I remember first the land. It was flat. Between it and the sky there was nothing—no buildings, no trees, no hills, no shadows, nothing but the sun and sky and never-ending fields of wheat and corn and alfalfa. It was a land of horizons. Here a narrow black road parted the fields. The road went straight for miles. There was nothing on either side but the fields. As the road stretched ahead the fields grew closer together until they converged at a point on the horizon. It was an illusory point that never was reached. It remained always the same distance ahead. Approaching it, all progress felt illusory, too. Only the fields moved, flashing by like scenery in a cheaply made movie. Finally the illusion was broken by some scraggy trees growing beside a water hole. A cow, standing motionless in the shade of the trees, gazed blankly at the road. Another cow lay alongside, its tail twitching off flies. Beyond the water hole was a dirt road that led through the fields to a red barn and conical silo. Almost a mile from the paved road was the farmhouse. It was small, white and cellarless. Each corner rested on cinder blocks. From the highway a passerby, if he chanced to look, could see the thin line of blue horizon underneath the farmhouse.
I had been sitting in the back of the taxi for two hours and had seen nothing but an occasional farm and the fields and had begun to lose all sense of place and direction, of where I'd come from and was going to, had become almost transfixed by the monotony of the land when I saw a sign, MCCOOK CITY LIMITS, and another, POP. 7,687, and one after another the WELCOME TO MCCOOK invitations put out by the Chamber of Commerce and the Masonic Lodge and the Kiwanis and Lions and Elks and Eagles and Rotary Clubs, and then nothing for a while until the cemetery and the drive-in theater, and then a little way on the A & W Root Beer stand, the Phillips 66 station and, quickly now, the wood-fronted pool hall, the bar, the M and E Diner and, turning onto Main Street, the city of McCook. It was built on a hill, seemingly the only rise for miles around.
There was nothing distinctive about the town, really—a few stores, churches, schools, houses, the McCook Braves ball park—certainly nothing one couldn't find in dozens of other towns throughout the country. Over the next few years I would live and pitch in several such towns—Eau Claire, Waycross, Palatka, Bradenton—and for longer periods of time than the two months I spent in McCook, Neb. And yet I remember none of them with the clarity of detail I do McCook. Possibly it is because McCook was the smallest town in which I would ever play baseball. Since I had no car, I walked everywhere, and within two months I got to know every street and store. No matter where I walked, I came quickly to the town's limits. There was so much openness beyond those limits, and always the horizons, almost suffocating in their possibilities. The horizons had intimidated the townspeople. There was too much out there for them to grasp. They saw nothing beyond their town, nothing to do, no place to go, except—after a two-hour drive across the plains—another town exactly like the one they had left. At times I felt bound by the limits of McCook. But only at times. Those horizons still had meaning for me, indicated direction. McCook was the first point on the map of my career. It would be a small but important part of my life and destiny, which would be fulfilled someplace else. I was as positive of this as only a self-absorbed, 18-year-old could be. I was right, although for reasons other than those I'd anticipated. McCook was a very important part of my life. It still is. In fact, its importance grows in my mind as I write.
It was the first place I lived alone. The life I built there was solely my responsibility. I was confronted each day with myriad possibilities—when to eat, what to do, whom to befriend. For a brief time I looked to my past for choices. I tried to remember what had been expected of me in similar situations. Sometimes the situations in McCook were new. Nothing from the past applied. Increasingly, however, I refused to accept that which in another time and place had been acceptable. I turned, out of desire and necessity, to my own inclinations. What did I think? What did I feel? What did I want? I began to see things—myself and others—through my own eyes. What I saw and what I was is still clear to me today. Much of it is what I am today. But the person I was in McCook bore little resemblance to the one I had been under the watchful and-protective eyes of my parents. And yet that new person, whether I liked it or not, was more consistent with my nature than the other ever had been.
It was a warm night, my first in McCook. From the top row of the stands behind home plate I watched the McCook Braves run onto the field and the first batter for the North Platte Indians emerged from the dugout, trailed by his shadow. There was a smattering of applause from the 800 fans who filled nearly every seat in the park this Tuesday evening in the first week of July. Tomorrow I would be a part of all this. But right now no one knew I was in town. Surrounded by strangers, I found my anonymity was exciting. It allowed me to watch the game with an objectivity that would be denied me once I became a part of the team. Sitting on the plank in front of me was a farmer in bib overalls. He wore a stiff straw hat with a tightly curled brim. Through the crown I could see the curve of his head. Beside him sat his wife and two young sons, their hair dampened and flattened by their mother's hand. She wore a white sleeveless blouse and a long cotton skirt that was fluffed out by crinolines and rested high in her lap. Every so often she would place her hands in her lap and press down gently. In the stands were many such families and teen-age girls in Bermuda shorts and teen-age boys in Levi's and football jerseys and prosperous-looking merchants dressed in white shirts and ties and pointy-toed cowboy boots. Throughout the game the fans gossiped and the teen-agers flirted in the shadows behind the stands, and occasionally someone clapped at a fine play on the field or shouted an epithet at the umpire, to the delight of his friends.
In the fifth inning the Braves were losing 8-6. It was a typical Class D game, filled with energetic but erratic play. Shortstops charged ground balls and kicked them past the pitcher's mound, then followed with diving catches of line drives. Outfielders went down on a knee to field ground-ball singles and then turned around and ran wildly toward the outfield fence to retrieve the balls that had rolled through their legs. On the next play one of these outfielders might catch a line drive over his shoulder so deep in centerfield, 420 feet away, that he was beyond the range of the lights. He would disappear into the darkness, and the fans had to wait until the umpire, who had run into the darkness with him, emerged with his fist in the air before they could applaud the catch.
The pitchers on both sides were wild and none, I noted with satisfaction, threw as hard as I did. When the Braves tied the game in the sixth inning the fans cheered lustily. In the seventh I felt a cool breeze and heard the sound of gears changing in the parking lot. Some fans already had left and others were gathering their children, who had been playing underneath the stands, and were herding them toward the parking lot. The breeze grew cold and more forceful, and with it came the sibilant hiss of gas escaping from a stove. The hissing came from the nearby fairgrounds and was, I realized, only the rustling of tall grass in the wind. I looked out and saw on the plains a dark swirling mass rising like a horn of plenty into the sky. The sky was a translucent purple and the swirling mass was solid and black against it and seemed to be growing larger as it moved toward us. By the time it hit, the stands were all but deserted. The players' uniforms rippled and dust swirled everywhere. Batters stepped out of the box and turned their backs to it. Infielders flattened their gloves against their faces and peeked through spread fingers until a split second before the pitcher delivered the ball. At one point a pitcher reared back to throw and a gust blew him off the mound. The two managers charged out from the dugouts toward the home-plate umpire and an argument ensued as to whether or not the pitcher should be charged with a balk. Such incidents must not have been rare in the Nebraska State League because the umpire rendered a decision promptly, and the game resumed amid wind and dust that did not stop even when the rain fell. It came in big, heavy, widely spaced drops that hit the deserted planks in front of me with such force I could hear the splat and see dark splotches in the wood. In the ninth inning, with the score still tied, I heard a gunshot, and another, and then others coming quickly, and it wasn't until I heard the tinkling of broken glass and saw thin ribbons of smoke unraveling from the light poles that I realized the bulbs were exploding. The growing number of black spaces in the rows of lights resembled missing teeth in huge mouths, and each time a tooth was pulled there was a flash and a pop and smoke. On the field players looked quickly to the ground and shrugged their shoulders up about their ears so as not to be cut by falling glass. By the 10th inning the field had darkened considerably, and in the darkness the Braves managed to push across the winning run and the game was over.
It wasn't until the following afternoon when I saw Cibola Stadium, as it was called, in the light of day that its shabbiness disheartened me. It was beneath me, I thought. I arrived at the park at noon, having walked almost a mile from town. The sun was high and my teammates were in the middle of a workout. The pitchers were playing catch along the third-base line while the other players were taking part in fielding drills on the diamond. They all wore Milwaukee Brave uniforms. Six years before, those uniforms had probably been worn by players on the major-league club, and five years before by players on the Toledo Braves of the Triple A American Association, and four years before by players on the Atlanta Braves of the Double A Southern Association, and three years before by players on the Jacksonville Braves of the Class A Sally League, and so on down the line until finally they had settled, the thinned and yellowed residue of the system, on the backs of the McCook Braves. The uniforms were patched where someone from Toledo or Jacksonville or maybe even Milwaukee had broken up a double play or made a diving catch. Many of the tomahawks and numerals had been torn off and not replaced. All that remained to indicate a player's number was a dark shadow on his shirt where the numeral had been. Still, they were major-league uniforms. Inside the waistband of each pair of pants and on the tail of each shirt were stitched the name and number of the man who had first worn them—Spahn, 21; Mathews, 41. Minor-league players always fought for the uniform of the major-leaguer they most admired. It did not matter whether or not some 18-year-old third baseman was a 40 extra long and his idol, Eddie Mathews, a 46 stocky. The minor-leaguer would tolerate the uniform's ill fit for the sake of all the talent it still possessed. It was impossible for Mathews to wear the uniform without some of his talent remaining in it, possibly in those dark sweat stains that could never be laundered out. I was the last of the players to arrive in McCook and I would discover later, when I was given my uniform, that someone had mistakenly given Warren Spahn's uniform to a skinny pitcher named Dennis Overby. Vernon Bick-ford's uniform had been saved for me. It was in better condition than the others. It was almost new and fit perfectly.
I stood by the dugout for a while, conscious of my teammates' curious glances, and watched the manager, Bill Steinecke, hit ground balls to the infielders. When Steinecke finished he waddled out to a spot between second base and the pitcher's mound and began hitting flyballs to his outfielders. When he finished those drills he dismissed everyone but the pitchers. Of the 10 there that day, four were starters (I would be the fifth), and each had received a bonus of between $30,000 and $40,000. The least impressive looking and yet the one who would be most successful during the season was Overby, an 18-year-old with a milky complexion and a seriousness beyond his years. A lefthander, he delivered a baseball with such nonchalance it seemed to be thrown only by the force of his pulse. Because most of the bonus pitchers threw harder, we would watch in disbelief as Overby struck out batter after batter, achieving by savvy and control what none of us could achieve by simply closing our eyes and firing the ball with all our strength. I envied Overby. It was not fair, I thought, as I sat in the corner of the dugout and watched him coast from one win to another, all of which he treated with indifference, as one might regard inherited wealth. Because I hungered for his successes, I threw harder and harder, but wins came infrequently, and even when they did come they were muted in comparison to his. Secretly I began to root against him. I believed that every victory he achieved, every strikeout, had been snatched from my preordained allotment. Those were my successes! He was stealing them! I consoled myself with the knowledge that one day justice would prevail, things would right themselves as I'd been taught they always did. And they did—for both of us.
The righting began the following spring. I had been assigned to the Braves' minor-league training camp at Way-cross, Ga., while Dennis had been invited to the major-league camp at Bradenton. Each week I would pick up The Sporting News to read of his progress. In one intersquad game he struck out Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock in succession. He was the sensation of that spring, and before the camp closed he was voted the Braves' most-likely successor to Warren Spahn by the sportswriters who had seen him pitch. He was given a watch. Then one cold day after a heavy rain he slipped on a muddy mound and hurt his left arm. The doctors who examined him said he would never pitch again. But because the Braves had given him a bonus, the payments of which were spread over four years, they refused to let him go. If he quit before his contract expired he would lose his bonus money. Each spring Dennis would be assigned to Waycross and immediately put on the disabled list. While the rest of us worked out with various teams in the system, Dennis remained teamless. His shirt bore no number. Often as I warmed up to start a game I would see him on some empty diamond running wind sprints in the outfield. He ran them in a halfhearted way, sensing, I'm sure, the idiocy of keeping himself in shape for a game he would never pitch. Sometimes I would see him throwing a baseball against a screen. Not throwing, actually, but pushing the ball in that funny, straining way a shotputter does, his ear inclining toward his left shoulder as if to hear the pain.