Playing a Little Boy's Game
With the playoffs underway and the World Series not
too far off, this is the time of year many major leaguers dreamed about
throughout their growing up years spent on city streets and suburban
sandlots, as well as cow pastures and Little League ballfields, across
makeshift and manicured diamonds.
There were so many different routes to the same
destination - realizing the dream. When he was a boy, Nolan Ryan played
second base on a Little League field that his father helped build in
Alvin, Texas. Roberto Clemente had his earliest turns at bat on a tropical
clearing in rural Puerto Rico. Sandy Koufax moved from stoop ball to stick
ball to baseball on the streets on Brooklyn, New York. Ty Cobb choked up
on his homemade bat in a backwoods field in Royston, Georgia. Pete Rose
copied the Enos Slaughter style of running out walks. Bob Tewksbury
learned control by throwing rocks at trees in his native New Hampshire.
Shoeless Joe Jackson swung the bat he called
"Black Betsy" for his mill team in a cow pasture in South
Carolina. And Willie Mays remembers his father who "from the time I
was less than two started me with a ball."
It is no wonder that Al Kaline said: "When
I was a boy, life was a baseball game." That baseball game of the
growing up years is remembered in great detail by so many.
OZZIE SMITH: "I practiced developing my
defensive baseball skills by bouncing a rubber ball off concrete steps. I
played l every day of the year while I was growing up except for a period
of about two weeks in the summer of 1965. We stayed inside sleeping on the
floor because we were right in the middle of the Watts riots."
BOB FELLER: "My first glove was a Rogers Hornsby,
the old three-fingered kind. Hornsby was my idol because we could get the
Cubs game on our radio on the farm in Iowa. I even took up second base as
my first position because that was where he played. When I was 12, we
built a complete baseball field on our farm. We called it Oakview because
it was up a hill overlooking the Raccoon River and a beautiful view of a
grove of oak trees. We had a complete diamond with an outfield fence and
scoreboard and even a grandstand behind first base."
JIM "CATFISH" HUNTER: "My brothers and
I must have thrown a zillion pitches to each other growing up. Every two
years the smokehouse door would splinter to pieces from the pounding it
took. Hour after hour day after day, pitch after pitch, it's funny folks
always wondered where I got such great control. The answer is written all
over those smokehouse doors."
KIRBY PUCKETT: "The Robert Taylor Houses in
South Chicago have been called the place where hope dies. Some of the guys
I grew up with are dead or in jail, but a lot of good people lived and
still live in those projects. I played baseball every way I could, every
moment I could. My mom was always saying 'Don't play in the house.' I
played anyway using some balled up aluminum foil or socks rolled real
tight wrapped with tape. I became the master of the sock ball.
"Outside we painted a square on the outside of
the building to mark off a strike zone. You could see them almost over all
the buildings. We used rubber balls that cost 10 or 15 cents apiece.
Sometimes we'd go over to a nearby asphalt field complete with painted
bases. We'd play with a hard ball. And I slid into those 'bases' in my
DUKE SNIDER: "When the movie Pride of the
Yankees came out with Gary Cooper playing Lou Gehrig, I saw it maybe 15
times. When I first reported to the Dodger ball club in 1947, John
Griffin, the clubhouse man asked me what number I'd like. Number 4 was
available. That was Lou Gehrig's number. So I asked for number 4 and I
wore it for my entire career."
Roy Campanella, the late great Dodger catcher noted:
"To play this game, you've got to have lot of little boy in
His comment was right on target.