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Men 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 shorts."

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 you."

His comment was right on target.

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You can reach Harvey Frommer at:   

Email:  harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU 

About the Author:

Harvey Frommer is in his  38th year of writing books. A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and "Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to acclaim in 2011.  The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One. 

His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Newsday, USA Today, Men's Heath, The Sporting News, among other publications.

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Harvey Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz  Frommer are the authors of five critically acclaimed oral/cultural histories, professors at Dartmouth  College, and travel writers who specialize in cultural history, food, wine, and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. 

This Article is Copyright 1995 - 2014 by Harvey Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

 

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