“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963)
Teammates nearest Albert thought he was dead. The teenage first baseman had circled under a towering pop-up, missed catching the ball and was knocked unconscious when it struck his head. He was rushed to Waterville’s Thayer Hospital in a Pontiac GTO, arriving minutes ahead of a police escort cruiser. The first outdoor practice of the 1967 Williams High School baseball season in Oakland began with joy and ended in horror.
An emergency room physician attributed Albert’s concussion to “spatial disorientation.” His reflexes were milliseconds slow adjusting to the speed and flight path of a descending baseball against the backdrop of a high cloudless sky. Acclimating to outdoor baseball, the doctor opined, would take days after three weeks of practices in the school’s gymnasium. The explanation made sense, as did Albert’s penchant of showing schoolgirls the baseball seam’s indentations on his swollen discolored forehead.
What was difficult to comprehend, though, was the mid-May start of the baseball season. Spring snowstorms and freezing temperatures had delayed the arrival of baseball, wildflowers and insects. Mayflowers emerged in June; June bugs hatched in July. When the abbreviated baseball season finally began, it lasted a measly nine games.
In the home opener, with one out in the top of the third inning, coach Bob Dumond summoned players to the sideline when a moose and her yearling loitered behind me in soggy left field. Shedding a winter coat, momma moose resembled an Appaloosa. I sprinted to the bench in Bean boots. Umpires annoyed by the animals ordered players from both teams to charge third base and scream, “Get off the field.”
With an outfield moose-free, home plate umpire Mr. Floyd Bickford again shouted, “Play ball!” Each half inning, he spoke to passing ballplayers on the infield grass: “Hustle in, hustle out, you can’t beat a hustling ball club.” Mr. Bickford moved games along quickly because his shift as night watchman at the nearby Diamond Match and Toothpick factory began after the final out.
In the 1960s, Maine’s rural baseball fields lacked fences, batting cages and dugouts. More than a few fields doubled as town pastures, cropped and fertilized by cows and other quadrupeds. In Oakland, a mother fox often stole baseballs being retrieved by outfielders. Bored players mesmerized by playful fox pups got an earful from exasperated coaches: “Keep losing track of outs watching foxes and you’ll be sitting on the bench.”
In 1968, when rival Livermore High’s baseball field was soaked, the game was played on a cow pasture on higher, drier ground. Coach Dumond ended a pre-game pep talk by reminding outfielders to “keep the ball in front of you.” With a scary looking 1800-pound Ayrshire bull grazing in deep center field, his message didn’t require repeating.
The team’s uneasiness of playing on a dairy farm inspired philosophical coach talk: “Baseball abounds with life lessons.” That afternoon, a stark example of the inequality of America’s class system stuck uncomfortably with the youngest players. Underclassmen were relegated to seats on splintered pine planks; privileged upperclassmen enjoyed milking stools, each smooth and perfectly contoured to fit an adult fanny.
In the bottom of the third inning, I missed a shoestring catch in center outfield. The ball ricocheted off an angled slab of bedrock and landed in a cow pie. With teammates yelling at me to throw the ball to an infielder, I froze. Like a chameleon with independently mobile eyes, I aimed one eye on the bull and the other on the half-buried ball, before grabbing and tossing it. Lopsided with manure, the brown and white ball wobbled through the air like a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckler. My brother Don, playing shortstop, relayed the ball to home plate to prevent an inside-the-park homer.
A half inning later I stepped into the batter’s box with manure on my cleats and vengeance in my heart. Tapping shoes with a bat nearly buried home plate in dung. It was a silent way of making a big stink about the hometown umpire’s tight strike zone for my team’s pitcher and a generous one for Livermore’s.
Williams High’s 1969 pitching ace was Johnny Sawyer, a gangly Belgrade freshman with a magnetic personality. He was baseball’s equivalent of the cunning talkative spider in Mary Howitt’s famous poem “The Spider and the Fly”: “Will you walk into my parlour?” said the spider to the fly. Johnny’s parlor was the batter’s box, and “into his dismal den” stepped naive hitters, most of whom fell prey to the southpaw’s deadly accurate slider and major league curve ball.
Sawyer led the team in strikeouts and laughs. His colorful homespun Maine humor forced stone-faced umpires to crack smiles. “Work a waalk,” he’d holler in a Down East accent made famous by Bert and I storytellers Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan. “Their pitcha can’t hit the broadside of a baarn with pitch faulk.” During a tense game, when I was told to pinch hit, Johnny wrapped his golden left arm around me in the on-deck circle and whispered, “Take him deep and make him weep.”
After the final out, win or lose, Johnny was entertaining. When a sleek mid-1960s silver Corvette Stingray once raced past our yellow school bus causing teammates to gush, “There goes my first car,” the star pitcher dampened players’ giddiness. “You don’t want that caa,” he exclaimed, “it passes everything on the road except a gas station.”
Sawyer blossomed into a standout pitcher for legendary University of Maine coach John Winkin. In 1976, he pitched in the national semifinals of the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, after Maine’s two thrilling tourney wins. Facing Arizona State University, Sawyer dueled future Chicago White Sox star pitcher Floyd Bannister and twelve other players who would later play in the majors. Johnny twice struck out Bob Horner, who, in 1978, was named National League Rookie Of The Year as the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman. That Maine lost the game was a minor disappointment to Johnny’s former high school teammates. Our best player and beloved teammate had pitched on college baseball’s biggest stage, proving to our young impressionable minds that dreams are attainable. (Maine’s College World Series appearances captivated residents statewide, perhaps none more so than a retired Aroostook County potato farmer who allegedly sold his 1960 Massey Ferguson tractor to finance a Nebraska trip to watch Black Bear baseball and visit the state’s largest hog farms.)
After the 1967 season, teammate Mike Plourde enlisted in the U.S. Army. On August 28, 1968, Plourde, age 19, was killed in Vietnam’s Hau Nghia Province. The Vietnam War had hit home. Painfully. During a memorial service, a classmate fought back tears reading a Civil War poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war. We felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top. In our youths, our hearts were touched by fire.”
Not a baseball season passes that I don’t recall Plourde’s squeeze bunt that plated a game-winning run. In jubilation, teammates carried Mike on their shoulders. Today, we carry him and those cherished high school baseball seasons in our memories.
Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. Several of his stories have appeared in Down East Magazine. He lives in Waterville.