When you are a young boy the only place you want to be in the summer is a baseball diamond, shagging fly balls and taking your cuts at home plate. Our diamond was not a fancy place, with raked infields and immaculate green outfields, marked off by clean white lines of chalk. Ours was a stretch of blacktop with painted on bases and a rusted backstop that sagged from all the foul tips and passed balls that had bounced off it. Yet we derived as much enjoyment there, slowly coming to terms with this demanding game, as those who played in palatial stadiums in the major leagues.
We not only learned how to throw and catch and slide and hit but also some of the more subtle aspects of the game, like patience and tenacity, discipline and cooperation. In particular, we learned how to confront bone-shaking fear, which came at us, bluntly, in the shape of a scuffed brown baseball thrown or hit hard enough to whittle us off at the knees. We trembled when grounders bounced toward our gloves, anxiously averting our heads, and flinched when we faced pitchers who liked to burn the ball. Our coaches told us to go out and make some memories, but some of us were all too afraid of becoming a memory like Roy Chapman.
In addition to everything else we learned on the diamond was some of the lore of the game, which we shared with one another as avidly as we shared the statistics of our favorite players. Clearly, the most chilling incident we learned about concerned Roy Chapman. On August 16, 1920, in a game in New York, he was struck on the left temple by the Yankees' submarine-style pitcher Carl Mays. Immediately he collapsed to the ground, then was revived and, with the aid of his teammates, walked toward the clubhouse in center field. He was then taken to a hospital where he died early the next morning: the only major league player to die as a result of an injury suffered during a game.
The story was a disturbing one for young boys to hear who were just starting to learn to play baseball, especially when it was pointed out that Mays had not intentionally thrown at Chapman. Rather, it was an accident, something terrible that was not suppose to happen even though it did. He had thrown a curve ball, not the kind of pitch used to brush back a batter. Chapman, standing very close to the plate, apparently was fooled by the pitch and made no attempt to step out of the way.
Plainly, a baseball diamond can be a dangerous place. And when we first started out, tense with fear, we acted like grasshoppers in the batter's box, hopping back and forth to avoid being stung with a pitch. Our coaches urged us to stay in the box and relax but we continued to hop, remembering what happened to Chapman.
"Bear down, boys," we were told time and again, "bear down."
"Don't bail out."
"Make the pitcher regret he ever set eyes on you."
A baseball field is also an enormous place, full of long shadows and deep corners and plenty of wide open spaces, yet the heart of the game revolves around home plate, among the smallest places on the field. For all the sophisticated tactics involved in playing baseball, it is essentially a struggle between the batter and the pitcher for control of the plate. It is a battle for turf, as elementary as it is difficult. Obviously, if we couldn't stay in the box, we conceded the struggle to the pitcher, and might as well not even bother to take our turn at bat. The choice was clear: stay in and risk being struck or remain on the sidelines.
Because we wanted to play so badly we dug in and challenged the pitcher, knowing that he might try to back us off the plate with a sizzling fastball close to the ribs or under the chin. We were as tense as ever, our hands so slick with sweat the bats sometimes seemed as slippery as eels. "Don't give an inch," we were told repeatedly when we were in the box, and we tried not to, though we were almost as jittery as we were when we stood in line at school to receive our polio vaccinations.
We remained this anxious until we discovered Minnie Minoso on the game of the week on television. He was the outstanding left fielder for the Chicago White Sox who, three times, led the American League in stolen bases and in batting. More important to us, though, was the aggressive way he protected home plate, setting an example for us to follow in our own turns at bat. He paid a price for his aggressiveness, however, getting hit by pitched balls more often than any player in major league history. Defiantly he leaned over the blackened edge of the plate, his head and arms trespassing into what pitchers regarded as their own special domain. Sometimes he was struck so hard that he had to be hospitalized, but he never let any injury diminish his aggressiveness when he stepped into the box. He went up to the plate as if it were his own residence, determined to protect it with every inch of his body.
Minnie Minoso became our model as batters, helping us to overcome our fear of getting hit by pitches. Just like him, if we got knocked down, we got up, dusted ourselves off, and resumed our aggressive stance. At bat, we became replicas of the great player, miniature Minnies, crowding the plate and refusing to be intimidated by pitchers, even those who threw from "down under" in the style of Carl Mays.
Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas Minoso was born in the Matanzas Province of Central Cuba. He was a celebrity before Castro came out of the Sierra Maestra to take control of the country. And, except for Ricky Ricardo on "I Love Lucy," was probably the best known Cuban in North America. For a while that summer, in tribute to the great ball player, we adopted certain mannerisms we associated with him. We blessed ourselves before we stepped into the batter's box, announced balls and strikes and runs scored in Spanish, even cursed in his tongue when we were pitched too tightly and brushed back from the plate. If we were old enough, we would have smoked strong thin cigars and grown mustaches and learned the cha-cha.
We became Cubans that summer in an effort to overcome our fear of the game we desperately wanted to learn how to play. Our careers were brief, lasting only a few short summers, yet our fondness for Minnie Minoso remained firm, even when it became politically imprudent to express any appreciation for anyone linked with Cuba. Minoso, incredibly, managed to face five decades of major league pitching in his amazing career, and throughout these years we watched in admiration, still grateful for the example he set when we were raw recruits to the game of baseball.
©2008 by T.R. Healy