As spring baseball training gets into full swing in western Florida the old folks, those who have got theirs and are taking it easy, hang out around the ball parks to recapture the nostalgic sights and sounds of the game; players chattering on the field like a bunch of guinea hens, the crack of many bats sounding like a squad of woodpeckers at work, the grating rasp of spikes on concrete, balls rising high into the sunshine and posses of players running across the outfield like something was after them.
Spring training is a story of youth and old age; agile young athletes frisking on the field, and in the stands crowds of elderly men and women, gray-haired, dignified and tolerantly amused. These oldsters wander from field to field sizing up the seven teams in this baseball complex centered around St. Petersburg. This year I joined these lucky septuagenarians and after careful study I can say that all teams look good—even the bat boys.
The last time I attended spring training was back in the Pleistocene period when the Giants trained at San Antonio, Texas. My job of selling soda pop at the field was only a subtle ruse to enable me to associate with those mighty men. One day I sold only three bottles of pop. Instead of hawking my wares I was out shagging balls for my heroes. I'd run my legs off and like it, but the big moments came when they'd put a glove on me and knock the ball straight into the sky. If I missed it as it returned to earth, I became the object of hooting derision. If I caught the ball it would knock me to the ground and they'd all laugh. But I didn't care—I was playing in the big league.
Following that I drifted away from spring training, drifted for almost 40 years in fact. But here I was again, right in the thick of it, talking to players, meeting managers and wandering around the field during practice. In sizing up the teams I discovered that baseball players have thick fingers, thick wrists and thick necks. It was explained to me that a ballplayer's neck is an extension of his shoulder muscles. One cynic said that in some instances they extend even higher, but I ignored this observation.
My first visit was to Al Lang Field, a tidy little ball park with palm trees along one side and Tampa Bay on the other. Sea gulls hovered over the outfield and a mockingbird was singing behind first base. The Cardinals were at batting practice and the crack of the bats and the plop of balls into gloves was like music. I was introduced to Fred Hutchinson, the manager, a big, dark-haired man of few words.
We had a little talk about the sea gulls that come down to search the diamond for anything edible. Jim Toomey, the publicity man, said they hadn't had any trouble with the pelicans as yet.
"They feed different," said Hutch. (Always call a ballplayer by his nickname.) Several others joined the group and somebody asked, "How does it look this year, Hutch?" There was a lengthy silence while Hutch pondered the query. Finally he looked straight into the eyes of his questioner.
"Our club looks pretty good," he said. Everybody nodded significantly. I soon learned that the most-asked question during early spring training is, "How does it look this year?" The answer is always pretty much the same, too. Not once did I hear a manager or a player say, "It looks awful."
I quickly learned, too, that the opening gambit in a conversation with a ballplayer is, "How's your weight?" The answer goes, "I came in about eight pounds overweight, but I'm all right now."
Batting practice got under way, and in time I noticed a boy outside the wire fence acting in a strange manner. He kept bobbing and weaving as if in some heathen dance. Then I noticed he was wearing a ball glove and I realized that, although out in the street, he was right in the game. Finally a ball sailed out of the park and, sure enough, the boy made a neat catch right against the window of a green sedan. They told me that sometimes long fouls go over the street and land in Tampa Bay. When they do, the boys dive right in after them. I'd never seen balls shagged in salt water so I watched a while, but none went quite that far. Too bad.
At Miller Huggins Field the Yankees had knocked off practice because of a heavy shower and were just coming out of the locker room. A crowd of tourists hung around for glimpses of the great. I saw a ring of men and women standing around a parked automobile, all staring at something inside. I went over to see what the attraction was and there sat Yogi Berra with absolutely no expression on his face, apparently oblivious of the ring of admirers around him. Not wanting to look at Yogi for too long, I moved away. Mickey Mantle came out and the crowd turned and followed him. Mickey looked good.
THE TALKING MOON
Went out to dinner that night with Wally Moon, height 6 feet, weight 175 pounds, born Bay, Ark., lifetime major league average .299. (If you study those little rosters they hand out you can soon spout baseball statistics with the best of 'em.) Wally said he came in four pounds overweight but had worked it off. These guys talk about weight more than women do.
At dinner Wally started talking baseball. He talked it steadily for four hours. If the subject was changed the Cardinal outfielder got right back to baseball. It was a delight to me, but I was astounded by his utter absorption with the game. During dinner they held a fashion show. Never in this world would I have imagined I'd be attending a fashion show with a major league ballplayer. Nifty models undulated along in skimpy beach wear and alluring sports dresses. They paraded in the center of the dining room and then wandered among the tables. And what did Wally Moon do? He kept right on talking baseball. Yes sir, he never even gave 'em a tumble. (Mrs. Moon please note.)
Through this and subsequent conversations I learned that the participants in our national game talk about it most of the time they are not playing it. For hours on end they'll delve into facets of the game I never knew existed. This held true at breakfast the next morning with Birdie Tebbetts, manager of the Cincinnati Redlegs. Birdie talked a blue streak all through the meal and it was all about baseball. When we rose from the table he grinned out of that round face of his and said, "I'm sorry you did all the talking and didn't let me say anything." I hadn't said more than eight words.
Birdie came in overweight but, being a manager, he intends to stay that way. But he said weight was a fetish of his as far as his players are concerned. He also rides herd on their social life. He makes them wear neckties at dinner in the hotel and generally conduct themselves in accordance with their positions as idols of the fans. He pointed out that a player's career rises to a peak and then turns sharply downward.
"You cast a long shadow in baseball and you have to go back over it," he said. In addition to telling a good story Birdie is something of a philosopher. In delineating some of the headaches of a manager he described a type of rookie who is the bane of all managers. This is the guy who is usually found standing in the shade during practice. He is a holdout his first year, and when you want him to do something he usually does something else.
"Finally you blow your top and send him back to the minors," Birdie said. "Then in the minors he pitches 13 games—wins 12 and loses one. The next year he's back looking at you like this. [Birdie assumed an expression that was at the same time innocent and defiant.] Then you know he's got you."
Birdie sat there shaking his head in a manner which indicated that a manager's life is anything but rosy.
THE RUNNING FIRE
Went over to Tampa to watch the White Sox in a practice game at AI Lopez Field. Had a little talk with Al Lopez, the manager, who said his squad looked pretty good this year. During the game the White Sox players kept up a running fire of chatter and catcalls, like kids in a sandlot game. I noticed that ballplayers even argue with the umpires during a practice game when the outcome means nothing.
Umpires show up for spring training, too. I wondered whether they practice scowling, glaring and turning their backs, but I was loth to ask. They looked just as grim as they do during the season and I didn't want to get into any argument with an umpire. Instead, I listened to the mockingbird singing just outside the fence.
During the White Sox game it was brought home to me why nicknames are always used for ballplayers when I heard somebody yell, "Come on, Minnie." It would be pretty awkward to yell, "Come on, Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas Minoso."
Next day drove over to Clearwater to watch the Phillies work out in Jack Russell Stadium. Nice little ball park, but the only one I found without a mockingbird. As usual the crowd of 500 in the stands was made up almost entirely of old folks, most of them elderly couples. Wondering what phases of the game they discussed during the action, I moseyed through the crowd with one ear stuck out. I picked up plenty of information—Elsie hasn't been feeling well for a year and the doctors can't tell what's the matter with her. The Wilsons have built a new house on Elm Street. There's a new drugstore going up across the street from the foundry. Old man Johnson is adding to his furniture store. Jim's boy was dog-bit.
THE BROKEN SILENCE
Lengthy listening indicated that most of the talk in the stands was about the old home town, about driving conditions or what they ought to see in Florida. But there was plenty of baseball talk, too. Two women put their gray heads together and one said, "They say the Phillies have lost about $2,000 worth of baseballs so far."
"You see, the boys pick them up and sell them."
A lot of grandfathers in the stands went deeper into the subject, discussing the players and the teams. Some of these oldsters wore baseball-type caps. A strange silence prevailed, broken only by sedate applause when a good play was made.
"I wouldn't want to catch a baseball now," said one obvious octogenarian. "My hands are too soft."
When Richie Ashburn was walked in the practice game a grandmother chuckled and said, "Look, they're even afraid of him on his own team."
It was nice, though, when one very elderly woman in a prim bonnet demanded of Willie Jones, "Come on, Willie, bring in a run." She didn't shout it out but spoke it in firm tones of command. Willie did what he was told.
Went over to Plant Field, hard by the University of Tampa with its minarets, on a tip that the Redlegs were going to have some sliding practice. The tip proved good, for Birdie Tebbetts was standing in front of a group of 24 solemn-faced players, giving them a lecture on the technique of sliding into base without breaking an ankle. Then they started to slide.
Birdie stood by a sack in a sand pit and one by one the players rushed at him. When they reached the edge of the pit they went into a slide. As each player came to a stop Birdie criticized the slide or gave some word of praise. On and on they went, slide after slide. Each man slid four times, making 96 slides in all. That is not exactly right, for Birdie stopped the last man as he was about to dash for the pit.
"It would be just my luck for the last guy to break his leg," Birdie said. It seems that Mr. Tebbetts is superstitious as well as being a philosopher. Then the players knocked the sand out of their shoes and went onto the field to play some pepper.
THE HELPING HAND
In playing pepper one man with a bat faces three or four with gloves at a distance of about 30 feet. The batter keeps knocking the ball to the others and sometimes they keep it up a long time without missing. I went over and stood behind a wire fence to watch a little pepper being played on the other side. A high ball came over the fence and landed behind me.
"A little help, please," said one of the players. I shagged the ball and threw it over the fence.
"Thank you," said the batter. Pretty soon another ball came over the fence. I shagged that one, too. After a little of this I began to feel silly. Why should I be out here shagging balls for these guys? This squad gets paid a total of some $400,000 a year for doing just this sort of thing. But I kept on doing it and suddenly I realized why.
I was back where I started in big league baseball; back in the Pleistocene period. I began to remember more things about the old ball park in San Antonio, the Bull Durham sign in right field and the high board fence. I recalled that mockingbirds used to sing around that park, too. I shagged another ball and threw it over the fence. I didn't feel a bit silly.
If you get down to Florida any springtime, be sure and go hang around the ball parks during training. It will take you back. It took me back almost 40 years. Next spring I'm coming in about 40 pounds lighter.