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Writer recalls thoughts from early years of baseball

By John Straka Published: November 13, 2016 12:00 AM

Baseball was a large part of my life during the seven years that I was a teenager (13-19). That included the four years of high school. Some of what I remember may not have been during those years, but must have been pretty close.

One thing I noticed during the recent World Series, was that the catcher and first baseman were not wearing the gloves I remember from long ago. The catcher's mitt used to be about 2 inches thick and a foot in diameter. And the first baseman's mitt was also longer and almost always for the right hand, because it was a big advantage for a first baseman to be left-handed. I remember when umpires would hold up a thick, padded chest protector as they crossed behind the catcher. I don't see anything like that on today's umpires.

My TV did not show vendors moving up and down the aisles selling peanuts, Cracker Jack and beer during the recent World Series games. I remember when a large percentage of the fans bought souvenir programs that included much information about the players. Those programs also provided for the fans to keep a record of every play, with various signs and symbols. The only one I remember and recognize is a capital "K" for strikeout.

I remember when the Cleveland outfield would shift towards the right field foul line. They did that whenever a certain player from another team was at bat, because he had a high percentage of success with hitting to right field. The Indians challenged him and dared him to hit to right field, with extra fielders ready to gobble up any long ball. What did he do? He defied their tactics and hit to right field in spite.

Another tactic was used when the manager wanted to avoid a certain pitcher/batter combination. He would put the pitcher out in left field and bring in a new pitcher to deal with the problem batter. After the problem was solved, in one way or another, the pitcher would come back to the mound from left field and a new left fielder would enter the game. I doubt very much that managers can do that today.

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I remember when there might have been a half dozen baseball diamonds within a half mile of my house. Some were nothing more than an empty field with the weeds chopped down, while others might have had a backstop made of wood near the bottom and chicken wire on top. Such a diamond might even have a bench along the third base foul line for spectators.

A close friend of mine would buy a case of Cracker Jack, hide it under the two tier bleachers, and then with a half dozen boxes of Cracker Jack, go up the foul line, selling at a profit. He'd make a big issue out of having "only two boxes left", which was not a lie, because when those two were sold, he went back to the case to replenish his supply and continue to sell. As an adult, he spent much of his life as a salesman. That figures!

One of my more exciting baseball memories is the time I met and spoke to Joe Vosmik, a star quality Indians left fielder. It was years after his baseball career ended, and he was selling refrigerators at Sears. By coincidence, Vosmik was a family friend of the teenager selling Cracker Jack.

I remember, at one of those neighborhood ball diamonds, when the home team needed one run to win the game. They had a runner on third base and no outs. The catcher must have been a little guy, because he couldn't get the ball anywhere close to second base from home plate. The home team coach knew that, and when the next batter came up to bat, he (the batter) somehow got onto first base. Now, a throw to second, unless it was right on in accuracy, would score the winning run. So, the runner from first went to second to draw a throw. The catcher wasn't fooled and ignored the stolen base. So, the runner, who's now on second, casually strolled back to first base. I don't remember how that ended, but that guy must have walked back and forth between first and second a couple of times.

During one of those impromptu games, my brother went to catch a fly ball that hit the tip of one of his fingers and forced the bone out of position. The swelling went down, the pain disappeared, but the finger was stiff for the rest of his life.

The cover on the softballs we used when playing in the street didn't last long. It would be replaced with black friction tape. After a few minutes of play, you would see the ball sailing through the air trailing a couple of yards of tape.

At a sold out game, Mike commented on how crowded the park was. Ike asked him to look at his ticket, which was marked "Row M, Seat 14". Ike looked at his ticket, which was also marked "Row M, Seat 14". They looked at each other and agreed, "That's why it's so crowded!"

I remember being at a game where I was seated behind a pole. It was not a good seat, because every time something happened on the field, he would stand up.

Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at wenceslas88plus@gmail.com.


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