Baseball in the fields and shady lanes of farm country
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Young children would scramble out of bed and grab a fresh roll or peeled peach on the way out through the flimsy green screen door.
Budding teens would have an apple in their hands, a five-fingered infielder’s glove and a wide smile as they tore off the porch.
Those in their late-teens would carry a hand-me-down uniform and a favorite 34-inch bat in tow, as they ambled toward the vehicle of a teammate taking them to the town team’s Sunday game.
More experienced players in their 20s would be wearing baseball shoes with cleats, ready for the nasty curveball they were going to see in the game that day.
Gentlemen in their late-30s were just glad to still be part of the game. They couldn’t find the time to stay very competitive, because getting a mid-week slot to take practice batting wasn’t on the docket of a farm laborer with five children and a mortgage on his just-purchased house.
The guys in their 40s mostly just shuffled onto the plankboard bench, got comfortable and readied to watch nine innings of sandlot baseball the way it was played, all over the pastures and semi-level infields, from Iowa to North Carolina and West Virginia to Wisconsin.
It was baseball by the seat of your pants, or while stiff-arming the chiggers and gnats that too-often infested the fields of rural America.
Games could be battled between teams of five or six players in a farmer’s pasture framed on the edges by thistles and ragged metal wire fences. Other games could be fought for by players from villages five miles apart, but held together by the same need for being better than somebody from somewhere.
Loosely organized leagues sprang up all over. The playing fields in those leagues were as unusual as Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
Down one foul line, it was only 260-feet to the cornfield fence. Anything popped over that barrier was only a ground rule double. The chicken wire backstop held in place by dwarf telephone poles was placed only eight-feet behind the umpire. Other fields were camped near the back yards of mill workers or trainyard hands or milk truck drivers.
Foul balls rained down on clothes lines full of undershirts and overalls.
A league team might have only 12 bats. Or one plastic batting helmet. Or a batting order that featured the same last names of brothers, cousins and uncles. The same man pitched every game. And the same catcher caught every game.
Wins were relished and embellished all through the next week. Losses were little-remembered, when 90 Holstein cows had to be milked twice a day into the forseeable future.
Those young children who had scrambled out of bed to hurriedly get to their makeshift “diamond” tried for about 15 minutes to keep score, but soon enough gave up atempting to be that precise.
The teens had soon enough found out which players had money for a Nehi soda or a moon pie when they were too fatigued to continue into a fourth-straight hour of playing. When finished playing, the 18-20-year-olds knew where the best swimming holes were in the local stream or water-filled quarry.
It was few-rules baseball in the late evening of their youth. They were mostly unaware that their baseball gatherings were too-soon coming to an end.
But few ever had more fun or got more enjoyment out of any other leisure-time activity.
Baseball wasn’t about multi-million dollar contracts. Or trying to fathom bat velocity or launch angles or spin ratios or whether or not there should even be any more minor league baseball.
Back then, baseball bent to the will of those who played it in their spare time.