When I was growing up in Charlestown, N.H., in the 1950s and '60s, the town had a couple of stop signs and flashing caution lights, one drugstore, one grocery store, a post office, two churches and little else. There really wasn't much to do; we didn't have a movie theater or a restaurant, or bigger towns nearby to go to. New Hampshire is dotted with towns like this, where high school sports are embraced as the main social activity, and where crude high school playing fields and old, musty gymnasiums are the centers of community life. � Basketball was king in Charlestown. Baseball was just something you did to get through the summer. My dream was pretty much every New Hampshire boy's dream: to star for the Boston Celtics. Boston is a 2�-hour drive from Charlestown, and though we rooted as hard for the Red Sox as we did for the Celtics, I had no aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player, and none of my brothers—Calvin, Conrad and Cedric—or my neighborhood friends did either. After school a group of us would get together at my grandfather's barn, a block from our house, and play basketball until the sun went down, imitating our heroes: Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones.
Charlestown was a town of about 1,000, and my high school graduating class had 38 students, which then was the most in school history. Charlestown High had only three boys' sports, one for each season. In the fall we played soccer because we didn't have enough bodies for a football team. The winter sport was basketball, and on Tuesday and Friday nights the town would come alive for our games, packing into our tiny gym and creating an atmosphere straight out of Hoosiers.
When we played nearby Walpole High, the games had the intensity of the Red Sox-Yankees' rivalry. Our team was called the Forts, and we had cheerleaders and a band to whip up the crowd. The gym, which was also the school's auditorium, had bleachers on only one side, but people sat on the floor near the baselines and on chairs set up on the stage behind one basket. It would get so hot in there during games that we'd have to open the windows in the dead of winter.
The fervor for baseball was nothing like that. The high school team played on a converted pasture with no fences. When we didn't have games, cows grazed there. Early in the season—I played pitcher and shortstop—we'd have to chop chunks of ice off the trees near the field to keep branches from hanging over the foul lines. There was also a brook in leftfield, and when you went after a deep fly ball, you could fall in; if you hit the ball into the brook, you got a ground rule double.
My father worked at the Jones & Lamson Tool Company across the Connecticut River in Springfield, Vt., where a lot of my friends' dads also worked. My dad knew my high school basketball and baseball coach, Ralph Silva. There was a lot of respect for authority because if you screwed around at school, you were going to get your butt kicked at home.
When I went to the University of New Hampshire in 1965, on an athletic scholarship, the baseball games weren't much bigger than they were in Charlestown. We played about 20 games a season, in front of sparse crowds. Still, I got enough exposure that the Red Sox drafted me in '67.1 became their regular catcher in '72.
In 1981 I signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox, and I've lived in the Midwest for 22 years. But at heart I'm still a New Englander, and with so many relatives still living there, I go back to my home state often.
New Hampshire has changed since I left, of course. Now it has a much more transient population. In Charlestown the old drugstore was turned into a pizza joint, the post office is gone, and the high school doesn't even exist—a bunch of schools in the area were consolidated into one. One tiling, though, hasn't changed in New Hampshire: The passion for sports is simple and straightforward, a lot like everything else about the state.