Posts Tagged ‘sandlot’

Speaking of Toys in the Attic

April 2, 2011


Our Hearts Connected Through the Joy of Baseball.


How long has it been since you’ve smelled the leather of a really old baseball glove? First dry? Then, with lubricating oil applied?

Do you remember how it felt to take a soft leather glove, or hard leather one too, if you were ever lucky enough to be breaking in a new glove, and, just to feel better about the formation or preservation of a glove “pocket,” you stuck an old baseball in it and then fastened it shut overnight with the aid of some very large rubber bands – or even string?

Those were the days, my friend.

Mix in the sandlot textures of the following day. You take that pampered baby glove and ball out to the sandlot, awaiting the inevitable summer morning assembly of players who will soon come clattering through their front screen door homes to join you on Eagle Field – or wherever it was you happened to play.

Not a mental care in the world stirred to spoil the ascending light and feel of an early June day in the Houston East End. Standing on the sandlot turf, banging around the weathered soil in the naked home plate area, picking up the sweet scent of freshly cut grass from the twilight hours of the night before, there are no thoughts about income taxes, the price of gasoline, the competitive industries of the Chinese government, the threat of terrorism, or the dangers of  stranger predation.

We were just were there. Prepped only for joy in non intellectual terms. We were baseballers. All day baseballers. Just make room for the game and watch us go at it.


Speaking of Toys in the Attic ...


The stuff of those days included our personal items, like old gloves, an occasional baseball board or pinball game, and maybe even a baseball book or two. We weren’t exactly library hounds in those days, but we were literate – and we saw reading as something beyond an activity forced upon us by schools. Reading could take us to worlds that were otherwise beyond our reach. And that little book in the photo at left is just such an example. “Teenage Baseball Stories” was one of the first books I ever owned about baseball. What’s pictured here is the actual book That I’ve had since I was very young – along side an exact copy of the pinball baseball game I used to play in my room during the awful “heat of the day” polio threat hours during which we were kept back from playing ball outside in the summer of 1950. The featured glove in the photo is also a latter-day flea market find, but a pretty accurate version of the same glove that Dad gave me to use on the sandlot a few thousand summers ago.

Sadly, the original glove got discarded years ago. Dad gave. And Dad took away. He seemed to have a compulsive need to throw away or give away anything that was not currently in use by the family. So, after I got a little job and earned enough money to buy a new Rawlings Playmaker, the old glove that resembled the one in our picture here just quietly disappeared.

Back then, the preservation of these old artifacts wasn’t all that important to me either. In fact, all I had, or didn’t have, was extraneous to the joy of the sandlot and my comfortable fit into the  kid culture that thrived in Houston, and all over America, I presume, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

We sometimes had our differences, and we sometimes duked it out over bad blood issues, but, other than the time our kids from Japonica-Myrtle got into a brief pipe gun war with the Kernel Street kids over control of Eagle Field, we most often settled things in less threatening ways and moved on. My dad put a fast end to the pipe gun war, making us work things out through a game of baseball, which we easily won.

There was just something more tactile and definite about the way we lived in the East End of Houston back in the years that immediately followed World War II. For one thing, many of our fathers were coming back from the second great war and getting started on their own treks into the “American Way of Life.”

Baseball was still America’s Pastime back then too. The NFL would need television to put it on the sports map – and hardly anyone we knew had ever heard anything about the NBA. That was a game for girls shooting two-handed push-em-up or underhand-lob shots.

Segregation and bigotry still ruled Houston in those post WWII days, but even that level of mandated ignorance had little power over the modeling influence that the new back major leaguers were building in the minds of even some of us southern white kids. My big league all star team from that era included: Robin Roberts (R) and Warren Spahn (L); Roy Campanella, c; Stan Musial, 1b; Jackie Robinson, 2b; George Kell, 3b; Phil Rizzuto, ss; Ted Williams, lf; Duke Snider, cf; and Ralph Kiner, rf. – Ralph was no right fielder, but I had to put him somewhere. The “Pirate Prince of Punch”  or the “Bucco Baron of Blast” was too good for his era to leave out.

Bob Boyd would become the first black athlete to integrate a Houston sports team when he joined the Houston Buffs in May 1954. From that active point forward, Houston would be on its way to shedding away the kinds of earlier stupidity, but these changes would also signal the start of organized kid sports programs and movement toward a culture in which both parents worked and single mom families became common.

The days of summer ease and kid life on the sandlot were drawing to a close. They slipped through our fingers quietly, before we even saw it coming and read the implications for lost spontaneity to the generations that came after us. Sometime, by the late 1950s in some places and by the early 1960s in others, the sandlot slipped silently away as an American institution.

Too bad. Their loss is greater than those who have missed the sandlot will ever imagine. All we have left are our ancient memories and a few toys in the attic that our parents could not find in time to discard.


Sandlot Wisdom: Things We Figured Out on Our Own.

April 12, 2010

Houston East, 1952. (I'm the kid kneeling at left and wearing the Hawaiian shirt.)

Back on the Post World War II Sandlot, we didn’t have the best coaching or equipment in the world. As a matter of fact, we hardly had any coaching at all beyond those things that we picked up from our dads by chance in games of catch in the backyard after our dads’ work was done, but that didn’t happen every day. Our dads in the Houston East End worked long hard blue-collar job hours and they weren’t always home or simply up to playing catch every day that they were there.

Out on the sandlot, of course, we did a lot of “my dad says this” talking with each other. “Get in front of the ball on grounders. If you can’t catch ’em, at least, block ’em with your body” stands out in my memory as the most universal lesson we all picked up as a dad throwaway message. We might never have picked that one up on our own. There was no such thing as a true hop on our Eagle Park field, but we still came around to blocking grounders at the risk of  broken teeth and black eyes. It was the thing to do. Our fathers told us it was.

So, let’s give dads the credit for that first wisdom of the sandlot and then hit upon some of the other things we pretty much figured out on our own by simply playing the game with each other from dawn to dusk during the summers.

Some Wisdom of the Sandlot:

(1)  Get in front of the ball on grounders. If you can’t catch ’em, at least, block ’em with your body. Kids who didn’t block grounders were at risk of being labeled as “dog catchers.” These were fielders who chased hot grounders like dogs chase cars. If they do catch up with the ball, they just run along beside it, barking all the way as the ball clears the lot and rolls on down the street.

(2) In making out a batting order, put the fast little guys who show they can get on base in there ahead of the bigger, slower-moving, but harder-hitting guys.

(3) If you’re pitching, throw strikes. If you can get that first one in there for a strike, you put the batter at a disadvantage that remains with him, unless you give it away by forgetting where the strike zone is located.

(4) If you’re pitching, “accidentally” throw one hard, inside, and wild every now and then. If a wild pitch  makes the batter fall back or down, it becomes easier to throw a strike with your next pitch, especially if you can put it on the outside corner.

(5) As an outfielder, throw the ball ahead of the runner. To learn this one, all we had to do was watch little kids in right field throw ground ball singles to first base, allowing the runner to safely move on to second base in the process. What we didn’t learn on our own in the sandlot is how to effectively set up and use cut-off men on balls hit deep to the outfield. I didn’t learn that one until I played organized ball with an adult coach.

(6) Play the game to win. If you don’t play to win, you may as well not be playing. (Sandlot Yoga would not have been very popular in Pecan Park back in the day. It probably still isn’t.)

(7) If your opponent has an obvious weakness, take advantage of it. This value taught us how to hit to all fields. In fact, Wee Willie Keeler’s credo, “Hit ’em where they ain’t” simply meant to us: “hit ’em where the other team doesn’t have somebody positioned who looks like they can catch or stop a hard-batted ball. And hey, if it looks like nobody out there can catch, go ahead and swing from the heels, Eagles! This is “track-meet-on-the-bases” day!

(8) Never let the other team back in the game because you feel sorry for them. (See Lesson 6 again.) Don’t confuse the absence of mercy with unsportsmanlike behavior. You play the game of baseball to win – or you don’t play the game at all. Good sports understand this creed. Bad sports are the crumb-bums who beg for mercy and then have a tantrum when you beat ’em fair and square.

(9) Always try to find your highest level of competitive ability. If the other players in your world are bigger, better, and older than you, making it impossible for you to compete successfully, there’s nothing wrong with you stepping back and finding your niche with players who are more at your own level. There’s a place for almost everyone who wants to play. I said “almost.” If you can’t play well enough at any level to keep from hurting your team, you can learn to live with it and still enjoy the game as a fan.

(10) Most of all, the sandlot taught us that we’d never figure out the game completely on our own. To understand baseball better, we need to be dedicated to a lifetime of learning about the game’s history, strategies, and techniques.  We still won’t walk away knowing as much about pitching as a Larry Dierker does – or as much about hitting as a Jimmy Wynn, but we will become more knowledgeable – and that just makes the game all the more fun.

If you picked up some special lesson from the sandlot, please post it below as a comment on this article. We’d all like to hear what it was, whether it was a lesson about baseball specifically or life in general.

Have a great week, everybody. Unlesss you’re a Cardinal fan, let’s hope this may be the day that our 2010 Houston Astros start learning something about how to win their first game of the new season.