I didn't get to
play much myself until after I was assigned to the prison road camp. Probably
when you imagine a prison work camp you see a Southern chain gang with Cool
Hand Luke sweating and smarting under the gun. Actually an assignment to camp
is usually a privilege. You work your tail off, but you get better food and all
the fresh air you can use. I hit camp in winter, and the wind and the rain tore
the road up almost as fast as we could build it, but we hung tight because soon
it would be spring and we were going to play soft-ball. There was a rocky field
in back of the camp and a sagging backstop, and we hoped to find opponents
among the local loggers and millhands, although we had been warned they had
difficulty assembling nine sober men on any given Saturday afternoon.
In the spring our
first major problem was to clear and level the field, which also served as the
fairway for our five-hole prison golf course. A record rainfall had carried
away most of the dirt to reveal a forest of rocks scored with raw gullies. We
decided to sneak the grader down from the road site and save ourselves a lot of
work. There is seldom anyone left in camp from one season to the next. We were
all short-timers (a natural precaution) and no one had warned us that the
softball field had been chewed out of solid rock, and it hadn't been chewed
very finely. Our grading operation, conducted in the evening, scraped off the
thin cover of remaining dirt, denuding all of left field and part of
In the morning the
chief guard, a soft-ball nut, surveyed the mess. "All right, which one of
you orangutans is responsible for this brilliant idea?"
felt obliged to step forward, and were supplied with road-building equipment
considerably more primitive—wheelbarrows and shovels—and put to restoring the
earth cover. We were also read out by angry prisoner golfers, who all
immediately added five strokes to their handicaps.
It took several
weeks to clear the field, and some of us became obsessed, continuing until we
had a surface as smooth as a billiard table. We had nothing else to do with our
spare time. In the evenings we wet it down and rolled it, and stared
resentfully at the golfers as they played through. The golfers had a single set
of clubs and a handful of chewed balls donated by a Catholic priest who had
given the game up.
As soon as
practice began, another problem jumped up. In an effort to improve his golf
drive, the inmate clerk had trained the camp dog, Silver, to shag his drives.
They had precise rules. Once Silver returned a ball he wouldn't give it up
until the clerk hit another, otherwise Silver would settle down to eat the ball
he had. He'd husk them and begin to chew at the rubber bands until they were
festooned around his muzzle.
So at beginning
softball practice, when the first clean hit cracked and arched out toward deep
center field, there was suddenly an extra fielder. Silver took the ball on the
first bounce and started toward home plate. He stopped 10 feet short, dropped
the ball, crouched over it and began to bark for another hit. When anyone came
near him he seized the ball and ran off. This was a game he knew well and none
of us felt we could argue successfully with a 120-pound police dog. Finally we
had to tie Silver up, and our practice sessions were punctuated with his
laments as the vision of unchased and unchewed balls unstrung his reason.
Our next setback
came when we learned we had no pitching. Out of 12 applicants only one showed
anything at all, and he had but a single pitch—a tepid fastball. He also had a
control problem so serious that the man waiting in the batter's circle was the
one most likely to be hit by a pitched ball. The hurler's name was Wallace
Underhill, and he was a generation out of Alabama; loud, simple and essentially
good-natured except for a fixed tendency to take money at gunpoint. He figured
it would take him a few weeks of pitching to get his stuff back, and we
believed him. He tried hard. Every evening after practice he stayed on the
field with the catcher, but his curve refused to bend, his fastball gained no
velocity and the catcher spent more time chasing wild pitches than he did
To Wally, after a
life of punitive obscurity, any attention was good, and he relished his
position as forlorn hope. He realized that despite our amused sarcasm we were
hoping he'd come through. And while Wally was enjoying his moment, our game
strategists (those ball sharks who each year mastermind the pennant races from
in front of the TV) decided that our best plan was to try to get a lot of
As it happened,
two days before the first game the camp wagon pulled in with a load of fish and
among them was one of those natural athletes and instinctive bail handlers.
Naturally lie could pitch a little bit, and his little bit made Wally's
desperate efforts to get the ball across the plate seem ludicrous. An hour
after he stepped off the truck Wally was a leftfielder.