The view between the black bars of my mask was enough to make any Little League catcher blink. The New Windsor Cubs, my old team, had taken the field for the first time in 30 years, and from where I hunkered behind home plate, it looked as if time had had its way with the club. On the mound, a shock of snow-white hair spilling out from under his cap, was 6'4" Danny Hartzler. At shortstop, a mustachioed Mike Schlee was tossing stones, clearing the way for ground balls, and in centerfield I could see a much thicker Sonny Brooks. He was bent down, spitting in his glove the way he always did before each pitch. We were still the Cubs, but our pearl gray uniforms and royal blue caps had given way to Bermuda shorts and CUBS FOREVER T shirts, and at several positions stomachs had become paunches and balding heads shone in the noonday sun.
The game was the highlight of our 30th anniversary celebration of the undefeated 1954 team that ripped through the four-team Frederick-Carroll Little League in Maryland and then beat an all-star team for a perfect 22-0 record. Now, in an attempt to turn back the calendar, we'd put our streak on the line against another aggregation of '54 stars on the Little League field in New Windsor, this time in a game of softball. As the first pitch floated toward the plate the question was: Could the Cubs still cut it?
Last winter, when several of us met to consider a team reunion, I thought the idea ridiculous. "High schools, colleges and veterans of foreign wars have reunions, not Little League teams," I said. Then Hartzler produced a Cub scrap-book, and he, Brooks and I flipped through the pages, chuckling over the faces in team photos, reading newspaper clips and basking in the glow of that glory year, NEW WINDSOR TEAM IS MURDERING OPPONENTS and NEW WINDSOR CLUB STILL RUNNING WILD IN LEAGUE said headlines from the Frederick Post. We found the paper's account of Brooks's tape-measure home run, a ball hit so far that it cleared the leftfield fence and the house behind it in Union Bridge, Md. A piece in an ancient Post described the "perfectly placed bunt" in the last inning that Hartzler and I watched die in the infield dirt to break up his bid for a no-hitter.
But there was more to the Cubs than a perfect season. We were one of the first integrated Little League teams in Maryland, and when we defeated all-white clubs in the Frederick-Carroll league, the newspapers pointed out that the Cubs included black ballplayers. But for us kids, race was never an issue. Back then, all we wanted from life was an opportunity to play baseball. Our coaches, Ray Wilson, Herbert (Hun-Pots) Brooks and my father, Bob, gave us that and more—they taught us the game.
Hartzler flipped to the last page of the scrapbook and read the headline out loud: ALL-STARS LOSE TO NEW WINDSOR-LEAGUE CHAMPIONS. Suddenly the three of us were talking at once. We decided we'd get a keg of beer and give the All-Stars (actually, any players from the other three '54 teams) one last shot at the undefeated Cubs. "If we're still the team I just read about," Hartzler said, "the All-Stars are going to see history repeat itself."
On the last Sunday in May, six months later, Cubs, All-Stars and coaches from as far away as North Carolina and New Jersey came to New Windsor. As we checked in, familiar names filled the air. "Schleeby." "Hartz." "Satch." "Eck." "Herbie." All the infielders were there. Jasper Hill had gained the weight I'd lost, and Alton Wright had developed a hitch in his throw that none of us had ever seen. Sonny Brooks, the biggest kid in the league in '54, was broad through the shoulders and still had the look of a hitter, but, as Herbie Weller noted, "the man hasn't grown an inch since Little League." And when Skip West lifted the cap off Larry (Baldy) Danner's head we hooted and cheered—delighted to see his boyhood nickname had come to fit him.
In all, 10 of the '54 Cubs returned. Dougie Johns, our rightfielder, and my dad had passed away. At the pregame picnic we filled each other in on what we'd been doing. The Cubs were doctors, businessmen, truck drivers and teachers—everything but the major-leaguers we all knew we'd be. But when Jasper Hill stood to speak we heard some big league confidence. "I pitched for the Cubs," he said, "played first base and shortstop. What can I say? I was a heck of a ballplayer." We howled our approval. Then Coach Wilson pumped us up for the game. "In my 28-year involvement in the Frederick-Carroll Little League," he said, "I've never seen a team that, man for man, could play with the New Windsor Cubs."
The ball park looked just the way it had when I left it 30 years ago. American flags flapped on the foul poles, and from the backstop I could see fans stretched out in lawn chairs three rows deep down both lines. Along the first-base line by the scoreboard, kids mugged at a Baltimore TV camera crew. Mike Schlee fired a ball at me and, looking at the growing crowd, said, "We've come a long way, Cairns. I can remember games when all we played to were our parents and a couple of dogs." After going over the ground rules for the six-inning slow-pitch game, Buck Jackson, whose creative ball and strike calls brought many a local crowd to its feet, shouted "Play ball!" and we took the field to an ovation louder than any we'd ever gotten in '54.
As I was warming up Hartzler, the TV camera swung my way, and I offered a silent pregame prayer, a gentle reminder that the Cubs were 22-0 and a request that we be spared embarrassment when the camera started to roll. Then, after watching the All-Stars' Randy Boone crush a home run deep to rightfield over Danner's balding head to give the All-Stars a 2-0 lead, we saw (from a Cubs' perspective) the best play of the game. Sammy Leppo, the All-Stars' catcher, ripped a line shot past Hartzler's knee, and before I could even gulp Mike Schlee flashed across the bag at second, short-hopped the ball, wheeled and fired to first. The crack of the ball into Jasper's glove and the sound of nine middle-aged men heaving a sigh of relief were nearly simultaneous. The Cubs could still cut it.
And it wasn't just the fielding. The bats were still alive, too. In the bottom of the first, friends and family were up out of their lawn chairs cheering. Coach Wilson paced back and forth in the first-base box flashing signals. At third Hun-Pots Brooks begged each batter to get a hit. "Be a stick, Danny!" he shouted. "Come on, Sonny, take this man downtown!" When the rally finally ended we'd batted all the way around, and the undefeated Cubs had a 6-2 lead.
Through the middle innings, as the All-Stars chipped away at our lead, I couldn't help but notice that we did look a bit geriatric in the field. Fly balls were dropped, and a couple of double plays came up short, but when a Cub got the ball to a cutoff man or ran to back up a base, I felt a tremendous sense of pride. Forget the fried chicken and the beer—both teams had come to play.
Another moon shot off Boone's bat tied the game 9-9, and when neither team scored in the sixth, Ray Dorsey, the All-Stars' coach, offered to end it there "to preserve your 22-0 record," he said. "Play on," said Coach Wilson. Now that's the Cubs, I thought. None of us would have had it any other way.
With the score still even, I squatted down at the start of the eighth and found myself engrossed in the action out by second base. Schlee and Weller were working on their timing, and, as Weller leapt and whipped the ball to first to complete their practice double play, it dawned on me why a reunion of Little Leaguers had worked. For one afternoon the who-you-are and what-you-do that spoil so many reunions didn't matter anymore. We'd gone back to a time when the common denominators were a bat and ball and a game we loved to play.
A hook shot to leftfield knocked in three All-Star runs in the top of the eighth, and before I could say "undefeated" I was back on the bench, and my Cubs were down to their last out. Then, with men on first and second and one run already in, Brooks hit a rising line drive up the middle. I jumped off the bench screaming, "Touch 'em all!" but the right hand of Cas Roop, the infield umpire, flew up. "Out!" he said. The would-be extra-base hit had nicked Donnie Ecker's CUBS FOREVER T shirt as he started toward third. The game was over, and when I slumped back down on the bench my Cubs were 22-1.
That night, as the team gathered around the TV in Hartzler's living room, we were laughing and reminiscing once again. Beer and the prospect of seeing ourselves on the 11 o'clock news had helped put the loss in perspective. As our spot came on and a team photo flashed onto the screen, I looked up, and standing next to me was Hun-Pots Brooks. I reminded him that 30 years ago, the night we'd defeated the All-Stars, he'd told us that we'd remember the game for the rest of our lives. He smiled at me and we both nodded. "Cubs forever," I said.