Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Great American Pastime

By Keith McDowell

The death of Stan “the man” Musial this past weekend at the age of 92 evoked for many of us memories of a bygone era, the era of baseball as the great American pastime.

Baseball was always a part of my life as a young kid in the early 1950s, especially those many sessions of “pepper practice” with my father in the backyard of our home on the Old Brickyard Road in Trinity, North Carolina. Unfortunately, my fielding skills never did amount to anything more than the ordinary. Perhaps it had to do with the quality of the baseball glove that I possessed. It was one of those old-fashioned flat gloves with no webbing and nothing that resembled a pocket.

Dad truly loved the game of baseball in his youth, although golf has taken over in his later years. Indeed, one could even say that baseball provided him with his start in life and his lifelong career. 

The story begins in the mid-1930s when dad was the catcher for the High Point High School baseball team.  Upon graduation in 1937, there were no jobs to be had in the Great Depression and no money for dad to go to college. But there was baseball in the form of the Globe Parlor Furniture Company baseball team. In need of a new catcher following the loss of a Mr. Dorsett, dad was hired by the company as a furniture upholsterer, but principally as the new catcher for their team. According to league rules, players could not be paid for playing, so companies recruited their players and gave them jobs with the expectation that they would play, although each team was allowed to have two players who did not work for the company. Dad was one of the lucky ones who got the job and the right to play.

Company baseball teams were a source of great pride in the 1930s and the Globe Parlor team was no different. Founded in the late 1920s under the auspices of Mr. Charles Barrier, one of the owners of the furniture company, the team was a perennial winner in the Commercial League and later the Industrial League. Described by many as a tightwad, Charlie loved baseball, came to every game, and supported the team with a “blank check” in terms of equipment and uniforms.

Globe Parlor Baseball Team Circa 1937
Harding Atlas McDowell holds catchers mitt behind batboy

The home field for the Globe Parlor team was located at the now defunct Allen Jay High School, south of High Point on the Fairfield Road. Games were played every Saturday evening during the summer with an occasional cross-league game on Wednesday night. Typically about 500 people attended the games.

Dad especially remembers games played on a field located on South Main Street next to the old abattoir. The field was made of red clay with a creek in deep left field that made for trouble. Most of the fields in those days did not have a fence, so homeruns were basically caused by hitting the ball over someone’s head or into a creek.

The uniforms including the socks were made of wool and were very itchy and hot. As the catcher, dad sweated a lot in the summer under all the wool and catcher’s equipment. He remembers being covered in caked-on mud and dust following a game on the South Main Street field. Players cleaned up with a bath at the local YMCA that was not far away.

Umpires in those days called balls and strikes from behind the pitcher. That same umpire also called the plays at 2nd and 3rd base. Foul balls were a challenge since the fields were not marked with lime after the bases in the infield. Instead, a stake was placed in the deep outfield and used to figure out whether it was a foul ball. Lots of arguments resulted from those calls!

And lets not forget the practice of eating beans before a game, much to the disgust of the catcher and some silly shenanigans that occurred at the home plate.

Following his service in World War II, dad was again given a job by the Globe Parlor Furniture Company. The owners felt that they owed a job to the men who had fought for their country and previously worked for their company. Eventually, Globe Parlor was bought out by Burlington Industries and dad retired following the demise of that unit having spent his entire working career in the furniture business with Globe Parlor. Truly, baseball made a difference in the life of my father.

For me, baseball will always be about those lazy summer days as a teenager when my brother and I got up early and went to the city softball fields across the road from Brentwood Elementary School. It was a sure bet that enough boys would show up for a game to commence, no matter how hot the day was or the fact that no one had any water. Lacking proper equipment, the catcher stood near the backstop and caught a pitch on the first hop. No one called balls and strikes since the object was to hit the ball and play the game. Standing around in the heat was not part of the recipe.

Speaking of balls and bats, I’ll never forget those shiny hard baseballs that had turned greenish-brown from skipping through grass or their extra weight from being left outside in the rain. The bats were typically either large, fat, and much too long and heavy, or else short and pencil thin. The art of “choking up” was a much-needed skill.

I’ll never forget Mr. Aubrey Grimes, the city maintenance worker charged with dragging and liming the fields before the late afternoon and evening softball games. We were a constant nuisance for him since we “messed up” his fields in the morning with our games, but he was a good spirit about it.

Today, no one plays sandlot baseball any more. Baseball for kids has become all organized and homogenized, regulated and overcooked into a shadow of its former self and just another sport to fill in a slot on the daily calendar. Infield chatter is a lost art and shenanigans are forbidden.

And speaking of baseball stories, I’ll never forget the non-stop chatter from my uncle, Myron “Red” Hayworth – and yes, he was a red head. Red was a catcher for the Saint Louis Browns and played in the 1944 World Series. Red was an excellent catcher and managed pitchers quite well, but couldn’t hit very well batting .223 in the 1944 championship season.

But Red loved to tell his baseball stories to anyone who would listen, whether they wanted to listen or not. And he had some good ones. He also had a collection of home movies that he had taken in the late 1940s and early 1950s in baseball locker rooms and at ball games. And then there were all those signed baseballs, bats, and gloves that he owned. I’ve always wondered what happened to his collection. It was priceless.

And so we mourn the death of Stan Musial, a baseball legend and a truly great man. While his life and the game of baseball don’t particularly have much to do with innovation, entrepreneurship, or university research, they are still to be celebrated and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do so. Musial will be missed.

 [Note: Images of Red Hayworth were taken from a signed copy of the St. Louis Browns Fan Club book featuring Red Hayworth in the possession of Keith McDowell. For baseball aficionados, note also that Red’s older brother, Raymond Hayworth, caught for 15 years in the big leagues, mostly for the Detroit Tigers.]

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