The view between the black bars of my mask was enough to make any Little League catcher blink. The New Windsor Cubs, my old team, had taken the field for the first time in 30 years, and from where I hunkered behind home plate, it looked as if time had had its way with the club. On the mound, a shock of snow-white hair spilling out from under his cap, was 6'4" Danny Hartzler. At shortstop, a mustachioed Mike Schlee was tossing stones, clearing the way for ground balls, and in centerfield I could see a much thicker Sonny Brooks. He was bent down, spitting in his glove the way he always did before each pitch. We were still the Cubs, but our pearl gray uniforms and royal blue caps had given way to Bermuda shorts and CUBS FOREVER T shirts, and at several positions stomachs had become paunches and balding heads shone in the noonday sun.
The game was the highlight of our 30th anniversary celebration of the undefeated 1954 team that ripped through the four-team Frederick-Carroll Little League in Maryland and then beat an all-star team for a perfect 22-0 record. Now, in an attempt to turn back the calendar, we'd put our streak on the line against another aggregation of '54 stars on the Little League field in New Windsor, this time in a game of softball. As the first pitch floated toward the plate the question was: Could the Cubs still cut it?
Last winter, when several of us met to consider a team reunion, I thought the idea ridiculous. "High schools, colleges and veterans of foreign wars have reunions, not Little League teams," I said. Then Hartzler produced a Cub scrap-book, and he, Brooks and I flipped through the pages, chuckling over the faces in team photos, reading newspaper clips and basking in the glow of that glory year, NEW WINDSOR TEAM IS MURDERING OPPONENTS and NEW WINDSOR CLUB STILL RUNNING WILD IN LEAGUE said headlines from the Frederick Post. We found the paper's account of Brooks's tape-measure home run, a ball hit so far that it cleared the leftfield fence and the house behind it in Union Bridge, Md. A piece in an ancient Post described the "perfectly placed bunt" in the last inning that Hartzler and I watched die in the infield dirt to break up his bid for a no-hitter.
But there was more to the Cubs than a perfect season. We were one of the first integrated Little League teams in Maryland, and when we defeated all-white clubs in the Frederick-Carroll league, the newspapers pointed out that the Cubs included black ballplayers. But for us kids, race was never an issue. Back then, all we wanted from life was an opportunity to play baseball. Our coaches, Ray Wilson, Herbert (Hun-Pots) Brooks and my father, Bob, gave us that and more—they taught us the game.
Hartzler flipped to the last page of the scrapbook and read the headline out loud: ALL-STARS LOSE TO NEW WINDSOR-LEAGUE CHAMPIONS. Suddenly the three of us were talking at once. We decided we'd get a keg of beer and give the All-Stars (actually, any players from the other three '54 teams) one last shot at the undefeated Cubs. "If we're still the team I just read about," Hartzler said, "the All-Stars are going to see history repeat itself."
On the last Sunday in May, six months later, Cubs, All-Stars and coaches from as far away as North Carolina and New Jersey came to New Windsor. As we checked in, familiar names filled the air. "Schleeby." "Hartz." "Satch." "Eck." "Herbie." All the infielders were there. Jasper Hill had gained the weight I'd lost, and Alton Wright had developed a hitch in his throw that none of us had ever seen. Sonny Brooks, the biggest kid in the league in '54, was broad through the shoulders and still had the look of a hitter, but, as Herbie Weller noted, "the man hasn't grown an inch since Little League." And when Skip West lifted the cap off Larry (Baldy) Danner's head we hooted and cheered—delighted to see his boyhood nickname had come to fit him.
In all, 10 of the '54 Cubs returned. Dougie Johns, our rightfielder, and my dad had passed away. At the pregame picnic we filled each other in on what we'd been doing. The Cubs were doctors, businessmen, truck drivers and teachers—everything but the major-leaguers we all knew we'd be. But when Jasper Hill stood to speak we heard some big league confidence. "I pitched for the Cubs," he said, "played first base and shortstop. What can I say? I was a heck of a ballplayer." We howled our approval. Then Coach Wilson pumped us up for the game. "In my 28-year involvement in the Frederick-Carroll Little League," he said, "I've never seen a team that, man for man, could play with the New Windsor Cubs."
The ball park looked just the way it had when I left it 30 years ago. American flags flapped on the foul poles, and from the backstop I could see fans stretched out in lawn chairs three rows deep down both lines. Along the first-base line by the scoreboard, kids mugged at a Baltimore TV camera crew. Mike Schlee fired a ball at me and, looking at the growing crowd, said, "We've come a long way, Cairns. I can remember games when all we played to were our parents and a couple of dogs." After going over the ground rules for the six-inning slow-pitch game, Buck Jackson, whose creative ball and strike calls brought many a local crowd to its feet, shouted "Play ball!" and we took the field to an ovation louder than any we'd ever gotten in '54.
As I was warming up Hartzler, the TV camera swung my way, and I offered a silent pregame prayer, a gentle reminder that the Cubs were 22-0 and a request that we be spared embarrassment when the camera started to roll. Then, after watching the All-Stars' Randy Boone crush a home run deep to rightfield over Danner's balding head to give the All-Stars a 2-0 lead, we saw (from a Cubs' perspective) the best play of the game. Sammy Leppo, the All-Stars' catcher, ripped a line shot past Hartzler's knee, and before I could even gulp Mike Schlee flashed across the bag at second, short-hopped the ball, wheeled and fired to first. The crack of the ball into Jasper's glove and the sound of nine middle-aged men heaving a sigh of relief were nearly simultaneous. The Cubs could still cut it.
And it wasn't just the fielding. The bats were still alive, too. In the bottom of the first, friends and family were up out of their lawn chairs cheering. Coach Wilson paced back and forth in the first-base box flashing signals. At third Hun-Pots Brooks begged each batter to get a hit. "Be a stick, Danny!" he shouted. "Come on, Sonny, take this man downtown!" When the rally finally ended we'd batted all the way around, and the undefeated Cubs had a 6-2 lead.