Contrary to the nostalgic notions of many middle-aged men, a kid can mix adults and baseball satisfactorily, provided he selects the right adults. Take my own case, for instance. The adults involved were a matter of circumstance rather than selection—and rather special circumstance, at that—but they made my introduction to the game a thing of joy forever. Indeed, baseball was never again to be the bright and pleasurable thing they showed me.
"They" were the members of the inmates' team at a large mental hospital in Massachusetts. My father was superintendent of the institution, and we lived in an apartment in the administration building.
The hospital itself was a wonderful place for a boy. It had sprawling buildings, carpenter and blacksmith shops, a vegetable and dairy farm and vast grounds. Its only drawback was an absence of other children, but this was off set by the many parole patients who had the run of the grounds. These people, who were very kind to me, were for years my chief playmates and friends.
Because I had been born and brought up in a mental institution, and because I was very young, I found nothing troublesome or awkward about such friends. It never bothered me that they sometimes did strange things or had a way of letting conversations slide into confusion. For one thing, I had been taught to accept such things without comment. For another, I shared the universal child's belief that adults are inclined to be an incomprehensible lot anyway.
The baseball field was located at the edge of the hospital dump, adjacent to the salvage yard. Here the patients' team practiced and played its games with neighboring state institutions, and here I got my first taste of baseball.
At the start I was the mascot, resplendent in a baggy gray flannel uniform that the sewing room had made for me. Later I graduated to shagging flies in the outfield during practice. The team members spent a great deal of time playing catch with me, pitching to me underhand and just talking with me. They were my heroes, and I was their principal rooter.
My particular favorites, the ones I remember most clearly, were Miles Larsen. the catcher; Jimmy McAvoy, the second baseman; Benny Nichols, who played third; and Mr. Wakefield, the woefully inept right fielder. It was the stocky, tanned Miles who made a serious attempt to teach me something about baseball, a game he loved and played very well. I treasured Jimmy for his friendliness and for the fact that he later taught me to play tennis. Benny was a frequent companion of mine, with whom I once built a raft despite the fact that we were miles away from any water. But it was Mr. Wakefield who, although not much of a doer, was the most satisfactory of all. He had once worked for Lloyd's of London and had a wide repertoire of marine disaster stories that he told very well. Baseball in this company had a great many fringe benefits.
The game itself, as played by the team, was not for the purist. This was not the cold brilliance of the Yankees, but the wild, whirling sort of play that would lift the heart of an old Brooklyn Dodger fan. Pound his catcher's mitt and exhort as he might. Miles was never able to keep the team on its toes for very long at a time. The rapidly deteriorating situation was a specialty of the house.
Not that the team could not play reasonably competent ball on occasion. It was just that infielders had a way of suddenly turning their backs and talking to themselves or to someone whom only they saw, while line drives and grounders whistled past unnoticed. Or, bemused by the parabolic beauty of a Texas leaguer, the entire infield would stand entranced and watch the ball drop unattended to the ground. It was extremely chancy to hazard a guess as to what the team might do in any given situation, and far more fly balls were lost in reverie than in the sun.
Particularly trying to the serious Miles was Jimmy's inattention at second base. As a grounder drilled past the bag, it would be discovered that he had strolled over to chat with the shortstop. Jimmy was a tall, cadaverous ex-letter carrier who suffered from the delusion that he was St. Peter. There was nothing militant about the delusion. He had merely preempted the title, and his right to it was accepted by all of us.