Kamis, 01 September 2011
Throwing Like A Girl
My introduction to baseball came in the early spring of 1958. My father dragged me away from our Zenith black-and-white. My favorite show, THE THREE STOOGES, was on the TV. Even a six-year old boy knew better than to resist a man his size.
"Too nice a day to waste in front of the boob tube." My father hated TV's grasp on his children. He came from the age of radio. I followed him out of the house into the backyard. A line of trees were struggling to sprout leaves after a long Maine winter, but at the end of the street the sun sparkled off the million mirrors scattered across the harbor separating Falmouth Foresides from Portland. April would soon be May.
My older brother stood on withered grass twenty feet away. His left hand was buried in the leather of a baseball glove. A Red Sox cap shaded his face. He clutched a real baseball in his right hand.
"Time for you two to play America's Pastime." My father had served with the Army Air Force in World War II and fought the Great Maine Fire of 1949. Standing close to me he demonstrated the proper stance for a right-handed batter. "Legs apart with your body square to the plate and your eyes on the mound.
"Yes, sir." I had watched a few games on TV and thrown the baseball with my older brother. I knew that Ted Williams number was 9, but my mind was better suited to Hide and Seek. No one could find my secret places.
"Okay, let's play some ball."
My father crouched behind the piece of wood serving as the plate and told my brother to throw a strike. The seven year-old looked over to my mother in the breezeway. She nodded her approval and he chucked the ball with every ounce of his skinny body's strength. His lucky first pitch thudded into my father's glove. The bat never left my shoulder. I had been too scared that it was going to hit me.
"You're supposed to swing at the ball." He stood up and acted out the motion of batting, as if he were holding an imaginary bat. The 30 year-old Maine native had the same athletic build as the baseball players on TV. He resumed his position and smacked his fist into the glove. "Give it another try.
I obeyed his command and swung at the next pitch with closed eyes. Something struck the bat and my hands tingled with shock of the accidental meeting of two objects. The ball floated into our new neighbors' backyard.
The eleven year-old girl with short red hair fielded the ball on one bounce and winged it to my father with teenage accuracy. His clean-shaven face grimaced from the impact in his glove. My father was an electrical engineer and he tried to analyze where the source of her strength. The girl was mostly bones.
"That's some arm."
"My father wanted a boy, so here I am." The freckled redhead was a classic Tom Boy and I fell in love the second she taught me how to grip the ball with my fingers.
We spent the rest of the morning throwing the ball with the lanky girl, whose name was Charlene. My father stopped to pick up my errant throw. There had been many.
Her mother came out to introduce herself. The slender blonde worked as a nurse for Maine Medical and her husband captained a oil freighter out of Bath. They were from Bar Harbor.
"That's some baseball player you have." My father nodded at Charlene.
She was cutting the air with the swing of the bat.
"Her father played semi-pro. I told him to quit and get a real job or else we were through." " Charlene's mother had a nice smile. Her teeth were perfect. "I suppose having a tomboy is his revenge, but baseball is a love they share."
My mother invited her inside for tea and a chat. My sisters sat on the porch. My best friend, Chaney, rounded the corner of the house. One look at Charlene and he ran back home for his glove. Some older boys appeared to mock our playing with a girl. One was our school bully, Skeeter Kressee. My father challenged them to a game.
Five on five with my father the umpire. Charlene knocked in all our runs. It was my first win in a game. Most boys in America worshipped Mickey Mantle, but Charlene was my baseball goddess.
Every day after school my older brother, my best friend, Chaney, and Charlene practiced baseball. By the end of May my brother and Chaney could toss a baseball over the peaked roof of our two-story house. I had broken my sisters' bedroom window on my last attempt. Charlene took the time to teach me the mechanics of throwing. Her father must been a great instructor, because after an hour my toss cleared the peak of the roof by ten feet.
Throughout that spring three other neighborhood boys joined our team and we played 7-on7 pick-up games in the dirt lot next to Route 1. Charlene was our ringer. We routed the boys our age. Our winning streak continued against 3rd and 4th graders. My father would coach us on the weekend. A bunch of 5th graders came close to beating us in early June. Charlene smacked a flat pitch so hard that the ball cleared the state highway. We called ourselves the Red Sox and there were no Yankees in our town to challenge our team.
We were six boys and one girl.
One afternoon Chaney, my older brother, and I came home from Pinewood School to find Charlene sobbing on the front steps. Her Wilson glove and bat lay on the ground. My younger sisters' crying jags were over lost dolls and our teasing. Charlene's tears came from a greater disappointment. We stood on the lawn and watched her for a minute without saying a word. Her sorrow was that deep.
"What's wrong?" I asked and my older brother elbowed my ribs.
"Leave her alone."
"Did someone bother you?" I looked up the street. Skeeter Kressee was tormenting a neighbor's cat. I picked up the bat.
"It's not Skeeter." Charlene wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt. "I went to try out for Little League and the coaches told me to go home and bake a cake."
"They would have never told Frank Malzone that." Chaney barked with boyish anger.
"Frank Malzone is a man." My brother idolized the Red Sox 3rd baseman.
"And Charlene is the best player in our town." My favorite Red Sox was Pete Runnel. I had traded two Frank Malzone baseball card for one of his. "Did you get a try-out?"
"No, they said girls should play with dolls not with balls." Charlene walked away from our house without her baseball and glove. "You can keep those. I won't be needing them anymore."
We had a game that afternoon. The 3rd graders beat us 15-0. We were too young to play anyone without Charlene.
That night at the dinner table I told my father about Charlene not being allowed to play Little League. My mother frowned at the information.
"You can't always get what you want." She had given up a singing career to raise five children. The strength of her voice had stopped the Portland Cathedral choir in mid-chorus of AVE MARIA. She understood sacrifice.
"She's a very good baseball player. Better than I was at that age." My father appreciated talent. He watched THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW every Sunday night. "They should let her try out."
"Boys and men don't like playing with girls or women." My mother served my father another portion of roast beef. "Mostly because they're scared of losing."
"You may be right." My father cut into the meat. He loved my mother's cooking. "But she deserves a try-out and I'm going to get her one."
"Good luck." My mother was sincere in her wishes and stood up to clear the plates from the table. The boundaries between male and female had been carved in stone for centuries.
"Thanks." My father winked at my older brother and me like he had a magic lamp in his back pocket. "I can't promise it will happen, so don't say anything to Charlene or your friends. You can keep a secret, right?"
"Yes, sir." My brother and I answered in unison. We were good sons and did as we were told 99% of the time.
"Because telling a secret means it won't happen."
"Just like telling someone your wish after snapping a wishbone." My older brother nodded with understanding. He and I fought for wishes with dried chicken bones. He had won each and every time and I believed that his wish was to always break off the wish part of the wishbone. We bought our empty plates to the kitchen sink and went upstairs to our room. Our lights went out at 9. I listened to the Red Sox game on the radio powered by an alligator clip attached to the steel of my bed. The rocket-shaped radio was made in Japan.
Chaney once told me that the Japs played baseball.
My uncle said the same thing and he had been in Japan after the war.
I fell asleep before the game's end. The home team was playing the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers never lost to us.
The next few days were typical for the coast of Maine. Rain, cold, and windy. Our baseball gloves remained on their hooks. We didn't see Charlene once during that time. She went to school and came back home before us. Twice I went over to her house. No one answered my knock on the door.
Friday night my father came into the house.
"You didn't say anything to Charlene about the try-out?"
"No." I didn't like the sound of this questioning.
To your friends?"
"No." I searched my mind for something that I might have done wrong.
"C'mon, we're going to talk with Charlene."
I grabbed Charlene's baseball glove and bat.
The three of us crossed the backyard. He rang the doorbell and Charlene's mother opened the door.
"Can I help you?" She was wearing curlers and
"I'd like to speak with Charlene. It's about baseball. I tried to get her a try-out, but everyone said that she couldn't"
"She already knows that." Charlene's wife lit a cigarette and offered my father one. "She's giving up on baseball. Talking to her won't change her mind. This is a man's world. She knows that now. So there's nothing to talk about. Thanks for coming over, but that's the way it is and she'll have to live with it."
"But___" I looked up the stairs, hoping to see Charlene.
"No buts." My father lit the cigarettes with a Zippo lighter. Charlene's mom leaned closer to him. They inhaled at the same time. "Charlene has made her decision and so has the Little League. It isn't right, but like her mother said, "That's the way it is." Thanks for your time."
"Thanks for your effort." Charlene's mother smiled at my father. They nodded, as if they were allies in a greater fight.
"What about her glove and bat?" I was sure that I could convince Charlene to play with us. I just needed the chance.
"Leave them with me." Her mother took them out of my hands. "Her father can decide what to do with them when he gets back home."
"Have a good weekend." We returned to our house and shut the door. My mother and father spoke in the dining room alone. They were having an adult conversation. Nothing else was ever said about Charlene's playing baseball. They became good friends with her mother and father. The two couples went out together. My mother always said that they had a good time.
I saw Charlene later that summer. Her hair was longer and she was wearing a dress. I tried to speak with her, but she ignored my attempt. She was almost 12 and I was definitely 6.
Two years later we moved from Maine to Boston. My older brother and I were on the same team in the town league. I told the other kids about Charlene. One of the boys laughed at my story.
"Girls can't throw a ball."
I punched him in the nose and he cried to the coach. I got in trouble. It didn't matter too much to me. I was no good at baseball, but some of her skill wore off on me. Opposing players would shout from the bench.
"You throw like a girl."
That insult never bothered me.
Charlene was the best baseball player I saw in my life.
She was no girl, she was a tomboy, and none of that mattered to a boy in love with baseball.