Sunday, May 11, 2014

Baseball and the pretty little black-haired girl....

     Ham & Effie could do anything for the mill families - their wash, their cooking, their babysitting, their grocery shopping, any odd jobs that would make them a nickel or two to keep food on their own table.  The only thing they couldn't do was come up on the porch.  Wouldn't be proper for black folks to come up on white folks' property like that.  So when the wash was delivered you met them on the sidewalk.  When they delivered your groceries they left them there on that same sidewalk.  When the young un's were kept they walked to the corner to meet the old black couple that were at the same time family, employees, and outsiders.   When caring for this gaggle of mill children it was sometimes decided the afternoon could be best spent watching the Crackers play at Ponce de Leon Park.  At that time it was probably still called "Spiller Park" or "Spiller Field."  The only glitch was that for the children to remain in Ham & Effie's care they would have to sit in the "Colored" section of the old ballyard.

     In this group there was this one little black-haired girl perched there in the segregated seats watching baseball  (if, in fact, there WERE might've been a standing only area.)  I imagine the other children pulling ponytails, begging for peanuts (if, in fact concessions were even afforded the "coloreds." ) and running circles around themselves, keeping themselves entertained during those long, slow summer games.  But in the midst of that childish chaos, I'm almost certain that little black-haired girl stood and stared at the game in front of her.   It would've been a sight to see, a little white girl being given a tutorial by the old black man, pointing out every nuance of a game that for her was a natural attraction, a first love,  not just sport or entertainment.  There were superstitions, tendencies, chess-like moves a manager makes in anticipation of the pitcher's spot coming up in the next inning, thousands of things you could see taking place, if only you knew what to watch for.  Folklore about the stars of the game visiting kids in the hospital and then pointing at outfield walls to make good on a promise to one of the sick kids....or superstars playing stickball out in the street with kids after making history-making basket catches on the biggest baseball stage of all, the World Series.    The other children probably found it boring.  That little black-haired girl absorbed all of it and baseball grabbed her by the soul...turns out, it never turned her a' loose.

     Later,you see,  a  pretty black-haired teenager walked across the street from her part-time job at Sears to watch games in the same old revered venue.   This time, though, she could sit where she chose and could probably afford to buy herself  a bag of peanuts or a cold Coca-Cola.  World War II started and her brother went off to war and got shot down by the Germans.  They finally found him in a German P.O.W. camp after being listed M.I.A. for 13 months.  I like to think that the only solace she found during such a terrifying ordeal was the afternoons spent in the old ballyard.  One could put aside your problems and the world's  problems when trying to guess what a pitcher had up his sleeve or hoping for a fly ball deep enough to score that runner on  third.

      The pretty black-haired teenager fell in love and was married when she was 19.  She gave birth to 4 children, and lost 3 others (2 to miscarriage, 1 was stillborn.)  Learning to live life as a mother and a wife is a growth one lives through, sometimes not noticing that it's taking chunks of  personality that make a woman an individual.  Moving from house to house, (each one a little bigger than the last)  watching her and her husband's parents age, some passing on, one moving in and becoming part of the household she worked to support. The husband's  job became a career as the municipality  for which he worked became a CITY instead of a TOWN.  She saw children grow and start driving and having cars of their own and start college and leave home, sometimes getting married, sometimes coming back home.  But in the midst of the chaos that is raising a family, one very important thing happened.

     In 1966 the Milwaukee Braves decided they wished to become the Atlanta Braves.  The black-haired lady now had a team of her own and could quit following the Dodgers.  Years earlier, she had listened to a thousand Brooklyn games on the radio with her father, long before they moved west (and became "a different sort of a team." as she put it.  Asked one time what that  meant she said "Brooklyn was a neighborhood, loyalty, the team belonged to the people.  But L.A.  Hmph!  Hollywood, stars, flash and glitz don't mix with baseball...")   She went to a lot of those games in the old Fulton County Stadium, her husband's career with the city affording her pretty good seats there in aisle 119, atop the home team's dugout. Most of it was pretty awful baseball but she never, ever gave up hope, enduring rain delays, extra innings and double-digit routs.  She'd never leave before her team had won or lost, unless Mother Nature made it impossible.  And when it was Mother's Day, her family left church very quickly (sometimes while they were still singing the final hymn!)  to get her to the stadium before first pitch.  She wasn't one to want flowers, brunch or frill of any kind.  A program, a bag of peanuts, her family around her, everyone in their seats on time was gift enough.

     As the pretty black-haired lady became a pretty gray-haired lady, she  lost a husband and was living in an empty nest and  walking with a cane.  Thank God for cable television and the chance to watch not only her boys, but also boys in other cities play her favorite game.  She developed quite an affinity for the Cubs, based mostly on her love for the character that called their games, the guy with huge glasses.  She took a trip to Wrigley Field once and later said the only thing she'd seen more beautiful was Venice, Italy.  I would imagine, if pressed, she'd admit to liking the 'friendly confines' even more than that jewel of Italy.

     As she grew older, mobility issues made it harder and harder to get her to baseball games.  Until one opportunity for very good tickets - "close enough to hear guys cuss!" as she exclaimed - presented itself and her extended family of children and childrens' spouses and children's children all came up with a plan to get her to those seats.  There were only 2 tickets so everyone couldn't go.  One would drive, one would walk her to the gate, one would get someone to get a wheelchair from stadium personnel, and finally one would walk her to her seat and watch the game with her.  After the game, reverse the process.  It would be worth the trouble.  When she got to her seat she started crying, saying she was sure she'd never watch another game in person.  Tears went away, though, when they sang the National Anthem and got down to business.

     As the bottom of the 4th started and the home team began it's second trip through it's lineup, trying to get that zero off the scoreboard, the gray-haired lady made a very bold proclamation to anyone who would listen.   "UH-OH!!! WE'RE ABOUT TO BEAT HIM UP!!"  (talking about the other pitcher.)   "Why?" she was asked.  "BECAUSE HE ISN'T CHANGING A THING HE DID THE FIRST TIME THROUGH THE LINEUP!!!  WATCH HIM, FAST BALL, BREAKING BALL, CHANGE SPEEDS, AND IF THAT DOESN'T WORK HE'S PUTTING ONE UP IN THEIR EYES TO MAKE THEM CHASE IT!!!"  Suddenly, a dozen or so advance scouts for other teams in the surrounding  seats turned to see who it was making such declarations.  A few of them chuckled when they saw it was that gray-haired lady, leaning up in her seat, chin propped on her cane.  She wondered why there were staring...."Watch!  You'll see!"   By the time the inning had ended the home team no longer had a zero on the board.  There was a 4 there, courtesy of one solo home run, a walk, a single and a 3 run shot.  And in that moment the tutorials given her by an old black man 60-something years earlier paid off when a few of those scouts put down their clipboards and stopwatches and gave the gray haired lady a round of applause.  Once again, tears came to her eyes.  It's good to have some part of you that survives when all else falls prey to change.  I doubt, until that moment, the pretty little black-haired girl, the pretty black-haired teenager, the pretty black-haired lady or the pretty gray-haired lady ever realized it was something she should have been proud of, something that was HERS. 

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again."

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