Baseball is in trouble for sure

When the home team is one run down in the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two out, and the team's .340 long-ball hitter is at the plate with the count at 3 and 2, I don't want a television commentator to tell me how Casey Stengel once got a duck-tail haircut in Memphis, Tenn.

The function of these honking ganders seems to be to distract the viewer from the game and make him mad. The evening before last year's all-star break, the Mets and the Yanks were tied and my intense attention was diverted when the kook asked if baseball were likely to fade as our national sport.

I had not given the possibility a great deal of thought. But I stood up, shut off the TV, and made the following statement; "Yes, if we don't do something about television!" Doing something about TV is an awesome ambition, but I think it's possible. I suggest the same technique Hercules used to clean the Aegean stables.

After a good night's sleep and a nourishing breakfast, I got on the telephone to pursue the subject. I asked a school teacher if the boys still play "scrub." She said she'd never heard of scrub, and the answer was no. She said modern playground precautions won't let the youngsters play hardball, but they can have tennis balls. They have to use a plastic bat.

Several other teachers told me the same. If scrub isn't played on sandlots and playgrounds, baseball is in trouble for sure. Scrub, a variation of baseball, was kindergarten for the big leagues. Any number could play. Scrub started when we were let out for recess. As the boys burst from the schoolhouse, the first one to jump off the steps shouted, "Scrub one!"

Each boy in turn numbered himself scrub two, scrub three, and so on. Scrub one batted first. Scrubs 2 through 10 took up usual baseball field positions.

The remaining scrubs played in the outfield, so we might have 10 or 15 center-fielders. Players came to bat in numerical order, except that anybody who caught a fly ball went at once to the plate. A batter could strike out, fly out, or be thrown out at first base, but there was only the one base.

A base-runner waited for his chance and ran back to home plate, to continue batting if he made it. It was disgusting, sometimes, the way two boys could hit and run and monopolize the fun until the bell rang. Other times, we'd work right along. Scrub was good fun. And it didn't cost taxpayers one cent.

At some time in the past, Charley Dunning, the wheelwright, had turned a hornbeam baseball bat on his spoke lathe, and he gave it to the school. Hornbeam is a durable wood favored for "whiffletrees," crossbars used in wagon harnesses, and Hank Aaron could not have shattered our bat if he'd swung at a freight locomotive. This was good, because our baseball was the opposite of a tennis ball.

When the semipro town team knocked the cover off a baseball, they'd give it to the school, and we'd take it to Dave Longway's garage. Dave would wind it with machinist's tape. This gave our baseball the same specific gravity as Matinicus Rock. When somebody swung the hornbeam bat and connected with the taped baseball, the noise was much like a squash falling off a stepladder. The batter had bees at his elbows into the next afternoon. But we played scrub baseball, and it was great fun. We didn't know it was dangerous.

In high school, I made the town team. One spring we played Richmond High. Shorty Towle, our usual umpire, stood eight feet tall and was seldom challenged. This time he called a ball, and the Richmond coach objected.

He approached Shorty with antagonism and said, "It is not my custom to dispute with stupid umpires, but I must take exception. The ball you just called a 'ball' was exactly over the heart of the plate. You have deeply offended my best pitcher, you unmitigated idiot!"

To this, Shorty Towle made reply: "Sir, I beg you to be less abrupt in your conversations. My finer qualities resent your unfounded allegations and unsportsmanlike insinuations. If you don't leave my presence forthwith, I shall be obliged to banish you from the field. Hence! Avaunt! Begone!"

To this sage advice the Richmond coach gave not the slightest heed, so Shorty kicked him out. The Richmond coach called in his team, and they took off for home in a heated huff. We won by forfeit, 2-zip.

Our coach then called our team together and said, "Now you see, gentlemen, the folly of foolishment! Baseball is a game and should be played as such. We came here for fun, not to nourish ill will. This man spoiled the day for everybody. He has led his squad astray. On top of all that, he was wrong. That ball was a ball."

I have never forgotten our coach's stirring harangue, proving that baseball is first a pastime, and next a dependable inculcator of the highest principles. Since then, I've never disputed balls and strikes.

As to the safety of tennis balls, you must give a little and take a little. When our taped scrub ball, on a line drive off our hornbeam bat, caught you unawares in the solar plexus, you were instantly aware of an important demand on your talents. Your grandchildren will never learn such in their supervised activities with tennis balls and plastic bats. I have spoken.

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