I previously wrote about my love of baseball, especially as a childhood fan of the great Willie Mays. I played at several levels, but was never really good enough to play on a competitive level. Mostly, I played baseball by myself at our home on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul, Minnesota. I practiced various baseball skills for YEARS at that home. That consisted of three specific training regimens – hitting, throwing, and fielding. I know I mentioned this briefly in a previous blog post, but never got into the real details.
As is the case with most kids, I felt hitting was the most important skill. I practiced hitting the old fashioned way. That meant throwing the ball up in the air with one hand and then hitting the ball with the bat. This involved a whole lot of running back and forth as I had to retrieve the balls that I hit. It also meant that I had to hit in a directional way to ensure I wasn’t hitting directly at the house. Unfortunately, I broke a TON of windows when I failed to hit away from the house.
My home plate consisted of a sewer cover right near the garage/carriage house in the back yard. Our house was an overbearing structure in right field, like a version of the short Yankee Stadium right field porch. For whatever reason, the giant brick walls seemed to call the balls to come that way. After not too long, my dad banned baseballs in our yard, so I switched to tennis balls. While this was actually much safer, especially as I got older, striking a tennis ball with a baseball bat still carried more than enough momentum to carry through windows from 100 feet away.
Left field was our neighbor’s house. Even though I was strictly a right-handed batter at the time, I avoided hitting to left field even more than the dangerous prospect of hitting our house. Yes, I’m pretty sure I broke a few windows in the neighbor’s house, but much less frequently than I did in my own house. As a result of the challenges of my yard, I became and remained a dead-center hitter (and continue to this day in my softball league).
Throwing (pitching) was slightly less dangerous, but it still led to a number of broken windows. These were usually basement windows, so I could normally get by for a week or more without anyone finding out! The house was a solid brick structure. I taped a “strike zone” rectangle on a wall near our back patio and stood about 30 feet away while I threw tennis balls against the house. This was great practice! I could throw “fast” balls, curve, knuckleballs, sinkers, and a few other pitches. Over time, I gained pretty good accuracy on most of them. Unfortunately, a tennis ball really didn’t do a good job building arm strength and the accuracy I gained with a tennis ball did not necessarily translate to throwing accuracy with a baseball (or softball).
My final training skill was fielding practice. While I broke fewer windows doing this, I gained many more bruises on my body and also actually created a hazard to cars! It is rather funny for me to recall that I actually did this, but I did it hours on end every summer for several years.
Our home had a very long front sidewalk. I wrote previously about this house at https://graysonlaw.blog/2019/07/22/965-summit-avenue/?preview_id=166&preview_nonce=5c27f21c4b&preview=true. The front stairway of the home had about a dozen steps from the open front porch to the sidewalk. The sidewalk itself was about 100 feet from that stairway to the next stairway that went down to the boulevard. It was fairly wide – at least six feet across. The sidewalk was made up of very old concrete squares, each about 18 inches square. Because of the age of the sidewalk, none of the individual squares were even. Some were sunken, some raised, and others cracked.
You might think that I continued to use my trusty tennis ball to throw against the steps. Well, you would only be half right. Throwing a ball at the steps caused it to ricochet back to the thrower at various angles and speeds. The crooked sidewalk added to the adventure, so you had to be good in order to avoid the ball getting past you and into the somewhat busy street. I’d very often throw my body at a ball, much like a hockey goalie, if it was unclear whether I could get the ball with my glove. Now here is the interesting part. No, I didn’t use a tennis ball, but instead used a golf ball! I also used a smaller, little kids’ glove that seemed to better accommodate a golf ball.
Yes, I tore up lots of golf balls. The worst part, though, was whenever the ball got past me. I was pretty good about watching for pedestrians coming down the street, but I definitely could not account for cars. Several got nailed over the years, but surprisingly, very few ever stopped. Many slowed down, probably wondering what they had hit, but most never seemed to know what had happened.
As you can guess, this fielding practice required a great deal of dexterity and skill. Over the years, I’ve played softball with pretty good success in both the infield and the outfield. I contribute most of that success to those days playing on the hard sidewalk in my front yard!
As I mentioned, I had various other experiences playing baseball, including little league, limited High School play, and lots of sandlot play. The latter was for sure the most fun of all. I think it was a typical experience for kids back in the 1960s and 1970s (and prior), but not so much so today. Almost everything with kids today is scripted by adults. Our sandlot baseball (and helmet/pad-free tackle football) was standard Summer fare for us. There were great lessons learned on the fields in those days, some of which kids of today will never experience. It was these dog days of Summer that my friendship with Pat Judd and Jim Landwehr was really cemented. We were the regulars. We could count on a few others, but we never knew from day to day who might join the crew.
Our first challenge was to find enough kids to field close to two teams. That was tough! We needed at least 6-7 kids on each side. If we were short, we often played on both teams. More likely, we simply would have the hitter rotate back into the field after they’d hit. The second challenge was to find a decent field. Our favorite was a field near the Summit School. They had a great field with a very high “green monster” fence in left field. It took a mighty stroke for one of us to get the ball over the fence. Unfortunately, this did happen from time to time. It was unfortunate because the opposite side of the fence was a number of tennis courts. The players (often adults) really didn’t like the idea of stray baseballs raining down on their courts as they were trying to play. As a result, we often got chased off the field. Then, we all hopped on our bikes in search of another decent field.
The lessons surrounding finding a suitable field, identifying, calling & cajoling a sufficient number of players, ensuring the right equipment (bat, ball, bases, etc.), choosing sides, and setting ground rules (the tennis courts were an out, not a home run!), and being able to mediate disputes – all provided great logistical, legal, and other lessons for young kids. That is a far cry from the experience of today’s kids. I don’t know if it was better. It likely was, but mostly it was just a different time. I am so glad I had that experience.
My enjoyment of baseball and all the skills required led me to my lifelong love of softball. I’ve played softball at various competitive levels for over 45 years. Those experiences alone, and the friendships I’ve made though softball, have shaped me and provided valuable life lessons. More fodder for a future blog post!