When I was a kid, there was only one sport that made a child dream and that was baseball. Yes, the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League existed, but it was Major League Baseball that captivated young boys.
Perhaps it was because every town had a team. Many still do. But in the 1950s, the difference was that 150 channels weren’t on the TV, carrying a handful of sporting events every evening. In fact, during the summer only two sporting events were televised weekly, the Friday night fights and the Baseball Game of the Week Saturday afternoons.
Furthermore, the Minnesota Twins had yet to exist. If you loved baseball, the best a Minnesotan could do most nights was to tune in a Milwaukee Braves game if the radio static didn’t overwhelm you.
So it was that when school let out, towns all across Minnesota had summer recreation programs that included baseball for boys in the elementary grades. Some started with T-ball, some with an adult pitcher, and some with a kid pitcher. It made no difference. When a kid came to the plate with bat in hand, he imagined himself to be Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Ted Williams.
I don’t know if it was predestination, but it became clear early on that my future endeavors would best be spent somewhere other than on a baseball diamond.
For example, other kids had gloves with the autograph of an all-star like Nellie Fox or PeeWee Reese. I had a glove that was a Ted Lepcio-model. Ted Lepcio?
Ted Lepcio was a utility infielder for the Red Sox. Today, it would be as if the other kids all had gloves autographed by A-Rod or Derek Jeter while I had a Nick Punto model.
My brother was a first baseman good enough to play on the high school team. I was left-handed, which, in baseball wisdom, meant the only infield position I could play besides pitcher was first base. Other first basemen had gloves autographed by all-stars Stan Musial or Gil Hodges. My first-baseman’s mitt was a Dee Fondy model. Dee Fondy?
Dee Fondy was a journeyman first baseman for the last place Chicago Cubs. The crowning achievement of his baseball career came 20 years after he finished playing when, as a scout, he signed St. Paul-native and future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor to a Milwaukee Brewer contract.
Nevertheless, it was the playing careers of Ted Lepcio and Dee Fondy that cast my baseball lot.
In our town, the elementary-age boys were divided into three classes depending on age: Peanuts, Peewees and Midgets. Thanks to the miracle of forgetfulness, I have blotted out most of the memories of those summer games. I did play first base once in a while, but mostly was consigned to right field, where more than once I was caught counting dandelions as the ball rolled past me. In the pecking order of kids’ baseball, right field was the place players were put to do the least damage.
My greater problem was at the plate. I went to bat determined to do the right thing, but then froze. For the entire month of June the bat never left my shoulder while I hoped for a walk. Ten-year-old pitchers may not be long on strategy and tactics, but even they could figure that one out. The walks — except back to the dugout — were few and far between.
Finally, during the first week of July, my coach yelled in exasperation, “Swing the bat.” On the next pitch, I swung and hit a line drive — right at the second baseman. I was out, but the exhilaration of feeling bat striking ball drove me onward. That summer, I hit close to .500 in July and finished the season with a .250 average.
An even bigger problem was that the same quirky behavior happened year after year. I’d go oh-for-June and then get just enough hits to come back for more torture the following season.
Contrary to popular belief, most kids are not cut by a coach. They cut themselves because they know whether or not they can make the team. In junior high, the VFW organized a team for junior high kids. I tried out, but then cut myself by not showing up for practice before the coach could pull me aside. My dreams of becoming the next Mantle or Mays, much less the next Ted Lepcio or Dee Fondy were no longer important enough to overcome the embarassment of my limited talent.
To be fair, Lepcio and Fondy were mediocre big leaguers, and I was a mediocre PeeWee. I occasionally comfort myself with that memory when I think of one senator’s reaction to President Nixon’s nomination of G. Harrold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nomination was rejected by Senate Democrats because of Carswell’s undistinguished legal career. In defending him, however, Nebraska Republican Sen. Carl Curtis reportedly asked, “What’s wrong with mediocrity?” saying that America has a lot of mediocre lawyers, and they deserve to be represented on the high court, too.
I’m not saying here that I deserved to play Major League baseball or even on the local VFW team because of my mediocrity. While I still salute mediocre Major Leaguers like Lepcio and Fondy, I remember that athletics are unemotional judges of talent.
I write only to remind parents that just because your child isn’t the wunderkind of local T-ball, it won’t ruin his childhood or his life.
Let them play and have fun, and let them cut themselves if they choose. The majority are mediocre, and that’s just the way it is.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. Reach him at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].