Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Pee-Wee League Or Diamond Visions

Neal Hellman, a transplanted KVer living in Santa Cruz, California "climbed into his attic" and dusted off some of his old KV themed fiction for us. I thought I'd post it now because of the recent baseball myths that have been shattered. It's entitled
The Pee-Wee League Or Diamond Visions

When my friend Marty was excited he’d always run with both of his hands on his hips waving and flipping back and forth like the wings of a small bird as if he was flying. All the while he was running towards you, words would propel out of his mouth and naturally they would grow louder and louder as he approached. One problem with this method of communication was that by the time Marty caught up with you he’d be so out of breath that he seemed to be speaking in tongues. At that point it was advisable to put one hand on each of his shoulders and try to get him to slow down. This was also a difficult task as Marty would not stop talking and would basically run in place as he attempted to speak without the benefit of breath.
However difficult this method seemed it actually worked well for two eight year olds growing up on Manhattan’s lower east side in the 1950’s.
In between his out of breath wheezing Marty told me that a Pee -Wee League was being formed in our neighborhood and the first meeting was on Saturday in the basement of our apartment house. This was to be the first organized league for kids under twelve and there would be different teams and each team would have a uniform and best of all players would get to wear spiked shoes. This was incredible news for two kids who loved to play hardball but were still too young for the Little League. Which was a moot point because there was no little league, pony league or any kind or organized baseball where I grew up.
Organized baseball for kids was something we’d see in the movies or on television. We were not so much envious of the structure of it all as we were with the idea of wearing a uniform, yes a uniform with a number on the back. We’d imagine wearing the number of our favorite ball player. Twenty four for Willie Mays; forty four for Hank Aaron; seven for Mickey Mantle, and 4 for the Duke of Flatbush, Duke Snyder. Along with our numbered jersey we’d have matching pants that went around the bottom of our feet with a stirrup that would show off the one’s baseball socks or hose that went up to the knee. Best of all we’d finally have spikes. Leather shoes with plates of metal on the bottom so we could speed around first base and not worry about slipping.
All of which lead to a wonderful vision that both Marty and I shared. We’d walk up to home plate, bat in hand, rise up our shoes one at a time and ever so gently tap off the dirt from our spikes with our Louisville Slugger bat. We’d step out of the batters box, study the pitcher a bit, and glance down at the first base coach to catch a sign. Then step back into the box in our brand new uniforms with the magic number on the back and stare that pitcher down. That other kid, sixty feet away from us on top of the pitchers mound, he was not our friend.
Yes this was the life, the reality we had always wanted. It was 1956 and baseball was everything to my friend Martin and I. If it was round we could hit it. We played with hardballs, softballs, tennis balls, wiffle balls, half balls and pink balls. Games would be on asphalt, dirt, in the street, in courtyards, on stoups, schoolyards or wherever we could place four bases (which sometimes were our shirts) down to make a diamond.
Our games never had any structure, we just choose up sides. If there was a disagreement we argued until we got tired of yelling and whoever won the debate would always give in to the other side the next time there was a close call.
Now that we’d have the Pee-Wee league there would be no more arguments because we had also heard that there would be a lest two umpires per game. Uniforms, spikes, umpires just like the in the National and American League, this would make our lives as complete as we could ever hope it would be.
Our apartment house or apartment complex was a square city block. The basement ran all the way through it. The Pee Wee League folks choose the biggest room in the basement and on that first Saturday over 150 excited baseball-loving kids crowded in.
The two guys in charge were named Mike and Peter and they said they both had played ball in the minor leagues and were eager to pass on their skills to us. We all wondered why we met in a basement instead of being out on the baseball field. We did have on actual dirt field, which was directly under the Manhattan Bridge. “Well” Mike would say, “This is a good place to work on fundamentals”. The first day we practiced hitting the ball off a tee and the art of bunting. At the end of the day Peter mentioned that he’d be taking orders for uniforms. The cost was $5.00 for the uniform and $5.00 for the spikes. He said the uniforms would only be a jersey and a cap (no pants, no stockings) but we would have spikes. Ten dollars in 1956 was a great deal of money especially when a slice of Pizza or a subway token was just a dime.
Persuading my parents to let go of that kind of dough would be difficult. I couldn’t just settle for the jersey and have no spikes. How could I dig in against the opposing pitcher without those little pieces of steel embedded into the bottom of my shoe? Spikes without the jersey would have looked ridiculous. I needed the whole package to feel complete.
I’d imagine myself returning from the field after a great day at the ball park. My spikes tied in a knot and slung across my shoulder, my jersey a little beat up from sliding into second base, my cap tipped up on my sweated brow, and my pine bat slung across my other shoulder. Like a great warrior returning triumphant from the field of battle.
Unfortunately, this Elysian fantasy was lost on my parents. “You want a uniform, here go take a T- shirt and a magic marker and paint a number on the back and you’ll have a uniform.” Of course my mother was also worried that I’d forget to take my spikes off and chop up their hardwood floor with them. “Better you should have a nice pair of sneakers, sneakers you could wear indoors, outdoors any sport, no one in this family has ever owned a pair of spikes and there’s really no reason to start now.” Her reasoning was a bit on the arcane side but I’m sure it made sense to her. Yes, why would my great grandfather who was a Rabbi in Poland wear spikes in Temple?
They’re no mention anywhere in the old testament of anyone stealing second base. My father has no need of spikes in his sowing machine store so it follows why would I need spikes? Somewhere in the mind of my mother this all made sense. There was also an underlying spiritual factor which was that spikes, well spikes were just not a Jewish thing, little protestant kids in Indiana wore spikes, little Jewish kids growing up in New York took piano lessons and wore loafers. My parents were also extremely politically correct so just the idea of a uniform seemed very bourgeoisie and gentile America to them. True, but I’m eight years old and I want to be a real American kid and play the game of baseball with all the right stuff because that’s how the big boys did it.
I made a deal with my father. After school every day I’d go over to my dad’s store and do some clean up work. The down side of this deal was that I had to relate my mysterious German grandmother who in her 20 or so years in America had no quite mastered the English language.
Our conversations would go something like this:
Grandmother: “What you working for all of a sudden like this”?
Neal: “I’m saving up for baseball stuff”.
Grandma: “What is this Baseball, I don’t understand. So these men hit a ball and run around with little hats on and funny suits and then the people cheer for them and they run all around and it never stops, I don’t understand this baseball, why you want to play this baseball, better you should learn to play the violin.”
I would just nod and sweep the floor and as I did diamond visions played through my mind.
I would dream of the sweet part of my bat making contact with a screaming fastball. After contact the ball is sails high over the fence like a frozen rope, and I am happily circling the bases, and as I do little bits of dirt would rise and fall from my shinny spikes and the sun would glisten on my blue and white jersey, the one with the numbers forty four written on the back. As I rounded third base all my friends and neighbors would be waving and cheering me on. Even my socialist’s parents and my older brother and my mysterious grandmother they would all be cheering as well. As my spikes touched home plate I could hear all the muses of baseball singing, and out of the corner of my triumphant eye there was Lori my first childhood sweetheart, smiling as I headed back to the bench to be congratulated by my jubilant teammates. They’d all be there to greet me in all my baseball finery as I rounded the bases and crossed home plate.
My friend Marty was happy as he had a savings of over $15.00 he had earned by cleaning up at his families restaurant. So we were both set and cheerfully went to the second Peewee league meeting which was held in the same basement room underneath the apartment house known to all as Knickerbocker Village.
Most of the one hundred and fifty kids came up with the ten dollars. Towards the end of the day we each gave Mike and Peter our shoe, shirt and hat sizes and of course our hard earned dough. As there was some time left Mike went over the fundamentals of bunting again. That was my first clue that something was no right. Mike never kept his thumb in the front of the bat; anyone who knows how to bunt realizes that the thumb must always be kept safely on the far side of the bat. I mentioned to Marty that this guy was bunting all wrong. Marty being impulsive shouted out “shouldn’t your thumb be on the other side of the bat?”
“Yes of course” Mike replied, I was just testing you to see if any of you would catch my mistake and I’m really glad you did, yes someone here is really paying attention.” As he finished his speech I could see a little bit of sweat on his brow. Come to think of it Mike and Peter had showed us very little in the way of baseball fundamentals, they mainly gave us just a lot of talk and hype. I smelled rat and a big one at that. I asked my friend Walter if he’d ever seen these guys before.
Walter kind of scratched his head and said, “Yeah I think I’ve seen them around, I think”. “Where, where” I replied, “I’ve never seen them out on the field or around the apartment house, I think something's up, and we should get their phone numbers, find out where they live.”
Mike and Peter said our next meeting would be out on the baseball field and at that meeting we would form the teams and each receive our jerseys, caps and spikes. As we were leaving I asked Peter for his phone number. He reply was seamless, like he had said it countless times before. “Oh Mike and I just travel around the country setting these leagues up and right now were just staying with some friends in Brooklyn and they only have an office number and we can’t give it out.” I expressed my concern to the rest of my friends. “Oh your always worried about one thing or another” I was told by Sean “relax man these guys are great, they love baseball, hey they know all the famous players numbers.” Numbers indeed, the only number I could think of was 10 times one hundred and fifty. These two guys just collected $1,500 from a bunch of seven to nine year olds to form a league. Two guys who appeared from out of nowhere, who didn’t even know how to lay down a bunt.
The next Saturday was the perfect baseball day and everyone was excited, everyone except me. I woke up that morning with a knot in my stomach, as I knew we had been taken to the proverbial baseball cleaners. As time went by our conversations became increasingly nervous. “Hey maybe their car broke down” or “was it next Saturday we were supposed to meet here” or “did they say to meet here or in the basement?” By two o’clock I finally said “we’ve been had, there not ever coming back, their is no Pee-Wee League, no uniforms and no spikes, they took out money and left town, they probably travel city to city taking money from kids like us.” As I finished, Joel the neighborhood intellectual (whose father taught Greek culture at N.Y.U) piped up and called me a “Cassandra” over and over again. Who, what, “Cassandra” what’s a “Cassandra” is that like being an asshole or something? What a horrible day, I’m out $10.00 and my friend is calling me a girl’s name. All of which was unimportant as everyone soon all realized that Mike and Peter had skipped town with our money and our diamond dreams.
By 4:00 or so we all started to leave, our glorious visions of a Pee-Wee League had been dashed. Teary eyed and head down we took the long and silent walk home. The four blocks back to the apartments seemed like four miles. Along with our $10.00,on this day they took our spirit and our visions of a league that will now never be. I could accept loosing the $10.00 and the Pee Wee League but the hard part was going to be explaining it to my folks.
As I rode up the elevator to the ninth floor I had a spiritual moment as I tapped into my inner “mensch”. My “inner grownup” told me that things like this happened, and all I could do is accept it, and learn from it. I actually was a little proud that my instincts tipped me off to the truth of the situation. I’ll know to trust them more in the future.
So I went home and told my folks the whole story. Surprisingly, they were somewhat compassionate about it. Many of the parents got together and try to hunt down Mike and Peter but they left no tracks. They only took cash for the uniforms and none of us had any idea where they lived.
I have never forgotten this experience; it has stayed with me my entire life. At the age of eight I realized that life among men was going to be unfair at times, and one had to be on the lookout for all the Mikes & Peters in the world.
They can steal your money but they can’t steal your dreams.
Still somewhere in the labyrinth dome that sits on top of my head there remains this diamond vision—It’s a warm summer day, and all of my friends, family and neighbors are there and they are all waving their arms and they are cheering me on as I’m rounding third base, spikes gleaming, dust flying off my uniform and my cap flipping off my head as I slide head first into home.

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