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Contagious cheer in a Boston ballpark

By John Gould / September 21, 2001



In the long ago, now, I was in St. Louis with time to kill between trains, and I asked the taxi man if there might be a baseball game that afternoon. He said, "No, just the Browns." Not long after that, the poor St. Louis Browns moved their American League franchise to Baltimore, became the Orioles, and acquired dignity and respect. Their visits to meet the Red Sox at Fenway Park were folksy, because the lineup included a New England boy, Mark Belanger, who played a good shortstop. It amused me that Mark played under two names.

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With a Canadian-French background, Mark Belanger's family name was not strange in New England, where we had communities like Berlin, New Hamp-SHEER, and Woon-sock-KETT, R.I. Radio, then doing play-by-play, called Mark Bell-'n-jur in Baltimore, but B'lahn-jee in Boston.

This was well before either league had a Canadian team, so Mark Belanger played shortstop instead of arrĂȘt-court. It was also before African-American players were commonplace in the big leagues, and one of Mark Belanger's teammates was black. I believe the stage is set for what happened.

Again, I had time to kill - this time in Boston - so I went to Fenway Park. Baltimore was in, and I approached the ticket window with, "Good afternoon! I'm down from Maine, and I'm told you have a choice seat for me."

The man said, "I sure do! Whereabouts in Maine?"

I said, "Passadumkeag."

He said, "I'm from SOCK-ko!"

I said, "You sure are!"

In this way, I had a good place right behind the home dugout, and with a bag of peanuts, I found it well before game time. I always liked to watch the pregame warm-ups, so there I was, all by myself alone, a solitary fan ready and willing. I was not alone too long.

All at once, I became aware of folks joining me in the stand, and I looked up to see some two dozen young black men coming to take their seats. They were all dressed up, clean and tidy, and seemed to be a class, maybe a club. They were under the guidance of three older black men. All was orderly.

Suddenly, I was the odd white boy. Then I noticed that each youngster had his own box of Cracker Jacks. My companions and I watched the warm-up in silence; then we stood for the national anthem. We sang in good shape.

The game started, and the Orioles went quietly in the top of the first. In the bottom, the lead-off man blooped but was thrown out trying to steal second. Nothing yet to cheer about. My companions and I ate our peanuts and Cracker Jacks. In the Baltimore third, we got some action. Mark Belanger got a scratch hit, stole second on the next pitch, and up to the plate comes the black man in the Baltimore line-up.

My seating companions greeted him with a sudden outburst I had not expected. I didn't know who the guy was; I didn't hear his name or don't remember it, and I think my friends about me knew no more about him than I did. My section behind the home-team dugout was making the only noise in Fenway Park, and it was a hullabaloo far in excess of any need.

Bewildered by this, the batter at the plate lowered the end of his bat to the ground and turned (he batted left) to see what in the world was going on. Every eye in the park turned to look at me. I was cheering, clapping, and carrying on in unrestrained, contagious exuberance, and having more fun than anybody. The batter tipped his cap at us.

Then our frantic abandon caught on, and a wave started. Toward the right-field foul pole, around the plate, and up the left-field side, people leaped to their feet and shouted to split the sky. No Roman general, returning in triumph, ever got a salute like this. It went on and on. While the batter took his bows, the plate umpire dusted three times with his little whisk.

Would that I could report a better outcome. After this overwhelming welcome to the black player, he calmed down, the crowd calmed down, I calmed down, and the fellow went down on three called strikes. Mark B'lann-jee worked a walk next time up, but got picked off. Then Baltimore got back-to-back home runs in the sixth, and the Sox went ahead by one in the seventh.

Ellis Kinder came on to get the save. There was one rhubarb, as a Baltimore pitcher was throwing too close, but it didn't last long. I still had almost an hour till train time. I stayed in my seat until Fenway Park was empty. Each seat around me had a Cracker Jack box waiting for the clean-up crew, so I left my sack of peanut shells on mine.

A lone policeman was at the exit, and I asked him how the game came out. He said, "That old Rubber Arm is sure something, ain't he?" I said he was indeed a remarkable pitcher, and we might not see his like again. He said, "Good night, kind sir, come again." I said, "Thank you, Mr. Yawkee, I shall."

He broke into a smile, and said, "What part of Maine are you from?"

I said, "How can you tell?"

"Easy. The way you say 'Yawkee,' for one, Down East?"

"No. Passadumkead. East Branch. You acquainted?"

"Eyah. You know the Gilmans?"

"Sure!" I said. "Chet and Maddy. Wonderful couple."

"My Grammy and Grampy. Mother's people. Say 'Hi' for Jimmy!"

"Will do. Small world!"

"Eyah."

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