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‘Take me out to the ballgame’

I learned early in life to love the national pastime.


No, I’m not talking about the NFL. And certainly not the NBA.


The national pastime when I was a boy was Major League Baseball. Those were the years of the World Series battles between the Yankees and the Dodgers, cross-town rivals from the Bronx and Brooklyn. In a time when games were only played in the daytime, school boys could often hear the sound of a radio down the hall and the voice of Mel Allen describing the play-by-play.


I was fortunate to have a father and two older brothers who enjoyed playing catch. I soon learned the art of catching a baseball without flinching.


Naturally, my favorite baseball task was batting. With Daddy pitching, I pretended to be Mickey Mantle at the plate.


There were plenty of boys in our neighborhood and lots of opportunities to hone our skills by playing pickup games. We’d mark off the basepaths and use whatever was handy for the bases. 


Then when I was 9 years old, somebody told my brothers and me that Franklinville had a Little League team. The ages were 9 to 12, meaning all three of us were eligible.


When the time came to try out for the team, we showed up at the baseball field. The coach was Cotton Routh, nicknamed for his almost-white hair.


Cotton taught us the fundamentals of the game and held fielding and batting practices. My brothers David and Ronnie, being older, got starting jobs.


Before our first game, Cotton brought our uniforms — wool pants and shirts that itched like crazy. Since there was a limited supply, he ran out before he got to me.


The first year, I rode the bench in my street clothes. But Cotton did put me in as a pinch hitter one night and I slapped the ball to the opposite field for a single. Oh how the crowd roared! — at least in my imagination.


But most of that year my chief duty at games was bat boy. After one of our players hit a pitch, I would retrieve the bat and bring it back to the dugout. It was enough to make me feel important.


By the time I was 11 and my brothers had advanced to PONY League ball, I took my turn as a starter. For the first game, the coach had me playing third base — the hot corner. 


I don’t think I cleanly fielded a single ground ball but I did get in front of them to stop them from going into left field. After the game, I had bruises all over my shins.


I wound up playing all the positions of the infield but could never learn to catch ground balls. Finally, I found my niche as a catcher. I had learned all the intricacies of the position by watching Yogi Berra on TV.


My first year as a starter, the coach was Johnny Marley, a seven-footer who had become legendary on the high school basketball team. He had finished college and was convinced to coach Little League that summer.


I can recall that when he gathered us around for a talk, my head came up to about his belt buckle. As he talked, he shuffled a couple of baseballs in his giant hands. I would watch his hands because looking at his face would have strained my neck.


I played my last season of Little League when I was 12. I did well enough that I was named to the conference’s all-star team, along with four of my teammates. Our combined team was to play in the state tournament.


Unfortunately, the coach was from another team and he declined to let any of us rivals play until the last inning of our first game when he allowed our best player to pinch-hit. Mackie got a single but our “all-star” team lost and our season was done.


Next was two years on the PONY League team. I was a starter and did pretty well. My hitting philosophy was to make contact with the ball and avoid striking out.


When I got to high school, my interests had shifted to basketball. I played on the baseball team but was relegated to courtesy runner for the pitcher and catcher. I must say, though, that I stole a bunch of bases.


I never was MLB material but playing on a team with a uniform was an experience that lives with me today. I just wish I could have learned to catch ground balls the way I could run the bases.


Larry Penkava is a writer for Randolph Hub. Contact: 336-302-2189, larrypenkava@gmail.com.