In Getting the Boys Snipped, I wrote a brief introduction to some of the more famous baseball characters in the Prytania neighborhood. Today I thought I might try to condense 3-4 years of neighborhood baseball games into one short story. As I just wrote that last sentence, I had to stop to feel the impact from this statement. It really was only just a few years of park baseball because we moved into the neighborhood when I was in 5th grade. My baseball playing group would have become too big for the park when I hit 8th or 9th grade as it was a small park. It feels like it was so much longer than just a few short years; everything is larger when you’re young, even time itself.
We had some really good ball playing families in our neighborhood – Mathews, Beckmans, Hardins. I loved the pick-up games and I played in every one that I could. I got a late start so I had to work very hard to keep up with the rest of the kids my first couple of years on Prytania. My early claim-to-fame was more for my ability to keep score. I could quote the score, the outs, who made them and how, what inning we were in and how yesterday’s game went down. This special ‘skill’ earned me a summer nickname of “Scoreboard” from Diane and JoAnn, (and I hated it). Boys hate to get teased by the girls. We might shrug it off and act like it doesn’t bother us, but that’s all it is, an act – it’s our only defense.
My very first memory of baseball involves my very first ball glove. Either my dad was very cheap or he didn’t know crap about baseball gloves because when I asked for one, he dragged home something that must have been made by whoever the Chinese call on when they are too lazy to make something we want to import from them. It was a glove…in the sense that it had openings for each finger, and it was made of something that resembled cowhide. There was no webbing for this ‘glove’, or perhaps it is more accurate to state that the webbing, (the part between the thumb and first finger), could likely palm a large marble, but certainly not a baseball. The ‘glove’ also was so thin that on a sunny day, the sunshine’s uv rays would burn my hand right through the hide (ok, so maybe I made that last part up).
On a warm summer afternoon in 1968 we had a huge game going on. We were all young; for me, fourth grade had just ended and moved away from all my Fillmore Elementary buddies. Rich, Tom and Diane Mathews were there, Jeff and Terry Beckman, Mark and Tim Withrow, Nick Maus, Randy McMahan and my brother Steve. Oh yeah, I was there too with my semi-transparent ball glove. It was relatively early in the game I think and I was positioned next to a couple of trees in left field. Officially I think I was playing left-center field. Before Randy began hitting his groove in the Alley, Jeff was our hardest hitter, our home run king.
Jeff was up to bat and on this day, he hit a hard line drive that carried itself just over the shortstop and directly towards me. Oh no, now what? This wasn’t dodgeball – I couldn’t duck. That would surely earn me a summer’s worth of kid-teasing, maybe even earn me an undesired nickname like The Duckling or perhaps something worse like Dodge-Fart. Kids are very creative where it comes to making up names for other kids.
I wasn’t yet any kind of a decent fielder as I was so new, but I loved playing and I worked hard at getting better. Fate and Chance were on my side though this day. I raised my left hand. I didn’t close my eyes and I didn’t really look the ball into the glove. I just raised my hand and waited….and then OUCH! Of course I didn’t flinch or yell or even shake my hand in stinging pain, but I can recall how that baby hurt, even yet today. No one expected me to catch that, including me, and I recall a number of surprised glances from my teammates as we made our way in for our turn at bat. That ball hitting my palm hidden behind the cellophane glove stung like crazy…but oh the feeling of joy from one of my first personal sports-related successes – I actually caught the ball!
Perhaps I should be grateful for the tiny see-through baseball glove because I believe it helped teach me to look a ball directly into my palm. After all, there was nowhere else for a ball to go – either it broke my fingers or I missed the ball.
As we got older, we would reposition our ball diamond towards the street that made the most sense as home run territory, making the distance longer. The park was bordered by D St, (where Prytania ended and D began), and Elvin. The park was four-sided with D St actually providing 3 of the sides. The first few years there was a remnant of an old concrete fountain. The very first year for my playing in the park, it was located in right center field. If it bounced into the fountain, it was a ground rule double. Elvin Avenue served as home run territory if a ball made it there on a fly. Anything to the street after touching the park was a double. I recall one or two arguments over the curb area – did the ball first hit the edge of the curb? If it did, then it was a double – or did it hit the street? Were you standing on the curb or the street when you caught the ball? If you were in the street, it was a home run. Elvin Avenue was the shortest home run length and I’m sure that the Scott’s and the Vikoski’s loved our constant home runs and doubles that made it to their yards those two years.
The next summer, 1969, we continued to play from the short diamond. There were a LOT of home runs that year. We kept track and as a side note, Jeff became the all time home run single season record holder with 189 4-badgers! (Perhaps Bonds should have looked into Dixie Hamburgers and Irene’s Doughnuts instead of steroid shots?) We knew it was time to reconfigure the diamond the day one of us hit the ball clear across the street and broke a Vikoski window! (My memory says that was Randy, but I might be confused on that point).
So the following year we reconfigured the ballpark. This was the same year that we discovered ‘line chalk’ could be acquired, (illegally of course), from Champion Papers. Up until the early 80’s, Hamilton, Ohio was quite the industrial town with paper-making mills owned by Champion and Beckett Paper. There was also Mosler Safe, lots of foundries and even a GM body plant. The Champion Mill was huge. Its property line bordered C St. In between C St and the mill was just a thin patch of trees and shrubbery. One day a few of us were exploring that area. As we were walking along the fence line that bordered Champion, we discovered a big pile of what appeared to be chalk, just lying on the ground outside the fence line and one of Champion’s concrete storage buildings. We could see that the chalk was coming from a couple of small openings at the top of the building.
C St was at the top of a small hill, away from the Great Miami River, and so these buildings were actually built on a hillside, making it easy for us to reach our hands inside of these vents (is what I think they were – air vents for breathing and heat escape). The chalk was in the form of small round ‘chunks’. You know kids – if it’s round and can fit inside a kid-sized hand, then it can be thrown. Each of us gathered together several chunks and carried them out of the wooded area and up into the park. From the park then we started experimenting. One of us threw a piece hard at a tree and was rewarded with a cool shattering explosion of the chalk and a nice mark on the tree where it was hit. Wow! Cool!
Up next then of course came chalk bombs. We pitched a few of them up in the air as high as we could, targeting Elvin Avenue, (again, lucky Scott’s and Vikoski’s). Ok, this was even more cool! The larger the chalk bomb, the cooler looking was the explosion in the street. Let’s go back for more! One of us ran home to find a bucket. When the bucket got there, we again headed down to the chalk storage barn. We filled the bucket as full as we could and carried it back to the park. Meanwhile word had spread of our find and a few more of the Prytania gang had made their way to the park to share in the fun. The bomb explosions hitting every inch of Elvin would have made any Hollywood movie special effects director proud that day!
The next day, one of us came up with the idea – Hey, couldn’t we use that chalk to make baselines? And so we did, and it did. We gathered up a few buckets-worth of our recent find and after dragging it up to the park, we began to pour it out directly over our base paths. The larger pieces we would step on and crush to a finer powder. The chalk, (or whatever it was), worked perfectly. There was reason to slide now! Coming home with chalk marks on our jeans was like dragging home a fresh trophy bass from a pay lake (read me). The following year we went down to once again retrieve more chalk, but this time we couldn’t reach it – it was no longer reaching the ceiling. In adult hindsight, likely this was a sign of future things to come some day from a paper mill doomed to close it’s doors.
We were all growing stronger and hitting the ball much further.
As a side note, one day our step-father followed us up to the park. He used to play a little ball himself when he was younger and, always being younger than his years, he was curious to see how and where we played. At this time we were hitting towards the odd-numbered side of D St, where all the big houses were actually elevated a bit away from the sidewalk. We asked him if he wanted to play and he asked us if we were afraid of breaking a window. We all turned around and sort of laughed at the question. Way up there, are you kidding? Well, it only took a couple of at-bats to throw all of our jaws wide open in astonishment as Joe got a hold of one and sure enough, almost on a line drive he plowed our baseball all the way out of the park, across D St, up the hill and directly through a living room window. I mean, this was no hit-the-street-and-bounce shot – no, it was a crushing line drive that met the window with a shattering blow! CRASH!! We kids loved it. Having the opportunity to tease a parent on our turf was a rare treat. Joe however, slunk his head and had to walk up to the home owner with the apology.
In our final configuration, if we hit one hard enough to reach the street on a fly, or even on a grounder, there was a chance we might lose the ball to either a sewer grate on D St or to the Champion woods. This was the year that Tommy Mathews suggested we all start batting our natural opposite. If you were right-handed, you had to bat left the entire game. We played this way the entire summer. In addition to being new and exciting, it taught almost every single one of us how to switch-hit. A couple of us took longer to figure out the other side of the plate but by the end of summer, we were all decent little Pete Rose clones. Although not all that good, today I still feel comfortable swinging a bat left-handed. Batting our opposite way lasted only a little longer than a season.
Before long, a number of us were hitting the ball out of the park again. It’s no fun chasing baseballs for an hour or two so that’s when we took up whiffle ball. Whiffle balls incur too much friction in flight, so they’re much more difficult to hit out of a park. Losing them, well that was a different matter. Whiffle balls are easy to lose when you hit them up into trees.
We had long played a two-man whiffle ball game out in the alley, behind Beckman’s yard. Using the hard, thin yellow bat and plastic practice golf balls, we would stand at the top of the red-garage driveway facing Beckman’s basketball court. A single was any hit pitch that managed to squeeze into Beckman’s yard through the thin red backyard fence. A double made it over the fence and into the yard. A triple would have to hit the house but be below the second story windows and anything over those windows was a home run. You quickly learned how to hit the ball straight because anything to the other adjoining yards was an out. Many of us had the entire lineups of a few teams memorized and would make our own at-bat announcements, complete with individual batter quirks and mannerisms just to make the game more interesting.
Playing whiffle ball in the park added another year or so of park play to our lives. It was a fun game because no one ever got hurt, we rarely had to slide and everyone became a great curveball pitcher with a whiffle ball. One early evening while playing whiffle ball, we discovered another fun nighttime activity – Batball (read me). Soon though, either from growing too big for the park or from growing apart from each other, we slowly faded away from our regular baseball games, moving into more and more basketball games and our famous all-day “pitch” tournaments. (Pitch is a local Hamilton card game and will one day gets its due here in its own story).
“Baseball is a boring sport“. You have heard those words issued by others, or maybe even you, yourself have uttered those words.
For those of us growing up on Prytania though, baseball wasn’t just a game or a sport – it was life itself during the summers. It was Tommy Mathews teaching me how to hold and throw a slider. It was hoping to play on the same team that day as my first love, Diane (read me). It was Randy showing off his talented knuckle ball and it was ground rule doubles in a dilapidated concrete wishing fountain that doubled as a snowball fortress in the Winter. It was…..a simpler time void of paying bills and void of worrying about our kids and grandkids and their futures.
Baseballs are magical – they always have the power to take me back to Prytania.