“Teddy was the ball player,” my mother was fond of saying about her older brother. The youngest of eight children, Mom was given to wistful reminiscences about her siblings in which my Uncle Ted figured prominently. It was family lore that he had tried out for the Yankees farm club as a shortstop. He would have, or so the story went, won a position on the team if he hadn’t tripped on a gopher hole in the infield and injured his leg. My father corroborated Mom’s story. Dad had grown up in the same neighborhood and had played in the same baseball leagues, even on some of the same teams, as the Prorok boys.
For men of my father’s generation, born in the teens or twenties of the past century, sons of immigrants, education beyond high school—if they even made it that far— was not something they ever considered as a way to get ahead in the world. If there was any path that might offer them a chance to escape the fate of their fathers—wage labor in a foundry or on a factory assembly line—athletics was it, baseball in particular. Although they played other sports, too—basketball, football, golf, and tennis—they could never envision themselves becoming a professional and making a living at any of them. In their day, those were college sports, and college after all was something reserved for lawyers’, doctors’, businessmen’s children—and so, baseball was the “ticket.”
To my father and uncles, being a talented athlete was akin to winning a jackpot. In their view, if the deck of genetic inheritance dealt you a hand that included swiftness of feet, a strong throwing arm, quick reflexes, deft glove handling, then you might get to play in a workingmen’s league or on a semi-pro team, have a chance to be noticed by a talent scout, and be offered a try out for the farm team of one of the major league clubs.
The gopher hole left Uncle Ted gimpy-legged, ending his ball-playing career. He returned home no doubt crestfallen. Grandpa Prorok, assessing the situation, used his influence to get Teddy a job, working beside him as a brakeman for the New York Central Railroad. Teddy-the-ball-player spent his entire working life in the Buffalo switching yard, pocketing his gold-plated watch at age 65, a happily married family man, father of four daughters and a son. As I write this he is about to celebrate his 100th birthday. In all the years, I never heard him utter a word of regret at never having a career as a professional baseball player. Golf became his passion in retirement. Well into his 90s, when he could no longer walk the links, he showed up at dawn at the first tee every morning in season to assume his volunteer role as starter at one of Buffalo’s public courses.
Uncle Ted is my godfather. This meant that, besides Prorok family gatherings, I saw him at least once a year on my birthday. On that annual occasion, he fulfilled his obligation without fail by presenting me with a brand new baseball, always a top of the line Spalding hardball, with an immaculate white cowhide cover and orderly stitching, one of the “autographed” models with the signature of Mickey Mantle, or Roger Maris, or “Stan-the-Man” Musial imprinted on it. (We held Musial in special regard because he was Polish like us.)
For a week or two the new ball would hold a place of honor on my dresser. I’d pick it up each time I passed by in order to imprint the tactile memory of its smoothness and heft. I’d slowly turn it, following the sinuous curve of the stitch with my eyes; and I’d throw it into my glove, again and again, just to hear the satisfying smack as it struck the pocket’s sweet spot. There was something about the spanking new ball that just asked to be thrown as far as my arm could heave it. Holding it in my hand, I would dream that I was Roger Maris catching a fly ball in deep center field, then rifling a perfect strike all the way home to the catcher who’d tag the advancing runner out at the plate. Or I’d imagine that I was Whitey Ford on the pitcher’s mound in Yankee Stadium, winding up and firing a fastball straight and true into the center of the catcher’s mitt for a called strike three. But it wasn’t long before I couldn’t resist the temptation to take it outside and use it to play catch with my brother Chuck or a friend. There in the paved housing project courtyard, or in the nearby playground made of leveled cinders, it was only a short time before my immaculate ball became nicked and scuffed, then altogether abraded and soiled, after which it lost its cachet as the gift from Uncle Ted, who “could have been a big league pro.”
My first baseball glove was also a birthday gift, but from my father. It was a hand-me-down that he had used in his ball-playing prime. Made of dark, well-oiled leather, this relic of a bygone era had the shape of an oversized, splay-fingered hand. It resembled nothing so much as a stuffed pillow: stiff, flat and thickly padded with a small, deep pocket in the center just big enough for a hardball to nestle in. Although it dwarfed my child’s hand, I was nevertheless thrilled to have it. It would be years before I got one of the then-modern, thinly padded, long-fingered, webbed fielder’s gloves that my father referred to derisively as “bushel baskets.” If ever I muffed catching a fly ball with that glove, Dad would shake his head and say, “How could you miss the ball with that bushel basket!”
I must have been seven or eight that day when my father and Uncle Joe, another of my mother’s brothers, also a railroad man, took me outside to try out the glove. Unlike Ted, who had the responsibilities of a wife and family of his own, Uncle Joe was always present at our house. Uncle Joe was a bachelor until his mid-thirties and spent a lot of his free time helping my mother by minding my brothers and me—her “wild Indians” she called us— while Dad was at work. There on the patchy lawn of our housing project front courtyard, the men rolled grounders for me to catch, which I bobbled repeatedly. My stiff, flat glove functioned more like an inclined plane. The ball rolled up it, smacking me in the nose before I could trap it in the pocket with my other hand. “Try again,” my Dad and Joe encouraged. “Practice makes perfect.” Still smarting, but being a dutiful child eager to please, I did try again and again, but with the same results. After three or four attempts, I let the next grounder roll between my legs, just beneath the extended fingers of my glove. This only earned me a chorus of admonishment: “Keep your head down. Keep your body in front of the ball. Don’t let it get by you!” And so went the afternoon: I followed my elders’ directions with the next ball and the next and the next. I don’t remember ever actually catching a single ball with my glove that day; instead, I stopped them with my chest, my chin, my lip, my nose.
This lesson was my first in what Dad termed “the school of hard knocks.” The payoff only came years later when I played for my elementary school team in the Buffalo parochial school league in 7th and 8th grade. Although my regular position was catcher, I’d sometimes substitute at shortstop. I didn’t have great lateral quickness in that position, but I was known to the coach for putting my glove on any ball that I could get my body in front of, preventing it from reaching the outfield for an extra base, because, unlike some of my teammates, I had learned at an early age to keep my eyes on the ball and my head down.
My father and uncles created in me, as in my brothers and cousins, a passion for baseball to the degree that it colonized our childhood imaginations. Their enthusiasms became ours. It was by following my father’s example, primarily, that I developed an aesthetic appreciation of the game. Not simply for the legendary moments memorialized on film such as the over-the-shoulder catch that Willie Mays made, his back to home plate, running down a long fly ball in the depths of center field, but the more subtle moments too. My father was a great admirer of Mays as a base runner. Seated in his chair before the TV on his day off, a glass of beer and bowl of nuts standing on the table next to him, Dad would shake his head and cluck his approval as Mays, threatening to steal second, took longer and longer leads off first base, playing cat and mouse with the pitcher. “Just watch him,” my father would instruct. “See how he’s driving the pitcher crazy.” And then when Mays had finally made the dash, safely securing second base, he would exclaim, “Now that is poetry!”
It was a big deal when, once or twice a season, Dad took brother Chuck and me to see the Buffalo Bisons play at home in Offerman Stadium. My father had many favorites, but tops on his roster the team’s slugger, Luke Easter, who’d started out in the Negro Leagues. Following Dad’s example, we chanted along with the crowd, when Easter came to the plate, egging him on to get a big hit: “Luke! Luke! Luke!” And from our seats in the bleachers Dad would dissect Easter’s swing, noting which part of the strike zone the opposing pitcher had better keep the ball away from, lest Easter swat it over the center field fence. One image indelibly pressed in my memory is that of the high, long arc of one Luke Easter “rainmaker” that sailed out of the ball park, soaring over the heads of the cheering fans who stood watching the game from their rooftops on the other side of the center field wall.
More often, my father took us to watch city league or semi-pro games played on the fields at Schiller or Roosevelt Park on lazy summer evenings. Most of these were either fast- or slow-pitch softball games. He seemed to know everything about baseball and would carefully explain the subtleties and nuances of each version. I recall his excitement when he saw a notice that The King and His Court would play an exhibition game in Buffalo. He talked about it for weeks in advance. He had seen this “team” once years before, just after he was discharged from the service, and never forgot the impression Eddie Feigner, the “King” had made on him. A fast-pitch softball hurler, Feigner was the best that ever lived. His top speed, which my father quoted to me, was 104 miles per hour, faster than any major league hardball pitcher on record.
The King and His Court was a four-man team consisted of Feigner on the pitcher’s mound, a catcher, a first baseman, and a shortstop. There was no need for outfielders because rarely did anyone who faced the King ever hit a ball past the infield. In fact, it was rare for anyone to get a hit at all, so overpowering was Feigner’s pitching that most batters struck out. The ball was already in the catcher’s mitt before most players ever got the bat off their shoulders. In order to make us fully appreciate the significance of the performance we were about to see, my father quoted the King’s statistics—record numbers of strikeouts, no hitters, and perfect games. The King and His Court barnstormed the country in those days, competing against all-star teams in one town after another, rarely losing a game. On one occasion–I think I was already away at college and my father had sent me a clipping–the King faced a lineup of the best major league sluggers—Willie Mays, Roberto Clamente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovy, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew—and struck them all out.
My brother Chuck and I were not disappointed by Dad’s buildup when we finally saw The King and His Court perform. His windmill windup and delivery were a mesmerizing blur. The batters couldn’t put wood on the balls he threw. After a few innings of no-hit ball, he began to throw pitches behind his back and between his legs to add to the entertainment; then, he retreated to the second base bag and pitched from there. Still, they couldn’t hit him. He topped that by returning to the mound and pitching strikes wearing a blindfold. I’ve never seen a more commanding performance—ever. I went home speechless.
Long before I played organized team ball, I played baseball in season with my brother and friends after school hours until supper and then again until it grew dark, weather permitting, day in, day out. If there were enough courtyard kids we’d play pick-up baseball, four or five players to a side; if not we’d play stoop-ball or stickball–“strikeout,” we called it. Once June arrived and the school year had ended, we were let out of the house early and stayed out all day, engaged in unsupervised play. Our parents couldn’t afford to send us to summer camp or subscribe to any other form of organized activity for us, with the exception of free swim lessons at one of the public pools. Because our fathers worked, and because our mothers were occupied with household chores and with caring for our younger siblings, we were left to our own devices to keep ourselves occupied in play to our hearts’ delight— just as long as we stayed out of trouble.
My “career” in organized team baseball began in elementary school. In early grades, we were let out at recess to play in the cinder parking lot adjacent to Immaculate Heart of Mary School. Sister Mary Joseph a tough, butch nun would sometimes bring out a bat and softball and hit us fly balls to catch. Then, starting when I was in 6th grade, our school joined a city-wide parochial school league. At first Sister coached our team, but things changed dramatically when my courtyard friend “Joey-the-cross-eyed’s” dad took over as coach. Mr. DiMaggio took his role seriously and wanted us, for our part, to do so too. He ran regular practices and recruited some of the other dads to help out. Mine was more than eager to do his part–after work, between shifts, on weekends. Coach DiMaggio also organized paper drives to raise money for equipment and uniforms. If “clothes make the man,” then a uniform makes the real baseball player. I remember the pride I felt, sitting in class fully suited in my cotton pinstripe shirt and pants, with knee socks pulled up, anxious for day’s classes to end so that our team could go out and play some rival school.
Following in my father’s footsteps, my favored position was catcher. Crouched behind the plate, I felt a sense of power or command, giving signals to the pitcher, placing my glove where I wanted him to aim his throw, bantering with the batter in an effort to distract him. I was good at it, too. I had quick reflexes and so was proficient at snagging wild pitches with my mitt or stopping balls in the dirt, thus preventing base runners from advancing. I was also quick to snag a bunt and throw the runner out at first base. My only defensive flaw was that I didn’t have a particularly strong arm for throwing from a crouch to get out runners attempting to steal second base. I could hit well enough. Not long balls, but line drives into the outfield or well-struck grounders through holes in the infield. However, I wasn’t particularly fast on my feet so didn’t make for a good base runner. In any case, I had a competitive spirit that the coach appreciated. I lived to play ball. But in time, a series of physical problems brought my baseball career up short.
First was the discovery that I was severely near-sighted, just when I had been settling comfortably into my role as Immaculate Heart’s starting catcher. It was my father who made the discovery and my father whose resourcefulness ultimately saved the situation. We stood one summer at the edge of the Welland Canal, just across the border in Canada, where our family had been invited to the summer cottage of friends. Great Lakes freighters sailed from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie and vice versa by way of the canal in order to avoid the Niagara River with its falls and rapids. That day, as we watched one massive freighter make its way down the canal, my father pointed out an identifying mark painted large on its side. “See the letter D,” he said to me. “No,” I replied, “I can’t really make it out.” “What do you mean you can’t see it?” my father exclaimed. “Why, it’s the size of a house!”
Within the week, I was seated in an optometrist’s office. Following his examination, I got the bad news that I would need to wear corrective eyeglasses—all the time. My father, anticipating my question, asked, “Will he have to wear them when he plays ball? My son’s the catcher on his school’s team. How can he wear his protective mask with glasses?” Based on the result of his examination, the doctor replied, he had to conclude that I must have extraordinarily quick reflexes to have survived as a fastball catcher this long. By his measurement I couldn’t clearly see the ball until it was 10 feet from my mitt!
This crisis was fortunately averted through my father’s ingenuity. He came up with the idea to cut away slots on either side in the padding of the catcher’s mask, which allowed it to fit comfortably over my face and eyeglasses. There was one small flaw in his design, however, which I discovered the first time a batter popped a ball up at the plate. I sprang from my crouch and threw off my mask as I had been taught to do in order to locate the rising ball and chase it down. But, the padding caught on my glasses and they flew off along with my mask, leaving me to stagger comically with my catcher’s mitt held above my head in self-protection. Without my corrective lenses I could neither catch sight of the baseball still high in air or locate my glasses lying somewhere in the dirt. Chasing pop-ups became something I had to train myself not to do.
Then when I was in eighth grade, the second year into my stint as team catcher, I developed stiffness in my knees from crouching. Applications of ice or heat helped to lesson the soreness for a time but the pain got progressively worse. Then one day I leapt up from my crouch to chase down a bunt, except that my knees remained bent, locked in the crouch position, and so I fell forward, flat on my face. Constant crouching, combined with knee bends to increase strength in my thighs at an age when my body was still developing, had produced swelling on the knee and cartilage damage.
A round of doctor visits followed. The recommended treatment, after all else failed, was to have cortisone injections in my knees, performed with a large hypodermic needle and no anesthetic. These treatments were not only frightening and painful when administered, they also left me with nightmares afterward. My days as catcher were over. I stayed on the team and subbed at various other positions for a time, but I had too much pride and competitive spirit to sit on the bench, hoping for a chance to pinch hit or otherwise substitute for a first string player. I knew, when that season came to an end, that so too had my “career” as a ballplayer. “There are three things you can do in a baseball game,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said. “You can win, or you can lose, or it can rain.” My baseball forecast was unremitting rain, a washout.
About Mark: Mark Pawlak is the author of seven poetry collections and the editor of six anthologies. His latest books are Go to the Pine: Quoddy Journals 2005-2010 (Plein Air Editions/Bootstrap Press, 2012) and Jefferson’s New Image Salon: Mashups and Matchups (Cervena Barva Press, 2010). His work has been translated into German, Polish, and Spanish, and has appeared widely in English.
Favorite Team: Buffalo Bisons
Favorite Player: Stan “The Man” Musial