We played baseball in a big empty lot surrounded by houses and streets. If you hit the ball over the fence it would go down the sewer or onto the front porch of some old witch who already had a bucket of confiscated baseballs in her basement, gathering mold. So in our game the first rule was: over the fence is out. (I know a man named Bradbury who played his childhood baseball on a leveled-off mountaintop in North Dakota. Over the fence was out there, too, because the ball would roll down the mountain and they would never see it again. Bradbury is a bore to watch baseball games with. Any time there's a home run, he has to tell you how he once hit a ball a mile and a half.) This over-the-fence-is-out rule used to set up terrible conflicting forces in the minds of our good hitters. The fence was way out there at the 140-foot mark. If they really teed off (as, for example, when I was pitching) they would clear the fence and be out. If they didn't quite connect, the ball might hit off the fence for a triple, but it also might be caught by an outfielder. I always figured this is why none of the kids in our neighborhood ever made the big leagues; they had a subconscious fear of hitting the ball too hard. I know for a fact that Bud Lewins almost lost a game for our junior high school team once; he smacked the ball over the fence of the school athletic field with two men on, and he flung his bat 20 feet in the air and said, "Aw, hell," before somebody on the bench hollered, "Run, run—it cleared the fence!" For a second he had thought he was back on the vacant lot.
I am in possession of a box score from one of those games, played when we were all about 11, and it tells the story of the greatest athletic day in my life. It's funny how the best things often happen when you least expect them. I wasn't even supposed to pitch that day. Mostly I was the manager, because my father was a big Athletics fan and he used to supply me with scuffed-up baseballs once in a while. On this particular day we were playing the Highland Avenue Eagles, and they were hot stuff. (Three of them later made our high school official team, and one of them—Shorty Wilkes—went all the way to Class C baseball before they found out he could be had, high and inside.) Fred Savarese was supposed to pitch for us, but he was on probation in geography and had to stay home to study. Our other pitcher, Coffee Parks, had started warming up for the game at 9:30 in the morning. By the time the game started at 2 in the afternoon he had a sore arm. So I had to leave it up to me.
Lewins was our catcher in those days, and before the game we discussed the signs. "One finger is a fast ball," he said, and I nodded knowingly. "Two is a hook, three is a drop, four is a roundhouse, five is a slow ball, and a fist means an inshoot." Luckily, this was before the days of the knuckle ball and the slider and the back-up scroogie and other silly pitches. We did have the changeup, but we called it a slow ball. We had the slow change-of-pace curve, but we called it a roundhouse. We had no fork ball. To be perfectly honest, we really didn't have any of the other pitches, either, except that slow ball. But we liked to think we could throw them all, and that's why the catcher's signs. It was a sort of mass hallucination.
I refer now to the official box score, kept by my sister. It shows that I walked the first three men. This was to be expected, as I had had very short notice and hadn't had time to put Sloan's Liniment on my arm before the game. Sloan's Liniment always helped my control. The Eagles' clean-up man was the guy who later played Class C, and he knocked it over the fence in dead center. The ball bounced off Mrs. Worthington Nelson's front porch and back onto the field, but under the rules it was just a long out. I was settling down.
The next man up hit a hard shot to me. Since I was regularly a shortstop, with a .674 fielding average for the season, this ball presented no problem. I gobbled it up and fired it to the catcher for the cinch forceout at home, but for some reason or other Buddy Lewins had run down to back up first, and there was nobody at home plate to take my perfect peg. I ran in, retrieved the ball and threw it over the third baseman's head. The left fielder grabbed the ball on the first bounce and flung it over the backstop, and four runs were in.
I cursed the lousy support and went back to work with grim determination. There was one out and we were behind 4-0. But the bases were empty, and things could have been worse. The No. 6 batter drilled the ball through the box into center field; the second baseman just barely got a glove on it, so I made it an error on him. (I forgot to tell you, I was also official scorer, and I went by a simple rule of thumb: if you missed a ball that Charley Gehringer would have got, it was an error.)
So then I walked two more guys, being still upset by the lack of support. That brought up their pitcher with the bases loaded again. He hit a perfect double-play ball about 20 feet to the left of the shortstop, and that's where it went—to his left. The ball rolled between the outfielders and all the way to the fence, and three runs scored. I awarded errors to the shortstop and the left and center fielders.
Now the Highland Avenue bench started up that stupid chant to the tune of the bugle call, Assembly:
There's a pitcher in the box with a head like an ox.
Take him out, take him out, take him out, take him out.