When I was ten, I wanted to play on my grammar school baseball team so bad I'd go to bed every night and dream about it. those were the days long before Little League, and there were no tryouts. Team memebers were selected mostly on a clique basis by class buddies who had played together since the first grade, and they naturally assumed there was no one else in the class who could catch or bat as well as they.
The times when the team was short of players due to chicken pox or measles, I'd beg to substitute, but the team captain -- his name was Bussy Bennet -- always picked someone else.
Undaunted, I went home and attacked the problem as if it were a war. I began by coaxing my dad into being my trainer. We lived on a hill, and Dad would stand at the top and hit balls while I waited at the bottom to catch them. This gave the illusion that the balls were coming from a far distance at a staggering height.
I couldn't afford a mitt. This was the Depression, and every cent counted. I learned to catch with my bare hands. I soon built up calluses, but not before I bent fingers, sprained a wrist, and tore off fingernails. But before long, very few lofted balls got past me.
Then I had a stroke of luck. A college student who lived up the block from me played baseball at a nearby city college. He caught fly balls with me and showed me how to hit. his name was Ralph Kiner, a guy who later had an outstanding major-league career and became a broadcaster.
The day finally came when our class team was scheduled to play the team from the class above us. When you're ten, a kid who is eleven looks as big as a mountain and twice as athletic. The whole school turned out, and every body expected our guys to lose in a rout. I begged to play, but was totally ignored. There was a little blond girl I wanted to impress, but since I wasn't on the team she didn't give me the time of day.
Then, in the middle of the third with the sore nothing to nothing, our team's first baseman was knocked flat by a runner and cracked a rib. Buzzy brought in his right fielder to play first. He then looked around the crowd. Finding no one who looked like he could throw a ball, he stared a long minute at me.
"Okay, Cussler," he finally said. "Go play right field. You should be all right. Nobody ever hits 'em out there."
I ran to the position, still without a glove.
The fourth inning looked like the start of a massacre. We got two outs, but the big guys loaded the bases. The next batter looked like a cross between Babe Ruth and Roger Maris. The impact with the bat sounded like a cannon shot and the ball lifted high in the air. Like a movie in slow motion, every eye on every face was on the ball. I began running back. I stole a glance at the kid in center field. He was just standing there. Now that I recall, he was eating a candy bar.
I ran. Oh, God, how I ran. Out of the corner of one eye I saw the chain-link fence coming closer. I ran two more steps and then jumped. I felt the fence become one with my right hip and shoulder. The ball smacked into my open hand. I had made a one-handed catch of a ball that should have been a home run. And without the help of a mitt.
There was stunner silence on the school ground. Plays like that just didn't happen in grammar school. The months of perseverance with the able assistance of Dad and Ralph Kiner had paid off. The force was now mine. I walked from right field to the bench, slowly tossing the ball up and down, trying to look cool. Only when I passed near home plate did I nonchalantly flip the ball to the opposing pitcher.
Nor did it stop there. I went on that day to hit a single and a triple. Sure we lost, 6-3, but I was still the hero of the hour.
And the little blond girl who ignored me before the game? Her name was Joy, and she became the first girl I ever kissed.
From the book Baseball Days by Garret Mathews © 1999. Published by Contemporary Books.
Excerpted with permission.