Not long ago, I watched a late-night TV rerun of the movie Semi-Tough. In it, Robert Preston plays the owner of a pro football team, and seeing the actor on the screen took me back instantly almost 40 years to a historic day in May, a time when I knew Preston well.
I played leftfield on a softball team that was made up of officers from a squadron of a bomb group assigned to the Ninth Air Force, stationed near Saint-Trond, Belgium during the final months of World War II. We flew Douglas A-26 Invaders, twin-engine attack bombers. Except for Robert Preston Meservey, we were all pilots or bombardier-navigators. Bob Meservey, a captain in Intelligence and the first baseman on the softball team, was a ground officer. In civilian life, as Robert Preston, he had by this time starred in an early World War II film epic—Wake Island, in which he shared top billing with Brian Donlevy and William Bendix. After the war he went on to earn lasting fame as Broadway's "Music Man."
In the spring of 1945, Meservey was about 27, the oldest man on the team but also the most competitive. He was a long-ball hitter, batted fourth and functioned as uncrowned team captain and spiritual leader. He also broke training with the same steadfast dedication as the worst of us.
Ours was a good, relaxed team. Everyone probably played better ball than he had as a civilian. I know I did. During the month before this particular day in May, I can't remember ever dropping a fly ball, or misjudging one, or mishandling anything that came to me through the infield or even making a bad throw. "Hit it in the air, out this way," I was always muttering. I wanted to get my hands on the ball, to make every putout. Flying combat tended to give me confidence in other areas.
By May our club had beaten teams made up of officers from the other three squadrons—beaten them each at least twice—and we were looking around for some fresh competition to extend the winning streak. We'd heard that the enlisted men had a pretty good ball club, with talent from the whole bomb group—so we scheduled a game with them.
I was the leadoff man, mostly because at 135 pounds I looked as though I might be fast, but also because I hit a lot of ground balls. On those scarred, lumpy Belgian infields, hard ground balls got you on base almost as frequently as clean base hits.
The first three pitches were wide, but I couldn't have hit them anyway. Their pitcher came on like the Bob Feller of softball. I had never faced that kind of speed. The next pitch, over the plate, was only a blur. I watched it with my bat back and my mouth open. But with the count 3-1 the pitcher threw me a cripple on the inside, and I slapped it between third and short for a single. I moved to second on a ground ball, and Flip Flanagan, the shortstop, walked. The pitcher got behind on Meservey, too, and had to throw him something he could hit. Meservey drove it deep into the gap in left center for a double, and both Flanagan and I scored. The next two batters struck out swinging, but we were ahead 2-0.
We felt good trotting out onto the field, but the feeling didn't last long. The first two batters on the other team, seemingly amused by Willie Silcox's pitching, swung on the first pitch and lined hard singles. The third batter hit an even harder line drive that Flanagan pulled down with a heroic, if ungainly, bowlegged leap. Their cleanup hitter had me worried even before he stepped up to the plate. He was a chunky, powerful man whom I recognized as the master sergeant I'd seen out on the lines working on the planes. When he hit a wicked foul inches outside third base he worried me even more. To allay my fears, I moved back about six steps.
On the next pitch he drove the ball high and hard just inside the left-field foul line. I swiveled, jumped off my right foot and ran diagonally back, moving with speed born of fright. Deeper, I was thinking by now, next time I've got to play this guy deeper. I was somehow able to catch the ball over my left shoulder, going away in a curving run just inside the line.
" 'At's it, Scourge," I heard Meservey yell in my direction, but he could just as easily have hollered out "hot dog" or "showboat." If I had been playing my position deeper I could have made the catch easily.