Each summer, in a few chosen towns throughout America, major league baseball becomes a reality for several hundred spirited boys. It leaves the TV screen and the big city and takes to the country in special form—the tryout camp. In Bluefield, W. Va., say, or Johnstown, Pa., tryout day is an occasion for the town and its youngsters. The local newspaper drums up interest and the ball field is slicked into shape; the ballplayers—from 15 to 23—cut summer school and summer jobs to show their skills and earn an approving nod and maybe even a minor league contract.
A few weeks ago the Boston Red Sox took over Cranston Stadium in Cranston, R.I. for just such a camp. In New England the Red Sox are the ball club, and 75 serious young men turned out, some with the solemn if irrational hope of making the big leagues straight off.
Among the less serious aspirants was a nearsighted, still youthful but slightly paunching journalist who hadn't swung a bat in anger in several seasons—me. Equipped with spikes, glove and notebook, I followed a straggling line of young athletes through the left-field gate of Cranston Stadium and onto the diamond. At 9 a.m. the air was already still and sultry, and the boys sat quietly along the first base line. Most were in uniform: Sal's Bakery, Antonelli Plating, Foxey Sport Club. The shirt didn't always match the pants, the fit was hardly exact, but the youngsters did look like ballplayers. I felt uncomfortable in my T shirt, khakis and blue cap, which I'd scuffed in the dirt for the proper effect.
"See that No. 42?" said one boy to a buddy. "He's good."
August 28, 1960
"Where'd he get that Sox uniform?"
"He used to play for 'em."
"Well, he played for one of their farm teams."
"They all use the same name?"
"Yeah, I guess they must. Anyway, he's good."
After a few warmup tosses, we got down to work. Larry Woodall, a Red Sox scout and former Tiger catcher, called for a third baseman and shortstop to work with the outfielders, who were going to practice throwing to the bases. I volunteered. As shortstop, I was to cut off poor throws at the third baseman's command.
The first throw came hard and straight, but it was too low, so I cut it off. There was a loud whomp, and I staggered backward. That started a bone bruise I can still feel. From then on I took the high hard ones with an exaggerated give and concentrated on smothering the low skippers. Happily, there were enough really bad throws to make me look good by comparison. Some barely made the infield dirt, others sailed 15 feet over the third baseman's head. I finished with palm aching but confidence intact.
Infield practice was almost without incident. The first grounder died conveniently at my feet, and I stabbed the second blindly on the short hop. I found my throws uniformly weak, so I started aiming at an imaginary spot several feet above the first baseman's head. This gave them the appearance of low set shots. On our final play the second baseman fielded a grounder and threw to me for the forceout at second. I relayed to first for a double play that might have caught Ford Frick by half a step.
"O.K.," yelled Woodall, "we'll start a game. No. 1s in the field, No. 2s at bat." That put us up first. Our first two hitters tripled, and I eagerly grabbed a couple of bats to loosen up. The bats felt like railroad ties. I rooted around for something lighter and for a moment contemplated using a fungo. When I finally stepped up I was choking the bat almost to the label. I swung and missed on the first pitch and found my right foot (I bat lefty) way out in the bucket. So I planted the right foot nearly in front of the plate, took three balls and finally grounded out to shortstop.
A lefty was pitching when I came to bat again. As he walked out to the mound, a grandstand critic yelled, "Hey, this kid's only in the Babe Ruth League." He did look terrible: no speed, no stuff, nothing. I struck out on three swings. After the second strike, the catcher said helpfully: "Boy, you missed that one by a lot."
In the field my main activity was talking it up in the infield. "What's the pitcher's name?" I asked the third baseman. "Beats me," he said. "Hey, Pitch, what's your first name? Gene? O.K., Gene baby. C'mon, Gene boy. No batter in there, baby." I also took a few throw-ins from the outfield. The last one came in at ankle level so that there was no chance to give with it. Wham! The bruise was rebruised; my hand hung helplessly like a fleshy hook. When a new shortstop took over after three innings I retired happily to the sidelines.
A yellow sponge
Next morning I dampened a yellow kitchen sponge and stuck it in my glove. The ball hit the glove with a strange squish, but my tender palm didn't mind the noise.
Jumping Joe Dugan, the old American League third baseman, instructed the infielders on making the double play. "Boys," said Dugan, "I feel lousy this morning. My stomach's killing me. Now there are two kinds of throws on the double play—the toss, when you're close up, and the overhand throw when you're farther away. That's how we do it in the big leagues. Now you second basemen—remember they're going to slide into you, so get out of the way. Charlie Gehringer used to step way out here and throw underhand to first."
The game started with me at shortstop again. In the first inning I juggled a hard smash and threw to first too late. Dugan, umpiring from behind the mound, said, "Nice stop, son," but even I knew it was an error. In the third, with a man on first base, I bobbled a routine bouncer. The runner beat my throw to second, but Dugan charitably called "Out" and brushed aside the catcalls with umpirical grandeur. The pitching had improved since the first day. Both boys I faced were fast, and they threw real curves. Against the first one I swung out ahead of a good curve, rolling to the first baseman. The second pitcher struck me out on a fine curve that broke in around my knees. As I left the batter's box, someone cackled, "Send me my train fare, mama. They're throwin' curves!"
There was an honest-to-goodness bonus boy at the camp—Bob McCauley, the No. 42 with the Sox uniform. McCauley, a husky 21-year-old, had been signed by Detroit in the summer of 1959 for "a little over $10,000." He went to spring training last year as a first baseman, was sent to Knoxville for a couple of days, then on to Erie of the New York-Pennsylvania League. He hit .169 in 118 games and was packed off to Holdrege (a Chicago White Sox farm) in the Nebraska State League. "I did just so-so there. I wanted to pitch some, but they always said no."
This spring McCauley was released. He still had the bonus money, but he was on his own again. He now plays around Providence whenever he can, hoping for another chance in organized ball. "I'll keep trying for one more year. After that I don't know. You can't keep going to camps. You can't become—what do they call it—an athletic bum. If I can't be a ballplayer, the hell with it. I'll do something else." Had Woodall or Dugan given him any encouragement? McCauley shook his head. "Hell, they got everybody in the state scouted already."
McCauley looked like a hitter, but he didn't hit. "He's strictly a fastball hitter," said his buddy, Al Bodington, a Providence College student, as he watched McCauley at bat. "Doesn't like curves or lefties. See that? Curves really jock him."
Both McCauley and Bodington made the camp all-star teams (I did not) that Woodall announced after the second day's workout. "Boys," said Woodall, "it's obvious we all can't be pros, but I hope you'll all keep trying. I've been in baseball since 1915. It's a wonderful game, and you'll get a lot of pleasure out of it. Now for you boys who didn't make it—this doesn't mean you're not as good or even better than those who made the team. But we just do our best in picking you. Thanks for coming out, I hope we've helped you, and be sure to come back again."
Woodall and Dugan went off to pore over their rating cards (their reports are sent back to the Boston farm office; the good players are earmarked, and scouts are told to keep an eye on them). Cars swung out onto Peerless Street, and the field was soon deserted. Behind the third-base stands a couple of 10-year-old kids were playing catch. One dropped a throw, and the other yelled, "You're a donkey. Next one who misses is an ape."