“I remember my Grandpa, his hat in his hand/The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ being played by the band/The roar of the crowd as the pitcher took aim/When baseball was just a game.”
I grew up in Maryland in the ‘40s and ‘50s. My paternal grandparents lived in Beltsville, a small town on Route 1, just a few miles from Washington, DC. My mother and I lived with them while my father served in World War II. After the war, we moved a few miles away to Greenbelt, and my grandfather started working part time at a Washington tourist information station in Beltsville.
He was a devoted baseball fan. One of the benefits of the job was access to promotional tickets to Griffith Stadium, where the lowly Washington Senators played. In those days, it was common for people to joke, “Washington: first in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” Few tourists were interested in the free tickets, so my grandfather was allowed to use them anytime he wished. Sometimes the seats were in the bleachers; other times they were right behind the Senators dugout.
My grandfather and I must have gone to 100 games over the course of a few summers. It wasn’t long before I understood that the Senators were almost always going to lose; so with my grandfather’s help, I learned to appreciate the simple beauty of the game. The Senators had few stars then, except for Mickey Vernon, who won two batting championships. But I had the pleasure of seeing future Hall of Famers Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, Bob Feller, and many others.
“Sixteen rows up in the bleachers we sat/We’d jump to our feet at the crack of the bat/So far away, but we didn’t complain/When baseball was just a game.”
One especially vivid memory is a twi-night doubleheader with the Cleveland Indians in 1948, the year they won a 111 games, and the last year they won the World Series. The second game was decided in 14 innings, and we didn’t get home until 2:00 a.m. The great Satchel Paige pitched in relief in one game.
When he warmed up on the mound, the catcher placed a box of matches on the plate, and the umpire joined in the fun by calling a strike each time.
Though both games were nip and tuck all the way, the Indians won each on a home run by Larry Doby in the top of the final inning. Doby, in his first full season, was the first African-American to play in the American League. Lately I have been wondering if it really happened exactly as I remember it. After all, that was over 50 years ago.
That is why I got so excited when I learned that Doby and the great Ernie Banks were appearing at Williams College for a forum about baseball and the Negro Leagues. A few weeks ago, I was part of an overflow crowd at Griffin Hall. When the discussion ended, I quickly approached Doby and described the details of that doubleheader.
“Mr. Doby, do you remember that?” I asked hopefully. “You’d better believe it,” he answered with a smile. “Those home runs were a great thrill for a young ballplayer like me.”
My wonderful memories of Griffith Stadium make the arrival of the North Adams SteepleCats all the more thrilling for me. At Joe Wolfe Field, I will be able to see the game and the players up close and personal just as I did in Washington. In those simpler days, my grandfather and I would show up an hour early for batting practice and watch sluggers like Roy Sievers launch high-arcing shots into the seats.
With lax security regulations, we were able to sneak onto the field and into the Senators dugout, where I obtained many autographs, most from long-forgotten players like shortstop Sam Dente and catcher Mickey Grasso.
When I take my seat at the SteepleCats opening day game on Saturday, June 8, I will be reminded of the opening day game for the Torrington (Connecticut) Twisters a few years ago. Like the SteepleCats, the Twisters belong to the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL).
I was living in Torrington then, and a huge crowd poured into Fuessenich Park, a refurbished old stadium three blocks from Main Street. Everyone was handed a ticket for a drawing, the winner to be given the opportunity to throw a strike from the pitcher’s mound for a prize of $5,000. During the pre-game ceremonies, the winner was announced, and it was ME!
I was in a fog, as I climbed down from the grandstand and walked nervously to the mound. The crowd was cheering wildly. I was handed the ball, and with no warm-up pitches allowed, I wound up and hurled a modest fastball over the plate. Sad to say, it was a bit low, so I came up empty handed.
Ironically, the Twisters will be the opponent opening day at Joe Wolfe Field. I might run into some old Torrington friends there. I hope to see you at the game, too. Let’s support our new hometown team this summer. Go SteepleCats!
“Every kid had a hero, every team had a star/Every spring had a rookie who was sure to go far/Like the kid who grew up, it just don’t look the same/Oh, baseball, baseball/When baseball was just a game/But I still love it!”
-All lyrics from “When Baseball Was Just A Game,” by Joe Manning and Steve Vozzolo, a song on the album I Love Baseball, by Steve Vozzolo and the Rookies.