In the beginning was the game, the game was baseball and baseball was King. This was an article of faith in the little Negro community of Plainview, Ga. (pop. 222), until one Sunday afternoon in the winter of 1946 when two heretics began to preach a new doctrine. My brother Benny, age 16, and I, age 12, were worse than heretics: we were revolutionaries who master-minded the plot that overthrew the crown.
It took some overthrowing. Baseball had been there from the start, and no one could remember when, how, why, or where it came from. This included Grandpa Moses who, at 96, was the community's historian, and his memory was considered infallible, especially by the boys. He could tell stories by the hour about The War, particularly the year General Sherman and his little boys in blue, as Grandpa Moses called them, paid a visit to Plainview. But for the life of him. Grandpa Moses could not recall when the first pitch was thrown in a baseball game in Plainview. This annoyed him and anytime the question arose he would, in a very abrupt manner, say that it was before his time and the subject was dropped. Despite this one shortcoming, Grandpa Moses was one of the most avid baseball fans in the area.
Our schoolteacher, Miss Loveall, had her theory on when the game first arrived in Plainview. She claimed it went back to the early weeks of the Pleistocene period. But Grandpa Moses said she was full of beans, because he had never heard of no Pleistocene War.
The high school over at Madison, six miles away, played a game called basketball. But in order to play on the team you had to go to high school, and no one in Plainview wanted to do that, except maybe a few girls. Anyway, basketball was considered a town-folks game. For us country boys, baseball was the only game, and we played it all year round.
We played it, that is, until Benny and I learned about a mysterious sport called football. We caught some glimpses of it in the newsreels at the theater in Madison. It looked rough and glorious. Later we listened to games on the radio. Bill Stern was our favorite announcer: he could make football sound almost as exciting as a Joe Louis tight. We saw the faces of Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, Charlie Trippi and Johnny Lujack scowling from magazine covers, and our hearts turned over. Benny and I—with guilty thrills—knew we were being sacrilegious; but we just couldn't help it. Football had bewitched us. It promised more action, more excitement than baseball. We wanted to play it. Treason or no, we would play it.
On the morning of the revolution, Benny and I went to church. We whispered to the other kids that we knew about a new game called football—and we suggested that we get up a game that afternoon. It was a wicked suggestion to make—and in church at that. Everyone in Plainview knew Sunday afternoons were for playing baseball. It would be a kind of sin to play any other game. But sin has its allurements, even in church. The older folks shushed us, but after church we found we had made some converts. We were going to have a football game.
It was a beautiful cloudless afternoon. The temperature was in the 50s. The game was to be played in the pasture that we used as a baseball held, located across the road from Grandpa Moses' house. It was plenty big enough for football, unfenced, with the grass just beginning to turn brown. We always played baseball on the end near the road because the cows grazed on the opposite end, and everytime we played too near the cows Grandpa Moses claimed they got upset over getting hit by line drives and wouldn't give milk properly for several days.
Grandpa Moses' house stood about 50 yards from the road. It was a large, two-story frame house always in need of whitewashing. Here Grandpa Moses lived with most of his children, and most of their children, and their children's children. Grandpa Moses was not my real grandpa, but everyone, including the white folks, called him Grandpa out of respect.
His house served as a meeting place, and every Sunday following church services the front porch, steps and yard facing the road would be jammed with people coming by to just sit and talk, sometimes until way past sundown. The talk was good—and Grandpa Moses brewed some of the best home brew in the state.
This Sunday the crowd was there as usual. The men on one end of the porch discussing, between sips of beer, the weather, crop planning, and particularly baseball, since everyone had been hearing about some guy named Robinson who was going to be playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers the following year.
On the other end of the porch sat the women, the young ones nursing babies, talking women talk, mostly about how dirty the boys got their clothes playing that baseball.
Usually Grandpa Moses sat in his rocking chair, but today he was inside the house near the fire, nursing a bad cold. In the middle of the big front yard lay OP Sport, Grandpa Moses' best hound dog, asleep.
On the baseball field there were 27 bodies huddled together. The 27th was Shep, Ol' Sport's son, who refused to leave even when he was kicked. Benny and I selected a team apiece. We had 13 players on a side, because there were 26 who wanted to play and we decided that our revolution needed all the support it could get. We made up the rules as we went along.
The only ball we owned was a baseball, which was really a tennis ball. When kicking off and punting we had to throw the ball. For extra points we had to run or pass. Being the opposing quarterbacks, Benny and I decided against using numbers when calling signals, because most of the fellows weren't too familiar with figures. Instead, we used the names of automobiles. This proved much easier, because there was not a single one among us who couldn't name the make and model of any car on sight. Our vehicular signal system had its drawbacks, though. Some fellows had a tendency to jump offside when the name of their favorite car was rattled off by the quarterback, instead of waiting for the ball to leave the center's hand. But eventually the system began to work.
Benny received for his team and ran the ball up the pasture for a touchdown without a hand being laid on him. Shep chased him across the goal barking like crazy. Shep took to football. Before the kickoff, Benny had instructed his biggest player, Big Boy, who was 16 and weighed 175, to block me out of the play. Big Boy clipped me beautifully. We didn't have a rule against clipping.
Then my side made two quick scores. The first came when I carried the ball around their left side—away from Big Boy—for some 40 yards. They moved Big Boy to their left side, and I ran. The next time I crossed around the right side—away from Big Boy—for about 25 yards.
Then Benny got wise. He pulled Big Boy back and told him to watch me and move the same way I did on every play. For the rest of the game I was woozy from many encounters with Big Boy. Sometimes I fell from just looking at him. After this we lost the lead on two quick touchdown passes from Benny to Bugs, an end.
Then I got wise. At fullback I put my biggest player, Hawg, who was about the same dimensions as Big Boy and the most promising young logger at the local sawmill. I had him follow Big Boy on every one of their offensive plays. The rest of the team I split, one half to blitz Benny and the other half to blitz Bugs downfield. It worked.
The guys on both teams were now blocking, tackling, holding, clipping, biting and gouging. With rules like ours, football was even more exhilarating than we had hoped.
Play now centered around Big Boy and Hawg. It was Big Boy and Hawg, Hawg and Big Boy, on every play—an earlier day Jim Brown-Sam Huff match. The fact that there was bad blood between their daddies may have livened things up.
Meanwhile, back at Grandpa Moses' house, the grownups had stopped talking about the weather, crops, kids and even baseball. They were all watching the game. At first they had paid very little attention to us, but as the pileups started getting higher they got interested. They thought it was baseball and that we were simply fighting more than usual. Some of the men walked out to the road for a better view. The ones remaining on the porch stood up to watch. The mothers looked on in horror, thinking of what Monday's wash would be like. Some mothers were in favor of stopping the game, but the fathers were against that. They didn't want it said that their sons had run away from a fight.
Watching the game
Peering from behind the curtains of the front window, with a befuddled look on his face, sat Grandpa Moses himself, in his rocking chair, watching the game. Up the road apiece from the house stood a dust-covered, used-to-be-blue '36 Ford. Around it were grouped a man, a woman and three young children. The woman held a newborn baby in her arms. They all wore their Sunday clothes, and all were standing there, shading their eyes from the sun, watching us play. The little baby was crying. These were the white folks who lived on the other side of the community and were on they" way home from church. Ol' Sport woke out of a deep sleep and lay in the yard with one eye open, watching the game. Belle, Ol' Sport's wife (I suppose you'd call her that) had been lying under the porch nursing her latest litter but, hearing all the commotion her son Shep was creating, she came out and sat on her haunches, directly behind Ol' Sport, watching the game. The puppies crawled all over her attempting to resume their interrupted meal. Sam, the cat, who had been napping in the pecan tree in the front yard, was now wide awake, watching the game. At the far end of the field the cows had stopped grazing and stood dumbly—watching the game.
On the field itself, Shep was impartially barking at both teams. With his long ears flopping in the breeze he was in on every play, chasing after all ballcarriers until they had been tackled and smothered under the pileup. Hawg kept pounding away at the line and being hit by Big Boy, and vice versa.
It was getting late, and local custom required that every youngster 15 and under had to be home before sundown in order to do his evening chores. The game ended by decree. Both sides claimed victory, 49-48, due to two disputes over extra points.
The disputes were soon forgotten but not the game. The word spread through the community that the kids had a new game—a wild new game in which it was all right to bash the other guys without first picking a fight. Baseball was no longer King: it had been dethroned. Sunday afternoons now found new faces at Grandpa Moses' place. People from far and wide were arriving by car, truck, wagon, buggy, horseback, muleback, tractor, bicycle and on foot to see the action. Some brought their lunches, and for those who didn't Louella, Grandpa Moses' youngest granddaughter, sold barbecue sandwiches for a nickel apiece. Grandpa Moses' home brew went up another nickel. Betting was sinful, but Plainview was getting used to sin. Grandpa Moses prospered to the point where he could afford to whitewash his house. The front porch became a sort of grandstand, where his best friends sat in the most comfortable chairs with him, of course, in the rocking chair, explaining the plays. He was as good as Bill Stern.
Eventually, other communities picked up the game, and we were soon getting challenges from as far away as Springfield, Flat Rock, Smyrna and Barrow Grove. One of the men in the neighborhood promised us a real football, providing we sort of let him show us a few pointers he had learned while watching from the sidelines. The idea of the football sounded great, but we kids vetoed the thought of some grown-up coming in to tell us how to run the option.
The mothers were the only holdouts. They didn't care for football at all. It took husbands and sons away on Sunday, and they got home late for dinner. And Monday's wash was worse than it had ever been, not to mention Tuesday's sewing. My family moved away from Plain-view not long after all this, and I've never been back since. I wonder sometimes whether the crowd still gathers on Grandpa Moses' porch of a Sunday afternoon, watching the game.