By: R.L. Kehoe
The closest most guys in my neighborhood had ever truly come to religion in the summer of 1969 was a playground behind Grant Wood School, our grammar school. On Sunday mornings, we’d end up there after our parents had shooed us out of the house with some sort of stern directive like, “You need to go to church!” That meant we were supposed to get to mass at Queen of the Rosary, a Catholic parish comprised largely of suburbanites to the right of Dwight Eisenhower.
The church was less than a half-mile from our homes but being wayward delinquents we’d inevitably get sidetracked by the time we hit Grant Wood’s playground, which was about half way to church.
I meant to go to church, but being only 10 at the time, I began thinking of all the other things we could be doing, and I was not shy about sharing this with my brother John and whoever else had joined us on our way to some old-time religion. John would invariably second my motion when I’d suggest playing baseball instead of going to mass and we’d quickly reach a majority decision to table church for that Sunday.
There on the grass field next to the school where most of us were getting barely passing grades, we’d talk passionately about our full-time religion — baseball. These talks, or sermons as I then liked to think of them, were always a prelude to that day’s ballgame among ourselves.
We’d start by arguing about things like whether Ron Santo or Billy Williams was the better hitter or whom we hated more, the Cardinals or the Mets. Before long, the talk would turn to our daily hard-fought games on our personal Friendly Confines, which happened to be in between all our homes on Birchwood Avenue, a narrow street lined with ranch homes primarily financed through the GI bill and fronted by manicured lawns (except ours) with maple trees sprinkled equidistant among the homes on the parkway.
I know to most parents in the neighborhood this was the last place they’d like to see a baseball game played. All of their cars and windowpanes were within easy reach of a wayward throw or line drive.
On most summer days we played baseball until dark, weather or the first fist fight permitting. Sometimes we’d use a tennis ball, other days a rubber ball. As we grew up, we’d use a rubber-coated hard ball or a hard ball. When we couldn’t afford or find a regular bat, we’d use whatever was at our disposal, including on at least one occasion a table leg. The neighbors didn’t care for any of our choices, whether in our game location, equipment or the language that would be spewed in the life-and-death contests.
These games pitted friend against friend, brother against brother and all of us against any neighbor who tried to get us to tone down the language or keep the ball off their property.
Along side our games there always seemed to be a transistor radio playing that day’s Cubs game. And as the Cubs began to falter and eventually blow their once seemingly insurmountable 8 game division lead in August of that year, tempers really started to flare among the players on Birchwood Avenue.
Doug Miller, our bespectacled resident baseball historian and one of the few among us who knew how to properly grip and throw a curveball, would ride his brother Steve while pitching to him. The insults would start early in the at bat and escalate. One day, after Steve had fouled off about nine pitches in a row, Doug threw his glove on the ground and screamed, “Dammit Steven, you’re made up of foul balls!”
John and I would always be snickering to each other about these dust ups, but I always took the games seriously, just like the other guys. Not John. He played well enough and he wanted to win, but primarily he was in it for the laughs.
One day, in the middle of one of our most heated games ever, John illustrated this point.
Phil Ballmaier, the most physically, mentally and emotionally mature of our players, was pitching to his younger brother Bobby (who also happened to be John’s best friend), while John and I and some others were backing Phil up in the field. As usual, Bobby was chirping throughout his at bat with the game on the line and Bobby’s team behind by a run with two outs. He let Phil know every way imaginable how he was going to get the game-winning hit off him.
Phil would alternately tell Bobby to shut up while checking the defense behind him on each pitch to make sure all of us were where he wanted us.
Finally, with the tension ready to break us mortals in the field and Phil ready to throw the deciding two-strike pitch, I looked over my shoulder at John in the outfield while I was at shortstop. I could sense John was trying to get my attention.
Putting his mitt to the side of his face to obscure Phil from his view, John starts winking at me with his mouth agape. Then he’d purse his lips together like he was trying to whistle. Finally, I called time and ran over to ask him what the hell he wanted. “Nothing,” John said. “I was just trying to give you the sign.” I said, “What sign?” John: “You know, the sign to blow the game.”
I left this conversation and told Phil to go ahead and throw the pitch. As the pitch reached the plate, I could see Bobby get under the ball and pop it up straight to John in the outfield. He didn’t even have to move.
I could barely stop myself from peeing in my pants knowing what was about to happen. Just as the ball was about to land in his glove, John pulled his hand back about two inches as the ball landed untouched on the pavement. Bobby began screaming at the top of his lungs, “I told you Philly. We win! We win! We win!”
Bob barely had the words out when Phil let loose with a tirade as he began sprinting toward John to throttle him. John took off running, choking on his laughter. To John’s good fortune, Phil gave up the chase at some point.
Phil is now a Christian pastor and tremendous servant of the Lord who has brought many people to Jesus. I’m quite sure if he had caught John that day, my brother would have met Jesus even earlier than he did.