To make matters worse, Fishhook's older brother, Hal, was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and it was agreed that no mortal could hit the brother of an actual major league catcher. Joe was distantly related to Fishhook, which is to say a solid second cousin by marriage, and he had, the year before, hit a Tommy Smith fastball. No small task. But now Tommy had added a curve, and nobody, not even a second cousin, could touch the hook.
Assuming you were a righthanded batter, the ball started right at your head, a spinning, sizzling, whirring horsehide. The batter's left foot instinctively lurched toward the third base dugout as if an invisible wire were tied to the ankle. Some kids—mercy forbids naming names—completely panicked at the sight of Fishhook's approaching curveball and immediately hit the deck, only to hear the umpire say, almost apologetically, "Uh, strike three, son."
My father, understanding our anxieties, tried to offer hope and coaching. But how could he truly understand. He had been a great hitter in his day. According to legend, on July 4, 1925, he had hit four shots "out in the pecan trees" off a 14-year-old from Lucas, Ark., named Jerome Dean—Dizzy they called him when he won 30 games for the Cardinals in 1934.
And, in 1943, Dad faced Warren Spahn, who won 367 games before he retired in 1965. He was pitching for Fort Chaffee during his three-year hitch in the Army. One Sunday afternoon Fort Chaffee's team drove over and played a Greenwood town team behind the county courthouse. My dad was the Greenwood first baseman. He never said if he got a hit off Spahn or not, but we assumed he did.
Since my father was the high school basketball and football coach, he was accustomed to giving pregame pep talks. "You can do it," he urged, "if you think you can. You've got to believe in yourself!"
We tried valiantly, but Tommy believed in himself, too, and blew us away, something like 16-0. Our assumption was correct: A mere mortal can't hit the brother of a major league catcher.
That was 30 years ago.
We're all grown now. My brother, David, became an all-conference pitcher at Arkansas Tech in 1966 and '67. Joe was the starting catcher for the Arkansas Razorbacks from 1965 to '67. Tommy Shockley went to Vietnam and now works for Merle Haggard.
And Tommy Smith? He signed a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1967 and was a first baseman for the Double A Arkansas Travelers. He never made it as far as his brother, Hal, though.
Just then, the conversation behind me brought me back to the present. "If we have to face the Gooden Machine we'll all strike out," said a voice.