My Baseball Debut
L. CONSTANS IN McCLURE'S
The writer gives an interesting account of a game of baseball in which he participated. In spite of his determination to make good he fell far below the expectations of his captain and had several experiences which he will not recall with pleasure.
WHY is it that an urbanite who invades a rural district for the express purpose of obtaining rest immediately sets himself to the task of discovering excitement, I know not. Nor do I know why, to one under such circumstances of enforced enervation, the vivacity and buoyancy of youth appeal with so much power. I simply know that it was a conjunction of these two cogent forces that incited me, after several days of rustication in the little village of Trent, to follow the sound of boyish voices that reached me in loud altercation. Mounting the raised roadway, I came into full view of the seat of trouble—a smooth, level stretch of ground, upon which a crowd of boys were noisily engaged in a game of baseball.
Their brag and bluster acted like a tonic on my quiet-sated nerves ; and, subtly, as the moth to the flame, I was drawn toward this source of life effervescent.
As an entity, my position was unique. I was the only person not an active paeticipant in the proceedings. But I was not long to hold this distinction.
During one of the many arguments that arose as regularly as a batter was declared “out,” in which arguments the merits of the case were discussed with much vehemence between the batter and the other players, there came a small, insistent cry of : “Bet’s choose up
sides ! Choose up !” and the cry was picked up, echoed, and re-echoed lustily, as each boy scrambled for the possession of a bat.
Each insisted upon being one of the choosers, but might makes right in the child world, and the two largest boys, heedless of the angry glances and direful mutterings of the discontented rabble, promptly arrogated the much-mooted privilege. “Tommy the Twister,” a sobriquet, I afterward learned, born from the ability of the gentleman to
make a ball defy all the known laws of projection and trajection, was one of the two ; the other, a lad named “Billy.” Billy bore no titular honors, but subsequent events proved him worthy of the command he had assumed.1
A bat, after a bloodless but fierce struggle, was wrested from one of the former aspirants for premiership, and this Tommy pitched to Billy, who cleverly caught it amidway. Above Billy’s hand Tommy now clasped his, and above that came Billy’s other hand, and so on they alternated as they climbed quickly toward the top. Both claimed victory, Tommy by right of grasp, and Billy by right of foul, the latter protesting loudly that his opponent’s hand was a “foot”—to translate him literally— above the top of the bat.
“Where’s a stone ? Gimme a brick !” was the general demand, and I expected to see the two dictators slain forthwith but in this I was unlearned. Justice was to be invoked, the principle thereof being that, if the stone pounded on the top of the bat did not harm the upper hand, it was prima facie evidence that such hand was within fair bounds.
A dozen judges surrounded the belligerents, each with the official requisite of office, in the shape of a stone or a brick, in his hand ; and each putting forth loud argument to convince that certain qualities of his stone or brick made it superior to all others for the purpose at issue.
The trial was a triumph for Tommy, but only a temporary one, for Billy immediately filed a second demurrer, claiming a miscarriage of justice ; and in support of this claim he cleverly pointed out that the stone, being round, did not cover the entire top of the bat on a flat plane.
This esoteric argument was greeted with mingled cries of approval and disapproval from partizans in the crowd, but Billy was obdurate. With Rhada-
manthine severity he demanded a knife, contending that if the blade, held flat on the bat, should pass over the hand of the other, then the proof would be positive. Again “the Twister” was triumphant, and Billy now bowed to the result, though by divers remarks still insinuating unfairness—that the knife blade in all probability had not been held down flatly, and that his opponent had “scrunched.”
“The Twister,” however, paid small heed to these aspersions upon his honor, exercising immediately his right to first choice by picking out a scraggljr-looking, red-haired nondescript,
whom he familiarly designated as “Sorrel-top.” Billy, evidently not intending to be overmatched by capillary characteristics, promptly .chose “ Towhead ” Quigley, an appellative that pointed the bearer without need of further distinction. And so they chose, alternately, the last choice, which fell on the smallest boy in the crowd, being reluctantly made by Tommy.
And now a serious obstacle to further procedure presented itself—there was no one to complete Billy’s quota of baseballists. This discovery led to a der bate which was fast approaching a dead-
lock, when Billy hit upon a happy solution.
“Hey, mister ! Want uh play ?” he inquired, raising his hand in an upward wave to supplement the direction of his query.
Although my knowledge of the game was very rudimentary, the spirit of sport had been running riot in my veins from the moment I had seen the boys at play—I longed to rear and tear around as I saw them doing—so I nodded an assent.
The nod of Jove never created greater consternation. “Aw get out—you’re a man.” “What d’yu take us fer—he’s got whiskers !” and like protests were hurled at me and the reckless one who had taken the initiative.
How my “whiskers”—in the shape of a moustache only, by the way—gave any indication as to my ability baseballically, was beyond my comprehension. However, “Sorrel-top” and “Towhead” had been the first chosen, so I sagely held silence. Hair probably had more to do with the matter than a layman might suspect. Billy, however, rose easily to the occasion—he would drop me as soon as some “other kid” came. This compromise being acceptable to the other side, friendly relations were again established.
The next preliminary was the tossing of a coin for position.
A careful inventory failing to locate the requisite coin among my seventeen fellow-players, Billy graciously condescended to use the quarter which I proffered. This event we won, and immediately chose “outs.”
In the elation of this victory, Billy absent-mindedly confiscated my quarter ; but, as the tenure of my position was very doubtful, and its continuance rested entirely with him, I discreetly overlooked the little incident.
In the placing of his men I, being an unknown quantity, was naturally a
source of great perplexity to my captain ; but a hasty consultation with a couple of self-constituted aides soon decided my position as second base, the information being volunteered that I
was put there on account of m37 superior height, this minimizing the possibility of the catcher’s “gittin’ ’em over”
the second baseman’s head in “throwin’ ’em down.” As Billy designated my position by a wave of the hand, I was, fortunately, not forced to inquire as to its location, a procedure that would, I am certain, in the light of subsequentlyacquired knowledge, have meant my instant release from service. I took my place where I had seen the boys stand while I was watching the former play, and the game started.
For five minutes everything ran
smoothly, and I was enjoying to the fullest extent the exhilaration of my first game of baseball. With two out and a man only on first base, there was no question as to the advantage of our
position, if the opinion of our leader, who was playing “first,” could be relied upon.
“There’s nothin’ tu it!” he assured loudly.
“Git ’em down to second now. Yu can’t git ’em too high !” he admonished and coached the catcher, and then winked knowingly at me—an act which I, not comprehending its full import, returned in kind. The next instant I was in a whirlwind of excitement.
As the ball shot from pitcher to catcher, there was a loud cry of, “ Watch ’im there, mister !” from Billy, and then a confused mass of arms and legs flashed
by me on the way to second base. The catcher, with arm drawn back, ball clutched tightly for a throw, stood nonplussed. For a moment there was a painful silence—the calm that precedes a storm—then muttcrings of - disapproval came from every quarter, not loud, but ominous.
“What’s the matter—yu nailed there?” inquired my superior, in disgust.
I stammered pitifully and tried to excuse my misplay, or rather non-play, by explaining ; that I had forgotten there was a “man” on first base, but the attempt, under the gaze of those scowling eyes, was a poor one ; and I saw clearly that I had sowed the first seed of
distrust in the heart of my • doughty captain.
A “foul, out” relieved the situation somewhat, my mistake being partly condoned for by the fact that the runner had not been able to score.
It was now our “ins,” and what we were going to do was “a plenty,” as Billy succinctly put it.
In the interim, while our catcher and pitcher batted, Billy patronizingly vouchsafed to me, for my future welfare, information as to the wonderful “in” and “out” curves of the terrible “Twister,” as well as of the up-shoots” and “down-drops” that he “worked”
now and then for variety. All of which was evidently intended to allay any misgivings I might have entertained as to facing the terrible Tommy. But so fraught with fearful eyes and awful nods was the description that it had quite the opposite effect ; and by the time it came my turn to bat, the former frowsy-headed little lad had assumed proportions monstrous.
Fearfully I advanced to the plate as the cry of “It’s the man’s bat,” smote upon my ears. Our catcher and shortstop had made outs—the pitcher and Billy were on base, the former on third, the latter on first.
“Line ’er out, old man !” was Billy’s enthusiastic injunction ; but his ardor quickly cooled as I struck wildly at the first two balls pitched.
“Git a board !” he now advised, sarcastically, while the man on third suggested a “shovel” as probably more effective ; but the advice came too late, as I had airead}'used the bat in a futile attempt to hit the third pitch.
The jeers this unfortunate event elicited from my companions discouraged me so visibly, that even the unresponsive heart of my captain was touched by pity, for he tried hard to smile—the attempt could scarcely have been considered a success—as we took our positions, and offered as consolation a cheery—“That’s all right, old man,—yu ain’t got yer eye yit.”
The next few innings, however, left little time for brooding, as they were full of action ; two things of great import to me happening :—one, a hit for two bases which I made, calling forth many ecomiums from the lips of my astute manager and raising me to the highest pinnacle I attained in my brief baseball career ; the other—truth demands that I chronicle it—dragging me from that great eminence and terminating in my being publicly disgraced.
“Tommy the Twister” had reached first. Í, determined not to repeat my former mistake, waited close to my base, in order to be there when the runner arrived. I had not long to wait. Almost immediately Tommy and the ball were coming toward me from different angles, at about the same rate of speed. Soon it became a serious
question in my mind as to which would arrive first. On came “the Twister,” as if endowed with wings,while the ball seemed to pause and hover in mid-air between the catcher and myself.
Dear reader, you must imagine, I cannot describe, the perplexities of that awful moment. What eye could judge, what mind decide, the outcome of such a race ?
Add to these perplexities the fear that at the crucial moment you might not properly perform your duty, and to all superadd a deep consciousness of being on trial before eight cold-blooded critics who would measure your performance without due regard to mitigating circumstances, and you may realize faintly, in proportion as the contemplative is ever less vivid than the active mood, the terrible strain under which I labored. Is it to be wondered at that under such circumstances my nerves trembled, twisted, and utterly collapsed ; and that in the excitement I put out my foot, instead of my hand, to catch the ball ? I think not ! No ! No one but a man blinded by a passion for victory could think otherwise. Unfortunately, my superior was such a man.
As the ball caromed off my ankle, far out into the field, he, regardless of the suffering I exhibited by hopping wildly about on one foot while I clasped the other tightly between my hands, strode out before me in a fury. A run had been scored ; that was sufficient. To him victory was everything ; the loss of a limb, or a life, nothing.
“Cut out dat minyuet !” he ordered. I complied.
“What uh yu take dis fer ?” he now demanded, referring to my recent exploit. “A football game ?”
I:tried to plead my case, but he would have none of it. “Hey, Spider!” he cut in abruptly, addressing himself to the lad on third base, “play second an’ let de old man play third—they won’t so many git ’round tu” him there.”
Ye gods ! the cruelty of this last cut ! As if,, already, the punishment did not far outweigh the crime !
But if the conduct of my superior was heartless, that of my associates was doubly so. Without a care as to how
deeply this degradation would sink into such a high-strung, sensitive soul as mine, they hooted and scoffed unrestrainedly as I limped to my new position.
But time in its flight works wonderful changes, and when, next inning, I again faced “the Twister.” all former animosities, in the face of a common foe. were forgotten, and my brother players were shouting .ioud encouragements to me.
The game now stood twelve to fifteen against us.
“Watch ’er!” admonished Billy, who was perched on first base. “Don’t let 'im fool you with a drop, old man !” Billy had familiarly dubbed me “the old
man.” “Yah ! Yah ! Watch out-watch out !”
This supplementary outburst was brought forth by the unsportsmanlike conduct of,“the Twister.” in delivering the ball while I was attending the remarks of my superior. I swung desp.irately, but too late. However. I evened up on the next pitch by striking too soon ; but Billy, with the eyes of a ball player only, naturally saw none of the beauties of this mathematical equation. To him the only problem was. how to get me to first base. A quick summing up evidently convinced him that there
was but one way.
“Let him hit yu !” he finally decided.
My blood rose at the heartless suggestion. As if censure and reproof were not hard enough to bear ! My teeth clenched in rebellion. Never ! I—-the
next moment I was bending and twisting into every conceivable shape in a frenzied effort to dodge the oncoming messenger of retribution. My mental insurrection was bringing quick rebuke. Finally, in a last paroxysm of hope, I threw myself flat upon my face. But why wrestle with fate ? Better for me had I met the inevitable calmly, standing. The ball then would probably have struck me on the foot. As it was, it crashed into my ribs, and with a force that made me writhe in agony.
However, when I struggled dizzily to my feet, 1 was the recipient of hearty congratulations from my team-mates, who deemed the incident a most rare bit of good luck for me.
But the other side denounced the affair unqualifiedly. “He jumped right intu it !” “He tried tu git hit !” they charged hotly, and “the Twister” unhesitatingly stamped the occurrence as “the baby act.”
As soon as I could breathe without bending double and pounding myself on the back, the reason of all this clamor was made clear to me. For having been hit by, the pitcher or rather by the ball he had pitched, I was privileged to go to first base.
This I should have considered a small recompense, indeed, for my sufferings, had it not been that there I learned the true cause of the catastrophe. Fate had nothing to do with it. “The Twister’s” remark to the first baseman explained it all upon purely natural grounds. I had simply “run into” one of his “in shoots.”
As the inning ended with the score eighteen to fifteen in our favor, we were highly jubilant ; but our joy was momentary, as soon again our opponents were forging slowly to the front.
It was at this critical juncture of the game, when all might be won or lost by a single play, that the ball was hit swiftly past me, and the batter started on a wild circle of bases, followed by cries of “foul ball” from our side and counter cries of “fair ball” from the
other side. I remained neutral, the situation being too intricate for my comprehension.
As usual, Tommy, Billy, and the umpire gravitated to the centre of the diamond for the customary bout of polemics. The display this time, however, was particularly lurid, fists being shaken more vigorously^ and threats of bodily harm indulged in more frequently than heretofore. I was congratulating myself upon not being involved in this especially bitter controversy, when the umpire, probably driven to accepting discretion as the better part of valor, decided to inaugurate a court of inquiry.
“We'll leave it to the old man—he saw it ! ” I heard him declare ; and the next moment the mighty triumvirate were headed my way.
The move sent a shiver of apprehension through me, as my ignorance of the fine points of the game made it impossible for me to show any partiality for my captain.
A casuist may hold that none should have been shown, but such a one never served under such a leader as Billy. For my part I was, and shall continue to be, ready to lie, cheat, or steal, if by so doing I can escape the caustic rebukes of such a man.
“Where’d that ball go ?” demanded the terrible “Twister” gloweringly, and then, without waiting for me, supplying the ansvTer himself. “It hit right there !” he asserted, indicating, with a savage kick, a spot several feet inside the base-line.
“Aw haw—you’re crazy !” stoutly retorted our champion. “It didn’t either I ”
This prelude gave me a vague idea of the situation in generail although the particular point at issue was still obscure. However, it was plain “ the Twister” wished to make it appear that the ball had gone far inside the baseline. With this realization came confidence, and with confidence came the noble impulse to help my captain establish his claim.
“No, it didn’t go there !” I boldly asserted against “the Twister,” pointing to the spot he had indicated.
“There, I told you so !” interrupted
Billy triumphantly—“An’ the old man wouldn’t lie about it,” he added, giving me a radiant smile of approbation.
If “the Twister” believed my veracity above reproach, his looks certainly belied his belief. However, I cared little as to that. The sweet of approval from my superior tasted far better than anything the enemy might offer, so Ï determined upon a coup d’ etat that I felt sure would carry me in peace, and maybe in glory, through the remainder of the game.
“No !” I reiterated, while Billy smiled approvingly, as one who sees his position doubly fortified. “It didn’t go there. It hit right here !”
?vly first inclination had been to make the mark far beyond the base-line, but a nature subtly cunning had taught me that to lend the color of truth to a statement, one should appear somewhat conservative, so I indicated a point midway betwreen “the Twister’s” mark and the base-line.
A mighty shout rent the air, but— horrible !—it came from Tommy and his followers. I turned to Billy anxiously. The sight froze me. There he stood, motionless, speechless—spellbound with wrath ; and I prayed that he might ever remain so, but he didn’t. With a sputter that clearly indicated the fire raging within, he recovered his voice, and then and there pronounced an anathema upon me that, had it been potent, would have consumed me on the spot. Thanks to the divine grace, however, that makes a man’s power weaker than his will, beyond a slight curling of the hair and a parched throat, the blast left me unharmed.
Wherein I had erred, I knew not, nor was I able at the moment to ascertain, for immediately all social relations between myself and my comrades were severed. Later I learned that to have upheld our contention I should have marked the ball as having gone entirely outside the base-line. Good intentions went for naught. I had failed in the deed and was condemned forthwith, thanks to the narrow wisdom of youth.
From now on until the end of the game my relations were those of a pariah—neither noticing nor being noticed. Not until Dame Fortune actual-
iy bestowed the game upon us by a score of twenty-eight to twenty-three did my fellow-players relent and take me again into their good graces. No doubt, the fact that I could no longer jeopardize their chance of winning had much to do with this.
But withal, outside of a few what Billy designated “ yellow ” plays—and his glance in my direction spoke eloquently—the game, according to his estimate, was a good one. The low score and its closeness attested to that.
On our way back to town Billy grew somewhat remorseful, and he assured me that if I could “ketch” and “hit” good, and could “run” a little faster, I would be all right. All of which rais-
ed my spirits a great deal, particularly as he invited me back to play again. “Come down agin,” he said cordially. “You kin play with the other side next time.”
This magnanimity I repaid by purchasing, from a passing countryman, a couple of watermelons, which I begged them to accept with my compliments ; and thus having cemented the ties of reconciliation, I bade them good-by, the total of my worth, in their estimation, being fully summed up in a terse expression of Billy’s that, unintentionally, was wafted to my ears as I departed : “The old man’s all right,” said he. “but he can’t play bail.”