Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A GIRL AT HER BEST by Peter Nolan Smith

My introduction to baseball came on a warm Saturday morning in April of 1958. My older brother and and I was watching my favorite show, THE THREE STOOGES. Moe was slapping Larry and Curley. My father entered the living room of our house on Falmouth Foresides and shut off the Zenith black-and-white.

“It’s too nice a day to waste in front of the boob tube.”

Coming from the age of radio my father hated TV’s grasp on his children.

“But___”

“No, buts. I have something for you both out in the backyard.”

“Yes, sir.”

My older brother and I looked at each other.

We hadn’t wrong anything wrong and our school grades were good.

“Stop dawdling.” He motioned for us to follow him and we left the house by the rear door.

Only two weeks ago the last snow had melted from the ground and the old cold crept into my sneakers, but green buds sprouted from the branches of trees separating our yard from the Davis family and at the end of the street the sun sparkled off Portland harbor.

April would soon be May.

“Here.” My father handed us two brand-new leather baseball gloves.

“It’s time for you to learn how to play baseball. Put them on.”

My older brother and I had seen baseball games on TV and we slipped the gloves onto our left hands. I could barely close the stiff leather glove.

“They’ll get softer the more you play ball.”

My father gave us two Boston Red Sox baseball caps. They were our team. We put them on our heads.

“What do you say?” He hefted a baseball in his right hand.

“Thank you, sir.”

“First things first and that’s learning how to catch. Go stand over there.”

He pointed in two directions and the three of us formed a triangle. My father had served with the Army Air Force in World War II and fought the Great Maine Fire of 1949. He believed that there was nothing more American than baseball.

“Here’s how you throw.”

My father demonstrated the overhand pitch several times and we mimicked the motion.

Both of us had thrown rocks at seagulls at the fishing pier beneath the bluff. The movement felt the same.

“Throwing is easy. Catching the ball is hard.”

He underhanded the ball to my brother. It bounced off his glove. Frunk retrieved the ball and my father said, “Throw it to your brother.”

His toss veered to the left. I ran to the ball and grab it. My father opened his glove and I chucked the ball at him.

It hit the house.

“Nice arm.”

After an hour we had improved to the point where we could throw the ball between us several times in a row.

“Okay, now it’s time for batting.”

My father demonstrated the proper stance for a right-handed batter.

“Legs apart with your body square to the plate and your eyes on the mound."

“Yes, sir.”

“Ted Williams can see the stitching of the ball.”

“He’s the best.” The Red Sox legend’s number was 9.

I was 6.

Maybe one day you'll be as good as him."

"Yes, sir," I answered knowing that my mind was better suited to Hide and Seek. No one could find my secret places.

“Okay, let’s play some ball.”

My father crouched behind the piece of wood serving as the plate and told my brother to throw a strike.

The seven year-old looked over to my mother in the breezeway. She nodded her approval and he chucked the ball with every ounce of his skinny body’s strength. His first pitch thudded into my father’s glove. The bat never left my shoulder. I had been too scared of the ball.

“You’re supposed to swing at the ball.” My father stood up and acted out the motion of batting with an imaginary bat.

"Yes, sir."

“Next time swing.” He squatted behind me and smacked his fist into the glove.

“Yes, sir.”

I swung at the next pitch with closed eyes.

Something struck the bat and my hands tingled with shock of the accidental meeting of two objects. I opened my eyes. The ball floated into our neighbors’ backyard.

The eleven year-old girl with short red hair fielded the ball on one bounce and winged it to my father. His clean-shaven face grimaced from the impact in his glove. My father was an electrical engineer and he tried to analyze the source of her strength. The girl was mostly bones.

“That’s some arm.”

“My father wanted a boy, so here I am.” The freckled redhead was dressed in a Tom Boy tee-shirt and jeans. Her sneakers were well-worn Keds. “I’m Charlene.”

“You want to play some ball?”

“I’d love to.” She ran into our year, pulling on a glove.

We killed the rest of the morning throwing the ball with the lanky girl. My father stopped to pick up my errant throws. There had been many.

Her mother came out to introduce herself. The slender blonde worked as a nurse for Maine Medical and her husband captained an oil freighter out of Bath. They were originally from Bar Harbor.

“That’s some baseball player you have.” My father nodded at Charlene, who sliced at the air with the bat.

“Her father played semi-pro. I told him to quit and get a real job or else we were through.”

Charlene’s mother had a nice smile. Her teeth were perfect. “I gave him a girl, but baseball is a love they share.”

My mother invited Charlene’s mom inside for tea and a chat. My sisters sat on the porch. My best friend, Chaney, rounded the corner of the house. One look at Charlene and he ran back home for his glove. Some older boys appeared to mock our playing with a girl. One was our school bully, Skeeter Kressee. My father challenged them to a game.

Five on five with my father as the umpire.

Charlene knocked in four runs. It was my first win in a game and while most boys in America worshipped Mickey Mantle, Charlene became my baseball goddess.

Every day after school my older brother, my best friend, Chaney, and Charlene practiced throwing, fielding, and hitting.

By the end of May my older brother and Chaney could toss a baseball over our two-story house’s roof.

I tried without any success. other than twice breaking my sisters’ bedroom window.

After I broke my sister's bedroom window Charlene taught me the mechanics of throwing. Her father must been a great instructor, because after an hour my tosses cleared the peak by ten feet.

That spring three other neighborhood boys joined our team and we played 7-on 7 pick-up games in the dirt lot next to Route 1. Charlene was our ringer. We routed the boys our age. Our winning streak continued against 3rd and 4th graders. My father coached us on the weekend. Some 5th graders came close to beating us in early June, but Charlene smacked a flat pitch so hard that the ball cleared the state highway. We called ourselves the Red Sox and there were no Yankees in our town good enough to challenge our team.

We were six boys and one girl.

One afternoon Chaney, my older brother, and I came home from Pinewood School to find Charlene sobbing on the front steps. Her Wilson glove and bat lay on the ground.

We watched her for a minute without saying a word.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Leave her alone.” My older brother elbowed my ribs.

“Did someone bother you?” I looked up the street. Skeeter Kressee was tormenting a neighbor’s cat. I picked up the bat.

“It’s not Skeeter.” Charlene wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt. “I tried out for Little League and the coaches told me to go home and bake a cake.”

“They would have never told Frank Malzone that,” Chaney barked with boyish anger.

“Frank Malzone is a man.” My brother Frunk idolized the Red Sox 3rd baseman.

“And Charlene is the best player in our town.” My favorite Red Sox was Pete Runnel. I had traded two Frank Malzone baseball card for one of his. “Did they see you hit?”

“No, they said girls should play with dolls not with balls.” Charlene walked away from our house without her baseball and glove. “You can keep those. I won’t be needing them anymore.”

That afternoon after we lost 15-0 to the 3rd graders and that evening at the dinner table I told my father about her not being allowed to play Little League.

My mother frowned at the information.

“You can’t always get what you want.”

My mother had given up a singing career to raise five children, even though this winter the strength of her voice had stopped the Portland Cathedral choir in mid-chorus of AVE MARIA.

“She’s a very good baseball player. Better than I was at that age.” My father appreciated talent. He watched THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW every Sunday night. “They should have let her try out.”

“Boys and men don’t like playing with girls or women.” My mother served my father another portion of roast beef. “Mostly because they’re scared of losing.”

“You may be right.” My father cut into the meat. He loved my mother’s cooking. “But she deserves a try-out and I’m going to get her one.”

“Good luck.” My mother was sincere in her wishes. “But don’t expect much.”

“Why not?” I had to ask.

“Because the boundaries between male and female are written in stone. Men wear pants and women wear dresses. That’s just the way it is.”

“So I shouldn’t help Charlene?” asked my father.

“No, I’m not saying that, but you should be careful about getting her hopes up.”

“I won’t tell her, but I’ll get her to play.” My father winked at my older brother and me like he had a magic lamp in his back pocket. “You two don’t say anything to Charlene or your friends. You can keep a secret, right?”

“Yes, sir,” My brother and I answered in unison. We were good sons and did as we were told 99% of the time.

“Because telling a secret means it won’t happen.”

“Just like telling someone your wish after snapping a wishbone.”

Frunk and I fought for wishes with dried chicken bones. He had won each and every time and I believed that his wish was to always break off the larger part of the wishbone.

We bought our empty plates to the kitchen sink and went upstairs to our room. Our lights went out at 9 and I listened to the Red Sox-Yankees game on a rocket-shaped Japanese radio powered by an alligator clip attached to the steel of my bed.

I fell asleep before the game’s end, but the Bronx Bombers never lost to us.

The next few days were rainy, cold, and windy for the coast of Maine. Our baseball gloves remained on their hooks. We didn’t see Charlene during that time. She went to school and came back home before us.

Twice I went over to her house.

No one answered my knock on the door.

Friday night my father returned from work in Portland.

"You didn’t say anything to Charlene about the try-out?”

“No.”

“To your friends?”

“No.”

“Your teachers?”

“No.”

“C’mon, we’re going to talk with Charlene.”

“Is she going to play Little League?”

“No.”

“That’s not fair.”

“A lot of things in life aren’t fair. This is one of them. C’mon on.”

I grabbed Charlene’s baseball glove and bat.

My older brother, father, and I crossed the backyard.

My father rang the doorbell and Charlene’s mother opened the door.

“Can I help you?” She was wearing curlers and cotton shift.

"I’d like to speak with Charlene. It’s about baseball. I tried to get her a try-out, but everyone said that she couldn’t”

“She already knows that.” Charlene’s wife lit a cigarette and offered my father one. “She’s giving up on baseball. Talking to her won’t change her mind. This is a man’s world. She knows that now. So there’s nothing to talk about. Thanks for coming over, but that’s the way it is and she’ll have to live with it.”

“But___” I looked up the stairs, hoping to see Charlene.

“No buts.” My father lit the cigarettes with a Zippo lighter. Charlene’s mom leaned closer to him.

They inhaled at the same time.

“Charlene has made her decision and so has the Little League. It isn’t right, but like her mother said, “That’s the way it is.” Thanks for your time.”

“Thanks for your effort.” Charlene’s mother smiled at my father. They nodded, as if they were allies in a greater fight.

“What about her glove and bat?” I was sure that I could convince Charlene to play with us. I just needed the chance.

“Leave them here.” Her mother took them out of my hands. “Her father can decide what to do with them when he gets back home.”

“Have a good weekend.” We returned to our house and shut the door.

My mother and father spoke in the dining room. We sat in the kitchen. They were having an adult conversation. Nothing else was said about Charlene’s playing baseball. My parents became good friends with her mother and father. The two couples went out together. My mother always said that they had a good time.

Charlene grew her hair longer that summer and she started wearing dresses.

I tried to speak with her, but she ignored me.

She was almost 12 and I was definitely 6.

Two years later we moved from Maine to Boston. My older brother and I were on the same team in the town league. I told the other kids about Charlene. One of the boys laughed at my story. He pitched for us and dreamed of playing in Fenway Park.

“Girls can’t throw a ball.”

“Can too.”

“Can not. They aren't made for sports. Only playing with dolls."

I punched him in the nose and he cried to the coach.

I was thrown off the team for two games. The suspension didn’t matter too much to me. I was no good at baseball, but I retained some of Charlene’s skill and opposing players would shout from the bench.

“You throw like a girl.”

I ignored the insults.

My throws from right field reached the plate fast and hard.

Same as Charlene’s throw, because that girl knew how to play baseball and on the field she was a girl better than any boy.

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