I see myself daily as I was then, in a photograph on the desk at which I write each morning in my attic room. The photograph was taken on June 27, 1959 at County Stadium in Milwaukee, a few minutes before the Braves were to take the field against the Chicago Cubs, to whom they would lose that day 7-1. I am standing halfway between the first-base line and the home team's dugout. Behind me are the stadium's half-filled bleachers. I am wearing a Braves uniform. Although the photograph is in black and white, I see all the colors. My cap has a navy crown, a white M and a red bill. My flannel uniform is the color of cream. Shirt and pants are trimmed with a half-inch-wide, three-part stripe of black, red and black satin. The word Braves is scripted in red and outlined in black at a slight upward angle across the front of the shirt. Beneath the script is a black and gold tomahawk. Below the tomahawk in the left-hand corner of the shirt are large block numerals: 24. They, too, are in red and outlined in black. Unseen in the photograph, but clear in my mind's eye, is the small gold patch stitched onto the shirt sleeve below my left shoulder. It is the face of an Indian of indeterminate tribe, contorted by a war cry.
Standing to my right is Whitlow Wyatt, the Braves' 51-year-old pitching coach. Wyatt is smiling at me. My gaze, however, is directed to my left, to Warren Spahn, the Braves' great left-handed pitcher, who has just spoken to me. Both Spahn and I are perspiring. We had just finished running wind sprints in the outfield and apparently were on our way to the clubhouse to change shirts when we stopped to pose for this photograph. For whom? Some faceless fan leaning over the dugout roof, imploring, whose good fortune it was to catch us in an obliging mood? We strike up a pose—so casual—and wait for the camera's click. To pass this moment as he has innumerable others like it, Spahn, hands on hips, turns to me and makes some bit of small talk, a phrase meant only to fill this instant and lead nowhere. I listen. Nonchalantly, hands on hips also, I listen to Spahn. To Spahnie. To Spahnie who is talking to me, so much younger and yet, with my amused smile, looking so at ease. Today I am amazed at how truly at ease I do look, at how naturally, in that uniform, I did fit between those men, Spahnie and I, the best of friends, I, too, having done this small thing so often, having struck up this obliging pose for so many fans, waiting only for the camera's click before tossing off a remark at which Spahnie and I would laugh on the way into the clubhouse to change our shirts.
I was 18 years old the day that photograph was taken. Actually it had been arranged by the publicity department of the Braves, with whom I had just signed my first professional baseball contract. The gaudy and impressive uniform was one reason I had signed with the Braves rather than any of the other 15 teams that had also offered me a contract. There were other reasons. The Braves had agreed to pay for my college education, to pay me a salary of $500 per month during each baseball season, and to deposit in my savings account every June 27, for the next four years, a certified check for $8,750. All told, my bonus amounted to more than $45,000 distributed over a four-year period. It was one of the largest bonuses—if not the largest—any young player received from the Braves in 1959.
For my part I promised to leave Milwaukee the following morning on a flight to McCook, Neb., where I would begin my professional career as a pitcher with the McCook Braves of the Class D Nebraska State League. I pitched in the minor leagues for three years, in such towns as McCook, Davenport, Waycross, Eau Claire and Palatka, before I was given my unconditional release by those same Milwaukee Braves. I never did pitch a game in Milwaukee's County Stadium, nor did I ever again speak to Warren Spahn. I did, however, keep the cash.
I woke with the first light of day, feeling the chill from the mist that had moved in from the swamp during the night and bound the camp like a mummy in its gray and gauzy embrace. From my window in one of the barracks I could see over the top of the low-lying haze to the line of trees that marked the beginning of the swamp a hundred yards away. The mist was woven between the trunks of the trees, which seemed to be growing directly up from it. They were mostly tall pines and weeping cottonwoods with thin, tentacle-like limbs that drooped earthward and disappeared in the mist. The cottonwoods were draped with a filmy gray moss that hung eerily from their limbs like cobwebs. Through the spaces between the trunks of the trees appeared shafts of sunlight. These yellow shafts fanned out across the open space that separated the swamp from the camp. They faded and dissolved in the mist before they reached the ground. Soon the heat from the sunlight would loosen the bonds of the mist and it would evaporate and the camp would begin to stir. But now, at six o'clock in the morning, nothing stirred and the only signs of life came from the swamp beyond the trees where strange birds cried and alligators slapped their tails as they woke from the mud in which they had slept.
The Milwaukee Braves' minor league spring training camp was situated at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in Waycross, Ga., a town of 20,000 in the southeastern corner of the state. Half a mile square and surrounded by the swamp, the camp contained nine wooden buildings, five baseball diamonds and a cylindrical brick rotunda resembling a giant rook chess piece. The rotunda was 15 feet in diameter and two stories high. On its roof, deck chairs faced the diamonds below, which fanned out like the petals of a flower. Their home plates were closest to the rotunda (about 20 yards away) and all but one of the outfield picket fences were at the edge of the swamp. It was not uncommon during games to see an outfielder suddenly flee his position, run to the bench, grab a bat and return to the outfield to beat to death a snake that had slithered through the fence.
From the top of the rotunda one could see everything. A few hundred yards to the north was a large wooden building that served as both the dressing room and training room for the 250 to 300 players in camp. A tar road ran alongside it, a road that twisted through the swamp to the highway leading to Waycross, 15 miles away. Across the road from the dressing room was an open space dotted with a few pine trees where players who had brought cars could park them. Next to the parking lot was a building with offices for scouts, coaches, managers and front-office personnel. Fifty yards or so north of that building were six army-style barracks were everyone slept. They looked identical—long, narrow, wooden structures that resembled covered bridges. The barracks were parallel to one another and at right angles to the main office building. The coaches, scouts, managers and front-office people slept in the first barracks, the white U.S. players in the next three, the Spanish-speaking players in the fifth and the black players in the sixth, the one closest to the swamp. Near the barracks and the swamp was a small, boxy building—the cafeteria. It had a screen door with a strong spring, as did all the buildings in camp, and each day was punctuated by the thousand slaps of those doors shutting.
I had begun spring training that year, 1960, with the Milwaukee Braves' top minor league team, the Louisville Colonels of the Triple A American Association. The Colonels were training at a small, neat park across the street from the more elaborate stadium used by the Braves in Braden-ton, Fla., a resort town on the Gulf Coast inhabited mainly by aged Northerners who had retired in the sun. I had my own hotel room, for which the Colonels paid $25 a day. The hotel was of pink stucco and surrounded by palm trees—the first I had ever seen—and tropical plants with gigantic shiny leaves. I was given $15 a day for meals and other expenses and I spent most of that on Ban-Lon jerseys of every possible hue and a pair of lemon-colored slacks I was too embarrassed to wear once they were mine. During those early weeks of spring training the Colonels were composed of young prospects like me and older veterans who had abandoned hope of making that short walk across the street to the big-league team.
One such veteran was Ed Charles, a black infielder in his mid-20s. Charles, unlike most of the others, would reach the major leagues, where he would star for the New York Mets in the 1969 World Series. He had the hotel room next to mine. His roommate was Jack Littrell, an infielder with a thick body, an unintelligible Southern drawl and a face like a bloodhound. Littrell had played briefly in the majors and now, at 31, was beginning his fourth straight year in the minors, from which he would never escape.
They were a strange couple. They never slept. As I lay in my bed I could hear the two men talking, drinking, swapping hunting stories through the night. Always at about 3 a.m. Charles would raise his favorite shotgun, take careful aim at a covey of pheasants swooping across his ceiling and blast them out of the sky, while Littrell howled in imitation of his favorite hound dog.