It’s been a long time but memorable in the eyes and mind of the then-young man who went to his first baseball game. Some of the small details are foggy. And he’s not exact about the team names. But the important stuff is still there, as if it were yesterday. But let him tell it:
There weren’t many organized sports activities at the grammar school I went to, first thru fourth grades. Ambrose, in Coffee County. Recess was mostly relay racing, drop the handkerchief, and other small activities to work off our excess energy and silliness. Most of us were children of sharecroppers, and they weren’t very interested in baseball. But lots of guys who had been in the services had learned to play; and lots of farm teams were starting to sprout all around.
James and my sister, Dorothy, had recently married and moved to Ben Hill County and Fitzgerald, and I was there to spend the weekend. Dad had given me two quarters and told me to be careful with them. I put them into the corner of my handkerchief, made a knot around them, and put the whole thing into the bib pocket of my overalls. When James told me we were going to a baseball game that night, I didn’t really want to. A good western or a cartoon in color would have been better. But he insisted, saying it would be good for me.
His buddy, Jack, was visiting from New Hampshire. They had been in North Africa and Italy together in the Army, and stayed in touch enough that Jack came visiting once in a while, on his way to see a sister who lived in Florida. They never talked much around me about the war, but from what I overheard I knew it must have been bad. I guessed they were lucky to be alive. Jack talked really loud and had a New England accent that was very noticeable. Most everybody liked to listen to him.
He drove us to the big wooden stadium in his old pick-up, and I sat in the middle without saying anything because the muffler was so loud I couldn’t hear. On the way, we stopped at a package store and they bought a big bottle of bourbon apiece. All three of us had brought thin jackets. Mine was blue, and I kept patting the handkerchief in my bib pocket.
We could see a red and white bus parked near a low-roofed building as we got there. Big letters on the side said Red Birds. James said that our team had ridden to the ball park in it. There would be a team there from another town, and a big crowd was expected.
When Jack finally found a spot to park, we got out and they stuffed the bottles under their shirts, making sure their jackets covered everything; then we marched to the sign that spelled “TICKETS.” They bought three, then three bags of popcorn and three Pepsis from the snack shed. I guessed someone else paid for all that, too, and I still had my quarters. I never even told anybody about them.
James led us to some seats behind the home plate. I could see the players waiting around the low buildings on each side. He said they were called “dugouts”, and told me what they were for. I would learn lots more before the night was over. He also mentioned that the other team was called the Wildcats, and that we wouldn’t cheer for them; just the Red Birds. I saw a few policemen here and there, but didn’t pay much attention.
When I thought the game was about to start, four guys walked together to a spot behind home plate, near the backstop, and the fans started cheering and applauding, as if they knew beforehand what was about to happen. One had a shovel, one had a pick axe, and another was holding something like a long, flat shoebox. The Mayor had the shoe box, and was wearing a suit and tie. Two wore team uniforms. The fourth one – I learned later he was the home plate umpire – just stood, watching. Three more umpires were standing nearby, and I thought it was all a regular part of the game.
They started digging a hole near the backstop, stacking the dirt in a pile. When they finished, one of them took a shiny black hatchet with a red handle from the Mayor’s box, wrapped it in a blue towel, and laid it in the hole. Then the Mayor and two of the players – James said they were managers from each team – made short speeches about responsibility and sportsmanship, and keeping the game of baseball above reproach. Then they covered the hole with the dirt in the pile: poking and stomping, leveling and smoothing. I could hardly tell where the hole had been. The fans started clapping and whistling again and talking among themselves. That lasted several minutes, then they got quiet and everyone except the umpires left the field. When they took their caps off, so did everybody else who was wearing one; and somebody on the loudspeaker sang “America the Beautiful.” Everybody stood up.
“It’s called burying the hatchet,” James said, after the singing. My ignorance must have shown, so he repeated it and told me it was a ceremony. He was starting to explain it when the plate umpire yelled “Play ball!” That’s when James and Jack eased the bottles from their belts and started taking a few sips.
The players went to their places on the field. The Red Birds wore red caps and the Wildcats’ were tan. Both James and Jack tried explaining all that was happening, sometimes even interrupting each other. I had trouble keeping up with all the rules they mentioned. But by the third or fourth inning, I would begin to warm to it enough to anticipate some of the happenings.
James told me about the hatchet business. Lots of the local fans felt that the umpires showed partiality to the other teams – especially to the Wildcats – when the Red Birds played them. Too many of their calls went against our team. That’s how our fans saw it, and they had started complaining about it. It got so bad that the big shots told them to fix it; it was bad for the entire organization. So they had this big to-do, trying to placate everybody. “Burying the hatchet” meant that all the bad feelings and acts of revenge would be buried and forgiven, and not brought up again.
By then, two girls who had stood behind us at the ticket booth were behind us again, and started kidding Jack about his accent and throwing popcorn at his railroad cap. I knew he was getting a little irritated. “I don’t want to talk anymore,” he’d say. He was good-natured about it, but started ignoring all their other attempts to make him say anything. “Well, howdy to you too, Mr. Butt,” said the blond. “We can’t help it if you talk funny.” They both giggled and took turns pointing at him. I offered them some of my own popcorn and they threw that at his cap, too.
The Wildcats had scored in the third and led 1-0. But batters on both sides would strike out, or the guys in the field would stop them from scoring. I got bored and started talking to the two girls. Pretty soon, James and Jack were making friends and sharing the bourbon with fans sitting close enough to talk to. By the fifth inning, the whiskey was about gone, and Jack left to get more. His truck was parked just over the fence behind us, and I knew then why he had been so careful to park it close and handy. We could hear his muffler for a long time when he drove away, and just as long on his way back.
When he did get back, in the middle of the seventh, it was good and dark and the Wildcats were leading 3-2; and the two girls had their jackets on against the chill. Logos printed on each jacket named a college nearby, and both said they were dating some of the players. They were talking and smiling lots more since they started helping with the bourbon, and neither was bothering with Jack’s cap anymore. I had asked James to tell me if some funny business started; if the umpires started cheating again.
Then it happened. The score was still 3-2 when the ninth inning started. The Wildcats’ team didn’t score, so the Red Birds got another chance. One of the batters hit a ball and ran to first base. The fans hadn’t made much noise for a while, but some of them started clapping and yelling and talking amongst themselves again. All of them were grinning and waving. The next batter struck out, and the crowd got quieter. But the next batter hit a ball that went past the white-painted light pole in the left corner that marked the foul line. From where we were sitting, we could see it good. It went close to the pole, but to the right of it and over the fence.
James and Jack and everybody who had seen it started jumping and yelling. It was the first home run I’d ever seen. They were putting the bottles under their jackets, and starting towards the truck. I had watched the ball, and saw one of the umpires waving his arms and pointing toward the wall, on the other side of the white pole.
Other people had noticed him too, because for a few seconds it got really quiet. Then a few, then several, then almost everybody started yelling and cursing. The umpire had called it wrong, and everybody knew it because they could see it. Even I saw it.
The home team was really going at it with the umpires, and I thought they were about to fight. Two of the umps had lost their black caps. That lasted for a few minutes, then most of the fans just started heading toward their cars, while a few were walking or running onto the field. Most of the players and umpires were leaving in a hurry. In two or three minutes they were all gone.
Some of the fans who stayed were really pouring onto the field and toward the clubhouse. James said, “Stay with me,” and headed toward the crowd. I had left my jacket, but couldn’t make him hear me.
We followed everybody – loud and boisterous by now – between two buildings and to the side of another one where it was almost dark. Then I saw several policemen—maybe six or eight. They were standing at the main door into the clubhouse and telling everybody to stand away from the building. A big black Buick was parked near the door. The cops formed a double line, and pretty soon the umpires walked through the door, down the line, and loaded into the Buick. Motioning again for the crowd to stand back, a police car pulled in front of the Buick, to escort them out. When the umps’ Buick started to follow the patrol car, an ominous flop, flop, flop sounded. Cheers went up. All four tires were flat!
Somebody must have made a phone call, because a black paddy wagon and a blue wrecker drove up. A lull came over the crowd, and soon they were just standing and talking, and smiling at the policemen; and watching the umpires loading into the paddy wagon. The two wrecker guys were hooking to the front of the Buick without even fixing the tires. As they were about to drive away, I remembered my jacket, and told James I needed to go find it. And if I got lost, I’d meet him at the truck.
Most of the lights had been dimmed by then. I ran back to my seat, grabbed the jacket, and from the corner of my eyes saw two people wearing red ball caps running toward the back exit; and two others were already there, hopping up and down, like they were cheering them on. It was dim, but I thought they were wearing jackets like those worn by the two pretty girls who sat behind us. One of the runners had something black – an umpire’s cap – in his hand. I looked toward home plate and saw two shovels on the ground, and an empty hole where the burial had taken place. One of the big posts that supported the backstop had the other umpire’s cap hanging on it, above the wire guards. The hatchet had it pinned to the post.
Then the four figures were gone. After a few minutes, from somewhere, the Red Birds’ bus appeared outside the ticket entrance, and then started pulling away, with the two girls grinning and waving from the open windows. I waved back, and the blonde took her red cap off and put the umpire’s cap on. And blew me a kiss.