Saturday, August 15, 2009

Baseball and the summer

SAN DIEGO – Baseball has been a constant for me, back home and in the Southwest corner.

I wrote of baseball here 20 months ago. Last week, I purposely avoided the All-Star game and the folderol along with it, but the mid-season extravaganza brought more thoughts about our country’s “past time.”

In 1953“Pony League” baseball was my first organized ball. I was chosen to catch. The selection followed me throughout my playing time.

Little League started the next year. I caught and played outfield on Noke’s Sports. Jimmy Allen’s Lebanon Bank team with Mike Dixon and Jimmy Hatcher were constant winners. Draper and Darwin’s Earl Major hit the first official home run out of the new Little League Park, although Reese Williams would have had the honor had he not missed second base.

In Babe Ruth League, we switched team members and added quite a few. New teammates on Lea’s Butane Gas included Mike Gannaway and Jimmy Gamble. The three of us played together through high school.

I was Gannaway’s catcher. Mike was a pro-quality pitcher and the stopper for every team he was on. His skill won a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and he continued to play for local teams in the summer. It was a treat to catch him.
In our senior season at Castle Heights, Gamble, shortstop; Tommy Vassar (a boarding cadet from Arkansas), second base, and I as third baseman were the “pygmy infield” for obvious reasons.

The pygmy infield, Gannaway, and the other Tigers, coached by Frank North and Jimmy Allen, won the 1962 mythical Mid-South championship (the prep conference did not officially award a championship).

American Legion ball was my baseball highlight and final baseball in Lebanon. In my two years, we were good. But 1961 was something special. Gannaway, of course, was the headline pitcher, but Pat Martin, and Charles Dedman were formidable.

Mike Dixon in right and Bobby Lannom in left were the best hitting outfield duo I ever saw outside of the majors. The recent Blue Devil Hall of Famer Bruce Skeen was the shortstop, Charles Kolbe was the catcher (I was back up) and a gaggle of us bounced around the other positions.

“Peaches” Grandstaff was our first head coach, but he gave way to J.T. Robinson, while Gordon Skeen and Wayne Dedman were constants at coaching.

My favorite player was Alex “Country” Harlan. Country played the game with abandon. His arm was a rifle from center field and saved several runs. The three outfielders had super coverage for that level of ball. Country however was Lebanon’s version of Dizzy Dean. He was a free-spirit and he was fun, on and off the field.

The team won the regional playoffs against Columbia –a separate tale – before losing to Memphis in the state playoffs, the team which won the national Legion title 13 consecutive years.

It was a special time and different from today’s game in many ways. We played in open fields, backyards with “whiffle”balls, any place we could in addition to organized play. Except for the leagues, there was little or no supervision.

We wore wool uniforms with baseball under-jerseys throughout the season, regardless of heat and humidity.

Aluminum bats did not exist. Every one used wood bats. I don’t recall any label other than Louisville Sluggers. Batting helmets, batting gloves, and protective padding weren’t around.

Most fields had dirt infields. Carthage had a cow pasture limiting the left field line to 180 feet. Anyone hitting it over the fence inside the four fence posts from the foul line was awarded a double, not a homer. One right fielder went back for a long drive and tumbled down the hill into the river.

When I started playing baseball again in the Southwest corner a quarter century had elapsed – this too a separate tale. The particulars had changed. Wood bats were rare outside professional baseball (our league stuck to wood). Uniforms were synthetic, light and airy. Schools and videos taught technique. Playing was limited to batting cages, official practices, and the games.

But the game had not changed. The players, a few even as old as 50, loved the game. It was a brief, fond return to the playing side of the sport.

Even now, I think of those playing days at home and in the Southwest Corner. They are always good thoughts.

Note: The players and coaches mentioned in this article is a compilation of three memories, Mike Dixon, Henry Harding, and mine, from 48 years ago. There was not complete agreement. If other players or observers of those boys of summer have better recollection, we would like to set the record straight. Contact Jim Jewell by email at, by phone at (619) 871-3250.

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