My introduction to playing baseball came on a warm April morning in 1958. It was a Saturday and I was watching my favorite show, THE THREE STOOGES with my older brother. My father came into the living room of our house on Falmouth Foresides.
“It’s too nice a day to waste in front of the boob tube.” He bent over and shut off the Zenith black-and-white.
“But___” It was right in the middle of a slapstick routine between Moe, Larry, and Curly.
“No, buts. I have something for you both.” Coming from the age of radio my father hated TV’s grasp on his children. “Out in the backyard.”
My older brother and I looked at each other. We hadn’t wrong anything wrong and our school grades were good.
“Stop dawdling.” He motioned for us to follow him.
A six-year old boy knew better than to resist a man his size and left the house by the rear door.
The back lawn was fighting for life in the spring sun. The last snow had melted two weeks ago and I could feel the cold of the ground beneath my sneakers. It had been a long winter. A line of trees separated our yard from the Davis. Green buds sprouted from the branches to sprout leaves at the end of the street the sun sparkled off the million mirrors scattered across Portland harbor.
April would soon be May.
“Here.” My father handed two brand-new leather baseball gloves to us. “It’s time for you to learn how to play baseball. Put them on.”
We had seen baseball games on TV and slipped the gloves onto our left hands. The leather was stiff and I could barely close the glove. My father gave us two Boston Red Sox baseball caps. We put them on our heads.
“What do you say?” He hefted a baseball in his right hand.
“Thank you, sir.”
“First things first and that’s to learn how to catch. Go stand over there.” He pointed two directions and we formed a triangle. My father had served with the Army Air Force in World War II and fought the Great Maine Fire of 1949. He believed that there was nothing more American than baseball. “Here’s how you throw.”
My father demonstrated the overhand pitch several times and we mimicked the motion.
Both of us had thrown rocks at seagulls at the fishing pier beneath the bluff. The movement felt the same.
“Throwing is easy. Catching the ball is hard.”
He underhanded the ball to my brother. It bounced off his glove. Frunk picked it up and my father said, “Throw it to your brother.”
His toss went off to the left. I ran to the ball and grab it up. My father opened his glove and I chucked the ball at him.
It hit the house.
After an hour we had improved to the point where we could throw the ball between us several times without dropping it.
“Okay, now it’s time for batting.”
Standing close to me my father showed the proper stance for a right-handed batter.
“Legs apart with your body square to the plate and your eyes on the mound.
“Yes, sir.” I had watched a few games on TV and I knew that Ted Williams number was 9, but my mind was better suited to Hide and Seek. No one could find my secret places.
“Okay, let’s play some ball.”
My father crouched behind the piece of wood serving as the plate and told my brother to throw a strike.
The seven year-old looked over to my mother in the breezeway. She nodded her approval and he chucked the ball with every ounce of his skinny body’s strength. His lucky first pitch thudded into my father’s glove. The bat never left my shoulder. I had been too scared that it was going to hit me.
“You’re supposed to swing at the ball.” He stood up and acted out the motion of batting, as if he were holding an imaginary bat. The 30 year-old man shared the same athletic build as the baseball players on TV. He resumed his position and smacked his fist into the glove.
“Give it another try.
I obeyed his command and swung at the next pitch with closed eyes. Something struck the bat and my hands tingled with shock of the accidental meeting of two objects. The ball floated into our neighbors’ backyard.
The eleven year-old girl with short red hair fielded the ball on one bounce and winged it to my father with accuracy. His clean-shaven face grimaced from the impact in his glove. My father was an electrical engineer and he tried to analyze the source of her strength. The girl was mostly bones.
“That’s some arm.”
“My father wanted a boy, so here I am.” The freckled redhead was a classic Tom Boy. “I’m Charlene.”
We spent the rest of the morning throwing the ball with the lanky girl. My father stopped to pick up my errant throws. There had been many.
Her mother came out to introduce herself. The slender blonde worked as a nurse for Maine Medical and her husband captained an oil freighter out of Bath. They were from Bar Harbor.
“That’s some baseball player you have.” My father nodded at Charlene.
She was cutting at the air with the swing of the bat.
“Her father played semi-pro. I told him to quit and get a real job or else we were through.” Charlene’s mother had a nice smile. Her teeth were perfect. “I suppose having a tomboy is his revenge, but baseball is a love they share.”
My mother invited her inside for tea and a chat. My sisters sat on the porch. My best friend, Chaney, rounded the corner of the house. One look at Charlene and he ran back home for his glove. Some older boys appeared to mock our playing with a girl. One was our school bully, Skeeter Kressee. My father challenged them to a game.
Five on five with my father as the umpire. Charlene knocked in all our runs. It was my first win in a game and while most boys in America worshipped Mickey Mantle, Charlene became my baseball goddess.
Every day after school my older brother, my best friend, Chaney, and Charlene practiced throwing, fielding, and hitting. By the end of May my older brother and Chaney could toss a baseball over our two-story house’s roof. I had broken my sisters’ bedroom window on my last attempt. Charlene took the time to teach me the mechanics of throwing. Her father must been a great instructor, because after an hour my toss cleared the peak by ten feet.
Throughout that spring three other neighborhood boys joined our team and we played 7-on7 pick-up games in the dirt lot next to Route 1. Charlene was our ringer. We routed the boys our age. Our winning streak continued against 3rd and 4th graders. My father coached us on the weekend. Some 5th graders came close to beating us in early June, but Charlene smacked a flat pitch so hard that the ball cleared the state highway. We called ourselves the Red Sox and there were no Yankees in our town to challenge our team.
We were six boys and one girl.
One afternoon Chaney, my older brother, and I came home from Pinewood School to find Charlene sobbing on the front steps. Her Wilson glove and bat lay on the ground. My younger sisters’ crying jags were over lost dolls and our teasing. Charlene’s tears came from a greater disappointment. We stood on the lawn and watched her for a minute without saying a word.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Leave her alone.” My older brother elbowed my ribs.
“Did someone bother you?” I looked up the street. Skeeter Kressee was tormenting a neighbor’s cat. I picked up the bat.
“It’s not Skeeter.” Charlene wiped her face with the sleeve of her shirt. “I tried out for Little League and the coaches told me to go home and bake a cake.”
“They would have never told Frank Malzone that.” Chaney barked with boyish anger.
“Frank Malzone is a man.” My brother Frunk idolized the Red Sox 3rd baseman.
“And Charlene is the best player in our town.” My favorite Red Sox was Pete Runnel. I had traded two Frank Malzone baseball card for one of his. “Did they see you hit?”
“No, they said girls should play with dolls not with balls.” Charlene walked away from our house without her baseball and glove. “You can keep those. I won’t be needing them anymore.”
We had a game that afternoon. The 3rd graders beat us 15-0. We were too young to play anyone without Charlene.
That night at the dinner table I told my father about Charlene not being allowed to play Little League.
My mother frowned at the information.
“You can’t always get what you want.” My mother understood the concept of sacrifice. She had given up a singing career to raise five children,even though this winter the strength of her voice had stopped the Portland Cathedral choir in mid-chorus of AVE MARIA.
“She’s a very good baseball player. Better than I was at that age.” My father appreciated talent. He watched THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW every Sunday night. “They should have her try out.”
“Boys and men don’t like playing with girls or women.” My mother served my father another portion of roast beef. “Mostly because they’re scared of losing.”
“You may be right.” My father cut into the meat. He loved my mother’s cooking. “But she deserves a try-out and I’m going to get her one.”
“Good luck.” My mother was sincere in her wishes and stood up to clear the plates from the table. “But don’t expect much.”
“Why not?” I had to ask.
“Because the boundaries between male and female are in stone. Men wear pants and women wear dresses. That’s the way it is.”
“So I shouldn’t help Charlene?” My father was waiting for her approval.
“No, I’m not saying that, but you should be careful about getting her hopes up.”
“I won’t tell her, but I’ll get her to play.” My father winked at my older brother and me like he had a magic lamp in his back pocket. “You two dont’ say anything to Charlene or your friends. You can keep a secret, right?”
“Yes, sir.” My brother and I answered in unison. We were good sons and did as we were told 99% of the time.
“Because telling a secret means it won’t happen.”
“Just like telling someone your wish after snapping a wishbone.” My older brother nodded with understanding. Frunk and I fought for wishes with dried chicken bones. He had won each and every time and I believed that his wish was to always break off the wish part of the wishbone.
We bought our empty plates to the kitchen sink and went upstairs to our room. Our lights went out at 9 and I listened to the Red Sox-Yankees game on the radio powered by an alligator clip attached to the steel of my bed. The rocket-shaped radio was made in Japan.
I fell asleep before the game’s end, but the Bronx Bombers never lost to us.
The next few days were rainy, cold, and windy for the coast of Maine. Our baseball gloves remained on their hooks. We didn’t see Charlene once during that time. She went to school and came back home before us. Twice I went over to her house.
No one answered my knock on the door.
Friday night my father came into the house.
“You didn’t say anything to Charlene about the try-out?”
“No.” I didn’t like the sound of this questioning.
“To your friends?”
“C’mon, we’re going to talk with Charlene.”
“Is she going to play Little League?”
“That’s not fair.”
“A lot of things in life aren’t fair. This is one of them. C’mon on.”
I grabbed Charlene’s baseball glove and bat.
The three of us crossed the backyard. My father rang the doorbell and Charlene’s mother opened the door.
“Can I help you?” She was wearing curlers and
“I’d like to speak with Charlene. It’s about baseball. I tried to get her a try-out, but everyone said that she couldn’t”
“She already knows that.” Charlene’s wife lit a cigarette and offered my father one. “She’s giving up on baseball. Talking to her won’t change her mind. This is a man’s world. She knows that now. So there’s nothing to talk about. Thanks for coming over, but that’s the way it is and she’ll have to live with it.”
“But___” I looked up the stairs, hoping to see Charlene.
“No buts.” My father lit the cigarettes with a Zippo lighter. Charlene’s mom leaned closer to him. They inhaled at the same time. “Charlene has made her decision and so has the Little League. It isn’t right, but like her mother said, “That’s the way it is.” Thanks for your time.”
“Thanks for your effort.” Charlene’s mother smiled at my father. They nodded, as if they were allies in a greater fight.
“What about her glove and bat?” I was sure that I could convince Charlene to play with us. I just needed the chance.
“Leave them with me.” Her mother took them out of my hands. “Her father can decide what to do with them when he gets back home.”
“Have a good weekend.” We returned to our house and shut the door. My mother and father spoke in the dining room alone. They were having an adult conversation. Nothing else was ever said about Charlene’s playing baseball. My parents became good friends with her mother and father. The two couples went out together. My mother always said that they had a good time.
I saw Charlene later that summer. Her hair was longer and she was wearing a dress. I tried to speak with her, but she ignored my attempt. She was almost 12 and I was definitely 6.
Two years later we moved from Maine to Boston. My older brother and I were on the same team in the town league. I told the other kids about Charlene. One of the boys laughed at my story.
“Girls can’t throw a ball.”
I punched him in the nose and he cried to the coach. I was thrown off the team for two games. The suspension didn’t matter too much to me. I was no good at baseball, but some of Charlene’s skill wore off on me and opposing players would shout from the bench.
“You throw like a girl.”
I ignored the insults.
My throws got to the plate fast and hard same as Charlene, because that girl knew how to throw and one day boys would know that girls can play baseball.
It had to happen one day, because Charlene was the best ballplayer I knew and nothing will change that.
Nothing at all.