Tag Archives: childhood

Old-school baseball: How I learned to catch with a flat mitt

My education in baseball was old-school, beginning with my father tossing the ball back and forth to me in our back yard. I had one tool for the job, and that was my mitt. And it was flat.

Odd as it may seem, in late 1950s and early 1960s America, I was a kid using a pancake-flat baseball mitt. It was just like the ones you see in old photos that hang off the belts of guys like  Frank “Home Run” Baker and other stars of the early 20th century.

Pictured here is my Woodie Held signature glove, Wilson Fieldmaster model No. A 2984. The ball is nestled in the “Grip-Tite Pocket,” and the back of the mitt notes that it’s nylon-stitched and “Made in the USA.”

I figure Mom and Dad bought the mitt for me somewhere between 1960 and 1962. I still have its predecessor – a Franklin leather mitt that’s also as flat as home plate. In fact, we occasionally used that mitt as home plate or a base in pickup games.

My father had a borderline obsessive fear of fire, and he drilled my brothers and me on exactly what procedures we should follow should the house ever catch fire. I never said it aloud, but if the house ever did go up in smoke, the first thing I was going to grab on the way out was my trusty Woodie Held Fieldmaster.

Most if not all of the other kids in the neighborhood had modern-style hinged mitts, which snap shut as the ball hits the hand. I remember taking some sandlot ribbing over my old-style glove, and at night I’d sometimes put a ball in the pocket and wrap string or rubber bands around the mitt to try to shape it like those the other kids had.

It was not to be, and that was my good fortune.

With a flat mitt, I made sure to catch with both hands whenever possible. And as the aspiring shortstop of the future for the Cleveland Indians, I got the best jump I could on any grounder hit my way so I’d be in the best position to field it. If the ball hit the leather, there was an excellent chance I’d make the play.

Those fundamentals, reinforced by my dad’s coaching and encouragement, gave me a foundation in fielding that carried me through many years of play.

And if my house catches fire, I know exactly how to get out — after I grab my mitt.

 

Great moments in childhood: My 1966 Rocky Colavito baseball card

On this, the 78th birthday of Rocky Colavito, permit me to reminisce on one of the great events of my childhood.

Like most kids in Cleveland in the late 50s and 1960s, I idolized Rocky Colavito, my favorite Indians player.  I was only 3 when Frank Lane traded him to the Tigers for Harvey Kuenn at the beginning of the 1960 season, and I have vague memories of crying at his departure. Those “memories” are more likely an accumulation of hearing my dad and uncles and cousins griping for years about how it was the worst trade in the history of baseball. (To this day, I fervently believe it was the worst trade in the history of the sport, and there’s no dissuading me.)

In any event, Rocky returned to the Tribe a few years later to great joy in Cleveland and in our home on Erieview Road in Cleveland Heights. By this time I was in grade school and a full-fledged baseball fan whose sole goal in life was to play shortstop for the Tribe. I was also an avid baseball card collector.

In those days, Topps — the only maker then — released cards in series. The first series with about 120 cards came out around the time the teams were breaking camp from spring training and heading north. At 9 years old, I couldn’t wait for the new cards to arrive. I remember talking my mom into getting me a box of “wax packs” of cards to mark the start of the year.

In the first pack I opened, there was Sandy Koufax, card No. 100. That was a great start, but I really marked success by the number of Indians I got in each pack.

A few weeks later, we went to visit my maternal grandmother, who lived in a senior citizens’ apartment complex a few suburbs over in Mayfield Heights. (Cleveland, scooped out by a glacier even longer ago than the 1948 World Series championship, is big on “Heights.”) Any trip to a drugstore was a chance to see if I could cadge a few dimes out of Mom to buy a pack or two of cards, and little did I know what wonder awaited.

Turns out that the long-forgotten shop we visited that weekend stocked the Series 2 cards from Topps. And Rocky Colavito – the golden ticket of my fourth-grade dreams — was in Series 2 at No. 150.

I don’t remember the circumstances, but one of the cards I got that day was a Colavito.

This was 1966, so I couldn’t share my joy on Facebook or boast about it on Twitter. The news had to wait until the 10 a.m. recess bell released us from Mrs. Thelma Ward’s class at St. Margaret Mary School in South Euclid. Recess was a time to see who had added what cards, and I had Rocky.

Within a minute or two, while the girls skipped rope or did whatever they did on their half of playground, every boy in the school surrounded me hoping to get a look at the Colavito card.

For a skinny kid with no discernible athletic skills, this was the highlight of my young life. At 4 feet 3 inches tall or thereabouts, I was the big man on campus.

Five decades later, I still remember that cold and overcast spring day clearly, still feeling the crush of the crowd at my shoulders as everyone craned to get a look at “The Rock.”

For all this time, I’ve told the story in the context that getting the Colavito card was extra special because it came the spring that Rocky came back to the Tribe. But I looked it up tonight and that wasn’t the case. Colavito returned to Cleveland the year before, in 1965, when his Topps card had one of those hilarious rubouts of the logo on the cap of his prior team, the Kansas City Athletics. I never got that card. It was No. 380 and probably came out in the summer after school had let out.

That slight adjustment to the story notwithstanding, getting the Colavito card was one of the great moments of my boyhood and remains one of my most cherished memories.

Thanks, Rocky, and happy birthday.

The Cleveland Browns and a brand new NFL season

The Thursday night game between the Redskins and Giants notwithstanding, today marks the real kickoff to the 2008 National Football League season. In celebration, I took my natty corduroy Cleveland Browns cap out into the warm California sun for a morning portrait.

Classic Cleveland Browns corduroy cap

Classic Cleveland Browns corduroy cap

I call this a classic Browns cap because it dates not from the present franchise but from the last years of the old Browns, the team that the sinsister Art Modell carted off to Baltimore to become the dead-to-me Ravens.

The original Browns started in the All American Football Conference that was folded into the NFL in the early 1950s. My early childhood centered on baseball, and football didn’t enter my consciousness until early grade school. In fact, my earliest pro football memory is of the day of the 1964 championship game in which the Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts (another team that would ultimately and appallingly be wrenched from the hearts of its fans). The game was blacked out on television in Cleveland, so my dad sent me to the attic to move our antenna around so we could catch the game on a Toledo station.

The demise of the old Browns roughly coincided with my move to California, where I’ve since attached my primary allegiance to the San Francisco 49ers and, given a few beers and the right opponent, the Oakland Raiders. I have not bonded with the new Browns, but should they advance to the playoffs, I’ll be pulling for them hard. And yeah, I want them to crush the Dallas Cowboys today.

In the meantime, I reserve my Browns cap mainly for the winter months, always hoping for the delightful contrast of white snowflakes settling on its rich brown bill.

The Tris Speaker Baseball League cap

For those of us who grew up in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, Ohio, the intertwined “T” and “S” logo of the Tris Speaker Baseball League is a powerful icon. Everyone who played wore the same red and black wool cap.

Here, my Adam’s apple jutting prominently and skinny belt sagging,  I’m wearing my first uniform in 1968. I played for the Red Sox in the Junior American division, and we were one of the top teams. The league in the 1960s manifest the first stirrings of the “don’t hurt the kids’ self-esteem” fad that was to flourish two or three decades later. No official standings or statistics were kept (although I recorded every victory, loss, at bat and error in a small spiral-bound diary). The league’s idea was not to let the players get too big a head for winning or be wounded too much for losing. The season was rife with rumors that top players from the best teams would be traded to the lesser teams to balance things out, although no one was traded to or from our team.

I suspect the caps were uniform throughout the league to save money, but they were nice hats with a partial leather sweat band in front and elastic in the back to accommodate all head sizes.  We had to raise money to pay for the uniforms, and for many years a springtime ritual in Cleveland was for players in uniform to go knocking door to door and ask for donations into a canister emblazoned with the Tris Speaker logo. If you contributed, you’d receive a TS decal to affix in a door window so other players would know not to come begging.

There wasn’t a game when I didn’t dirty my uniform by sliding or sprawling in the dirt. My mother complained about always having to wash it, but I suspect doing so was a labor of love for her, knowing how much I loved to play.

I can’t swear that I thought so at the time, but I’ve long realized the significance of playing on the Red Sox in suburban Cleveland in a league named for the Hall of Fame outfielder who split his best years between the BoSox and Indians. Alas, the CH-UH recreational baseball league appears no longer to be named for the Gray Eagle. I can find no trace of the name on the Cleveland Heights municipal Web site.

I played one year in the junior divison as an infielder and pitcher, and made the all-star team. The next spring at tryouts, I made a spectacular diving catch at shortstop and knew right then that I’d clinched a spot in the senior division. I didn’t realize I was in for two straight years of misery, getting put on a team where the manager’s son played my position, shortstop. The first year I mostly sat the bench and played the late innings, much of it in the outfield. The second year wasn’t any different.

Forty years later, I still think back how much hinged on spearing that one line drive. If that ball were hit to me again today, I’d still go after it. That’s the only way to play the game.

My first cap

MLB replica caps were scarce when I was a kid in the 60’s. They weren’t mass-produced as they are today. I’ll have to comb through the hundreds of slides my father took to find the earliest evidence I can of my wearing a ballcap. I’m guessing I probably had a small-billed cap with a “little league” (pun on small) kiddie outfit when I was a toddler. At one point I had a “wishbone C” Indians’ cap when I was in grade school, but I can’t remember how I came by it.

I do, however, distinctly remember getting my first “real” baseball cap. It was handed down to me by Butch Lowrie, a neighbor and the father of my friend Bobby Lowrie, who lived down the street from us. Mr. Lowrie worked at the Cleveland Press and played on the company baseball team. He gave me one of his Press baseball caps, which quickly became one of my most treasured possessions.

It was the real deal: a fitted wool cap with a leather sweat band. The cap was black with a red block “P” on the front, similar to a Pittsburgh Pirates cap.

I wore the cap everywhere, all day long, so much so that I can remember adults and other kids warning me that if I kept wearing it, I’d go bald. (I did not.)

That cap presaged two of the great loves of my life: baseball and newspapers. I carried the Press for several years in my neighborhood, and I eventually would make newspapers a career. The industry is in lamentable straits today, and I see many troubling signs reminiscent of the last years of the Press. It gamely tried to innovate and then merely to survive before succumbing to The Plain Dealer and the reality of late 20th Century journalism, which pitilessly decreed that only one newspaper could survive in a market.

This 21st Century will likely determine whether any newspaper can survive in any town.