Contrary to the nostalgic notions of many middle-aged men, a kid can mix adults and baseball satisfactorily, provided he selects the right adults. Take my own case, for instance. The adults involved were a matter of circumstance rather than selection—and rather special circumstance, at that—but they made my introduction to the game a thing of joy forever. Indeed, baseball was never again to be the bright and pleasurable thing they showed me.
"They" were the members of the inmates' team at a large mental hospital in Massachusetts. My father was superintendent of the institution, and we lived in an apartment in the administration building.
The hospital itself was a wonderful place for a boy. It had sprawling buildings, carpenter and blacksmith shops, a vegetable and dairy farm and vast grounds. Its only drawback was an absence of other children, but this was off set by the many parole patients who had the run of the grounds. These people, who were very kind to me, were for years my chief playmates and friends.
Because I had been born and brought up in a mental institution, and because I was very young, I found nothing troublesome or awkward about such friends. It never bothered me that they sometimes did strange things or had a way of letting conversations slide into confusion. For one thing, I had been taught to accept such things without comment. For another, I shared the universal child's belief that adults are inclined to be an incomprehensible lot anyway.
The baseball field was located at the edge of the hospital dump, adjacent to the salvage yard. Here the patients' team practiced and played its games with neighboring state institutions, and here I got my first taste of baseball.
At the start I was the mascot, resplendent in a baggy gray flannel uniform that the sewing room had made for me. Later I graduated to shagging flies in the outfield during practice. The team members spent a great deal of time playing catch with me, pitching to me underhand and just talking with me. They were my heroes, and I was their principal rooter.
My particular favorites, the ones I remember most clearly, were Miles Larsen. the catcher; Jimmy McAvoy, the second baseman; Benny Nichols, who played third; and Mr. Wakefield, the woefully inept right fielder. It was the stocky, tanned Miles who made a serious attempt to teach me something about baseball, a game he loved and played very well. I treasured Jimmy for his friendliness and for the fact that he later taught me to play tennis. Benny was a frequent companion of mine, with whom I once built a raft despite the fact that we were miles away from any water. But it was Mr. Wakefield who, although not much of a doer, was the most satisfactory of all. He had once worked for Lloyd's of London and had a wide repertoire of marine disaster stories that he told very well. Baseball in this company had a great many fringe benefits.
The game itself, as played by the team, was not for the purist. This was not the cold brilliance of the Yankees, but the wild, whirling sort of play that would lift the heart of an old Brooklyn Dodger fan. Pound his catcher's mitt and exhort as he might. Miles was never able to keep the team on its toes for very long at a time. The rapidly deteriorating situation was a specialty of the house.
Not that the team could not play reasonably competent ball on occasion. It was just that infielders had a way of suddenly turning their backs and talking to themselves or to someone whom only they saw, while line drives and grounders whistled past unnoticed. Or, bemused by the parabolic beauty of a Texas leaguer, the entire infield would stand entranced and watch the ball drop unattended to the ground. It was extremely chancy to hazard a guess as to what the team might do in any given situation, and far more fly balls were lost in reverie than in the sun.
Particularly trying to the serious Miles was Jimmy's inattention at second base. As a grounder drilled past the bag, it would be discovered that he had strolled over to chat with the shortstop. Jimmy was a tall, cadaverous ex-letter carrier who suffered from the delusion that he was St. Peter. There was nothing militant about the delusion. He had merely preempted the title, and his right to it was accepted by all of us.
"The ball, damn it, St. Peter, the ball," Miles would howl, tearing off his mask.
Coming to with a start, Jimmy would wave apologetically, shout, "Sorry," and lope off into center field. Usually he collided with the base runner, who had nearly reached second while Miles was trying to attract Jimmy's attention. (To this day, when the real St. Peter is mentioned I have a vision of a lank, graying figure in baseball uniform and high sneakers, scrabbling around in the uncut grass of the outfield.)
Miles, who had delusions of persecution and talked incessantly of what "they" would do if you did not keep a close eye on them, was further incensed by the frequent lapses of Benny at third. Benny was a dignified Negro with a dazzling display of gold teeth, who had been a lay preacher on the outside. He flatly refused to wear the team uniform and added to Miles's anguish by playing in vest and shirtsleeves, a derby hat squarely on his head. His look of elegance was completed by a neat necktie knotted firmly at the type of high boiled collar affected by both Benny and Herbert Hoover.
Benny's defensive weakness stemmed largely from the fact that he heard voices. Apparently they spoke chiefly of religious matters, and Benny answered them, loudly, clearly and sometimes heatedly. Often he would be in the midst of conversation with his ghostly advisors when a ground ball would come his way. Without a pause in his conversation, Benny would field the ball but would fail to complete the play. Instead, he would walk back to third, gesturing with the ball to emphasize some point in his theological discourse.
Jimmy used to argue with the overwrought Miles on the bench about this. He pointed out, with the sweet forbearance to be expected of St. Peter, that if Benny hadn't fielded the ball so capably it would have been a double or a triple. Anyway, Benny was always forgiven since he was the team's best hitter, although his base running left a lot to be desired. Even Miles defended Benny's refusal to slide into second on the grounds that a hook slide by a man in a derby and a Herbert Hoover collar would be ridiculous.
Frequently when we were at bat I would perch myself on the bench beside Mr. Wakefield and get him to tell me of the Mary Celeste or some other maritime epic. This he would do, gravely and yet entertainingly. He was a rotund, pinkish gnome with scholarly spectacles and a tonsure rimmed by fluffy gray hair. How he came to be on the team, or why he should have chosen to, I have no idea, but he was accepted by his teammates, whom he treated with a quaint, distant courtesy. No one ever thought of calling him anything but Mr. Wakefield, and even Miles seldom chided him for his athletic deficiencies.
When it came time for our side to take up defensive positions I would trot out to right field with Mr. Wakefield so that we might continue the story in progress. Nobody objected to this arrangement, since it was generally conceded that the situation in that position was past help anyway.
As the game progressed Mr. Wakefield invoked pictures of lashing seas and the shriek of typhoons. Stove-in lifeboats, tall heroics and the niceties of maritime salvage law were what we dealt with in right field. Occasionally a long fly ball would lift in our direction, disrupting the flow of the narrative. Mr. Wakefield and I would wait for the ball to land. If it was any distance away, I would run for it, since he was rather portly and short of breath. After he had returned it in the general direction of the infield with a wobbling, uncertain throw, we would settle down to the story again where we had left it. It seemed a fair division of labor. I never learned much about playing the outfield from Mr. Wakefield, but I'll bet I would have known what to do with an abandoned barkentine if I had stumbled across one.
Eventually, of course, all this was forsaken for the interminable ball games that went on at grammar school. Things were never the same. In addition to the fact that I was a miserably incompetent ballplayer, the game itself seemed to lack flavor. Even the endless arguments had a dismal predictability about them. Naturally I became embroiled in them and was crushed to discover that you could get hit for an expression of opinion. The worst was when someone shouted at an opponent, "Gwan, you're crazy." The word was one we never used at home, and I equated even listening to it with a sort of disloyalty. I longed for another diamond and Miles, St. Peter and Benny. But mostly I guess I missed Mr. Wakefield. As far as I was concerned, a lot had gone out of baseball.