Work-ups—Baseball and the ’50s

By the time I was 2 years old, that is as soon as I could tell a baseball from a beach ball, my father had trained me in the proper batting stance and often would show me off to adults who came over in the evenings. I have a clear memory of standing in the living room in pajamas—the kind with feet built in, white ones with red and blue baseballs and bats printed all over them—and stiffly assuming the batting stance before heading off to bed. This was 1950, and by then the country, and baseball, had moved into modern times—stadiums in the major cities of the East, kids playing sand-lot or city league, grammar school, high school and college. Actually going to a major league game was a real event, and it seemed almost everyone listened on the radio, shared a lineup of heroes and a jargon.

For decades, baseball was big news spring and summer, and the ’50s, to a great extent, were a carry-over of the ’40s. My social studies textbook still had scenes of men in hats and baggy coats and trousers, women in suits with squared shoulders and wide lapels; the  “metropolis” was crawling with Hudsons, Nash-Ramblers and checkered cabs. In the auditorium for a geography film, the same four-prop “modern” plane landed each year on a strip of dust in South America. We’d seen “The Babe Ruth Story” starring William Bendix. Joe DiMaggio was married to Marilyn Monroe. It was traditional, even reasonable, that a pennant race was a major topic of discussion every fall. There were the big black and white covers of Life magazine with a shot from a late inning of The Series. To us, as to many, not much was more important than baseball. Not bikes or grades, not a dime for the soda fountain after school. Baseball was social tonic, a counterpoint of common joy set against routine. It was one thing most everyone understood together.

Eighth grade began the ‘60s, and like a batter looking for the off-speed pitch and getting The Heater, we just weren’t ready for what was coming. TVs were in most every living room and the whole technological and commercial space-wired juggernaut was gearing up just over the horizon, yet it was not obvious to us then. Standing in the rush of 1960-61, fresh from the ’50s, the bat was still on our shoulders. Our mind-set was a content and dreamy one. Everyone liked Ike, but no one really paid attention to his parting speech about a military industrial complex. We didn’t for a moment think we’d be some of the last kids riding bikes to school or around town with baseball mitts always threaded over our handlebars. We had no idea that many of our generation would become “long-haired-hippie-radicals” marching in the streets of Berkeley and Chicago, opposing the government and another war before the decade was over. We couldn’t see that we were slipping calmly over the edge of a world with our inherited small-town values of camaraderie and plain dealing, values that seemed a part of baseball whether it was played in Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn or a school yard in Santa Barbara.

Although Los Angeles was only two hours away on the three-lane Pacific Coast Highway, we were pretty much off the map. The tourist industry was almost nonexistent; the saying we knew even as kids was, “Santa Barbara—for the newly wed and nearly dead!” Few movie stars lived in Montecito then, and all the president’s men were 20 years away. Rock stars were far off, too. Elvis, or from the camera angle, half of him, had been on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and I remember that in 1959 or ’60 Tuck Schneider’s older brother Joe had been suspended from Santa Barbara High School for combing his hair in a “duck tail.” That was as close as any rock ‘n’ roll fallout ever came in those years. A couple minor leaguers assigned to the Dodgers’ Single A farm club that played at Laguna Park were still years away from the big leagues. And baseball thrived.

We had semi-pro, little league, pony league, CYO school league, the neighborhood games, and when not enough kids could be rounded up for teams or work-ups, a few of us would play hit-the-bat, three-flys-up, or over-the-line. Baseball was a portable ritual where a hit or home run allowed you to momentarily run the bases like any one of the known pantheon of major leaguers—and almost everyone could play.

The World Series was played every September, so fall found us arriving at school with mitts hanging from our handlebars and bats balanced on top, found us playing catch or “burn-out” before class, then coming in and hanging our gloves up on the coat hooks in the back of the room. Ball gloves contributed to some status. Some had them and some did not. Many had only hand-me-downs, gloves from older brothers or sisters. It was always an event when someone got a new glove—it happened rarely enough that the new owner was the center of attention for a week or two at least. We did not know many brand names then, but it meant a little to have a Wilson or Rawlings. I had an inexpensive second baseman’s mitt. Having, when I was 7, lost my father’s “professional” fielder’s glove—the one preserved emblem of his youth—I had to make do with a too small glove for a number of years. But at the beginning of seventh grade, I embarked on a campaign of complaint so relentless that after a month or so my father, much to my surprise, gave in. I was sure my ability to perform was hampered by the old glove—pocket too small, no good in the outfield. I was going to be a starter on the school team and the other starters all had decent gloves. I wanted to be admired, wanted to make a move up in that society, though at the time I thought my reasoning was only practical.

One evening then, after work, my father presented me with a new fielder’s glove—a Wilson Bob Feller model—and the requisite lecture about responsibility. He’d picked it up at Ott s, our town’s only department store, for about $13 on sale, a fair sum of money in those days, but with the best gloves selling for $25 or $30, it was a bargain and he knew it. It was large, perfectly shaped and made of supple yellow leather. The next day I took my week’s allowance and went to Jedlica’s, the Western supply store, and bought a piece of rawhide to re-string the top of the fingers, pulling them tighter together with the thicker, stronger string. I rubbed Neatsfoot Oil into it and tied the fingers around a softball over night for a week to form a pocket large and permanent, soft and responsive, one that would close like a Venus Fly Trap over any ball it touched. It was easily the best glove I ever owned, best I ever saw.

But this was still the ’50s and we trusted people, and one day toward the end of eighth grade, heading home with my mind on Linda Underwood or Virginia Cortez, I let a friend’s younger brother borrow it. A work-ups game was still going on and he promised to return it to the classroom, hang it on a hook in the back of the room. He didn’t. Timmy Armour—I still remember his name—-just tossed it on the walkway next to the classroom where we often threw our lunches or sweaters. He honestly expected it to be there the next day. It wasn’t, and was never seen again. My father was not about to buy me another one. I’d given my old mitt to my friend Sozzi, a kid with four older sisters who had never had a glove of his own. There was no way to ask for it back. I would get by by borrowing. We still left our gloves in the field just behind our positions when we came to bat, and so if we were playing teams, it was easy to come up with a glove. Everyone however, wanted to use Harry Fowler’s glove. It was the biggest glove anyone had ever seen, bigger than any I’ve seen since. Harry’s father was a contractor doing well and obviously decided to get his son the biggest ticket item on the rack. It was a Nakoma and its fingers were so long and stiff that it really didn’t have a pocket like most gloves, but operated on the hinge principle, one half collapsing toward the other over anything in range. It was not near as quick or sure as my once wonderful glove, but it was the item on the field. Everyone wanted to use “the vacuum cleaner.” Harry knew its worth, its prestige; at the same time he was generous and allowed lots of kids to use it. With few things to be jealous about in those days, ball gloves could be a point of contention, but playing work-ups, switching positions often and borrowing gear, there were no real problems. The game was the thing—just running the base paths, taking your chances on a steal, accelerating steadily around third and sliding into home, never caring if you ripped the knees out of your uniform corduroy pants.

Baseball—softball as we played it in the Catholic school league— was not just for the boys. In spring, the boys fielded a team to play the other schools in the league, and the girls had a team playing the same schedule, and often we traveled across town in station wagons together. While there were two or three guys known for hitting homers, I always remember Peggy Dormier, a tall, dark, sinewy girl, who could hit it as far as anyone. Playing center field on the lower diamond while the girls practiced on the upper, I turned from my position when I heard that blunt reverberation of a softball really being tagged, and would look up to see one sailing high against the blue, off the grass onto the asphalt where the smaller kids were playing foursquare. I’d see Peggy then slowing down as she rounded second base, realizing it had cleared everything. She was quiet and modest, mostly because her popularity on the ball field did not carry over to the classroom or cliques. She was poor, and though we all wore uniforms, hers showed wear while girls better off, more blond or more popular, wore blouses starched and ironed, white as March clouds. We knew baseball, but not much else. Later in the ‘60s, most of us would become aware of the fact that because of class, money or race alone, and despite all religious protestations to the contrary, participation in and access to our society and its rewards had been, and would be, denied to many.

But baseball was an equalizer of sorts. Some girls, like Peggy, were great hitters, some could play the infield well, and I recall Maggie Tappenier being one of the best pitchers, boy or girl. Playing “work-ups” eliminated any favoritism of position or batting order; it eliminated being chosen for one side or the other. In “work-ups” boys and girls raced together out of the classroom after school and tagged up on home plate; the first three or four were batters and the rest called out positions in order of their arrival. When a batter grounded or was tagged out, he or she went to right field and everyone else moved up one position with the catcher becoming the fourth batter, the pitcher moving to catcher, first base to pitcher, and so on. The only exception was when someone caught a fly ball—he or she took the batter’s place and the batter took that person’s position in the field. So even if you were one of several stuck in the outfield, you had a chance of getting your “ups” before the bell rang to go in or the last bus pulled out of the yard. Everyone was in it together.

The lower grades fairly idolized seventh and eighth graders who were the star athletes on the team. At the beginning of the year you could approach them, actually talk to these heroes by asking what position they were “going out for.” There was no coach until spring and no official try-out process. Each one just declared his intention and somehow a lineup evolved. Positions on the team were a main topic of conversation; it was almost like a political caucus. Myths developed too, and in the insular world of our small parochial school they perpetuated themselves, stories repeating as we proved that we knew what was happening. And things happened that, to us, seemed wonderful, grand. One of my first memories as a second grader at Mt. Carmel School was a baseball game across town in old Pershing Park. A nun took me and a couple other kids. Sitting there on weathered wood-slat bleachers, the green paint peeling off in the sun, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. I do remember that the eighth graders playing in the game seemed huge, about the size, in present-day comparison, of starting forwards in the NBA. I think we were behind until one of the Sosa brothers hit a line drive into left center which must have won the game as everyone jumped up off their splintery seats and went happily out to the cars. Years later, kids still talked about the Sosas pulling it out in the late innings, and we felt good that we all knew the same tales, had seen or said we had seen that game.

It was said that Tote Borgatello, the pitcher for our school team, could make the ball drop. Now this was a 13-inch Softball, underhand pitching, and the pitchers rubber could not have been more than 30 or 35 feet from the plate, so the laws of physics did not provide much room for a ball to break sharply in any direction. Nevertheless, watching a game, seeing an opposing batter whiff at a third strike, we all concurred that Tote was putting something on the pitch, making it dip somehow at the last instant. Tote had dark hair and eyes, and when asked how he managed the trick pitch he would just smile and say nothing, his dark eyes sparkling. Perhaps all pitchers have that in common, school league or majors? I still remember the day after one of the games between the fifth and sixth grade when Tote volunteered that a backhand stop he’d seen me make at shortstop was pretty good and I should think about going out for the team next year. I was beaming for days. That was a signal that I’d almost made it, and it meant everything in the limited context of school and sports those few years.

We played baseball almost all year long out there alongside the acacias, eucalyptus and pines that bordered the blue sky and the edges of our field. The grass grew steadily and green, and we were playing work-ups before and after school, jumping the fence into the Vogels’ yard to retrieve foul balls. There were no league championship games then, only the National and American leagues and the World Series in September. One girl in our class had a portable TV. Those who owned TVs had large Philcos or Sylvanias housed in mahogany or blond wood cabinets and they were paying them off on time. A portable in 1958 was a second set, and hardly anyone owned one of those. The nun blackmailed our class into promised good comportment through to Christmas if we were allowed to see The Series. So one morning, right after the salute to the flag and after each grade filed back into their rooms from the yard, the girl’s father drove his big Buick across the asphalt and right up to the door. He got out, opened the trunk, lugged the set in and put it up on the nun’s desk, adjusting the rabbit ear antennas until the snowy black and white came clear and there was only the smallest hint of “ghosts” behind the players. We knew we were lucky—no other class got to watch— and with the exception of two or three students, we all followed every pitch, even staying inside, eating our lunches at our desks. Undoubtedly that year, it was the Yankees beating some National League club; the World Series script did not vary much in the late ’50s; nevertheless, we were enthralled. Our biggest year for The Series was 1960 when the Pirates won on Bill Mazeroski’s homer. Santa Barbara was a long way, in every way, from Pittsburgh, but most of us supported the National League and also it was pay-back time for Tuck Schneider, a die-hard Yankee fan who bet all takers, and to whom a bunch of us had to pay up every September. The bet was a quarter and a quarter, which then was a week’s spending for Big Hunks or Milky Ways. At the end of each series, everyone grudgingly paid off in pennies and Schneider always had a heavy bag to lug home. Our collective revenge arrived while Bolduc, Wesley, Witucki and I were moving tables and chairs in the rectory under direction of the Mon-signor, who, fortunately for us, had his transistor radio tuned in and positioned in the window for the best reception. When Mazeroski connected for the game-winning homer, we let out a subdued cheer but could hear a roar rise from our homeroom two buildings away where they were watching. Schneider made himself scarce, and we did not have to hear about the Yankees for a while.

The Dodgers and Giants set up on the West Coast waiting for their stadiums to rise. The Giants played in old Seal Stadium waiting for Candlestick Park and the Dodgers made do with the L.A. Colosseum while the City Council forced the last poor families out of Chavez Ravine. The Colosseum rigged a high net-like fence in the short left field. I went to a couple games there with my father whose favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. The Dodgers had just made a trade with the Cardinals for outfielder Wally Moon, who, though his power and career were running out of gas, was made-to-order for that short porch in left. He hit a patented high fly ball to left that cleared the fence for a home run, a ball that in any other park would have been an easy out. I remember Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Enos Slaughter as much from listening to my father and trading baseball cards as anything I actually saw them do at the game; even in those days, it was hard to get seats close to the field in L.A. It was especially exciting in 1959 when I raced home after school to watch the playoff between the Milwaukee Braves and the Dodgers at the end of the season. I remember Warren Spahn who always looked lost inside his baggy uniform, and I had once seen Lew Burdette turn a triple play to get out of a jam. Playing catch, kids would imitate Burdette’s tics, his routine of straightening his cap, jersey, going to his mouth, his belt, before throwing each pitch. Eddie Matthews, the Braves’ third baseman, was from Santa Barbara, but along with Aaron and Adcock he could not overcome the Dodgers that year. Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Drysdale, Koufax, Carl Furillo and Charlie Neal became household names. We all knew pretty much what there was to know about the sport at the time—who led the league in homers, Sandy Koufax’s ERA, how many times Hank Aaron had repeated on the 15-minute TV show “Home Run Derby.” And, when trading cards were only worth trading, we knew the value of a Cookie Rojas vs. a Cookie Lavagetto, a Charlie Neal vs. Jimmie Foxx, or a Musial vs. a Mantle. It all meant something to us and we were content; the times still seemed to run on such intangibles.

By our last season in eighth grade, we were sure our league was going to change to 10-inch, a game somewhere between softball and hardball. A 10-inch ball was only one inch larger than a regular baseball, but rubber coated and lighter. It was, however, pitched overhand, though not from a mound, and the catcher needed all the usual gear. I had a live arm and some control, but I had no game experience pitching and also had to bring all my imagination to bear to actually see my curve ball curve! My friend, Cameron Carlson, who was catching, assured me that, Yes, that curved, a little. We didn’t know what we were doing, but had seen it done plenty of times on TV, and were still young enough to believe we could do it, or at least manage a version of it that would play in our league.

I was in a bit of a pressure cooker as we headed for our first game with arch rival Dolores School—we didn’t really have a backup pitcher if I lost it out there. I knew from previous years how hostile the parents of Dolores players could be, how vicious the little kids were along the sidelines. We arrived at the school feeling confident nonetheless, knowing we had been practicing 10-inch while other schools had been playing softball. I fully expected to burn it by the batters, hear Cameron’s official hardball catcher’s mitt pop as strikes were called out. As we began to stretch out along the first base line and I loosened up my arm, a Dolores nun ran from the distant white classroom building and descended on home plate like a dark rain cloud. She announced that she had a telegram from the Archdiocese forbidding 10-inch games and overhand pitching. No use now for Cameron to squat down and give me a different signal each time for the same pitch; we were back to softball and I was out in right field with little action. Schneider came in to pitch; Sozzi covered second. I did get one memorable hit that day using a 35-ounce Louisville Slugger I had brought. I sent a fly deep to center field. The kid playing there turned clumsily and took off, running out of grass and onto the hardtop of the school yard. Without looking, and with his back completely turned to the diamond, he stuck out his glove and the ball fell directly into it from over his right shoulder. He was as surprised as I was stunned. I’d broken into a trot rounding 2nd, sure it was gone, and just couldn’t believe it when he held it up above his head, the ball and mitt wiggling in the air, the fielder looking like some kid holding up the first fish he’d ever caught. Longest ball of the day and this kid pulls off a catch like that, a real Sapo—a local Mexican term we all used for unconsciously, unbelievably lucky. For what little consolation it was, I even heard one of the Dolores mothers saying it was a real Sapo catch.

There were other games that spring of l961, but nothing stands out in memory, and as a class we had pretty much quit playing’ work-ups the spring before. Now the interests were more focused on records, radio, who had the new 45 by Dion and the Bellmonts, the Fleetwoods, The Ventures. Who was having a party, who was going for a walk with whom behind the buildings after the nuns and teachers had left. When we stayed after school now, it wasn’t to run across the grass and tag-up for the positions on the diamond. There was no one skipping the first bus home and waiting for the one an hour later so he or she could get their “ups “ The dust of the ball field had settled and faded away with the ‘50s.
Our world had changed as all do, but the new times had a pronounced spin to them as well. Baseball became less important, less relevant. It no longer defined a collective experience, and it became, in an ironic way, one aspect of many that accounted for friction and the much publicized “generation gap.” Vietnam took over the TV. Staying in college—not going to Vietnam—became important. Staying alive once you found yourself in a jungle became more important. The game was rigged by LBJ, Westmoreland and the Pentagon, but diving into a sandbag shelter to escape a mortar attack, ducking your head in a fire-fight was no game and no one there was wondering how the Dodgers were doing. We lost a lot of kids while folks here went to the ballpark, while dividend checks were sent out to shareholders of Shell Oil and Colt Manufacturing. In four years of college, I watched only two games of the World Series and those during my freshman year.
One friend, a first baseman who could really dig out the low throws, went down in a gunship; he survived but it took seven operations to make his glove-hand 20 percent useful. Among others who came back, many felt edgy, out of touch with past and present. Others it snuck up on years later—a little like that pitcher for the Pirates in the late ‘70s who, after a solid career and a championship season, just couldn’t get the ball over the plate anymore, who had something snap in his nerve, in his radar on that 66-foot path to the plate, and who ended up selling college rings.
But by the late 70s, I’d come back to it. Teaching part time at community colleges and universities, I became a “freeway faculty.” Driving 45 minutes between various campuses and home, I started to listen to Dodger pre-game and post-game shows, interviews and baseball talk shows on one of the few stations my AM radio could pull in. I listened to what part of the games î could and often would turn on the set for the late innings when I got home. Facing weekends with 75 compositions to respond to, I started sitting down in a big chair with an armful of papers and working Saturday and Sunday from one game to another—network games, ESPN, TBS and anything else I could tune in. It was a way to break up the mind-numbing repetitiveness of seven or eight hours’ grading. The games were slow enough that you could divide your attention between a men-at-the-corners, two down, hit-and-run situation and a lack of coherence and the comma splice. The background patter of a broadcast became a mental liniment for the cramping muscles of the part-time teacher trying to pick up a living. Time passed and I landed a good full-time position, but I kept up with the games—by then a habit, an unconscious comfort that connected with my youth, something I was becoming more conscious of losing having lurched into my 30s.

At this point in time, a sizable portion of seriousness and loss behind me, politics and change look to have come and gone almost seasonally, and all we finally got was older. Headlong into the ‘90s, things less certain, living far from my friends and home, I begin to doubt the worth of a great deal that has had to do with career, getting ahead, the hundred additional concerns taking up time, energy and spirit. On TV, I much prefer games on natural grass. Years ago, I never thought I’d use, automatically, a term like “natural grass”—by definition, there was no other kind. It doesn’t matter much who is playing, but if the game is played on a real field and not Astroturf, I’ll watch.

Now and then I see a ‘57 Chevy with its swan-like fins, or a two-tone ‘56 Chevy Nomad wagon with those thin chrome strips on the fold-down tail gate, and it brings things back. All that time ago, there was something sustaining in expecting less. You got along. A lot less was conspicuously consumed—fewer models and styles, fewer pressures and fewer of us—more time to play ball. Of course, the choices then were easier, but maybe that’s a point in favor of the past. Even a constant pastime like baseball now faces problems of “smaller market” teams being unable to compete and possibly survive. As a result of smaller shares of TV revenue they cannot afford the high-priced free agents, and a losing year means even less revenue. But baseball made a come back in the ‘80s, and attendance has climbed yearly since then.

I know it’s simplistic, but nine out of 10 days all I want to do is drive an old Chevy again, lean back against the wide bench seat, switch the AM radio on to a game, shift that three-speed on the column and cruise with the windows down. I’d like to drive it home, up Cabrillo Boulevard or down East Valley Road toward my old grammar school and get a bunch together for work-ups. I want to pull up to the field and open four doors or tail gates and let folks out to tag up for positions—happy to be there, alive among people who recognize the same trees and grass and clouds I do. I’d be happy to just stand there a while worrying about nothing more than whether I’ll be able to bend down far enough to field a hot grounder hit my way. I’d like to be positioned in that center field grass, sun holding on in the west over the blue line of the eucalyptus and see Peggy Dormier at the plate—see her connect and send one flying deep, see that moon-white softball almost breaking into orbit before spinning down in the direction of my glove, and then hear my old friend Sozzi calling “I got it, I got it” as he cuts in front of me for the running catch and carries it in toward home.

About the Author

Christopher Buckley

Christopher Buckley is the author of fourteen books of poetry and editor of several anthologies. He has published two books of creative nonfiction, most recently Sleep Walk (Eastern Washington University Press, 2006).

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