The following blog is a discussion around the civil religion of baseball. The spark for these writings is the book “The Faith of 50 Million”.
Our family moved from Fox Chapel, before I started grade school, to Dayton (we talked about that one on one of our hot dog quests) and two years later to South Greensburg (remember that episode?) a suburb of Pittsburgh. We moved a lot when I was growing up. I don’t know why! The moves always took place in the daylight. Which I’m pretty certain is a good thing!
It was while we were in South Greensburg that I decided to begin confirmation training to become a member of the religion of baseball. Interestingly, I was also confirmed into the faith family of the Evangelical and Reformed Church about the same time. (I’m the short guy front row 1st from the right.)
My memory of summers in grade school almost all include the sound of someone’s radio, either ours or a neighbor’s blasting out Bob Prince relaying the day’s game to us. I do not remember ever not being a disciple of baseball and specifically the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here is how I know I was ready to be confirmed into the religion. We had an old radio with no back which exposed the -are you ready for this- vacuum tubes. I loved to stare into those lights in the darkness of my room when the Pirates where playing the Giants or Dodgers on the West Coast and feel the warmth those tubes radiated. The antenna was glued around the inside of the box but the adhesive had lost its stick on about half of the top. I discovered that if I held the antenna with my hand I became an extension of the antenna and the radio signal came in plenty clear. So, I lay on my stomach in bed with my right hand attached to the radio sitting on the floor beside my bed listening to the games late at night. If that isn’t the picture of someone ready to be confirmed into the religion I don’t know what is!
I took my required confirmation field trip with the church to a baseball game in Forbes Field. I do not remember the year but we were sitting in right field behind an I-beam. You almost always had an I-beam between you and some part of the action at Forbes Field. However, I had a great view of my hero Roberto Clemente (now one of the saints of the religion). After he caught a fly ball with no runners on base he would throw the ball into the infield underhanded. He threw underhand as hard as most guys threw overhand. I remember thinking as he surrounded that ball with his right hand, “Wow! His hands are huge.”
Much effort is required to be confirmed into any religion. The religion of baseball is no different. You have to pick a team, learn how to keep score, attend a game, know the players, wear team colors and put on a glove and play the game. As an aspiring member of the religion I found my way to the local baseball field one spring for Little League try-outs. I had my turn to stand on the field (the first time ever) while some man hit ground balls toward me to catch and throw. I stood beside home plate (the first time ever) while some adult threw baseballs in my direction for me to swing at. (That’s not really the adult who threw. But, it might as well have been Bob Gibson!) It is important for you to know that I was the smallest boy on that field. (Think Squints in “The Sandlot” (the movie 1993) only without the incident were he kisses Wendy the life guard.) That was me! This was Little League and I was a little guy. It should have been a match made in baseball heaven.
Of course, there were no girls at the try-out because girls were supposed to play with doll houses, dress up clothes and grow up to have a husband and children. (I borrowed someone else’s sisters for this photo.) Maybe they could be a teacher, secretary or nurse if having children wasn’t enough challenge. It wasn’t easy being a girl in the late 50’s. It must have been super difficult for them to get confirmed into the religion of baseball!
After try-outs all the boys stood along the left field foul line and the adult coaches stood facing us in the left field grass. The men began to pick their teams by taking turns calling out names, if they knew the boy’s name, or calling out ‘guy in the blue shirt’ if they didn’t know the boy’s name. When the boy was picked he went and stood behind the coach who called him. The process went on for some time with six men ‘drafting’ their teams until there were two boys standing along the left field line-some other kid and me. The coaches looked around and asked each other if anyone wanted these two. There were no takers and the coaches gathered their teams together to collect information and announce practices. The other kid and I eventually wandered off. I don’t know where the other kid went but I walked home. It wasn’t easy to get confirmed into the religion of baseball.
Fortunately, there were fields where pick-up games occurred. In those days there was less ‘organization’ of baseball then there is today. I managed to find games and always played. The other guys knew I was no good, I knew I was no good but it takes nine to make a team and I was happy to be the eighteenth guy who completed the teams and played right field. The boys seemed to have a better grasp of the religion of baseball then the adults did!
Upon arriving home after the try-outs my dad asked how it went. My reply was, “I didn’t get picked.” Dad didn’t say anything else that I remember but shortly after that day he was on the Little League Board of Directors for South Greensburg. I don’t know how much influence my dad had on the league but the next spring the ‘draft’ process was much different. The entire choosing took place away from the boys and to the best of my knowledge all the boys were on a team roster. My team seemed to be a bunch of guys no one wanted so they threw us together as a team. Maybe Major League Baseball used our example when they put together the 1962 Mets who lost more games that season then any other team since 1899 when the Cleveland Spiders lost 139. (The Spiders from some year.) The Mets lost 120 games in 1962. We won one game, the last game of the season!
1960 was the year my confirmation training was completed. I collected baseball cards and knew the Pirate line up and their batting averages as I followed my heroes through the summer. The entire Pirate ‘church’ had a sacred song that year entitled “The Buc’s Are Going All the Way”. My friends and I sang that song over and over as we walked home (yes, we did walk home) after school each day that September and October.
Finally, the moment of confirmation arrived. The date was October 13, 1960. The underdog Pirates (sort of like the unwanted ball players in Little League) had battled the powerful New York Yankees into the seventh game of the World Series. Like the other games the Pirates won this one was in doubt. Back up catcher Hal Smith put the Pirates ahead in the bottom of the eighth with a three run home run. But the Yankees tied the score in the top of the 9th before Bill Mazeroski stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 9th. When Maz’s homer cleared the left field fence over Yogi Berra’s head (another saint of the religion) my confirmation was complete and I became an adult member of the religion of baseball.
See you next time.