For perhaps ten years now the golden summer evenings I remember from growing up have been gone. Did they slip by and I didn’t notice? And is it innocence or the light I’m missing? In my hometown in Illinois, the grass isn’t as green as it was. When the rain comes, it comes in deluge and flood, or, for a long time, it doesn’t come at all. In the 1950s, the winters were cold from well before Thanksgiving to well beyond April Fools’ Day. Now the weather’s a crapshoot.
The year I turned eleven, we ballplayers plunged into the summer as if it would be our last. We were bigger than the year before. Could greatness be far behind? We gathered in the mornings and played until about ten with an ash gray rubber-coated baseball, heavier than regulation, that gave off a smacking sound when you hit it. By ten the dew would have burned off and from then on we used a regular ball. There was a park on the north side of town where we played, and on the south side, where I lived, there were a couple of insufficient lots we managed to play in sometimes if nothing was shaking out at the park. Frequently, we used the southwest corner of the block occupied by the Douglas County Court House, a huge expanse of green. Home plate was under a giant silver maple, and third was a sugar maple lightning-damaged into a strange shape and much smaller than the silver. We’d use the batting team’s ball gloves as first and second bases. Rightfield was closed because of the courthouse itself and two stalwart limestone boulders chiseled to make a stand to display a Civil War cannon, the cannon long-since gone, so we didn’t encourage the participation of lefthanded hitters (there weren’t many anyway), and left-center was very deep, if you got the ball high in the air early enough so it didn’t tangle in the rangy green limbs of third base. The courthouse venue was far from perfect, but the grass was cool and always mowed, and in afternoon sun, the shade was worth the trouble of the trees.
The courthouse was two blocks from my home. The summer we were mostly eleven but turning twelve was the only summer we played there.
You have to picture this. There wasn’t really a diamond; we made it all up. There was no backstop, and the batting team supplied both the pitcher and the catcher. If the ball went between the catcher’s legs, it skipped a few times and went across Van Allen Street right into the front yard of the Forty Martyrs Catholic Church and rectory.
In those golden evenings that year, Father James Casey, our pastor, would walk at a peculiarly fast pace up and down the sidewalks around his house, saying his office. He’d been injured a few months before in a one-person car wreck returning to town from the Kaskaskia Golf Course, and the walking had been prescribed as a way of rehabbing his hurt leg. Father Casey, first-generation Irishman, was a helluva golfer. It amazes me to calculate that at the time I’m talking about he was younger than I am now as I sit here writing about him. He was in his mid-fifties, and was an institution in our town, having been in Tuscola for twenty-five years. Among the Protestant townsfolk, he was known as tough, perhaps a little cranky and mysterious. In fact, my Catholic classmates saw him that way, too. He barked at us in catechism classes, in a brogue so thick we couldn’t understand him. He was a great friend of my dad, though, and frequently came to our house for Sunday dinner, so I did “get” this fellow a bit better than my friends did. Anyway, to a man, the kids I played ball with were afraid of him, and if the ball went across the street when Father Casey was out in his yard, I was the one who had to go after it.
One evening, I’m sure it was a Wednesday, I trotted over to the courthouse after dinner to meet my friends—you only needed about six to have a good game—and sat under the silver maple waiting for them to show up. Andy would soon round the corner on Houghton (that was centerfield on the courthouse diamond), Gary would come down from the north side via Court Street, and Alan would come on Central up from where his folks had an apartment on the highway. Bill would show up probably, and maybe bring a brother, hopefully not the littlest one. I waited. It was never perfect. We never got the time of the rendezvous quite right, and unexpected circumstances would always arise. (Bill’s folks might load up the family and go out to the drive-in if there was a good Western showing; Gary’s dad might make him work.)
I waited for them. I was used to it—in fact we all were. They waited for me plenty, too, in those days. We were eleven and flexible. Sometimes nothing happened, and whoever was waiting would finally walk home kicking a rock. That evening, though, Casey was fast-walking and reading his breviary, and I sat under the tree so that I wasn’t completely visible to him, so he wouldn’t call me over to talk. I hated to stand around and talk to adults. “How’s your dad?” “How’s your mom?” “When you gonna learn your Latin responses so you can serve mass?” “How’s school?”
I knew he knew I was sitting under the maple, but if I was on the other side of the tree, that seemed to let us both off the hook. He wouldn’t have to talk nice to me just because he was pals with my dad and knew me and came to dinner sometimes. And I wouldn’t have to talk to him a whole lot so next time he’d recognize my voice in the confessional, which was precisely the sort of thing an eleven year-old boy worried about if the family was friends with the priest and the boy was me.
So, on this evening apparently none of my friends were coming, and after a while, when his walk got him directly across the street from me, he called over. His voice came around the tree.
“Danny. You over there?”
Because my father and I had the same name, my nickname was Danny in those days, after the Kipling poem “They’re Hanging Danny Deever in the Morning.” Things like that can affect your destiny.
“Want me to hit you some?” he called to me.
Right, I was thinking. Hundred-year-old Irish priest—a golfer— with a broken leg—is gonna hit me some. Plus, my Protestant pals start filtering in from the neighborhood and see the priest duffing around with our ball bat, they’d just go back home. “That’s it,” they’d be thinking. “No baseball tonight!”
“Sure,” I said.
He looked both ways on Van Allen, limped across the street. He gimped up to me, and I got up off the ground where I’d been sitting.
“How’s your dad?” he asked.
“Lemme see that thing,” he said, and I got him my bat, which was leaning against the tree. It was a twenty-nine-inch Larry Doby Louisville Slugger. I always brought it to our games. Bill had a thirtyinch Hank Aaron we all used, and Andy had a thirty-two-inch Jackie Robinson we’d broken sometime in the past year but still used after it was repaired, using a well-placed nail to hold it together plus two miles of electrical tape around the handle and over the nail, which effectively removed the nail from our consciousness. (After it broke, this repaired bat logged most of our tape-measure home runs, and we had a theory that the nail and the tape were responsible. It didn’t occur to us we were growing.) Anyway, Father Casey handled my Larry Doby like it was a foreign object.
“Where’s the ball?” he said, and I took it out of my glove over by the tree. He handled it a minute. It was the rubber-coated one. We often used it at the courthouse because the leather ones got torn up on the sidewalk and the street. All it took to tear the thread was for the ball to skip once on the concrete—one little tear in the thread and a leather baseball was on borrowed time.
Father Casey, wearing black pants and a white shirt with rolled up sleeves and a Roman collar, scanned the big west lawn of the courthouse. That’s how it would have looked to him—a big lawn. He couldn’t see the baseball diamond so clearly imagined by us kids. He said, “Okay, I’ll go over there by the steps and then hit ’em this way so we miss the trees.”
“Yes, Father,” I said.
As he lumbered away, he said, over his shoulder, “How’s your mom?”
I watched him as he slowly strolled through the courthouse lawn’s green grass until he was right up to the building itself, right under the window of the county surveyor (Bill’s dad). I watched him go, on his sore leg, sort of slumped like the ancient guy he was. This would never work. Golf and baseball aren’t the same. If you didn’t know that already, you could tell by the way he handled bat and ball as he walked. I looked around for the approach of my friends from their dinners. Nobody was coming. Okay.
I guessed trying to hit a baseball to some kid was the sort of thing that would make Father feel better. Step across the street and hit some balls, try out the mending leg in something besides walking around the house two hundred times. He put his black breviary on one of the courthouse steps and pushed up his already rolled sleeves. He looked down the long lawn my way like he was scoping out a tee shot, took a couple of practice swings, very golfish.This would never work.Then he took the ball and laid it out in front of himself on the evening air, and quickly brought his hand back to the bat handle so both hands were on it . . .
. . . and smacked the mightiest fly ball almost straight up that I had ever seen hit by priest, man, or real baseball player, straight up damned near out of sight . . .
. . . and yelled to me as it went up, “HaHA! Catch that one, Danny boy!”
Well, it turns out golf is not baseball but when it comes to hitting, the two sports do have some things in common. We who grew up hitting a baseball (and, since, have played a little golf) have learned to dream of hitting one that would fly like a shot off the tee, launched effortlessly, rocketing away in a white streak breathtaking in the beauty of its flight against the background of trees and green grass, taking to the air in an upward swoop that would make the best hit line drive into the gap seem lumbering by comparison. It turns out Father Casey could whack some mighty fly balls.
There were many evenings after that when I chased pop-ups at the courthouse. Casey, grumbly old parish priest, seemed to love coming over and hitting, and I loved trying to track those giants down. It was fun despite the obstacles: the trees, the cannon rocks, the crisscross of sidewalks, and telephone wires. I imagined sometime getting him to hit flies to me at the Pony League field in the park, but this wasn’t that kind of thing. We were stuck in the circumstances of sandlot baseball contrived within available space convenient to Father Casey if he wanted to wander across the street on a summer afternoon. It was a situation confined to a certain situation.
One night toward the end of summer as I watched him launch me pop-ups, I finally noticed something I hadn’t before. The ball wasn’t being pitched to him; rather, he was tossing it up and hitting it by himself. Now I noticed he was tucking a shoulder and shortening the stroke. Many times he was fouling the ball off, though they were mighty fouls to be sure, and sometimes you could tell even when he hit it on the sweet spot he didn’t get it all. And I thought to myself:
If only. He had. A better bat.
In those days, an eleven-year-old could spot a good bat. Even the sandlot kids could eye the ash or hickory and see promise in the grain of the wood, tell what felt right in the distribution of the weight between the handle and the barrel. They could take a couple of practice swings and know if it was good in the hands. It was intuition and experience, not science; it was also partly faith. If the bat felt right, so did the batter when he stepped to the plate.
The Saturday morning after my birthday—twelve!—I had a little birthday cash. I biked uptown seven blocks to the Western Auto, where I found Father Casey a thin-handled hickory beauty: a thirty four-inch Mickey Mantle Louisville Slugger, beautiful, the wood a dark tan, browned in fire with a varnish. Powerized, it said on the bat above the label in parentheses shaped like lightning. The grain was very interesting. The lines that ran the length of the bat were distinct and spaced, and the wood was harder and sweeter than the thin grained cheapos we had in Little League.
It was four years before Mantle and Maris, using this new bat style, made a run at Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record. The older bat style was thick and heavy; old-timers often said people should remember Babe Ruth set that famous record basically hitting a sock with a fence post. The Mickey Mantle model was thin-handled, the barrel, too, thinner than you’d expect. The knob on the end of it was pronounced so it didn’t slip out of the hitter’s hand. Think about a golf club, the metal shaft light, with plenty of whip. And of course the golf ball was packed with rubber bands instead of yarn. Yarn! Anyway, I imagined this was the kind of bat Father Casey needed if he was going to take his talent for hitting fly balls to the next level. Light, the sweet spot farther away from him for whip action and so he wouldn’t have to tuck in his shoulders as he turned but rather could extend his arms, the handle so he could grip it tight and transfer arm speed and shoulder ballast directly into pop.
“Where’d this come from?” he asked me that first evening.
“Try it,” I said.
He started meandering up the lawn toward the courthouse to his usual spot. “It looks brand-new. Did I break the other one?”
“Nah, it’s at home.”
“Uh-huh.” He was standing up there by the steps taking practice swings. “I might knock somebody’s window out with this thing.”
“Yes, Father,” I said. I wanted all the fly ball this man could whack into the sky.
That evening some of my Protestant friends showed up and watched him hit—the mysterious local Catholic priest hitting pop f lies at the courthouse. Only in America. And what a thrill it was, the crack of that new bat, how the ball sailed above the full length of the courthouse lawn, high over the silver maple and the little dwarf maple we called third base, passed over Central Street like a Russian satellite a couple of years later, flew over Charlie Price’s garden in the next block and a yard beyond that, so high it was nearly out of sight in the pink dusky sky of a rural Illinois evening, summer 1957. I ran back for it, across Central and down the alley. I ran for it as far as I could go, right up against Judge Gray’s handsome wrought iron fence. Lined up in windows behind Father Casey, the county surveyor and his staff looked on. Across the street to the south on the curb in front of the Catholic church, friends saw it happen and would testify.
“Yikes,” my friend Andy said without really knowing he said it, sitting by the silver maple looking up.The ball, as it returned to earth, seemed to fall straight down out of the pink and blue, straight into Judge Gray’s wife’s flower garden, and didn’t even bounce in the loam.
“Yikes indeed, lad!” Father Casey called. “Ha HAA!” he laughed. I’d never seen him happy like that. “Now that’s a ball bat!” he said so we could hear him and he laughed again. I can hear him this moment. Will you cry with me right now for the loss of that innocent, beautiful time?