The ball was coming directly at my head, and that's why my left foot automatically jerked toward the third-base bench. Then the ball broke sharply down and across the heart of the plate. Because I already had two strikes, I had to swing, but from that awkward position it was a feeble attempt. Luckily, the ball ticked the bat and fouled off. I got ready for the next pitch, and that was my first look at his fastball. Actually, look isn't appropriate; listen would be a better word. His fastball said, "SssssSSSSSiiiiitttt-BOOM!" and after that I sat down.
The scorebook said the pitcher's name was Small Larry Littlefeather. We didn't know if the Small was a nickname or not, and we didn't ask. He was small—not over 5'4"—and he couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds, but on that day he taught us the meaning of the word ambidextrous.
By the late '50s, a Southern sports tradition we called town ball was becoming a thing of the past. Town ball, plain old-fashioned hardball, was giving way to slo-pitch softball. One of the last great town ball teams was the one I played for—the Greenwood RABs of Greenwood, Ark. And it was through that team that I was introduced to Small Larry Little-feather and his teammates. The RABs had a record of 22-2 late in the 1965 season, and our reputation had spread all over Sebastian County. One day our manager received a phone call from a tiny village north of Sallisaw, Okla., inviting us over for a game. The village was, so help me, South Greasy. We were anxious to go so we could add another notch to our bats before the big tournament in Fort Smith, Ark.
On a bright Sunday morning we piled into two cars and one pickup and headed for South Greasy. The trip seemed to take forever. We drove to Sallisaw and then turned north and continued on into what is now called Green Country by the Oklahoma State Tourism Department. More than a hundred years earlier it had been dubbed the Trail of Tears by the Cherokee nation, after they had been forced to leave their ancestral homeland in Georgia and North Carolina and walk to the desolate backwoods of the Indian Territory.
May 17, 1981
As the miles rolled by, the so-called witticisms began. "We'll never get out alive if we win," said Joe Stafford, our catcher.
"Yeah, the last team to enter this territory was never heard from again, but their catcher's mask was found many years later by a scout from the St. Louis Cardinals."
We turned left onto a dirt road, traveled for another 20 minutes, and then bumped for a mile or two through dense forest. Suddenly we entered a clearing. In the clearing was a baseball field. Around the edge of the field, only a few feet off the foul lines, were small houses with children playing on the front porches and old men, some wrapped in blankets, chewing tobacco. Nearly everyone in South Greasy was a Cherokee.
There was a stand behind homeplate and a sign that said COLD PEPSI'S which assured us that we were within the bounds of civilization, but when we discovered that the girl at the counter spoke only Cherokee, we decided not to get too far away from each other.
The field, which had a chicken-wire backstop, was built into the middle of the village like a religious shrine. And the Cherokees were ready for the Sunday services.
After a quick warmup, the local team walked quietly onto the field. The players wore Levi's and T shirts, and some were barefoot. A few wore spikes. Little-feather walked timidly to the mound. He carried an extra glove, which he dropped behind him. He tossed a few warmup pitches to the catcher, who wore only a mask for protection. The umpire said, "Play ball."
We hit three grounders and were out of the inning. Littlefeather threw the ball without, it seemed, an ounce of effort. He didn't even appear to be fast.
Our guys agreed that as soon as we got out the kinks after that long drive we would knock him off the mound. I couldn't wait for my turn at bat. I was one of the great good-field, no-hit ballplayers of all time, and I loved slowball pitchers, even if they did have a curve-ball. I was ready to hit.
Our pitcher was Big Dave, a right-hander who was a star player at Arkansas Tech. He was steady, with a very good fastball and a sharp-breaking curve. He quickly discovered that the mound was a foot, or perhaps two feet too close to the plate, and because the rubber was a sizable chunk of tire, the mound was too high as well. Dave's throwing motion brought him off the mound like Bob Feller and Bob Gibson rolled into one. When he pitched, the ball boomed into the catcher's mitt, sending echoes across the field into the trees. There were cries of "ooh" and "aah" from the crowd.
"No problems today, huh, Big Dave," we yelled. "They'll never see it."
The first batter crouched down low and, waving a big bat, got lucky and singled the first pitch over the first baseman's head.
"Just luck, Big Dave! Hum now!"
That line had just cleared my lips when the second hitter lined Big Dave's second pitch over the shortstop's head. I grabbed it on one hop in center and fired it to third on a low line. The runner from first beat the throw by a yard.
Big Dave changed his strategy and broke off a tantalizing curve for the third batter, who waited until the ball seemed to be in the catcher's mitt, then somehow slashed a drive down the third-base line for a double, scoring both runners.
Then the proverbial dam broke. Little-feather stepped up to the plate and settled into his stance on the left side. Big Dave fired his fast one high and inside. Littlefeather stepped back and flicked his wrist. His huge Jackie Robinson bat looked like a fence post as it swished through the air. At the crack of the bat I headed west. I ran into the woods, jumped a small creek and looked up. The ball was coming down through the trees not five feet from where I had anticipated it would, whacking through the limbs. I tried to grab it. It hit the end of my glove and fell to the ground. I retrieved it and fired it over the tops of the trees. I was proud that we held Small Larry to a measly triple.
After one inning the score was 8-0.
"O.K., gang, let's get 'em back right now," said our manager unconvincingly.
"What happened?" I asked Big Dave, who looked stunned.
"That's what you call a complete lesson in hitting the baseball," he said.
"Don't worry," said Larry Rogers, the leftfielder, still out of breath, "they just had a run of luck. We'll get 'em back and a lot more."
And that's when I came to bat for the first time. Two big hooks and one side-armed fastball and I was back on the bench. Littlefeather also struck out our next two batters.
The second inning went much better. They got just five runs. We lost one ball far out in the woods, and another got soaked in the creek. I began to watch the hitters very closely to see if I could figure out what they were doing that worked so well. They were so small and thin that it didn't seem possible for them to be able to whip the bat around the way they did. Each hitter got into an exaggerated crouch and waved the bat while Big Dave went into his windup. As the ball came toward the plate, the hitter would still be waving the bat; then, at the last instant, it would flash around without noticeable effort, all wrist, and make solid contact. There were few ground balls, mostly line shots.
Big Dave was soon shaking his head in awe. He was a seasoned pitcher and had long dominated some of the best town-ball and college hitters around. But not this day. Once in the fourth inning Big Dave accidentally hit a batter. There was no time for him to move. We gasped as the ball thudded into the kid's back. There was a sudden hush. The boy merely smiled and jogged to first.
It was also in the fourth inning, with South Greasy leading 13-0, that Little-feather finally showed us everything he was capable of.
We'd finally gotten a hit and a walk. Lonnie Dolan, our super hitter, came to the plate. Lonnie, a lefty, was the only kid in our town to have signed a pro contract, and though he didn't make the big time, he had played in the minors for a while, before coming home with a bad arm. He was our hero.
With two runners on, we had high hopes for a rally to salvage our pride. Lonnie dug in. The runners took their leads, and the bench came to life.
"Ducks on the pond, Big D, hum now!"
"Come on, Dolan, rufflle his little feather," said one smart mouth. Lonnie cocked the bat back and high in the air.
That's when Littlefeather walked slowly over to the extra glove lying behind the mound and put it on his right hand. He stepped back on the rubber and in one swift motion fired a fastball—left-handed! It also said "SssssSSSSSiiiiitttt-BOOM!" Dolan's bat was still high in the air and his mouth was hanging open as the ball split the plate.
Somebody on the bench mumbled, "That kid is amphibious!"
We jumped up to object.
"He can't do that!" I yelled.
"Amphibious ain't the half of it! He can throw with either hand!"
We screamed in protest, but the umpire didn't say a word. Littlefeather fired another one and Lonnie took a halfhearted cut. Stafford, a kid who made A's in school and had once read the rule book, said, "The word is ambidextrous, fellas, and I hate to tell you this, but it's not against the rules."
"It's gotta be. It ain't moral," I said.
We sat in stiff silence as Lonnie-Our-Only-Pro-Dolan went down on strikes and Littlefeather picked up his other glove for the next hitter.
The final score was 23-0.
There was very little chatter after the fourth inning. Small Larry had 15 strikeouts and one walk and gave up two scratch singles. After the game his team treated us to Pepsis.
Then we packed our gear and headed for home, and we each swore that we'd never tell a soul.