Guest Column

‘All we needed was a bat, a ball and a fielder’s mitt’

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This is part three of a four-part series.

There couldn’t have been more than five or six thousand folks in Baldwin when I was growing up in the early 1930s. On Saturdays, for a dime, my friends and I could see a couple of cowboy movies with Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy, maybe even a serial with Buck Rogers. Air conditioning hadn’t yet reached our town, but the heat never seemed to bother us. We watched those movies right to the very end.

During the summer, if we wanted to go swimming, we had to walk three or four miles to a little canal that meandered through the mud flats south of town. But most of the time, on those hot, quiet summer days, we’d play baseball.

If we weren’t playing baseball, we were listening to it on the radio, reading about it in the papers or talking about it. Baseball was everything to us.

When there weren’t enough kids to play a real game of baseball, Bobby Cheviot and I made up a game of our own. We never gave it a name, but it was similar to “pepper,” a game that major leaguers have been playing for generations. One of us was the batter, and the other, the pitcher-fielder. After three outs, we’d change sides.

About 20 feet of dirt separated us, and the brick wall of nearby Plaza Elementary School was marked with chalk to denote whether a tapped ball was a single, double, triple or home run. Balls fielded cleanly were outs, most of the time, but even those were subject to debate.

We knew all the major league players, their batting styles, the positions they played and their batting averages — that was important. We not only made our own lineups — say, the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Giants — but Bobby and I imitated each of those players at the plate, batting righty or lefty, as they took their turn at bat.

We battled through every inning. Hits were given up grudgingly. Errors were greeted with good-natured hoots. One game was rarely enough, so doubleheaders, even triple-headers, became the norm.

Although our playing field was only about 25-feet wide, the grammar school wall was transformed into ball parks all over the country: Ebbets Field in Brooklyn; Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds in the Bronx; Crosley Field in Cincinnati; Shibe Park in Philadelphia; Fenway Park in Boston.

All we needed was a bat, a ball and a fielder’s mitt. We became Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Johnny Vander Meer, Pepper Martin and dozens of other major league stars. We traveled to distant cities, won and lost crucial games, became heroes — not just hero-worshippers.

Those hot, sultry afternoons flew by, and soon the summers, and soon our childhood. Our play on those lazy, summer days did more than pass the time — those games brought Bobby Cheviot and I closer together back then. They helped forge a friendship that would continue in high school and see us through World War II.

We were both in the Pacific: He, in the U.S. Marines, and I, in the Navy. When we came back, we still lived down the block from each other. We even played a few summers on the same softball team. But college and, eventually, marriage put us on different paths. They rarely crossed again.

Though we’ve never kept in touch, I’ll always think of Bobby Cheviot as a friend. Those afternoons we spent together, testing each other in those friendly games of skill, will last a lifetime. Through them we overcame time and distance. We were transported to other places. We became other people.

We learned a little bit about life, too. We always tried to do our best, but we also found out that doing our best wasn’t always good enough. That was a valuable lesson. We also discovered that even if you lost, there would always be another day, and, with it, another chance to compete, and, perhaps, win.

Brian Masterson grew up in Baldwin in the 1930s. He now lives in Melbourne, Fla.