The baseballs were hand-me-downs from the local semipro team, scuffed and sometimes lopsided, their seams torn so the leather flapped like the tongue on one of those dogs that were always slobbering happily at Bailey Santistevan's side. For as long as he coached—and he coached until he became a small-town legend—Santistevan never had the luxury of throwing away even the most woebegone ball. Instead, he picked up needle and thread and painstakingly sewed each ragged treasure back together until it was ready for the miners' sons who could count on little other than a game in the frying pan heat of a Utah summer.
They lived in Bingham Canyon, 28 miles southwest of, and a world away from, Salt Lake City. Their fathers dug for the source of other men's riches—silver, gold, lead and, most plentiful of all, copper—but the boys knew this canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains mainly for what it lacked. There were no lawns they could mow to earn the price of a bike, and no level ground where they could ride bikes if they actually got them. There was only the old orange school bus that wheezed up Main Street on summer mornings at eight and carried them to the field where Santistevan waited with the baseballs that defined a place and an era and him.
All three are permanently intertwined in the memories of the old-timers from Bingham who will gather on the last Fourth of July of this century, just as they have on more Fourths than anybody can remember. They will turn out, as they always do, at the annual pancake breakfast in a leafy park at the canyon's mouth and breathe life back into a town officially out of existence since 1971. They will talk about the avalanches that leveled houses. And the daily 3 p.m. blasting in the world's largest open-pit copper mine. And the games that were so vital to the town that even the mine would shut down early for them. Every conversation will hum with a sense of community as indomitable as Bailey Santistevan himself. Yes, his name will come up again and again, rising out of an ethnic stew that proves what a melting pot the canyon was in a state otherwise so blond and blue-eyed that it seemed like a Viking breeding ground.
Santistevan's teams left their mark on the town, and Santistevan left his mark on the kids who played for him, whether it was at Bingham High or in his summer school of baseball. He wasn't loved by all, and he may have been hated by some, but in the end he was too big a force for anyone to ignore. "Bailey wasn't going to be your buddy," says Jimmy Brown, who cherishes the memory of every ground ball Santistevan hit to him at second base 55 years ago. "What Bailey did was influence your life. He taught us that when you play the game, you play it only one way: hard."
Santistevan expected a level of effort that had rewards far beyond the high school championships his Bingham Miners kept bringing back to the canyon. The players he coached from 1928 to '54 learned what it took to survive in a world that would hand them nothing, and the people who watched them play never forgot their passion or their swagger.
Don Gust didn't realize just what an impression his teams had made until a stranger approached him in 1970 and asked, "Aren't you that little fart who used to play shortstop for Bailey Santistevan?" Well, yes, Gust was, but little hardly described him anymore. He was working on the potbelly that has since become a front porch, and, more to the point, he was a grown man, an ex-minor leaguer with a wife, four sons and a job as a high school baseball coach. And here was this stranger who remembered him from an American Legion tournament in 1946, the one over in Colorado Springs in which Gust, at 14, had been the youngest player and the hottest hitter. Admiring fans actually had thrust handfuls of cash at him—and Santistevan had made the kid give back every penny.
The stranger knew all about it because he had coached one of the opposing teams. Now he was a scout for the Cincinnati Reds, and he wanted Gust to work for him part time. Gust took the job, and he's still at it, working himself into a lather at tryout camps and proudly flashing his ring from the Reds' 1990 world championship. But hardly a day passes that he doesn't remember how it all started with those baseballs that anybody other than Santistevan would have thrown away. Those balls made Gust, always and forever, one of Bailey's boys.
Before anybody in Bingham heard of Little League, there was the Eskimo Pie League. Surely no more appealing, evocative name ever existed for anything involving boys and baseball. Santistevan concocted it in the early 1930s without corporate benediction and, so far as his old players can recall, without giving anybody an ice-cream bar. All he wanted was something that would lure boys onto the diamond when they turned six. They could keep playing in his summer program until they were 16, but the older they got, the more mundane the names of their leagues became: Pee-Wee, Middle, Giant, Major. Only once in a lifetime could a sister look at her big brother and think of him as an Eskimo Pie.
Mornings began with Bailey's boys rallying 'round the flagpole where Joe Timothy, the one-legged bus driver, deposited them. That was the way it was done at the all-dirt diamond called the Brickyard, where Santistevan's troops first played, and at the high school field that became their home in 1939: One of the players would blow To the Colors on a dented trumpet (Gust and his big brother, Russ, were among those who did the honors), and as soon as Old Glory was flying high, Santistevan would hand out equipment. Each game got one ball, one bat, one set of catcher's gear and one set of bases, all well worn by the semipros who had passed them along. The result looked like something Norman Rockwell might have painted.
"You'd see young catchers, and their belly protectors would be dragging on the ground," Don Gust remembers. "And the bats, why, they'd been broken, and Bailey had nailed 'em back together and taped 'em up. They were 34 or 35 inches long, so you had to choke up on 'em, but you'd better be careful you didn't choke up so far that you hit yourself in the stomach when you swung."