It was the summer of 1958. There was not a lot to do in my little town of Waldron Arkansas. There was only one TV station, no Xbox, no IPhones and no Nintendo. Kids were outside kids. There was nothing to do inside. In the summertime our lives revolved around Little League baseball. Our parents didn’t drive us to practice or even to the games. We rode our bikes if we had one or walked down to the ballpark.
My older brother Gary was one of the best pitchers for the Pirates. I played for the Bluejays and was the smallest and probably the worst player on the team. My other older brother Gene was real good too and I think he played for the Giants. We never missed practice. We couldn’t wait to put on those nice clean uniforms on game day. We were instantly transformed into Micky Mantel, Roger Maris and Warren Spahn. We walked and ran the mile or so to the park long before it was time for our game.
It was another warm summer night. The bleachers were full of people. Bugs and bats buzzed around the tall bright lights around the field. The infield was raked smooth and fresh lime striped the baselines. The infamous Dave McConnell towered above his Pirates on the third base side. He was a big man and always had a big chew of Red Man in his jaw. He was a great coach and tough as he was, his team loved him. Bill McCullah stood along the first base side with his rag-tag assorted size Bluejays. Bill was an average size man with a heart of gold. All the Little League coaches cared a lot more about teaching and developing young ball players in those days than winning a baseball game.
It was the last inning of the last game of the 1958 Little League season. The Pirates had a 4-3 lead and the Bluejays already had two outs but we had a man on second and Jim Blythe, our pitcher and the best player in the Little League, was at bat. I have never felt as small in my life as when Wendell Henderson, the local postmaster and announcer said, “and batting next for the Bluejays is Yates, Number 24.” Jim glanced over at me and the look in his eyes told me that he just realized it was all up to him. I figured he would get one RBI to tie it up but that it would probably be up to me to get him home for the win. My knees felt weak and although there was a nice breeze blowing in off Bull Creek, sweat was popping out on my forehead. I nervously glanced up towards the announcer and saw the color commentator, Poss Griffin look at me then say something to Mr. Henderson while shaking his head. Mr. Henderson nodded.
Just then I heard the crack of the bat. Jim had sent a long fly ball deep into left field..way back…just foul for strike 2. I was about to pass out. I wished I had drank my milk like my mom had told me. I felt so weak and insignificant. If only Jim would hit a homer the game would be over. If only my family could move to another state or I could at least go to a different school, everything would be different. I would be good at baseball like my brothers. Everyone would like me. The next day at the barber shop and drugstore everyone would be talking about the winning homerun I hit or the great play I made to save the game.
The count was full. Jim stepped up to the plate, confidently took a couple of practice swings and stared my brother down; double dog daring him to throw his best pitch. I was the designated catcher for my brother when he practiced pitching at home. He could throw the ball and throw it hard. To this day I still have a crooked finger to prove it. As I watched Gary start his windup it was as if everything stopped for a moment. I couldn’t hear the crowd or the chatter from the players. Then it was like slow motion as, with a determined look on his face, Gary sent the ball screaming towards the plate. I could see the seams on the ball slowly turning as it crept towards the plate…. and Jim Blythe’s bat. I must have closed my eyes for a second because the next sound I heard was the baseball slamming into the catcher’s mitt. Jim Blythe had taken a mighty swing and completely missed the ball. The game was over.
When I got back to the bench I said, “That’s OK Jim.” Then I told Mr. McCullah that if only Jim had gotten on base we could have won the game. On the warm dark walk home that night I was a little sad about losing but very relieved that it didn’t come down to that final at bat for number 24.