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On opening day of the 1933 baseball season the Pittsburgh Pirates came to Redland Field in Cincinnati. The good-sized crowd saw what it hoped to see: Sunny Jim Bottomley, the great first baseman only recently traded to the Reds by the St. Louis Cardinals, marked his debut with a lofty triple and scored Cincinnati's only run. After the game was over, the departing fans also enjoyed an unscheduled postgame exhibition when a skinny 14-year-old, wandering down the first base line, suddenly broke into a trot, then a run, neatly rounded all the bases with groundkeepers in hot pursuit and triumphantly slid home.
Few onlookers, however, observed the consternation in the eyes of the boy's father as the youngster got up, dusted himself off and sheepishly faced the scoldings of the angry stadium police. Rezin (Reese) Talbert, a quiet, serious man, was known and liked at Redland Field, and he got son Billy out of there in a hurry. I know, because son Billy was me, and I had done a pretty awful thing—far more awful than the cops at Redland Field could realize. It wasn't just that I, or any other kid, was not supposed to run wild around the ball field after the games; I wasn't supposed to run at all. I had been told that any kind of exercise was a danger to my life, and up until then I had firmly believed that I would never run again.
What crazy impulse started me running I will never know, but I know now that it was one of the most fortunate acts of my life. Its consequences, in time, were to reach far beyond Redland Field, Cincinnati, myself and even baseball; for me and for thousands of others, it lifted a curtain of doom which had seemed certain to blight all our living years.
The curtain had fallen on a Friday afternoon four years before on as happy and active an existence as any 10-year-old could have. I was a baseball nut; I lived, breathed and dreamed the game. My father had played ball in college and even briefly on a professional team in Texas before settling down in the family livestock business in Cincinnati, and he taught me everything he knew. I wanted nothing more in life than to be a ballplayer like Sunny Jim; yet on that Friday afternoon the whole thing came to an end.
I hadn't been feeling right lately, and my parents had begun to notice some peculiar habits I had acquired. At school I never passed the drinking fountain in the hall without stopping, and I was always holding up a whole line of kids behind me because I couldn't seem to satisfy my thirst. At the dinner table, I ate like a castaway rescued by the French Line; yet I was losing so much weight that I had to keep hitching up the belt of my corduroys. At night, I could hardly wait to get to bed, but all through the night I kept getting up to go to the bathroom. Sometimes when I got up, the light was still on in the kitchen, and I could hear Mom and Dad talking about me in worried tones.
That fateful Friday afternoon, when I got home from school, they were waiting for me, dressed to go out. I put on a jacket and tie, and we drove downtown to the Union Central Building.
Feeling strange and scared, I was delivered into the hands of two doctors, who spent a lot of time asking me personal questions, thumping me in various places, drawing blood and taking a urine sample. Dr. Walt, as I was urged to call the taller and the older of the two, then patted my shoulder and sent me back to the waiting room.
I sat there between my parents for what seemed like several years, leafing through Liberty and wishing that doctors at least had enough sense to stock some decent reading matter, like Baseball Magazine.
A nurse appeared at the door, smiled briefly and motioned to my parents. Dad got up and followed her inside. Mother stayed with me, pretending to read her Delineator, gripping the unturned pages so hard that her knuckles showed white. When we were finally called into the office, Mother gave a small, nervous sigh and hurried me in ahead of her.
Dad was sitting there, his face showing nothing. Dr. Walt got up from behind the desk and put his arm around me.