The other night, talking to my wife, Betsy Anne, I made passing reference to the time I was offered a contract by the St. Louis Cardinals to sign with their Columbus, Ga. farm team. I reckon I've told that story 300 or 400 times, and 10 seconds after I made the remark, I realized what a lie it was.
The only thing is, I'm not sure how big a lie it was on account of Duane Dean's daddy's 1948 Mercury. Now that may seem a little obscure, but it has to do with why I've felt entitled to tell that lie all these years.
Back in the early '50s I was a senior in high school in Bay City, Texas and the starting third baseman and leadoff hitter for the baseball team. I was told, on a number of occasions, that I was the slickest-fielding infielder that the school had ever had and, on general principles, I agreed with that assessment. The fact that Coach Don Haley seemed to disagree in no way made me believe less of myself. He once told me, "Son, I think I'll just stick up a post down there by third base. That way the ball has a chance of hitting it and might stop. At least the post won't jump out of the way."
But to get back to the Cardinals and the contract and Duane Dean's daddy's 1948 Mercury. We were headed for a baseball tournament in Cuero, Texas and we had word that an actual scout for the Cardinals was going to be there. Well, I don't know where you grew up, or where you played your ball (if you did, I bet you hit .190 and couldn't have gotten around second base if you were riding a Cushman motor scooter), but in my part of Texas the thought that there was going to be a Cardinal scout at a tournament you were playing in was enough to cause you to give up girls and Hershey bars for a solid week.
There was also word around that the scout was going to be looking especially hard at the Bay City team, which automatically convinced me he was really interested in its premier third baseman. Coach Haley's opinion notwithstanding, besides being a good fielder, I was a good hitter. By that point in the season I was hitting pretty close to .400 and I could run. I had gone to the state meet in the high hurdles and had run at least one wind-aided 100-yard dash just a tad under 10 flat. And I could slide.
Even Coach Haley agreed with me on that. We were playing the Wharton High School team and he was talking to their coach while I was standing nearby. He said, "Yeah, I only got one guy who can slide"—and he jerked his thumb at me—"but he can't get on base."
Which wasn't true. Coach Haley was always riding me, trying to unnerve me and shake my confidence. It never worked, though, because I knew the coach knew that I had the talent to make it big. The constant teasing and derision was just to keep me from getting a swelled head and to keep me on my toes. So I couldn't agree with something he subsequently said. I got on base a lot by getting hit with pitched balls, and Coach Haley made the remark that, while my ability to get hit in the head by a pitched ball and take my base helped the team, it certainly did nothing for my scholastic record. He even went on to say that he figured if I got hit in the head by enough pitched balls I'd make an excellent politician. Which was a lie. I've never been elected to a single office in my life.
But that was Coach Haley for you.
And when I tell you what he did to me when we were going to that tournament in Cuero, you'll understand how he could have made those other unkind remarks about me.
The team traveled on a bus, but Coach Haley always drove his car and he usually picked out two or three of the players to go with him. For some reason he very often picked me to go in his car.