“It was always a measure of my self esteem.
‘Cause the fastest and strongest played shortstop or first
The last ones they picked were the worst.
I never needed to ask – it was sealed.
I just took up my place in right field.”
Willy Welch – “Right Field” 1986
When I was ten years old I got fitted for glasses. I hated them. It was bad enough with the name “George” and the calls of “Georgie Porgie - puddin’ pie. Kissed the girls and made them cry.”
I was small. Red haired. No muscle and I read books. And now – I had to wear glasses! If there ever was a kid designed to play right field, it was I.
Little League seldom had lefties that pulled, so they always sent you someplace where you would be out of the way of anything that involved even a small degree of motor skills.
And that meant right field.
Me, around 1957, and far away from right field.
I was the poster child for mediocrity when it came to baseball. A triple threat. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t catch, and I couldn’t hit the ball even if you held it in front of me. In fact, if you held it in front of me, you would probably end up with a concussion because I would whack your head before I hit the ball.
I’m sure, although it was never mentioned, my father was sorely disappointed in my diamond skills. The old man had a right to be, for he and his brothers and my grandfather (on my mother's side) all played ball.
Town ball, semi-pro and state-wide baseball leagues had sprung up everywhere in this country not too long ago. And from the end of the nineteenth century up till the early 1940s it wasn’t possible to go into any rural hamlet or village on a weekend without tripping over a baseball field filled with local “Casey’s” and their supporters.
My grandfather, one Norris Henry Heath, was born c1886 in Canada, and handled the catching duties for a few seasons in the tiny hamlet of East Haven Vermont. (pop. 301, 2000 census)
A picture taken about 1913 shows a rough hewn small town ball team, made up of lumber jacks and mill workers; some with arms crossed in defiance and containing, what appears to be at least one Native American (or Canadian) and a couple of very young teenagers. The aforementioned Norris Heath sits on the bench with the catcher’s equipment (or as catcher Bill Dickey of the 1930 NY Yankees is reported to have said, “The tools of ignorance.”) and on the ground, in front, sits his older brother Ralph.
Their uniforms lacked all uniformity, although a shirt or two has the initials "E H" blazoned across the chest. And the pitiful supply of equipment indicates more determination then riches, and probably more laughs as they took the field against larger nearby towns such as Burke or Lunenburg or, heaven help us, St. Johnsbury.
East Haven Vermont Town Team c1913.
According to Jackie Calder, Curator for the Vermont Historical Society, the town teams in Vermont in the early part of the 20th century were the heart and souls of many communities in the Green Mountain State. There were at least two-hundred teams and almost every village had at least one, and larger cities had two or more.
Games between rival town teams were always a highlight in any town or county fair and figured prominently in any community celebration.
Though the teams were usually sponsored by factories or mills and had such chest-swelling-button-popping names as the St. Albans “Railroaders”, the Richford “Chinese Spies”, the Swanton “Fish Hatchers” or, my favorite, the Enosburg Falls “Spavin Curers”, they seldom were paid and were lucky if they got a meal or travel expenses.
I don’t know what Grandpa Heath's team’s name was, but I’m sure it was a corker.
Norris Heath was a tough egg from Sherbrook P.Q., about sixty-eight miles due north from East Haven. He would walk occasionally the distance, in any weather, to visit his father or mother when they went their separate ways around the turn of the twentieth century.
He was a scrapper and sports fanatic who played semi-pro hockey for years as a “rover”, a sixth man back in the day before the rules called for only five per side. He played baseball and was quite proficient at the martial art of kick-boxing.
Kick-boxing or savate, is a French style of combat developed in the early part of the nineteenth century, which uses the hands and feet as weapons. It’s based on a rather savage form of street fighting and takes its name from the French word for “old boot” or “old shoe”, I’m not sure which. Norris was said to be a master at savate, able to launch his body from a flat footed stance to the height of a man's chin, perpendicular to the floor, and thus deliver a debilitating blow with his pedal-extremities.
With this valuable tool, he was able to see his way through any tough situation thrown at him by life and every saloon in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and New Hampshire, parts of Canada, and beyond.
My grandfather, it was said, has sailed through the finest plate-glass windows - fronting the fanciest bars in America and Canada.
My father, Samuel Alonzo Locke, was raised with a huge passel of brothers - on a farm outside a small town near Concord NH just after the First World War.
Penacook was named for a now defunct Native American tribe and was also called “Fishersville” at one time. Or East Concord. It depended on which side of the Contoocook River you lived.
Contoocook is another Native American peoples also missing from the roles of those indigenous cultures in the North Eastern United States.
My dad and his brothers spent hours playing ball on the farm after doing chores, but it was the home town hero Red Rolfe that really got them into the game.
Rolfe was born in 1906, attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Dartmouth College, where years later he was head of the athletic department.
Red was the starting third-baseman for the dreaded New York Yankees during the late 1930s, becoming part of the “Bronx Bombers”, with such stars as Lou Gehrig and Joe Dimaggio and the aforementioned catcher, Bill Dickey. Later they went on to win four World Series. Rolfe played over eleven-hundred games with the Yankees and finished with a .289 batting average. Not too shabby for an Ivy League boy.
Rolfe’s family ran a garage in Penacook which allowed them to send Red (Robert Abial) to those prestigious schools, and my father and his brothers loved to gather when he was in town visiting and listen to his stories of college and minor league ball-playing.
The old man would also pick up a few dollars as he crossed the sweet smelling fields of clover and hay to the local country club to caddie for the “city folk” on warm summer days.
He became very proficient as an athlete; playing state sanctioned baseball, local golf tournaments and village horseshoe tournaments (another small town activity that still riles up the local folks to this day).
The Locke boys were feared when they played together and later my uncle John Locke went on tour as a pro golfer in the late 1940s.
So I was the young prince when I came into the world in 1942. The pretender to the throne. But I was never able to reach that point in my life where I thought I could do as well as the old man.
I remember going with my mother to a ‘Twilight League” baseball game in Concord when I was five or six years old and marveling at the grace and speed of my father and his brothers on a dusty diamond in the fading light of a dying summer’s day, and I think of Shakespeare.
"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, howinfinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express andadmirable, in action how like an angel…..”From Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark
Act II, scene II
The old man, Samuel Locke.
The old man and his brothers always played left field, second, third or shortstop. Occasionally first base or centerfield. Uncle Buster pitched a lot. But I never saw any of them trudging to right field.
The fact that I would get beat up on a regular basis coming home from or going to school probably led to the realization that athleticism would never be my strong suit.
Baseball, particularly the Boston Red Sox, is, however, a solid link between generations and, later in life, if my dad and I would feel uncomfortable in each others company, just the words, “How about the Red Sox?”, was a firm bridge that spanned the silence and began many a long talk far into the night.
I hate him for this – for turning me into a fan of the Red Sox. It has led to massive bouts of depression, angst, grief and embarrassment over the years. Oh – it’s not really his fault. His father, Seldon Locke – my grandfather – I’m sure led him down the primrose path of pain as I have done to my sons and daughters and they, in turn to their children.
As I grew older, I gave up trying to play, only occasionally taking out the glove to throw an abbreviated game of catch with my sons and daughters until I tweaked my back. Then I would coach T-ball on occasion – feeling the part of “Pops” Locke, the old, but beloved coach, with a pot belly, a streak of chewing tobacco (or bubble gum) spattered on my uniform and a drawer full of stories. None of them true. And we lost just about every game we played.
From there it was only a short click to “fantasy” baseball and the foul-lines now carried into the ether and the “cloud” as “Pops” penciled in his lineup on the computer and watched in pitiful horror as his team was beaten up on a weekly basis.
Life has come full circle.
The years have seen the small town teams fade and now we have the college summer leagues to take their place. In fact nearby Laconia has its own New England Collegiate league team, The Muskrats (formerly the Manchester Silkworms) which, as of this posting, is in the Eastern Conference playoffs for the third season in a row and is seeded third.
And so the young pups still scamper about the Halcyon fields; the slap of leather and crack of the bat melting into the drone of the cicadas, high above in the oak and maple trees. The buzz of chain saws and lawn mowers that serve as the soundtrack of any rural afternoon in the months of summer mix with the yips, the yells and shouts of the players and fans.
Somewhere out there in right field a player is watching the coaches, the players, and the action with unglazed eyes a’ squint. He knows the score and the inning, and as he crouches, he slaps his hand into his glove just begging for a hot fly ball to come his way.
But also out there, somewhere else, is a kid with a hat too big, held up only by his ears, wearing glasses and torn jeans, slumped over, bored to tears and watching the dandelions grow.
I admire that kid.