I told you not to leave the house, that you had chores to do and you couldn’t play baseball until you did ‘em.” Then she spied the rope. “Is that our rope? What are you doing with that rope? And why is that man cover off that hole?”
“Well ma,” Teddy started. “It’s a long story.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to tell it on the way home.” She turned around and started walking in the direction of their house. Teddy gathered up the rope that Carter had wound up and looked us and shrugged. “I think I’m in for it now! See ya boys! That is if she doesn’t ground me for the rest of my life!” And he scurried after her.
“Good luck!” Carter bellowed. He whispered softly,”You’re gonna need it!”
“I guess that’s it for today,” I said. “See ya tomorrow! Come on David. Let’s go to the house. I’m thirsty!”
“You gonna tell Mom ‘bout what happened?” David asked.
“No and don’t you say a word!” I answered.
This was Bingo night at St. Agatha’s. When Dad got home, he asked David and me if we wanted to go.
“YES!!” we said. We were sitting in front of the t.v. wishing we could have a dog as smart and as pretty as Lassie. That dog was great! We had been wanting a dog since David could walk. We’d beg and beg and beg. The answer was always the same, NO!
Supper was over. It was 6:00. Dad said,”Get your plates in the sink and let’s go!” I don’t think David and I ever moved so quickly.
The crowd at St. Agatha’s started arriving before six. I could never understand how much they could smoke by the time we got there. As Dad went up to platform on the stage, David and I sat down at the front table.
Some time into the evening, there was a hush in the crowd as a skinny woman rushed up to Dad’s table to talk to him. “Sol, isn’t that Teddy’s mother?” I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was shouting and pointing at me. Oh boy! I was in trouble! She went on and on. And Dad was nodding and nodding. But not smiling. I reared back in my chair. My stomach felt like it was tied up in knots. “You are gonna get it! I bet you won’t be playing baseball any more this summer!”
“Shut up David. You don’t know nothin’.”
Finally, Teddy’s mother calmed down and walked out. I stared at Dad, but he wasn’t giving anything up. David kept asking me, ”What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know. What do I look like? A fortune teller?” Those were the same questions I was asking myself.
Finally, Dad called, ”Last card.” People started picking their things up and pushing their chairs back. I was glad we were going home, but I couldn’t imagine what Dad was going to say to me.
We walked home in silence. When we got home, Dad said, ”David go on up to your room. I want to have a few words with your brother.”
“But Dad,” whined David.
“Go. Now.” Dad turned around in the kitchen chair.
“I’m sorry, Dad. I didn’t mean to do anything bad.” Tears were filling my eyes.
“I know you didn’t mean to do anything bad. Maybe it was just a lapse in good judgement. And Teddy wasn’t hurt. Just don’t do anything like that again. Okay?”
That was it. It was all over. I made a silent promise that I would use better judgement from then on. “Okay,” I said. “And I’m gonna put that baseball into my closet.”