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Original Issue

Memoirs of an Ex-Tomboy

Life looked altogether wonderful to an eight-year-old girl viewing it from behind a catcher's mask

It happens every summer. It might be the smell of fresh-cut grass wafting through an open window that brings it on, or the sunset spreading out like a wine stain across the sky, or the distant voices of a ball game about to break up. Suddenly, in my mind's eye I see my mother standing on the front porch. The porch light has drawn moths that beat futilely against the screen. My mother is calling me home for dinner, her voice rising. Wordsworth was wrong: "...nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." Something can, something does. Every summer, as inevitably as the tides, I am thrown back again onto the shores of memory. I am a child again and in love with a game—the game of baseball—and my mother is on the porch, calling me home from play.

Before girls were allowed into Little League, before Title IX, before adolescence would bring new games, the ones I still seem to be playing, I was an eight-year-old tomboy growing up in a New Jersey suburb, Scotch Plains. I came from a family mostly of girls, and so I was on my own much of the time, looking for things to do besides playing dress-up. (My older sister, Eva, could whip up a Princess Di gown with accessories before there ever was a Princess Di. I preferred the Barbara Stanwyck Big Valley look, and I would tromp around the house in my boots.)

The sport I wanted to play most was baseball. Lucky for me there was Mike Marshall. Not the current Red Sox malcontent but a boy younger than I by a year who lived down the street. He had a big open yard and, if such were possible, he loved baseball as much as I did.

Mike and I did everything together. We wrestled, we rode those bikes with the banana seats and the high handlebars, we blasted Germans out of their foxholes with our cap guns and, yes, we collected baseball cards. We would quickly discard the stale slab of pink gum in each pack and search for whichever Yankee or Mets star might be inside. The term "star" is used loosely as regards the Mets. Mike collected Mantle and Maris. I collected, to my everlasting chagrin, Ron Swoboda and Horace Clarke.

I often watched games on our old black-and-white Emerson TV, turning the channel quickly if some guest of the family happened in. I was afraid, with a childlike fear, that someone would find out my secret: that I loved baseball, that I breathed baseball, that I wanted to be a baseball player digging in at home, looking for the slider, swinging for fences.

Every summer Mike's father would let us use some of the lime he had bought to cultivate the lawn. With it, we would draw our own baseball diamond by the side of the house. We would assemble what kids we could, but we were always short of players, and so we would double up on positions. I played first and second, David Eerie played third and short and, if Paul Sturm wasn't practicing the trumpet, we would banish him to the outfield, since he was two years younger and didn't have the skills we did. Don't scoff. I can still remember the flying catch I made when I had to play outfield because Paul was practicing. Mike's older brother, Tommy, who had a few pounds on us and had a mighty swing, had hit a hard shot. I chased, dove, made the play.

Tommy never stayed to play very long. He looked upon our seriousness with a wry humor that I didn't appreciate at the time. After hitting a few, he was off to older chums and, we suspected, older girls.

That I was a girl never seemed to mean much to Mike, thank god. Even my parents could occasionally look the other way, as they did on my eighth birthday. It fell right in the middle of the preseason, and my parents finally gave in to my pre-pubescent desires. In fact, so generous were they that year, that I thought I had entered baseball heaven. I received:

1) a glove (Norm Cash model)
2) a softball (well, they were close)
3) a softball bat
4) a catcher's mask

This last item was a gift of pure inspiration on my parents' part. The black, metal mask weighed heavy in the hand. It had the feel of the real thing. It had leather cushioning around the inside and a wire mesh through which the world suddenly was new. It gave me the look of a true baseball player, and I knew this from inside the mask.

That we had never really had a catcher in our games didn't matter. We would have one now.

Mike and I came up with an inspired plan. It was time to build a real pitcher's mound, pace off 60 feet six inches, and outline home plate with a real batter's box. It was time to get a real battery going.

Unfortunately, neither Mike's parents nor mine were willing to sacrifice part of their carefully manicured lawns for our brilliant idea. So, taking to the woods behind my house, Mike and I carved a pitcher's mound and batter's box out of the soft dark soil. In the process we swept away leaves, branches and a tombstone marking the grave of my little sister's kitten, gone for some three years and, as happens, forgotten. The pitching area looked great. And so did I in my catcher's mask. We played for hours, days and weeks during one of the more sweltering New Jersey summers I can remember.

On Sundays our play was always interrupted by my family's weekly visits to Great-Aunt Ruthie's. Her house, with its chintz couches, wing chairs and grass rugs, was a home out of time, a place in which I imagined Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig being comfortable. For these trips to Ruthie's I reluctantly traded my Keds and dirty dungarees for crinolines and patent leathers. I still brought along my mask—"just to break it in"—and wore it on the car ride to Staten Island, where my great-aunt lived. My parents were tolerant, although they drew the line at my wearing the mask into Ruthie's house. My embarrassed sisters forced me into the "way back" of our station wagon. I didn't mind. When wearing my mask, I wasn't bothered by much.

On the return trip, the summer dark and the car's motion eased us kids into sleep. Back home, my father would carry each of us up to our beds. Somehow he always got the mask off without waking me. But I often dreamed I had it on anyway. Once I was Yogi Berra, tossing my mask away not one time but twice, to finally make that catch off Ted Williams's bat for the final out of Allie Reynolds's no-hit game in 1951.

My own catches that summer were never as momentous; most of the time I simply caught the balls that Mike pitched. We would play for hours at a time, parting finally at dinner time, when the smells of the kitchen floated out to us and we would decide to go home to our separate suppers. Or when our mothers called from their porches.

Of that year's birthday presents, the glove got tossed out by mistake, the soft-ball was bequeathed to my younger sisters and the bat, though long and sleek and a pretty red, couldn't withstand the pounding of a baseball and splintered at the end of its only season of play. But the catcher's mask lasted through many summers.

Eventually, of course, our team broke up. David moved to the Midwest, Paul went back to his trumpet, and Mike and I, under the pressures of adolescence, grew apart. Our languorous baseball playing days were never to happen again. We surrendered that serene world for the frequently frenetic real one. I, for my part, traded my Keds for pumps and running shoes, my catcher's mask for makeup.

Not long ago I came across the mask in the attic of my parents' house. It was dusty, rusted and cracked. I put it on, and wondered how I had ever seen the ball coming at me from in there, and why I never had felt the claustrophobia I was feeling now. Wearing it certainly wasn't the same. Nonetheless, for a moment, I was transported. I was eight again and wide-eyed. In that moment, it occurred to me that memory can breed contentment if what you remember are a hundred summer days, deep green fields and baseballs always arcing toward a benevolent sun.