All that summer, an hour or two every sunny day, we played Pirates and Yankees in our backyard. Occasionally other boys would join in, but mostly it was just Chas and me. Chas was the Yankees and I was the Pirates. The Pirates were given nine outs per inning to the Yankees' three, but my Pirates and I still got clobbered the whole month of June.
By the end of the month I had learned to determine from the pitcher's motion and wrist action whether he was throwing a fastball or a curve. By the end of July I could tell whether Chas was throwing an out curve, in curve, drop or fast curve (later known as a slider). By the end of August I had learned to judge the trajectory of the break and met corncob cleanly with bat barrel. The Pirates and Yankees played on even terms. Chas lined more doubles into the grape arbor in rightfield, but I pulled more home runs over the asparagus bed in leftfield. I had learned to hit the curve, at least in our corncob league.
Chas' teaching held true with a real baseball at regulation distances. In those days there was no Little League, but every town had its baseball team. There were no boys' leagues, as such, in a town, but boys used to gather at the ball park in haphazard fashion, and if enough showed up for two teams, they would play a regular game; otherwise, they played other types of ball games.
Every boy with any pretension to being a pitcher could throw an out curve and a drop. What we called an in curve usually was really a fastball that tailed into a righthanded hitter when thrown by a righthanded pitcher. An exception was the in curve thrown by one of the town team's best pitchers, a former professional named Red Eddy. The Red came from his hair color; whether the Eddy was a first or last name I don't know. Eddy was a big man with a crackling fastball, a good changeup curve, a fast curve that must have broken at least eight inches, and an in curve that today would be called a fine screwball.
When a pickup team of boys faced the town team in a practice game, most of the boys moved to the front of the batter's box to hit Eddy's curve "before it broke."
This was contrary to Chas' teaching. "If the curveball is in your strike zone before it breaks, then it's going to be called a ball when it reaches the plate area," Chas told me time after time. "If it's going to break into the strike zone and you swing before it breaks, you're swinging at a pitch you can't hit."
I wasn't strong enough to get the bat around on Eddy's fastball, but in practice games I was able to murder his changeup and screwball, as they would be called now. He didn't like me very much for that reason until he learned he could get me with his fastball. After that he was able to tolerate me.
I know it was the summer of 1929 when Chas taught me to hit the curveball, because that was the summer our father died. I'm not sure whether it was the summer of 1930 or 1931 that the lesson paid its big dividend on Squirrel Island, which is off the coast of Maine, where the same families had been summering since the mid-1800s.
This particular summer there were more young men of college age on Squirrel than usual. Brokerage offices, banks and the like weren't making jobs for them that summer, so the college men were spending the vacation months in their families' summer homes. As a result, in addition to the regular tennis and sailing, there was heavy emphasis on Softball, touch football and baseball. A couple of Dartmouth boys even organized a track meet for islanders of all ages and both sexes.
There turned out to be enough good baseball players for just one team, which cut down baseball enthusiasm until someone suggested that we revive the traditional annual baseball game with the town team of Boothbay Harbor, the mainland jumping-off place for the island. The challenge was issued and accepted and a Sunday afternoon date set for a game on the Boothbay ball field. Practice produced the normal crop of injuries, and when the day of the game rolled around, there were only seven able-bodied men on the Squirrel team. That meant dipping into the eager but generally inept pool of prep-school freshmen and sophomores or forfeiting the game. To forfeit was unthinkable, so I won the leftfield job and another adolescent was put in rightfield.