I had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at New York Eye, ear, Nose and Throat (NYEENT) in 1967, when I was seven years old. My Cub Scout Pack had its monthly meeting at my elementary school and, as all of we little kids dressed in uniform as if we were about to fight a children's war, came running out of the building, the other kids all ran to their parents' cars, I stopped dead in my tracks only being able to see the headlights. Due to my mother's family history, I was a high probable for RP and got to take a day off from school to go to the famous hospital in the city and would be told that, indeed, I had RP. They also told me that there would probably be a cure before it got too bad and, 55 years later, I'm still waiting. Sometimes false hope can be far more painful than no hope at all.
At that age and continuing until today, I was a huge baseball fan. Although we lived near New York, my favorite players were Bob Gibson from the Cardinals, Willy Mays from the San Francisco Giants, Carl Yaztremski from the Boston Red Sox and Roberto Clemente from the Pittsburgh Pirates. In 1969, though, I'd switch nearly all of my baseball allegiance to the Miracle New York Mets. I collected baseball cards and my paternal grandma would always have a few packs for me when I visited her house and, on my birthday, she'd have an entire display box of cards for me.
Every afternoon, I'd read our local paper starting with the sports page and study the box scores like they were something I absolutely had to commit to memory. I'd attend games at Yankee or Shea Stadiums as often as I could, frequently with my dad and a friend and the friend's dad. If I was going to Yankee Stadium with the kids from up our street, we'd arrive very early as they opened in time for the fans to watch batting practice and for us kids to get a chance to meet some of the players and maybe get a handshake or autograph.
Needless to say, I was a baseball freak but, as I was low vision, I only got to play a single season of organized ball and this essay tells that story.
I should note that my single season playing baseball was 1973 when I was thirteen years old so some of this story is not likely true as that was 49 years ago and human memory isn't as good as some would think it is.
The Two Leagues
Our town in suburban New Jersey had two very different youth baseball leagues. One was the nationally famous Little League and the other was run by the town and was called the Recreational League and I played in the Rec league. A prospective player had to try out for Little League and I may have been the worst player in our town and possibly the worst player in our state. Little League would definitely not accept me so I went to the Rec league where every kid who signed up was assigned to a team.
There was another substantial difference between the two leagues. Not only did the Little League players have a nice albeit tiny but very well groomed stadium to play in while we played on fields in poorly maintained local parks, they also did not permit the African American kids to even try out, let alone play the game. The best athlete in our time was an African American kid a year older than us and had moved onto high school sports as he aged out of our league. In high school, he was a four sport player and was a star in football, basketball, baseball and, most of all, track and field. He was the fastest 14 year old in the state and later would go on to set world records in the hurdles (high and low) that stood until Carl Lewis came along and broke all of them. He never got to an Olympics as President Carter had the US boycott the Moscow games but he played a long and successful career as a wide receiver in the NFL but Little League wouldn't even let him try out for a team. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in 1947 but a quarter century later, our town's Little League remained segregated, giving the Recreation League some of the best players in town by default. As I was a white kid, I was offended by the segregation but it would not have effected me had I been a good player who could see well.
The Try Outs
Although every kid would get onto a team, the Rec league had try outs to determine the skill level of the players so the different coaches would have some information when they "drafted" their teams. My father was traveling on a business trip to some exotic foreign destination so my maternal grandfather took me to the try outs.
It was a cold and damp day and I was a poor player in the best of weather. We kids were graded on throwing, catching, running and hitting. I scored a "D" on all but throwing where I got a "C" grade. I think the guys giving the grades were being kind to me as I was probably an F Minus on hitting but I do admit, I could throw a ball pretty far and pretty accurately.
At the end of the try outs, I handed in my score card and went home with my grandfather.
The Phone Call
When the coaches were finished with their drafting and administrative stuff, our home phone rang. I answered and it was my friend Mickey who was very excited to tell me that I was going to be on his team. Mickey was the best pitcher in the league and was highly desired by a number of the Little League teams but his father, our coach, despised racism and refused to allow Mickey to play Little League and he refused his own talents as a serious baseball man as well. I was very happy that Mickey had called and was proud to call me a teammate but I was also well aware that I would not be a good player but I had dreams and fantasies of somehow figuring out how I might somehow be great. The fantasies never came true but I had as much fun as a 13 year old could have on that team.
As I mention above, Mickey's dad was our coach so I already knew him from having made many a visit to their home. He always wanted to watch or talk baseball when we were around and taught us a lot about the game that a more casual fan wouldn't notice. This man knew his baseball and more than anything loved teaching others about it. He was not a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination, he drove a delivery truck for a bread company for a living and they lived in a small house on a very busy street.
Coach, as we would call him, understood baseball so well that he even found a way for me, the smallest and worst player in the league, to make useful contributions to our team's success.
The town in which we grew up in New Jersey was split into what one may have thought were three or even four separate communities. My neighborhood was only a few houses away from a far more affluent town and we considered ourselves as residents of the other town as it's where we would shop and where us kids would ride our bikes to get ice cream or go to Woolworth's for a new ball or something. The south side of our town was 100% white people and was quite affluent. To the north of our neighborhood was the part of town that was owned and operated by the Italian mafia and had great Italian restaurants. The north most part of the town was kind of poor and its residents were primarily African American.
There were parks with baseball fields on both the north and south sides of town but, somehow, all of our baseball games, including the play-offs and championship game were played in the northern most park in town, in the nearly entirely African American neighborhood. I suppose the white people on the south side didn't even want to see little black kids playing ball near their homes.
As I write above, Coach was a real baseball man who understood the game better than any of the other coaches in town. His stroke of genius was to make me, the worst but, more importantly for this strategy, the smallest player in the league the lead off hitter. I could hardly see the ball and only got a single base hit all season but what Coach understood was to have me stand in a crouch that made me even smaller so I had an Eddie Gaedel sized strike zone. For those who don't know or care about baseball history, Eddie Gaedel was the little person who was signed to a major league contract as a publicity stunt and, of course, he drew a walk. I would never swing the bat until I had two strikes on me and sometimes I'd lean in a bit so I would be hit by the pitch. I'd either walk or get hit by the ball so I often reached first base.
Our number two hitter was an African American kid I knew from around school and he was one of the top athletes in our town. The opposing team's pitcher had to pay attention to him so, as soon as the pitcher went into his wind-up, I'd break for second and steal the base. More often than not, the second, third or clean up hitter would get a base hit and I'd score a run. My batting average might have been south of .100 but I got to score a lot of runs and help the team.
Mickey was our star pitcher and he, even at age 13, could throw so fast that few players on the other teams could even see the ball. In a ten game regular season, a play off game and the championship, we only lost one game and that was the Cubs, the same team we beat in the championship.
Playing the field was a different story. Traditionally the worst kid on a team is sent to right field but, because Mickey pitched so fast, right handed hitters, the majority of the league, couldn't pull the ball so, in an entire season, zero balls were hit to me in left field. Every time I ran out to my position though, I was filled with fear that one would come to me and I'd muff it. Of course, I also held fantasies of making a diving catch to win the game like Tommy Agee would do on the Mets.
Even if I struck out, Coach and Mickey were always very kind to me. They always had a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement. Once One of the other players, a big kid of less than average intelligence, started making fun of me for striking out and Coach, a large man, picked him up so they were face to face (Coach wasn't going to bend over for this turd) and explained to him that not only had I scored more runs than he had but if he ever heard of him ever being unkind to me and any of our other teammates, he would sit on the bench for the rest of the season. That kid even started treating me with some respect at school after that incident.
The Championship Game
Our team were the Tigers and we had lost only one game to the team called the Cubs that season. The Cubs had both good hitters and a very good pitcher. It was going to be a tough game. I led off and struck out. I went to my position and stood alone on the grass as Mickey struck out all three batters in the bottom of the inning. Neither team scored in the second or third innings. In the fourth inning, we had a couple of runners on base and I was pulled for a pinch hitter. We rallied for three runs in that inning. The rest of the game was pretty uneventful. Mickey threw a shutout and we won the championship and Coach picked me up and put me on his shoulders as we all celebrated together. Then we all walked over to where the other team was sitting sadly and invited them to join us at Roy Rogers for a meal and we all had fun telling lies about our greatest baseball moments.
Although this little low vision kid had no business playing organized baseball, I was incredibly fortunate to have both Mickey and Coach in my life and they made that championship season one of the favorite collections of memories I have in my entire life. They were so kind and generous that I will be grateful to them forever or at least as long as I live.