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by Philip Gulley
My father was a Little League coach when I was growing up. He coached the Printers Devils, which was sponsored by the local newspaper, The Republican. A printers devil was an apprentice who worked for a newspaper learning the trade. That catchy phrase isnt used anymore because newspapers no longer employ apprentices. Journalists today learn their trade in college.
Betty Weesner owned The Republican and still does. She inherited it from her father, Pug Weesner. The Republican first rolled off the presses in 1847 and hasnt missed an issue since. Betty Weesner prays every day someone will come along and take over after shes gone. I walk by her office, just east of the courthouse, and see her bent over the old Linotype. Sometimes I think of walking through her door and asking if shell take me on as a printers devil and teach me that wonderful trade.
My father coached thirty years ago, when it cost one hundred dollars to sponsor a Little League team. That bought twelve uniforms. The kids had to buy their shoes and mitts and the coach paid for the trip to the Dairy Queen if the team won. Betty would bring her lawn chair to each game, unfold it next to the dugout, and oversee her investment.
In addition to Betty Weesner, the two banks each sponsored a team, along with Bakers Hardware, Stevenson-Jensen Insurance, and the Home Lumber Company. There were a few other teams whose names now escape me. This was, after all, thirty years ago. What I remember is Betty Weesner sitting in her lawn chair cheering on her boys. Girls didnt play back then.
I played for Bakers Hardware under Coach Buck Leath. The highlight of my career was when Bucks son, Jeff, got hit by a line drive and Buck nodded at me to take his place on the pitchers mound. I pitched a no-hitter. Walked twelve straight batters. Mostly I played right field, in front of the Meazels Jewelers sign. Jewelry for the Discriminating Customer the sign read. The outfield fence was lined with signs from local establishments. I was not kept very busy in right field and by seasons end had all the signs memorized, in order, starting with Max Poynter Insurance and ending with Johnstons Regal Grocery-Why Shop Anywhere Else? For Home Delivery Dial Sherwood 5-4285.
All of this took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, before parents were so earnest and everything became a big production. Parents would sit on the bleachers and visit, unless it was their turn to work the concession stand, where they sold licorice whips for a penny and orange Push-Ups for a dime. The children played underneath the stands and told jokes. Say, did you hear about the book, Under the Bleachers, by Seymour Bottoms? You could hear them cackle.
There was a game every June evening except for Sundays and Wednesdays, which were church nights. The game began after supper at seven oclock. At 7:45, Joe Hawkins threw the switch up in the crows nest and light would flood the field. If you tired of the game, you could watch the bugs under the lights. If you were especially lucky, Joe Hawkins might pick you to sit on the scoreboard and hang the numbers at the end of each inning.
People didnt take the games very seriously. Occasionally a coach might get upset and yell. Once I remember my normally calm father unbuckling his Timex wristwatch and flinging it toward the outfield. After the game he sent me to look for it, but I couldnt find it. The watch had been a birthday gift from my mother, who gave him a porch swing the next year, reasoning that it couldnt be as easily thrown.
Little League championships are now televised. Teams from Japan play teams from Puerto Rico. Major league scouts lurk in the stands, hoping to spot the next Mark McGwire. Shoe manufacturers pass out free shoes, wanting to embed their logo in the minds of impressionable youth. This confirms my worst suspicion about organized sports that given the chance, adults will eventually taint any sport in which they have a part.
I have read of enraged Little League parents fighting and cursing and storming the umpire. Parents gone berserk. Red-faced, vein-popping, eye-bulging mad. There is a certain father in the local soccer league who screams at his five-year-old son to go on the attack and stop messing around. One Saturday morning, I watched the fifteen-year-old referee stop the game and escort the man to the parking lot. It thrilled me to no end. I was happy the rest of the day.
My older son plays in the soccer league. I was opposed to it at the time and still am. Im skeptical of any enterprise where the adults keep asking the children if theyre having fun. I dont go out of my way to attend every game, nor do I make him practice with me every day in the yard so hell have an edge. I believe children are better served when adults have their games and children have theirs. I do want him to play sports, so I bought a house with a big yard. But I want him to play with children, not adults. If Im not careful I could be a real crackpot about this.
When I was growing up, I played sandlot baseball, which is now in its death throes. This is because parents dont want children to organize their own play, for fear that children chosen last will be scarred for life. I played sandlot ball every summer day and was invariably chosen last. If I had run home crying about it, my mother would have swatted me on the bottom and sent me back to the Barrys front yard, which is where we played. The stump from the maple tree was first base, the tulip tree second base, the lilac bush third base. Home plate was Kevin Barrys T-shirt.
Not everyone had a baseball mitt, so we shared. No one had cleats, though my brother Doug once taped thumbtacks to the bottom of his Keds tennis shoes. We played ten innings or until someone came up with a better game to play or until James Martin had to leave and take his ball with him. Never once did a parent intrude, offering to pitch or help choose sides or umpire. We would have thought it absurd and quickly found something else to do. Adults, after all, were strange creatures, to be avoided at all costs.
This was back in the days when children had huge chunks of summer hours to fill, back when parents didnt feel the need to cram every hour with meaningful activity. So we swam in the creek, rode our bikes all over town, and played sandlot baseball, girls and boys alike. Carol Barry was a good batter, had an arm like Willie Mays, and could run like the wind. When we entered Little League and the adults told us girls couldnt play, it only confirmed our suspicions that adults were stranger than strange. Of course, we knew girls were different but we didnt know the difference, though we suspected it had something to do with Carol Barrys never offering her shirt for home plate.
Ours was not a precise game. It was roughly thirty feet from home plate to first base, but nearly twice as far from first base to second, which made hitting a double an occasion for pride. We had no umpire. If the catcher tagged you out at home plate and you thought you were safe, you argued for five minutes then reached a suitable compromise. No adult intervened. No parent hastened out to see what all the noise was about. It was glorious fun.
Certain Christians I know are suspicious of fun. They live in constant fear that someone, somewhere, is having a good time. They believe faith is a serious, somber business. Jesus never subscribed to that notion. He told his followers, In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. When we live as if that isnt true, when even fun is serious business, we pollute the gospel. Were like those Little League parents whove turned a harvest of joy into a plague of misery.
Author: Philip Gulley
Publication Date: July 31, 2001
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