I've been away working on another book. I am in the checking of sources phase and have managed time away from staring at words. While away I went to see "42" the movie about Jackie Robinson. I liked the movie. Yes, parts were left out and creative license was evident, but overall it told an important story. With that in mind, I dragged out a piece hidden in the dustbin of my mind to share with readers speaking of the love of base and its heroes to youngsters like me.
The Grand Game (Dodger Blue)
I grew up playing baseball. It was truly the “Grand Game” of America at that time. I actually saw Satchel Paige and many of the "greats” who played in the Negro Leagues during segregation. The last game I saw was between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns who featured the antics of two amazing baseball players called “King Tut”, a six-foot ten-inch fireballer and “Shorty”, a midget catcher.
In those days instead of a basketball, black kids carried baseball gloves, bats and balls. We all played the Grand Game--baseball. We played the game every chance we got. Sometimes we had no balls or bats but we improvised using pop bottle caps and a broomstick as substitutes. We called it "cap ball." Little did we know how important “cap ball” would become to aspiring ball players. Imagine trying to hit a disk the size of a quarter coming at you full speed with a stick that was barely a half an inch in diameter. It was tough at first but we learned to do it and became proficient at it.
You had to have good eyes, quick reflexes and a pinpoint sense of hearing because many times the buzz of the serrated edges of the bottle cap whizzing against the wind was the only clue you had until the pointed edge buzzsaw appeared briefly in the corner of your vision. It was at this point youthful abilities took over as lightning reflexes, keen vision and unparalleled hand-eye coordination produced a quick snap of the wrists punching the swirling cap into the streets. This was batting practice.
Any ball smaller than a grapefruit was acceptable for playing baseball. It was also during this time that Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was setting the major leagues on fire with his quick bat, excellent fielding and leadership skills. There was also Larry Dobie, Roy Campanella, Minnie Minoso and Don Newcombe. We loved them all and took turns pretending we were them. Willie Mays was my favorite. He played the game the way I had seen it played as a child watching the players of the Negro League. There was an innocent exuberance in his style and a seeming willingness to play the game with total abandon.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were the new national favorite team for blacks. Those were the days when we supported those who supported us. Others players came, but the Dodgers were beloved in the Negro community. The rest were considered “me too” pretenders, that is until Willie Mayes set baseball on its ear. We loved the game. It was wondrous to watch our heroes in action and even better to take part in the action ourselves.
By the time my friends and I were old enough to play organized sports we were easily the best players on the field. It wasn’t a racial thing but race certainly had something to do with it. All that time spent playing with bottle caps, broomsticks, clumsy mitts and anything that looked like a ball paid off. When you’re used to having hard thrown bottle caps, golf balls and other small items like rocks and nuts when a real baseball comes to the plate it looks like a basketball floating up there. Naturally, everyone in my neighborhood could hit, thrown and run. When you have nothing, you make do by improvising and improving.
We were good and we knew it. Some of us went on to be picked up by professional teams; some of us played semi-pro ball; and, some of us played as amateurs until well into out twenties. Baseball was a popular game for youth at that time. We loved it because we could play it and they way we played made it fun.
Today, instead of a ball and bat, black kids get basketballs. They play it well. However, there is a difference. Baseball was family wide in those days. It was part of every outdoors family gathering and everyone, young and old, male and female played. Unfortunately, it is not the same for basketball today, though it is still exciting to watch the youngsters soar and swoop to the hoop. However, even as I watch I can’t help but feel that the love for the game is missing. The fun is there but the reverence and love for the game have gone the way of the first black player with a million-dollar contract.