This baseball strike gave me quiet Sunday afternoons and an opportunity to review my own career with bat and ball, particularly those years I spent in Little League. I played for Deaver's Electric and for Dunwiddie's Pest Control of Annandale, Va. By far my best season was spent as catcher for Deaver's Electric.
I batted ninth in the lineup. My reputation with a bat was dismal and well deserved. I swung at any pitch, and pitchers eagerly awaited my arrival in the batter's box so they could throw me their three worst pitches and not worry about it. My batting average hovered in the smaller numbers and rarely made it above .200.
We optimistically called ourselves the Tigers, and our coach was a stout man who had a knack for perspiring heavily and got redder as the summer dragged on, so that by season's end he had taken on the eerie aspect of an experimental tomato that got out of hand. He absolutely refused to take a pitcher out of a game in the firm belief that a man should finish what he starts, even when the score was 15-2 against him after two innings.
The Deaver Tigers' last game in the summer of 1966 was of no great consequence. We had an obstinate hold on last place that we weren't about to give up. Even so, the game was the most important of my short career as a baseball player because, in the ninth inning, I got my first and only home run. My hands stung delightfully for a year afterward, it seemed, following me from the sixth grade into the seventh and into early manhood. What made the home run all the more thrilling and pleasing was that I hit it off Ernie (Four Fingers) Whitfield, as I shall call him here. Whitfield got his nickname after his younger brother, dressed as Chief Crazy Horse, cut off the third finger of Ernie's left hand with a kitchen knife. Ernie's brother defended himself by saying that the attack was retribution for the white man's sins against the Indian and his brother's annoying habit of squealing on him.
In any event, Ernie quickly lost what little sense of humor he had. Tall, lean, with beetling eyebrows and tiny lead-gray eyes, and a nose that had a curve of its own, Ernie scared to death any batter he couldn't strike out. He had only one pitch—a fastball that he delivered sidearm and which shim-sham-shimmied across the plate while making a whirring noise like a train racing through a tunnel.
The game took place on an indifferent Virginia August afternoon, behind McDermott's Texaco station on Shirley Highway. A hot wind kicked up small clouds of dust smelling of lime, sweat and cherry Kool-Aid. Fathers milled about behind the backstop, pushing their sons' stock whenever they got the opportunity. All save my father, that is, who sat in a sagging green-and-white lawn chair placidly drinking ice tea and thoroughly perplexing anyone who dared talk baseball with him.
"My boy's hittin' .390. What an eye the kid's got," I overheard a man comment to my father. My father, however, already had it on good authority, from me, that the man's son had never batted better than .125 in his entire life.
"Harry dropped another foul tip last week against Molly's Paint and Nick-Nack Warehouse," my father retorted gleefully. "Soft hands. Gets 'em from my wife's people. They raise earthworms."
By the sixth inning, Ernie and the Suburban Savings & Loan Association White Sox led 10-0 and had settled into the routine, carefree play of assured winners. We did our part by striking out in order or hitting lazy pop-ups. Finally, as black squadrons of gnats began to close in on us, the score mounted to 16-0 and we were down to our last three outs. Our shortstop dribbled a grounder to third base, ran to first and kept on running to his parents' idling station wagon. Then, our knuckleball pitcher, whose knuckler waddled more than knuckled, struck out, shouting after the called third strike, "Tell me, Ump, how come you don't keep your eyes shut when I'm pitching?"
"What was that?" shrieked the umpire as our pitcher slogged back to the bench. "Watchya language, kid, y'hear? I don't gotta take that kind of bilge from a slowballer the likes of you, not for any lousy ten bucks a game I don't."
As I walked to the plate, Whitfield heaved an audible sigh of relief. He shifted his bubble gum from left cheek to right, wiped his forehead, adjusted his cap, turned the ball several times in the dull brown pocket of his mitt. Suddenly, his right arm shot out of his torsional windup like a coiled whip. "Strike!" Behind me I could hear more anxious parents packing up and starting their cars, but this didn't disturb a player of my caliber. Whitfield's second pitch was low, in the dirt, but I took a nice, level cut at it anyway.
Then I saw Ernie's arm snap around toward the plate. I swung in defense and Ernie (Four Fingers) Whitfield's fastball and my 34-inch, medium-weight Louisville Slugger met somewhere in front of home plate. The collision stung my hands, set great flows of adrenaline loose through my veins, made me swallow my bubble gum. Meanwhile, the ball shot through the August sky, landing in the driveway of McDermott's Texaco, where it came to rest next to the premium pump, well beyond the home-run line marked by a fine growth of dandelions and pokeweeds and red anthills. I ran the bases slowly, still holding my bat. Touching home plate ended the spell. Whitfield spat in the dust, wiped his forehead and struck out our leftfielder, ending the game. When I arrived at our car I noticed my father across the field, standing by McDermott's Texaco as the man with the bullhorn reduced the game to facts: "White Sox 16, Tigers 1. Winning pitcher, Whitfield. No runs, no hits, no.... I'm sorry, one run, one hit, no errors. Thank you all for coming."