"It's Hardball, Son, So Keep Your Eye on the Ball Not the Other Players or the Pretty Girls in the Stands"
When I was 15 years old, an old wildcatter dude [a person who drilled oil wells in "perhaps" oil fields in hopes of striking a gusher though risking hitting a dry hole was called a wildcatter--as when you did hit a gusher you hit a wildcat well, which is what you wanted--H.L. Hunt was one of the most successful wildcatters of all time--the Tyler, Texas, Texas-Louisiana League baseball team in the 90s was called the Wildcatters] came up to me cautiously--suspiciously to me who at fifteen didn't trust any adult, especially a strange man--I mean I was sensitive to adults; I didn't like them; they were so authoritarian and my ego was born antiauthoritarian--plus I was naturally leery of older men--shit, an old bastard like this could be boy-queer for all I knew--and, yes, by the time I was fifteen I knew there were punkers in the world--I grew up on a major cross-country highway and a major cross-country railroad track and I grew up partially raised in a library so I had already been around the world via stereoptican and later via teevee and having friends from all over the world and my hometown being a major WWII army camp and a major Army Air Force base that later continued on after the war and became a major SAC Air Force base--and I knew there was a place called New York City and a place called Los Angeles and I had an uncle who'd gone to Hollywood when he was young he was so pretty--and some said swishy, too--so I knew about the punkers--and I knew they were on the highway--and sure enough, one time when I was about 14 and walking home from school along that highway a guy in a new Lincoln pulled up alongside me and said, "Hey, you wanna ride to Tucson, Arizona, with me?" I meanly told him to "Go fuck yourself, I ain't givin' you none of my ass" and he sped on off down the road looking for another NAMBLA poster boy--later I often thought about that time and that dude--I still remember what he looked like--a little squirt wearing a man's hat like my dad and every other old man wore in those days and looking cheesy like my cousin Donnie Hihat the man who wore silk underwear, or so the story went in the family circles--and I've often wondered how many young boys would take this highwayman up on his "by the time he got to Tucson" offer and I wondered when he did pick 'em up and did to them whatever his pleasure involved did he throttle them then and there or did he tie 'em up in basements and torture them to death--like later pedophiles? Or, hell, maybe he adopted them and set them up in businesses or some such shit--I just knew not to trust an adult, especially one driving a Lincoln and offering to drive me to Tucson and he looked like my cousin Donnie Hihat to boot--hell no I won't go!
I'd learned not to trust adult men when I was 5 years old and in the lobby of the Adelphi Hotel in Center City Philadelphia and I had become fascinated by pinball machines on the trip via bus that had brought me to Phillie from far West Texas--to actually see my brother who was in the Navy and stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. There were pinball machines in all the bus stations and coffee shops and diners the bus stopped at as it trudged those 2000 miles from my hometown to Philadelphia--and they fascinated the hell out of me. I mean the flashing lights, the bell's ringing, and I still remember one had a trumpet blowing reveille when you won and taps when you lost--but I loved all the pinball machines and would run and stand and stare at guys playing them when I'd see one--and in Philadelphia, in that hotel lobby, I went up behind this "gentleman" playing this fabulous machine with a Native American chief in a huge warbonnet on its back glass and the gentleman was wearing a leather Eisenhower-type jacket, like a flyboy jacket, and smoking Pall Malls like my Uncle Sporty smoked, and this gentleman turned to me when he saw me watching him play and said, "Hey, kid, you wanna play?--here's a nickel, come on, I'll hold you up while you play." My mother, I mean that woman came out of nowhere, was up in that guy's face like greased lightning with a "Come on, Wolfie, come on, and, you sir, if I see you tempting my son again, I'll knife you, that's what I'll do...." "Lady, lady," the dude said, "I was just letting the kid play the game, loosen up...." "I'll loosen up my purse here and get my butcher knife out...." "Take your kid and go, lady," and then guy turned around and started playing the pinball again.
My mother gave me a fierce-serious-eyed lecture on watching out for men like that--"What did he want to do to me, mommy?" "Well, it wasn't anything good, I'll tell you that much."
So this old wildcatter called me off to the side and he says, "I here'ah you're'ah pritty-good little ballplayer." "I used to be but I gave it up; I hate managers." "I know, I know, but this is different, kid, with yo'r parent's permisshin', I want you to come play for my oil field team." "What the heck is that?" "The Brazos Valley Hardball League, my boy, as crusty a league as you'll find this side of the West Texas-New Mexico League--why you'll be playin' with some oldtimers who played in the Texas League." Holy shit, I thought, my parents'll never let me go off with a busload of old men--Jesus Christ, were all old men pedophiles?--so I blew the wildcatter off. "Where's yer folks, boy?" "Over there, my dad's the comic and my mother's the bitch." "Watch yer tongue, boy!" "That's why I don't get along with managers. I use the word 'fuck' a lot, too." I was big for 15--I was right at 16 really; you had to be 18 I think to play in the Brazos Valley Hardball League, but, hell, people could overlook things like that--I knew older kids who'd joined the army in WWII when they were lying about being 18; I had another cousin from down in the swamps of southeast Texas who joined the Navy when he was 16; he was tough square-built son of a bitch who looked 30 years old when he was 16--and the first thing the Navy did was pull all of his teeth--false teeth at 16; soldiers can't go into war with bad teeth--no time for teeth going out on you while you're under attack. This is the same cousin who when he came back from the Navy in 1946 and I was still a babbling know-it-all baby sat down at our piano and started wailin' out a boogie-woogie right there in front of me. He was amazin'. He was all over that old piano, rocking his left hand 8 to the bar and wiggling out 16th-note runs or up to 32nd-note runs with his right hand--I was amazed and decided right then and there I wanted to be a piano player when I grew up.
The old wildcatter went and talked to my parents. My dad said, "Son, are you interested in playing baseball again?" "No, but why do you ask?" "This gentleman has a sweet little deal for you, I think--15 dollars a game; where's a kid like you gonna make that kind'a money?; I couldn't pay you that to help me in the shop." "Don't worry, dad, I'm never gonna help you in the shop, but baseball, that's different--15 bucks a game--how many games?" "Eight," the old wildcatter cut in, "first game's this comin' Saturday afternoon in Palo Pinto, against the Palo Pinto Ponies; I want you to play first base for me." "I'm a pitcher." "I got a pitcher, boy; I need a first baseman and according to your old PONY League manager you are a fine first baseman though you ain't much of a hitter I understand." "Who told you that? I led my Little League in batting, .660, and I hit 6 homeruns to lead the league, and I led the league in RBIs." "But in the PONY League you didn't hit so hot, but that don't matter to me; I need a first baseman and you're highly recommended." "Palo Pinto; God, I hate Palo Pinto," I replied. "So does that mean you'll join us?"
It did and I did and that Saturday morning I got on the team bus, we were called the "Roughnecks," another oil field term for the guys that did the really dirty work on an oil rig--and I mean roughnecking is hard-as-hell work, but it pays good; as one of my cowhand friends said, "It pays better than doin' the ro-dayos--though you do get injured more on the rigs than you do on the ro-day-os." And I got on the bus and shit there was Shorty; I knew Shorty from high school; and, hell, there was Previous Pete the Sweet, and I knew him from the PONY League--he chewed tobacco when he played in the PONY League--they didn't reprimand him because he was such a great hitter, a long ball hitter--he hit a 500-foot homerun in the PONY League park--we know it was 500-feet because old man Mewpurs measured it with his mile-long tape measure--longest homerun all the elders said they'd ever seen a kid hit. (It turned out later in my last year of high school I found out Previous Pete had really been lyin' about his age to the PONY League people--he'd been 16 then right at 17.) The longest homerun I had hit was about 300 feet when I was in the PONY League--or was that the Little League. And, damn, in the back of the bus was Adolpho, who I knew from high school, we played golf together all the time, and sittin' by him was a black kid. Of course, I didn't know any black kids from my segregated hometown--why aren't Mexicans segregated from whites? I was always asking those in authority--why just the blacks? The only answer I got was, "It's the law, Wolfie, it's not right maybe but it's the law." See what I mean about growing up an antiauthoritarian and not trusting anybody?
Now I knew the difference between a hardball and a softball and, too, I was a big baseball fan and knew about sharpening your spikes and slidin' into a base with your spikes up high in the baseman's face--there was a lot of dust in those days, too, and some could slide and throw the dirt up in the baseman's face--and, too, I knew black players weren't allowed in the Majors in those days and I remember when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby came into the Majors but I never thought about the racism they had to face--segregation was the law, you see--sorry, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, racism ain't right but it's the law. What I didn't understand is what my dad meant by telling me that Friday night before my first game that Saturday about this being "hardball"--but now of course I do know what he meant, stupid me then, and I really most certainly did after that summer in the Brazos Valley Hardball League, too.
And that Saturday afternoon in Palo Pinto, Texas, in front of a thousand maybe Palo Pintoans and oilfield families and Native Americans and Mexicans and Italian immigrants and a couple'a old Texas Leaguers and one guy who said he was the leading hitter for the Wichita Falls Spudders [a spudder also being an oilfield worker of the hard-work and dirty type] in the twenties, but hell I didn't care who was bullshittin' and who was honest--I was more concerned about whether I was being hauled into a nest of male perverts--except, shit, I felt good with Shorty and Previous Pete and Adolpho and his friend the black guy who turned out to be Marvin "Glue Fingers" Wilson, a star end on my hometown black high school football team.
I started off the game playing first base, but by the fifth inning, the old ex-Texas Leaguer was getting whacked pretty easily by the Palo Pinto Ponies who all looked like they were in their mid-30s, one of them sporting a big thick black beard, and they scored 2 runs in the first inning, 2 runs in the second inning, and then in the bottom of the fourth they scored 2 more runs and that was it for the Texas Leaguer--"Hey, Wolf, you're gonna pitch the bottom of the fifth, I'm jerkin' Red for a pinch hitter--Ballso, you're pinch hittin' for Red." And the fifth inning came and went and I shut 'em out in the fifth and then the sixth and then in the 7th I struck out the side, three Ponies in a row, including Blackbeard, and the manager then said, "Wolf, I'm puttin' Puddin' Tain in for the 8th and 9th, sorry." "Hey, I don't give a shit if you wanna lose--matters no difference to me--the Ponies are a good team, man." So he jerked me and a guy named Beans hit for me. And that was it. I pitched 3 innings of shut-out ball--and listen to this, I was up 4 times that day and got 3 hits, one a long double, and drove in 3 runs. In the bottom of the ninth with the Roughnecks leading 7-6, old Puddin' Tain walked the bases loaded and the manager had nobody to relieve him with so he left him in and sure enough--as is quite common in hardball, blackbeard poled one, a grand slam, a walk-off grand slam to beat us 10-7.
My old man was curious as hell when I got home. You know with the "How'd it go, son?" "Same old shit, dad, manager is a goofball; I pitched great, hit great, yet that asshole took me out of the game and put an old has-been in and yep we lost--grand slam homerun in the bottom of the ninth and our goose was roasted well-done."
And this morning on a teevee newscast I heard one of the talking heads say, "They seem to be playing political hardball...." and that brought up the use of baseball terms in everyday thinking and speaking--thinking about language--and then I saw Ernest Borgnine on Tavis Smiley and that old bastard is a spry 90 years old, looks great, and is still acting and said he can act in Italian, Spanish, English, and French--also said he'd made 191 movies--holy shit, and I'll bet nobody may not even remember Ernest Borgnine--he married Ethel Merman when they were in their 50s and they had a slam-bang, knock-down, draggin' out kind of marriage--Ernie was rumored as having to belt old Ethel as the only way to shut her mug up. Ernie played hardball with his wives--but oh look at him now!
I raise a growler of mead to old Ernie Borgnine--won an Oscar for Peckinpaw's Marty and then when he was pot-bellied and near extinction became McHale on the teevee series McHale's Navy, a standard stupid-dick teevee comedy in the sixties--I can't even remember, though it was a cornball show, that I do remember--probably why I never watched it.
Like some states have "three strikes and you're out" rules! Rules, laws, bills--like building fences around every little inch of our spaces--we have to jump fences to get through life--to play the hardball games of life--but I love hardball--it's an amazin' game.
for The Daily Growler