When I was growing up in Charlestown, N.H., in the 1950s and
'60s, the town had a couple of stop signs and flashing caution
lights, one drugstore, one grocery store, a post office, two
churches and little else. There really wasn't much to do; we
didn't have a movie theater or a restaurant, or bigger towns
nearby to go to. New Hampshire is dotted with towns like this,
where high school sports are embraced as the main social
activity, and where crude high school playing fields and old,
musty gymnasiums are the centers of community life.
Basketball was king in Charlestown. Baseball was just something
you did to get through the summer. My dream was pretty much
every New Hampshire boy's dream: to star for the Boston Celtics.
Boston is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Charlestown, and though we
rooted as hard for the Red Sox as we did for the Celtics, I had
no aspirations of becoming a professional baseball player, and
none of my brothers--Calvin, Conrad and Cedric--or my
neighborhood friends did either. After school a group of us
would get together at my grandfather's barn, a block from our
house, and play basketball until the sun went down, imitating
our heroes: Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones.
Charlestown was a town of about 1,000, and my high school
graduating class had 38 students, which then was the most in
school history. Charlestown High had only three boys' sports, one
for each season. In the fall we played soccer because we didn't
have enough bodies for a football team. The winter sport was
basketball, and on Tuesday and Friday nights the town would come
alive for our games, packing into our tiny gym and creating an
atmosphere straight out of Hoosiers.
When we played nearby Walpole High, the games had the intensity
of the Red Sox-Yankees' rivalry. Our team was called the Forts,
and we had cheerleaders and a band to whip up the crowd. The gym,
which was also the school's auditorium, had bleachers on only one
side, but people sat on the floor near the baselines and on
chairs set up on the stage behind one basket. It would get so hot
in there during games that we'd have to open the windows in the
dead of winter.
The fervor for baseball was nothing like that. The high school
team played on a converted pasture with no fences. When we didn't
have games, cows grazed there. Early in the season--I played
pitcher and shortstop--we'd have to chop chunks of ice off the
trees near the field to keep branches from hanging over the foul
lines. There was also a brook in leftfield, and when you went
after a deep fly ball, you could fall in; if you hit the ball
into the brook, you got a ground rule double.
My father worked at the Jones & Lamson Tool Company across the
Connecticut River in Springfield, Vt., where a lot of my friends'
dads also worked. My dad knew my high school basketball and
baseball coach, Ralph Silva. There was a lot of respect for
authority because if you screwed around at school, you were going
to get your butt kicked at home.
When I went to the University of New Hampshire in 1965, on an
athletic scholarship, the baseball games weren't much bigger than
they were in Charlestown. We played about 20 games a season, in
front of sparse crowds. Still, I got enough exposure that the Red
Sox drafted me in '67. I became their regular catcher in '72.
In 1981 I signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox, and
I've lived in the Midwest for 22 years. But at heart I'm still a
New Englander, and with so many relatives still living there, I
go back to my home state often.
New Hampshire has changed since I left, of course. Now it has a
much more transient population. In Charlestown the old drugstore
was turned into a pizza joint, the post office is gone, and the
high school doesn't even exist--a bunch of schools in the area
were consolidated into one. One thing, though, hasn't changed in
New Hampshire: The passion for sports is simple and
straightforward, a lot like everything else about the state.
Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk played 24 major league seasons,
retiring in 1993 with a record 351 home runs as a catcher.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO