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THOMPSON: Baseball was my magnificent obsession

July 30, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


My first love - other than Pam, a girl six inches taller than me who I kissed in first grade - was baseball. It was an unquenchable thirst for more than a decade…more than a game…it was a magnificent obsession.

The advantages of growing up in Florida were many…the least of which weren’t lots of sunny, warm - often hot - days. Baseball was almost an eight-month season in the Sunshine State…heralded by the invasion of Major League teams for Spring Training in mid-February and closing with the World Series in October.

From the time I was ten years old, the four months between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training couldn’t pass fast enough to suit me. At least Christmas - with new bats, gloves, shoes and balls - gave promise of another year of playing what I believed was the greatest game ever.

When I wasn’t dreaming of playing - day or otherwise - I was memorizing every statistic of every player of every team in both the American and National Leagues. I was a walking, talking Major League baseball encyclopedia.

The source of my wisdom? A world-class collection of Topps and Fleer baseball cards that came with gum was my foundation. I even had some older cards that came with cigarettes…bought by adults and either discarded or occasionally given to me…a polite, smiling kid. I don’t know what marketing maven had the idea of including baseball cards with tobacco products…a prize most adults couldn’t care less about and a product kids couldn’t buy.

I backed up my baseball card knowledge with a collection of my own copies of Baseball Digest, Baseball Almanac, Sport and special issues of Life or Look Magazine. If it had a picture of major leaguer on the cover…I likely had it.

My source for both baseball cards and magazines was my mother, who managed Ocala’s - my hometown - most popular luncheonette in a Bittings Rexall drug store on the town square.
The store had a huge tobacco and candy counter and a magazine rack that rivalled the public library…and pretty much anything I desired was mine.

More’s the pity that my bottomless pit of baseball knowledge - the equivalent of a Harvard Ph.D. by the time I was 12 - had little worth in the real world. But, there were special moments that paid off. Every Saturday morning I visited my barber - George Partin - not necessarily to get a haircut, but to handicap his weekend betting on major league games. He won so often that he not only cut my hair for free…I sported a crew cut in the late 50s, then a flat top in the early 60s…but he started giving me a couple bucks every Saturday.

I don’t know how much I made the old guy over about six years…but minimum wage for an adult was only about $1.15 an hour, and I loved showing off and entertaining a barbershop full of men who mostly knew less than I did.

But I liked playing baseball as much as studying and talking about it. So, my family didn’t take a summer vacation for a decade without consideration of my Little League, Babe Ruth League or American Legion schedules. And, almost invariably, there was an extra week or two tacked on the season with All-Star teams.

Serendipitously, my hometown hosted great players and coaches during Spring Training. They played on a near-perfectly maintained professional field. And so did I…playing for five years - Babe Ruth, American Legion and high school - on a field with a flawless Bermuda-grass infield…and an outfield that looked better than most college teams’ infields.

Gerig Field…named after Ocala’s first mayor rather than Yankee baseball great Lou Gehrig…had an eight-foot-high limestone and concrete wall…with right and center fields sharing a wall with the area’s football stadium. The field - built with a Depression-era Works Projects Administration budget of US$100,000 (nearly US$1.8 Million in today’s dollars) dwarfed modern baseball stadiums.

Few home runs flew over Gerig Field’s walls…it was 396 feet down right field line, 410 feet down the left field line and in left-center a cavernous 488 feet. It was the world’s second largest baseball stadium ever built. In 1968, during a high school game, I launched a fastball 400 feet… just a foot short of clearing the right field wall. It bounced perfectly to the right fielder who almost threw me out in a close play at third base.

My first Little League baseball coach in 1962 - a neighbour - was a fellow named Q.V. Lowe. Besides coaching, he was a top high school pitcher headed to Auburn University and needed someone to throw to all summer. At 12 years old for six hours every week, I would catch 90-MPH fastballs, breaking sliders and wicked knuckle balls that left my left hand swollen and a right hand full of jammed fingers. I loved it…because no pitcher I would catch for five years would ever throw those quality pitches.

Q.V - his full name is Quincy Vincent - set pitching records at Auburn, played and coached with the Chicago Cubs and Montreal Expos, and then started a baseball program at Auburn University Montgomery, where his teams won two of every three games played over 28 years. Thanks, coach, for teaching me lessons that made me a better player…and a better person.

Beyond Q.V., there were scores of people - coaches and players - who made my love of baseball more complete. I met, talked baseball and even played catch with members of the Boston Red Sox…the team trained at Gerig Field from 1948 to 1971. Great ball players like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, Billy Herman, among others. They always took time with kids…they knew what it meant to us…and how fortunate they were to be major leaguers.

I got to know some of them better because most players and coaches played Eight Ball, Nine Ball, Rotation and Snooker in my father’s billiard hall several times a week before nightly curfew. The Marion Hotel - the players’, coaches’ and manager’s home away from home for Spring Training - was just a block away. My father would come home for dinner on week nights, and I often begged him to take me back to hang around with the players. He would occasionally because he knew how much I loved baseball.

Oh, and my baseball cards? Halfway through my stint in the U.S. Air Force when I was in Germany, I got a letter from my mom. “I finally cleaned your room,” she wrote, “It looks good…I even threw out all those dusty baseball cards.”

That’s okay, mom, my memories will last forever.


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