When I was growing up in Caldwell, Idaho, we lived on the edge of town. Beyond lay open fields where only sagebrush and sharp salt grass grew, and about a quarter of a mile out in the fields stood the ball park. A huge rectangle over 200 yards on each side, it was surrounded by a six-foot fence of vertical, unpainted pine boards. The rickety grandstand and home plate were in one corner, and home runs would have been impossible feats if the local cavalry unit of the National Guard had not shared the park. The cavalry's barn took up a large space opposite the grandstand, and corrals extended deep into the outfield along two sides. Even so, a ball pulled straight down the left-field line must have had to travel nearly 400 feet to drop in among the horses, and then the ground rules allowed the outfielder to climb into the corral, retrieve the ball and try to catch the runner. This slight advantage to the fielders was more than offset by the hoof marks, which pitted the outfield deeply in some places, and by the little mounds of horse droppings, which were not always cleared away before a game. The two types of obstructions made ground balls unpredictable once they passed the infield, which the cavalry tried to stay away from during its drills.
Such irregularities didn't detract from the game's seriousness nor from the importance to me of the success of the town team, the Caldwell Cockerels. They played every Sunday all through the summer, alternately at home and away, in a league which included teams from Boise and four other nearby towns, and I saw almost every home game from the time I was 5 or 6. Getting into the field was no problem. If we finished Sunday dinner in time, I was able to reach the park before the ticket seller arrived and walk boldly through the gate. My holy zeal for the team's victory made that upright mode of entry appeal to me, and on Sundays when a game was scheduled I gobbled my dinner as fast as my mother would permit. But when I was too late for the game, I had only to crawl under the fence at any of a dozen places which I knew intimately. Once I was inside the grounds, no one ever tried to shoo me out.
One spring evening in the late '20s—I can't remember the exact year, but I know I was about 10 or 11—I went to the park to watch the team practice. It was a week or so before the season opened. The team manager, who was a friend of my father's, was sitting alone on a bench back of home plate. After wandering around the empty grandstand, watching one of the players hitting fungos to the others and feeling vaguely important because I was the only spectator, I scrambled over the barrier onto the field and tentatively sat down on the manager's bench at the opposite end from him. He nodded to me casually, then cocked his head and eyed me for a moment.
"Bobby," he said, "how'd you like to be our mascot?" The possibility of such an honor never had occurred to me. The bat boys of previous years had been several years older than I and had seemed to me almost as remote and heroic figures as the players. All I could manage was to nod my head vigorously.
"All right," the manager said. "Better ask your folks, but I don't think they'll mind. Tell them I'll look after you."
Permission was granted, and on opening day I presided over the team's 20-odd bats with such complete dedication that I could scarcely follow the progress of the game. I remember that we won it, though, and when it was over one of the players put a hand on my head, raised the other with the fingers crossed and called to the others.
"Looks like we got ourselves a good mascot."
I blushed, hung my head and felt ready to do anything to continue deserving such praise. I would even have made and have tried to live up to the promise, which my mother frequently asked of me, to be a good boy, although it was at that time the most exasperating concept with which I had to deal because it seemed to have endless vague and depressing aspects. However, none of the players asked it of me. I wasn't asked to accompany the team on the road, either. Not that I expected to. That would have been too gloriously much to bear. But all summer long I was at the ball park every other Sunday, often the first to arrive and the last to leave. When we won, I was so elated that I would lie awake in bed that night for hours, going over in my memory every play in the game. When we lost, I would sink into gloom and mope for two or three days. When we lost in the ninth inning the last home game of the season, after it had seemed won, I had a tantrum.
BIG BAD BOISE
That loss was still more crushing because it was to the Boise team and because the hit that defeated us was a home run by Boise's first baseman. Boise was the metropolis as well as the capital of the state. Its population of about 20,000 made it four times the size of Caldwell, and for that reason I hated it with all my heart. Two aunts of mine, whom I liked very much and who always treated me handsomely when I visited them, lived in Boise and, it seemed to me, demeaned themselves by doing so. Whenever I went to see them, I had a guilty feeling I was condoning their breach of faith with Caldwell. Boise was the wicked city, the esoteric source of nameless evil. And then the Boise teams always won the league championship.