When I was in the single-digit age group, springtime was especially glorious, for it signaled the approach of liberation, the end of a school year, the promise of baseball.
Baseball was a child’s moment, a game that anyone could play no matter his or her size. Baseball offered the illusion of stability; when life threw a sinker and everything seemed to spin rapidly off center, baseball was our one constant. We could follow the exploits of our heroes, be like them and believe in them, no matter the petty realities of life around us.
In our country town, baseball for peewees entailed the pull of certain magnets – the city’s ball diamond at the west edge of town, our front yards, and Lovey Holl’s hardware store. And after bedtime, under the covers with the transistor that brought us Merle Harmon and the A’s or KMOX, Harry Caray and the Cardinals.
Spring resurrected that special perfume along the east wall of Lovey’s hardware store. The scent of fresh wood, new leather, and Neatsfoot oil announced a wholesome inventory of gloves, baseballs, bats, ball shoes and other gear. We took long moments open-mouthed at this luscious shrine, goods within our reach but beyond the coins in our pockets – fertile ground for hints at birthdays and Christmas. With that glove we could field like Phil Rizzuto or Joe DeMaestri, or throw like Drysdale or Larry Doby. With that bat we were Ted Williams, Duke Snider, the Mick.
At the time, the A’s were moving from Philadelphia to Kansas City, and at home, we followed local stars of the Lincoln Hawks as well as the major leaguers. In T-shirts and jeans, we laced up our sneakers and took our first hesitant steps on the city diamond’s dirt infield. Dean Kindlesparger, the patron saint of patience, was there to show us the fundamentals. (Kindlesparger later became a coaching and teaching legend in Salina.)
If we wanted to see how it was done by the best, we watched the Hawks, a town team of veteran giants like Bob Kerr, Penny Andreson, Pickle Lebien. They were our local idols, statuesque in great uniforms, and we stiffened at the sound of their cleats clacking on the concrete walkway behind the dugout. In a great cone of light over the old dirt diamond where only that morning Coach Kindlesparger had shown us how to hold a bat, we watched the big men move like great cats, dust rising in poofs about their feet. We heard the hiss and pop of fastballs hitting a catcher’s mitt, the crack of bat on ball, the ceaseless buzz of infield chatter. The A’s, we knew, had Joe DeMaestri and big Bob Cerv, Hector Lopez and Bobby Shantz. But in Lincoln we had the Hawks and the “younger” Legion players; Gary McGinnis’s fast ball was as hot as anything Bob Feller threw in Cleveland. We were sure of that. Just ask us.
The comforting rhythms of baseball, the flow of its batting orders, the measure and pulse of its innings seemed to match the pattern and cadence of summer. Each day, as the sun’s arc dipped westward, the cicadas would begin their anthem for our world: baseball tonight.
On most days a heavy two-sided sign would be dragged onto Lincoln’s main intersection, announcing “Legion Baseball … 8 p.m. … Tonight”. Or it could announce for the younger league, K-18 Cookie Baseball, the organization for those of Babe Ruth League age. Cookie baseball dominated in north central Kansas, and in Lincoln the interest would grow enough that the town had two Cookie teams, the Colts and the Broncos. At Lucas in 1961 the Broncos played Haddam for the state championship and lost, 4-3.
Our coaches, Lovey Holl (Cookie) and Paul Flaherty (Legion) always addressed us formally. They insisted we “play the game like gentlemen.” Show respect for the opponent, treat him as you would be treated.
Holl stressed hitting and fielding fundamentals. His players would be prepared for the move to Legion ball, where things got edgier, tougher, more sophisticated under Flaherty. Hall admonished us never to cuss, and never argue with an umpire. Flaherty’s focus was the player’s attitude. The ability to hit and throw, to field, to run bases or steal them, was important; but a player’s attitude was vital, and to Flaherty more significant than technical skill.
If a player was troubled or ill, Flaherty would be at the player’s home offering to listen, or to help.
Baseball is a team sport that commends individual talent; the success of a team often depends on singular performance. In that way, the sport is most fitting for a small town, binding its rhythms, its rueful memories of triumph and tragedy, its capacity for embracing the generations.