Between the Lines / "Sonny Boy"
It was important to pack everything we needed in the old green Chevy station wagon. Our Saturday morning ritual during the Little League season was to load up the bases, the bat bag, the ball bag, the catcher's equipment, the clipboard, the score book, pencils, Bazooka bubble gum and the water jug.
My father, our parish coach, was brimming with enthusiasm about the start of the new season. He was an early riser and had already finished his bacon and eggs, his knife and fork crossed neatly over the plate, his tea cup empty. I was too excited to consume anything but water. The sunshine was streaming across the driveway and would rise high above the field during the morning's tryout. There would be dozens of kids and a few parents waiting for us there.
It was nothing like the helicopter parents we see today, but there were always mothers and fathers around in the 1950s who believed their kids were second to none. My father said hello to all the parents and then tried to ignore them as much as possible. He knew the ones who wanted to "bend his ear" were the same ones who would drive him nuts. He had a team to pick and a practice to run.
One such mother considered her son the next Joe DiMaggio. She was a heavy-set, dark-haired woman with a death stare. She insisted on calling my father "Mr. Wallace" instead of "Bob" like the rest of the parents did. As soon as she got out of the car, she walked straight onto the field to speak with my father about her son. She didn't want Dad to forget her boy was there and better than ever this year. I saw my father cringe as he stood there with his clipboard nodding and squinting in the sun.
Dad was unfailingly polite, but when we were driving home together he would share his honest opinions off the record. He respected all of his players but he had no interest in time-wasters. He would privately nickname these guys "Twinkle Toes," "Two-ton Tommy," "Slow Joe," "Crazy Legs," "Banjo Head" or "Butterball." These were undoubtedly monikers he remembered from his sandlot baseball days. There were no parents involved in kids' team sports during the Depression, so boys were free to name call and bullyrag each other with democratic gusto. Back then it was considered taking your lumps and growing up.
So, back to the kid my father had dubbed "Sonny Boy." Sonny was built just like his mother, compact and low to the ground. He had thick wavy hair and wore glasses. He was a good student, and the nuns admired his neat handwriting and the white hanky he wore in his uniform shirt pocket. At lunch I used to watch him unfold a checkered cloth and spread it on his desk before he ate. His shoes were shined and he had not one, but two Paper Mate pens ready for action at all times.
On this first day of practice he stepped out of the family's big black Cadillac wearing shorts. Almost all the kids on the field stopped to stare at Sonny. Let me put it this way. When I was a kid, nobody wore shorts -- ever. If you did, you were mercilessly hooted down. There was no concept of political correctness, and we gave no thought to anyone's sensibilities. Wearing shorts to baseball practice was simply unthinkable. As Sonny Boy walked toward us, we noticed that his shorts had been ironed and sported a knife-edge crease. His bare white legs brought gasps from the group. A few kids pointed and snickered. He also wore new sneakers and black socks pulled up to his knees.
But the best was yet to come -- the breathtaking moment that would become part of parish lore and team history. His father, a bald man also wearing shorts, followed behind Sonny Boy bearing a huge, brand-new leather glove in his two hands. The leather was gleaming in the sunshine and reminded me of the color of the dandelions dotting the grassy outfield. It looked as wide as home plate and as hefty as a small turkey. The leather bindings were perfect and the pocket unbroken. Duke Snider's autograph was written across the palm.
Of course kids love brand-new baseball gloves, but you'd never take one to the field that way right out of the box. You'd want to rub some dirt and spit into it so that you didn't look like a tin horn with a new mitt. Sonny's glove belonged under glass somewhere and not on our dusty, rutted field. Anyone could see that it was a work of art.
I watched my father's face as Sonny Boy's father followed along after him. Dad revealed no obvious sign of exasperation, but I did notice that he pursed his lips and slowly exhaled -- a gesture I recognized when he was steeling himself for an ordeal.
Sonny's parents marched him right over to Dad and reintroduced him. This wasn't done in those days, either. You just sat with the other kids, chewed gum and waited to be called. After a while Dad came over to the bunch of us sitting on the grass and explained everything about the tryout. He told us he hated to cut anyone and would take as many boys as he could, but that not everyone would make the team. There would be hitting, fielding, throwing and running this morning. Everyone would get a fair chance to show his stuff. He told them not to give up even if they didn't make the team this time. Throughout Dad's speech, kids were squirming, pounding their gloves, elbowing each other and tearing out fistfuls of grass.
Then it was time to take the field. Forty boys sent up a raucous shout and charged for the positions they wanted to earn. The stand out kids did what you would expect. Some of them hit the ball hard. Some made running catches and some threw pegs straight from the outfield to the catcher's glove. A couple of would-be pitchers warmed up on the side to the sound of snapping leather. These naturals earned the awe and respect of all the others. Their talent spoke for itself. But the real drama was about the unusual types -- some dark horses who would make the team and others who didn't have a hound's chance. Sonny Boy, unfortunately, was the latter type.
There were kids who swung and missed by a country mile and kids who threw a ball as if their hands were tied behind their backs. Boys tripped over the bases running, pop-ups were dropped and grounders passed through legs. Others popped out rounding first and one kid's pants fell down. Another little guy, all heart, disappeared into the tall grass of the outfield chasing a pop up, only to re-appear minutes later with the ball in his glove. These comical mishaps were commonplace in Little League practice. Someone would be beaned, someone jammed a finger, someone else scraped a knee and some would unfailingly take a hit in the family jewels. But it was Sonny Boy who provided the most sublime moment of all that season.
He was standing in center field camping under a pop up. It was truly his moment in the sun. He brandished the gleaming new glove and called for the ball. "I got it! I got it!" I watched the flight of the ball -- a perfectly hit fungo from Dad's bat. It had a nice round arc and a beautiful gentle trajectory. The ball reached its apex, hung in the air for a moment and then began a quail-soft descent. Sonny Boy was pounding his glove and calling off the other fielders. As my father liked to say, his performance was a real can of corn. The ball fell out of the sky past Sonny's enormous glove and hit him right off the head. You could hear the "thock" sound all over the field.
His parents came running out to the field to pick him up and carry him off bodily. Sonny was rubbing the red mark on his forehead while his mother fanned him with the glove. All three quickly got back into the big sedan and we never saw them again. Later, as Dad and I rode home in the car, we talked about Sonny Boy's defining moment. Dad chuckled, "You know, Bare, there's an art to hitting fungoes so you can place the ball exactly where you want."
We were back in the driveway before I fully understood what Dad had just said to me.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.