My mother brought home the blue glove two days before my first Little League season. It was lumpy and had white lacing. The manufacturer, a company I’d never heard of, didn’t even bother stamping the autograph of a big-league player on the imitation leather.
My mother made a little ceremony out of the glove, including a speech about being proud of her little boy ready to take the field across town. Ready to graduate from back-yard scrub games. Ready to get a real uniform and play on a real team. Maybe next year I could even get shoes with real cleats. That’s when she reached in the brown paper bag and pulled out the glove.
I could do nothing except put the glove on my left hand. I could do nothing but smile and say, as gamely as I could muster, “Gee. Thanks, Mom” She smiled as she carefully folded the bag, a souvenir she might glue down on a page in my scrapbook: “The bag Pete’s first baseball glove came in.
“She wouldn’t write the true thing about that bag: “The bag that the only blue baseball glove with white stitching ever seen anywhere came in.” And she wouldn’t write this, even truer, either: “The bag that held the blue imitation-leather baseball glove that is probably going to get Pete laughed right out of Little League baseball.”
She stood there smiling like Mickey Mantle had landed in our kitchen to receive the finest hand-stitched mitt ever seen in Yankee Stadium. “Gee. Thanks.” Mickey, or me, either one, couldn’t say anything else. We stood there, Mickey and me, both, looking out the back screen door at Ralph Leggett coming across the back yard with his brown leather glove and a real 32-inch bat and a real stitched baseball and black shoes with real steel cleats – the kind that would cut open the arm of anybody who tried to stop him from stealing second base.
“Let’s go, Pete,” Ralph said, when he got close enough to see me through the screen. “They’re picking teams today.”
Mickey Mantle went straight to center field. I stood in my mama’s kitchen with a blue glove hanging off my left hand.
“Come on, Pete,” Ralph hollered through the screen door. “If you’re late you’ll get left out.”
I looked at Ralph. He hadn’t noticed my glove. You couldn’t see things exactly through the screen.
“Go on, Pete,” my mother said. “Show them what you’ve got.” She gave the paper bag one final fold, down to the size of a scrapbook page, and beamed one more proud smile my way. It only delayed matters that I jammed the blue mitt under my arm on the side opposite where Ralph walked as we made our way down the street, across the highway and down the railroad tracks toward the ball field.
“So, did you get a glove?” he asked when he’d finished telling me how the Little League coaches would watch us play for a while and then line us up and pick one player at a time until every boy had been assigned to one of the four teams in the league. Ralph’s older brother had been in Little League three years, so he knew how things worked. “I want to be on the Cubs,” he said. “That’s the best team. Or the Braves. Once you get on a team, you have to stay on it. There’s no changing.”
We crossed a big steel pipe over the ditch by the railroad tracks and followed a worn path into the woods that would come out a little past the right field fence.
“You don’t want to be a Tiger,” Ralph said. “They come in last place every year. They get first pick this year, so you don’t want to be the best player. You want the Cubs or the Braves to pick you.”
Fat chance the Tiger coach would pick me first. Not with a blue imitation leather glove. Not with white lacing. I pushed it tighter into my armpit.
“Is that your glove?” Ralph leaned forward to look around to my far side. “Did you get it?”
He would see it, sooner or later. Everybody would see it. I’d told all the kids in my neighborhood and beyond my mom would buy me a new glove in time for the season. I couldn’t borrow Ralph’s glove, or Benny’s or Gene’s, like I did in back yard games. And I sure couldn’t play bare-handed. Not in Little League. I wouldn’t get picked at all. In a league where every kid gets to play, they wouldn’t even let me on the field if I didn’t have a glove. Ralph said his brother said it was a rule.
Ralph had shown my mom his glove, so she’d know what to look for at the Western Auto. A fielder’s glove, with a big pocket, and padding where a hard-hit ball wouldn’t sting so bad. I even pointed out how Ralph’s glove had an autograph – Roberto Clemente – along the outside edge. I didn’t point out that it should be brown. Any shade of brown. Or that it should be made of some part of a cow’s hide. Any part. And that the laces shouldn’t be white, for crying out loud. This had to be some kind of a girl’s glove.
“Is that it? Let me see.” Ralph swung around back, trying to see that way. I swiveled every time. But that wouldn’t work. He’d see it, sooner or later.
“Yeah,” I said. “I got it.” And, with that, I produced the blue lump for the whole world to inspect.
Ralph’s bat dropped out of his left hand. “Geez almighty! Pete! It’s blue!” he said. Like I hadn’t noticed.” And the laces are white!” Like I hadn’t noticed that, either. He took the blue lump, carefully, and slipped his left hand inside. His inspection lasted, maybe, a second. “Geez almighty, Pete! It’s some kind of a….”Words seem to fail Ralph.
“Some kind of a girl’s glove,” I said.
“Yeah. Geez!” He shoved the lump back at me and picked up his bat. It is to Ralph’s credit that he let me walk with him the rest of the way to the ball field. When we came out of the woods near the right field fence he got over his shock enough to offer, “You want to use my glove, Pete? When I’m not using it?”
It wouldn’t do, and Ralph knew it. The Little League had rules. Every kid had to have a glove. They probably never thought there would have to be a rule covering what color a glove could not be. There would be a line for my mother to put in the scrapbook: “The bag that held the glove that caused a new rule for Little League.”
I still could still turn back. They had plenty of boys to make four teams. They didn’t need me. Not with every kid in town at the ball field or on the way there. Not right now. I had time. I could run all the way back to my mama’s kitchen and explain to her about the glove and maybe she’d take me to the Western Auto to pick out a brown glove. Maybe even a glove made of some grade of leather. Or I could have told her that my stomach hurt.
“Rub some dirt on it,” Ralph said. “Probably nobody will notice. You’ll only get to play a little bit. In right field. Most of the time you can shove it up under your arm.”
With that, Ralph disappeared into the throng of boys. I folded my blue lump and stuck it inside my shirt. And drifted. From edge to edge of the growing crowd, I lingered in one place only until someone’s attention focused on the lump.
“Is that your new glove, Pete? What are you doing? Keeping it clean in there?”
That would only work so long, I knew. Sooner or later, the blue glove would be seen. By someone. By everyone.
Boys kept rushing by. Wherever I stood they rushed by, back and forth. Then some of them started climbing into the bleachers behind home plate and some moved, surging and stalling, into the dugout by first base and from there onto the smooth clay field like a flood. Every one of them had a brown leather glove with brown leather laces.
The glove, whatever its coarse material, stuck and dug into my skin. I imagined the blue color bleeding out through my shirt. I could imagine the boys gathered around me, holding back a few steps while they pushed against each other and craned to see.
“What is it? Jeez almighty! He’s got something blue!”
The voice came from Lewis, the captain of the Cubs.
“Get out here on the field!”
Lewis, in his third year of Little League. The best infielder and the best hitter. Lewis, practically the boss of the whole Little League.
While the coaches watched from the top row of the bleachers, Lewis directed the first year tryouts on the field to see if any of us could actually catch a hit ball. To see if any of us could throw. To make certain that every new kid had a glove.
“Now!” he said. Lewis had his hands on his hips, holding up Little League baseball and making everybody stare at me. He kept up that stare all the way through the dugout and onto the field.
“Come here!” He barked and I ran to his position near the on-deck circle.
“Do you have a glove?”
I patted the lump in my shirt. I checked and no blue oozed through. Not yet.
“Well, put it on, Pete. You can’t play with your glove inside your shirt.”
I reached in and hesitated. “Where do you want me to play?”
He had stopped looking at me. He scanned the assortment scattered across the field.
“Lewis?” I said
“Anywhere, Pete. It doesn’t matter. Get out there.”
I ran straight for shortstop, a position I had no hope of winning. A position, I realized only when I had dug my feet in as deeply as my worn white Keds would permit, where my new blue glove would be most visible to the older kids and the coaches in the bleachers.
“Not there, stupid!” That had to be Lewis.
Somebody said it, and whoever said it, they were right. I dug in deeper.
“Are you going to put your glove on or not?” Lewis this time, for sure. He’d come across the first base line to glare at me some more.
I looked around for Ralph. In his backyard, in our neighborhood, he played second base. Or left field. Or pitcher. I didn’t see him anywhere.
“Pete! Your glove!” Lewis came almost out to the pitcher’s mound. He tossed a ball to Tommy, the league’s top pitcher. The kid with a real curve ball and heat would test out the first- year boys.
Finally I found Ralph. In deep right field with two other boys. Ralph stood closest to the foul line. He saw me and shrugged his shoulders. I pulled out the blue lump.
“Jeez almighty! What is that?” The voice came from my left.
“Is that a glove?” From my right.
Tommy turned from the mound. First he turned to the voices. Then he followed the pointed fingers to me, dug in deep at shortstop. He stared. For the longest time he stared. Then he smirked, marking me down for a high inside fast ball when my turn came. Or he might go straight for my head.
The pitcher turned toward Lewis and jerked his thumb back my way.
“Jeez Pete! Is that a glove?” Lewis called out. Then, as if they couldn’t see, he called out to the coaches on the top row of the bleachers. “Pete’s got some kind of a girl’s glove.”
I wouldn’t have been lying when I got to my mama’s kitchen: “My stomach really hurts, Ma.” She would look concerned and feel my forehead and, maybe, not even notice that the blue glove slipped off my hand while I crossed the pipe over the ditch by the railroad track. The water moved pretty fast there and Ralph said it had to be at least twenty feet deep.
“Play ball!” Lewis yelled out to the field. “Be alert! Bring the ball to first base.” And he pointed, like we didn’t know first base from the pitcher’s mound. Tommy tossed the ball toward home plate. Very nearly a lob. The batter swung hard and true, a rope into short left field for a single.
“All right. All right,” Lewis called out for everyone to hear. “We’ve got a batter.” And he hustled up the next kid in line, checking his helmet and clapping him across the back. “Be alive, now. If it’s on the ground, infielders, you’ve got a play at second base.” He pointed again. Maybe we were catching on.
Tommy glanced toward the batter and started his windup. This time he pulled back further. This time he threw harder.
The season seemed under way for the boys in the bleachers. The ball connected on the trademark of the bat and flew straight toward me. In that instant of contact the runner on first base lunged off the bag toward second, catching himself short before his outstretched foot even touched the ground.
“Run!” Lewis screamed. “Run!”
The boy at first base started again, then stopped.
“He’ll never catch it,” Lewis shouted. “Run!”
Not with that blue imitation leather no-name glove, he meant. Not with those white laces. Not the kid who dug himself into a deep hole at shortstop with his worn white Keds.
“Run!” Lewis screamed again.
The line drive ball arced left, looking for a gap. Looking for a double, or better, among the scramble of kids racing forward from center field. I stepped left, too, out of the pit I’d kicked out of the clay, and stretched both arms wide, opening the blue lump on my left hand only the circumference of an official Little League baseball.
When the ball struck, the blue imitation leather bucked back. The white laces strained and stretched. But they held. Every no-name part of that glove held together as I snatched it back to my chest and glared down the runner stuck at first. I pulled the ball out of my glove and tossed it back to Tommy on the mound. He snagged it with his bare hand and smiled. “What about that, Lewis?” he called over his shoulder. “Good catch, huh?”
Lewis picked up a helmet from the ground and rammed it onto the head of the next kid in line.
“All right,” he called. “All right. We’ve got a fielder. There’s still a play at second, guys. Let’s play ball.”