Sports of Sorts
by Thomas Backer
After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher. They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven. I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.
The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching. The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz. The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt. The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.
Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down. “It’s only a baseball game, son.”
I looked up. “Oh dad, it’s much more than that. It’s my best dream come true.”
Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.
A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot. He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too. Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.
We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.
Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery. Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team. We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class. We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball. During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle. Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves. The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.” Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.
The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet. He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game. At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”
I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.”
Another player snorted. “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday. Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”
Crapper smiled a wicked smile. “They all look the same underneath.” He turned to continue driving.
Did he mean that looks don’t matter? Wholesomeness counts more than looks? Or did he mean girls with no clothes on? Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with. Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation. He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood. If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject. We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.
Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade. They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.
The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000. They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252. Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy. Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24. The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29. The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20.
Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.
On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes. “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”
Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.” He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road. He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn. That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one. Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section. Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.
Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time. A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team. We yelled, “What! How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.
Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:
We are the Crusade girls
You’ll like our hair in curls.
We wear our dungarees
Away above our knees
The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers. At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor. He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard. At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game. He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn. The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan. The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back! The floor’s clean.” The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan. The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian. They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation.
All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”
The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game. “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet. The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.” The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere. The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.”
The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points.
They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents. Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.” People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.” At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack.
Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position. Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in. We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.
Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior. Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look. “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges. Why would you do something like that? Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball. I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area. We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies. We hated their guts. Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle. In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat. He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher. “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.” He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game. Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.
Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom. Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof. Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home. A few girls showed up but left early.
Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs. Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery. We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field. He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it.
The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word. Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk. “This is a Catholic school you ingrates. No senior prom for you. I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.” She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us. “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.” She slammed the door as she left.
So what, I thought. She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared. Just don’t take away baseball.
In our senior year I started at third base. During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit. Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen. At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?” I gave him a quizzical look but nodded. “You’re up. Take the first pitch. It’ll be a nice one.” Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field. Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement. I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.
In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails. During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me. As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.” Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.
A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast. Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going. Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
He said, “It isn’t?”
Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana. After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya. Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting. The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese. Two fiction stories appeared: “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft. Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose. Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero. Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.