When I was growing up in the late 1940s, people in small towns in Texas and other parts of the South didn't have quite as many diversions as they do today. There were not as many TV sets; the movie theaters changed their films only on occasion; and not everybody and his teen-ager had a car. People were obviously looking for other ways to have fun.
That's about the only reason I can think of for anyone to play donkey baseball—a little-known addendum to the Great American Pastime that had its heyday about the time I was graduating from high school.
For the uninitiated, donkey baseball is baseball played while riding donkeys—the game we all know with a few additional rules. You could get off your donkey to field a ground ball or to catch a fly, but you had to bat, the pitcher had to pitch and the catcher had to catch while astride the critters.
Now there may be people—such as little girls in black patent-leather shoes and frilly dresses who haven't got time for such things, or misers who haven't finished counting their money, or preachers with the sins of the world to consider—who don't like baseball. There may be an embittered third baseman somewhere who failed his tryout with the Cardinals and never wants to hear the game mentioned again; or there may be a baseball Scrooge who could put Ebenezer to shame.
April 20, 1981
But those attitudes are nothing but the last faint flickering glimmer of a long-dead star to the way a donkey feels about the game.
I can tell you flat-out that donkeys don't like baseball. They don't like to listen to it on the radio; they don't like to watch it; and, above all, they don't like to play it. A donkey's reaction to a baseball coming his way is "When is the next bus leaving town?" And he'll try to depart at that instant to be at the station early.
But given the level of baseball we used to play in Bay City, Texas, we had to do something to draw a crowd to the ball field. So we made donkey baseball an annual affair, played on the Fourth of July, with the police battling the fire department. The only problem with this game was that neither the police department nor the fire department was heavily populated with athletes. Some of the participants, as a matter of fact, were getting a little long in the tooth and had the same attitude toward baseball that the donkeys did. Consequently, both teams recruited athletes from the high school. This involved a good deal of skulduggery, since the rules said that all players had to be members in good standing of their respective organizations.
I was on the high school baseball team and I also rodeoed, and while I wasn't particularly good at either sport, the combination was a natural for donkey baseball, automatically making me a popular draft choice.
In 1952, the fire chief found me hanging around the town square. He came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you like chicken-fried steak, don't you?"
Well, I admitted I did, though it was an unnecessary question because there wasn't a high school boy in Texas who didn't like chicken-fried steak.
Now, there's a myth circulating around in the north, the east, and other depressed areas that chili is the national dish of Texas. That is not so. Chicken-fried steak is. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that Texas athletes are bigger and taller and faster than most others from less fortunate states, is because of the nutritional value of chicken-fried steak, a commodity that male Texans begin eating at the age of one.
Next he said, "And you like cherry pie, don't you?"
I said I sure did.
"With a glass of cold milk?"
I guaranteed him that was a fact. "Well," he said, "I don't know who it was done it, since I know it'd be against the rules to try and bribe an interscholastic-league high school baseball player, but somebody has left a $25 credit down at the Texan Cafè for you, and that ought to buy a whole bunch of chicken-fried steak and milk and cherry pie."
As any nutritionist knows, you add cherry pie and milk to your natural base of chicken-fried steak and you've got a dynamite package. I would hazard a guess that any Texas high-school athlete who trains on $25 worth, given prices in those days, would not only be able to perform incredible athletic feats, but would be able to do them while riding not just a donkey, but any other four-footed animal you could name, including a bobcat.
Well, he had my attention, so I nodded when he said, "Can we expect you out at practice next week?"
Now all these deals were supposed to be kept top secret, but somehow the word always got out. Next day the police chief came by the house to see me. We got settled in the living room and he asked what I was going to be doing on the Fourth of July.
I think I told him that I had to go visit my grandmother or that I needed to take the radio in to Houston to get it fixed, as we'd been having trouble getting Amos 'n' Andy of late.
He just gave me a kind of thoughtful, sorrowful look and went to pulling papers out of his pocket. He said, "Well, I just happened to notice these tickets you've got in our files. Looks like about two speeding tickets and several parking tickets and here's one for running a red light. Now I know these must have slipped your mind or else you'd already have paid them."
And he gave me that sorrowful look again.
"So what I'll do," he said, "is I'll just take these on down to the Justice of the Peace so as to save you a trip and you can drop by there and pay them. Like tomorrow."
Well, I did some fast arithmetic and I knew those tickets were going to cost more than $25 worth of chicken-fried steak. So I cleared my throat and asked him what that date was again.
He said, gently, "The Fourth of July. Remember? Independence Day? Fireworks? Parades? Donkey baseball?"
I told him it was all coming back to me and I must have got my calendar mixed up because I wasn't doing anything about that time. He said that was just fine and got up, leaving the tickets on the couch. Just as he went out the door he said, "Can we expect you at practice?"
I told him absolutely, without fail.
So I became a member of the police force—or, I should say, the mounted police.
Well, naturally, I kind of avoided the fire chief after my sudden switch of allegiance. I quit hanging around the square, and I quit answering the telephone. At one point my mother asked me why the fire chief kept calling me. I acted innocent and told her I didn't know, but she still gave me a pretty suspicious look and wanted to know what kind of trouble I'd gotten myself into with the fire department. It seemed that whenever anyone in authority was looking for me, my mother was pretty well convinced they weren't trying to pass along the news that I'd just won an academic scholarship—an attitude that weakened my confidence.
Another problem was that there weren't enough donkeys to go around. So they had to substitute a few mules. Now on the surface that seems an innocent enough statement, "substitute a few mules." Well, the way a donkey feels about baseball ain't shucks to the way a mule feels. In fact, I think you could say that a mule almost lines up with the Communist Party in his attitude toward the Great American Pastime.
But of all the mules in Matagorda County the one that had to be considered the meanest was a big, blue-lipped devil named Anse that belonged to the Purvis brothers. The Purvises were two old recluse bachelors who lived outside of town. For years it had been their habit to come into town on a Saturday morning driving a wagon pulled by that mule. The mule would generally do all right until he got to the little wooden bridge across Caney Creek, on the outskirts of town. There he would stop, and no power on earth could budge him. The Purvis brothers finally got in the habit of carrying a little kindling, and when the mule stopped, they'd get out and build a fire under him. But to show you how devious and ornery that mule was, on several occasions he'd go forward just enough to get the wagon over the fire. He succeeded in charring the wagon more than once.
Anse was the mount I drew, and as far as I was concerned, he was three or four times meaner than Attila the Hun.
July Fourth came and, as was traditional, things began with a parade right after a picnic. The parade would end at the ball field; we'd have the game; and then there would be a fireworks display and free watermelon.
Both teams marched in the parade, some players riding their mounts, other, less confident ones leading them. We made a brave sight in our uniforms, though with one incongruous note: donkey baseball is probably the only sport in which the players wear spurs taped to their spikes.
There was the usual argument when both chiefs turned in their lineup cards to Mayor Gusman, the home-plate umpire. The fire chief, noting the name of a high school athlete, said, "Now wait a minute, this boy's not a member of the police force. Hell, he's still in high school!"
And the police chief said, "No, he came to us last year and evinced a great ambition to be a policeman, so we started an apprentice program for him. But you should talk. Here's this kid Barrett, and I know for a fact the closest he ever came to a fire was roasting a hot dog over one."
It went on like that until Mayor Gusman said, "Oh, shut up. I ought to disqualify you both for being such poor liars, but all these people have paid money to see the bunch of you make fools of yourself and I don't want to disappoint 'em. Play ball!"
The fire chief acted kind of hurt at me. The whole fire department, for that matter, was none too kind. A few of them even whispered "sellout" and "traitor." I thought that was a little mean, them not knowing the true circumstances.
We played pretty even up to the third inning, when we lost our best hitter, Bobby White. He hit a sharp single to centerfield, but going down the line to first base, his donkey shied and ran headlong into the bleacher fence, throwing Bobby up into the nickel seats and breaking his collarbone. They had a good deal of trouble running down the ball in the outfield, but they finally tagged White out just as he was being loaded into the ambulance.
But we got back at them in the fourth inning, when we put Barrett out of the game. In donkey baseball you don't brush the batter back, you brush his mount back, which is much more effective. But our pitcher slipped a little and caught Barrett's donkey in the ear with a slow curve, The result was that Barrett ended up in foul territory with a dislocated shoulder.
I was having my own troubles. This devil mule I'd drawn was big and he quickly learned that once I got down to field a ground ball, I was going to be encumbered by a glove and a ball when I tried to get back on to make my throw. Of course, none of us used a saddle; the last thing you wanted was to get tangled up in the stirrups. So I'd have to try and jump up on that mule's back, then swing my leg over. It was always at just that point that he'd decide to go rodeoing.
But the same was happening to most of the other players, and by the time the game was half over, we were all hot and disgusted and tired and ready to kill every donkey and mule in six states.
We got to the last of the ninth with the fire department leading 35-33. It appeared to be all over when our first two men were put out. But then we got our next two batters on, and I squibbed a little infield hit to the third baseman. Ordinarily I would've been out, but his donkey ran off just long enough for me to reach first base.
So there we were, with the bases loaded and two out. Our next batter hit a fly ball to centerfield. Now if the centerfielder had gotten off his mount it would have been an easy out, but he decided to showboat and make the catch mounted. Just before he got to the ball he touched his donkey with his spurs, and that donkey, which was about as disgusted as the rest of us, picked that instant to go rodeoing. The ball fell free and we went dashing around the bases. Our man on third scored, our man on second scored and my mule and I were really flying. We rounded second and then third and were only 90 feet from victory. It looked so sure that a couple of the police had jerked a big piece of red, white and blue bunting off the face of the grandstand and stretched it out in front of the plate for me to ride over as I scored the winning run.
But they hadn't counted on that devil mule. Halfway between third and home he came to a dead stop. I kicked him, I spurred him, I whacked him with my glove, but that mule obviously thought home plate was the bridge at Caney Creek, and he wasn't going to move.
Well, it was a madhouse. The stands were yelling, my team was jumping up and down, they were still trying to run the ball down in the outfield and I didn't know what to do to get that mule going. Finally I noticed a friend of mine. Crook Adams, leaning against the little fence that ran down the third-base line. I yelled at him to throw me his lighter, and he tossed the big Zippo I knew he always carried. Well, I caught it, lit it up, and then leaned down and applied a good flame to that mule's belly.
For a second nothing happened. That devil mule just kind of switched his ears back and forth and mouthed his bit and shook his head. But then, just as I thought he'd catch fire, he began to move—and he moved at such a speed that I was barely able to hang on. We went straight through that banner. Right behind it was the catcher on his donkey, the pitcher on his donkey and Mayor Gusman on his donkey. That big mule and I hit them full tilt, and donkeys and pitcher and catcher and mayor went flying in all directions.
And if that wasn't enough confusion, the boys in charge of the fireworks decided it was time to set off the display. That was the last straw for a bunch of irritated, overheated, disgusted mules and donkeys. In about 30 seconds the playing field looked like Custer's Last Stand, with players lying all over the place.
Well, we finally got things calmed down, and the mayor, as mad as he was, declared my run valid, and we won the game 36-35. I thought that was it, and I was feeling pretty good until the fire chief, still looking hurt about my having run out on him, came up and wrote me out a citation for violating the city fire code: attempting to set fire to a mule in the midst of a public gathering.
Ever since, I've always considered it was just that sort of shortsighted thinking that kept donkey baseball from taking its place among the other major sports of our time.