Bobby tossed the bat to Rudy, who caught it in his left hand halfway up the handle. It was a Louisville Slugger, wooden of course ─ this was the summer of 1949, and decades before anybody saw an aluminum baseball bat. It belonged to Bobby.
Bobby was from Paducah, which, he explained, was in Kentucky, "jest dowan the rivuh from Lou-a-ville."
To him the horsehide sphere was a bawwwl and he described a car as an auto-moh-beel, and had us all half-believing that everyone in Paducah sounded like him. A tall, tow-headed string bean of eleven, Bobby was much the best athlete I knew, so brilliant at baseball that I forgave him for being a fervent Cincinnati fan contemptuous of my beloved White Sox.
Bobby slapped his right hand on the bat just above Rudy's. Rudy placed his other hand above Bobby's, leaving only an inch or so of handle below the knob. Bobby gripped the knob with the long, bony fingers of his left hand. He held the bat at arm's length, and Rudy kicked it hard. The bat's head flew toward the street, but Bobby, a southpaw, held on, assuring himself first pick.
I was eight, the smallest and the youngest present, and as certain as it was that Chicago summers were hot and humid and that the Northside's Cubs would never win a pennant, I knew that I would be picked last. I could hit neither Bobby's fastball nor Rudy's curve and unless hit by a pitch figured to strike out every time.
I was so short and uncoordinated that boys made faces and groaned aloud when I showed up. "Does he have to play?" they asked each other. But we were governed by anarchy, and no one told me to leave.
We had never heard of Little League; it would be decades before that show played my home town. Our stadium was a trash-strewn vacant lot, the diamond marked by bases ripped from scavenged cardboard from the market near the corner of 67th Street and Blackstone Avenue on Chicago's South Side. Rudy's ball was mud-stained and its stitches were frayed; Bobby's horsehide, with only a few dents, seemed almost new. When the ground was dry, Bobby let us use it.
My team started in the field and Rudy, chunky and freckle-faced, a ten-year-old whose father my own referred to, not unkindly, as "The Polak," put me at second base. While infielders and outfielders cleared trash, rocks and the largest shards of broken glass from our immediate areas, Rudy toed a wooden strip torn from a peach crate and hammered into the earth with scavenged roofing nails. He began to warm up.
Most boys had well-worn gloves handed down from fathers or older brothers. But my grandfather was from Rumania and died when Dad was only nine. As my father put it, he didn't know from baseball. There was no money in our household for such frivolities as baseball gloves, so for more than a year I combed neighborhood streets and alleys, gathering beer and soda bottles and returning them to the market for their penny deposit. A few times I stumbled on a great prize, a quart bottle, which brought a nickel. I saved my earnings in a coffee can, and when I had about five dollars, I bought a glove, my most treasured possession.
I had never seen a professional baseball game and we didn’t have a television set, but I often listened to Jack Brickhouse’s calling the Sox game on WGN radio. Each summer's day I carefully read the sports pages in Dad's newspaper. I memorized players and statistics. I imagined myself growing up to play in Comiskey Park. But first I had to learn the game.
The first step was proving myself on our sandlot field on Blackstone Avenue.
I pounded my glove with my fist, working on the pocket. As the first batter took his place at home plate and Rudy went into his windup, I was Nellie Fox, my White Sox idol, legs spread wide, balancing on my toes as I bent close to the ground and held my glove near the center of my body.
I wanted the ball to come to me even as my mother's litany of cautions echoed through my mind. Much as I wanted to succeed, I dreaded the possibility that I might kick the ball or throw it away. I feared that a ball might strike my face and I would lose a tooth or an eye.
The batter swung and the ball came bounding toward me. I set myself then stabbed clumsily at empty air as it bounded over my shoulder and into right field.
"Musta hit a rock," said Slappy, whose real name was Leonard. He was only a little shorter than Bobby, more than a head taller than me, a good player. The next hitter popped Rudy's curve into the air back of first, and Slappy, using two hands, carefully caught it.
Bobby came up and hit Rudy's first pitch over the right fielder's head. It skipped off the sidewalk to ricochet into a truck tire. Had it cleared the cars and trucks parked along the curb, it would have been a homer.
Bobby hit a homer almost every time he batted.
I batted last. When I came up with one out and one on in the third inning, I struck out on three pitches. I handed the bat to the leadoff hitter. "Choke up a little," he said.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
He shrugged as if to say that was something everyone knew.
In the fourth or fifth inning I caught a pop fly that came to my glove like I had a ball magnet in it. I looked around, proud, hoping someone would commend me. "Throw the ball back to Rudy," griped the shortstop.
Two pitches later I tripped on my shoelaces and an easy grounder rolled over my back as I wriggled among the weeds. Even Slappy glared at me.
It was twilight and mothers hollered from tenement steps for their kids to come home as I came up for my last at-bat. Bobby looked in at me and frowned. He lowered his arms and walked halfway to the plate, beckoning for me to join him.
"That bat's too heavy for a shrimp like you," he said.
I shrugged. "We don't got another bat."
"You gotta choke up some," he said. He dropped his glove and slid the bat down until six or eight inches of handle protruded beneath my hands. I went back to the plate. Outfielders crept in to the edge of the infield, confident that nothing I hit could get that far. The boy playing right field sat down.
The ball came zooming out of the dusk at a million billion miles an hour. Before I even thought about swinging I heard a pop! and it was in Pete's catcher’s mitt.
"Strike one!" said Pete, doubling as umpire.
The next pitch was a carbon copy, except that I started to swing as soon as Bobby's arm came down. The ball flew up and landed far behind Pete.
Bobby stood fidgeting on the mound until I raised the bat. He raised his leg and took a full windup and something white came whizzing toward me. I was tired and hungry and needed to find a toilet. Time to get this over, I thought. I swung the bat, not very hard, and a satisfying jolt went up my arms. The ball soared over the head of the left fielder, bounced on the sidewalk, caromed over a car and into the street.
Beyond the sidewalk glass shattered and car brakes screeched. In a moment a man in overalls stood at the edge of our field.
"Little sons-of-bitches," he raged.
Everyone scattered as he approached, melting into the alley behind the lot.
Everyone except me. I stood frozen at home plate, still clutching the bat.
"Who hit that ball?" growled the man. Behind him streetlights came on. The man appeared as a menacing silhouette.
"Who hit the damn ball?" he yelled.
"Me," I said, quaking. "I didn't mean to break your car, Mister."
The man approached and knelt down for a closer look.
"You hit that ball?"
"I didn't mean to break your window," I said, blinking away tears.
"Punks ran off and left you to take the rap," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Kids today…" He turned and hurried away.
When he had driven off, I searched under parked cars until I found Bobby's ball.
I went down the street until I came to the building where I thought he lived. His sister answered the door. Barefoot and drainpipe skinny, she smiled through braces.
"Bobby, one of your friends is here," she called.
Bobby appeared. "He's not my friend," he said.
My heart sank. I don't know what I was expecting, but not that.
"He's my teammate," said Bobby, taking bat and ball.
We played again the next day. I struck out three more times. I dropped a fly ball. I threw wildly over Slappy's head. Boys yelled and cursed at me, but I was Bobby’s teammate, and nothing else mattered.
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.