Cover Story

My Lifelong Love Affair with Baseball

 

Story by Gerald Groseclose, Contributing Writer

Photos by Bill Sherrod

 

 

Trying to describe what makes baseball mean so much to so many was, for me, like trying to hit a Nolan Ryan fastball. Maybe it comes down to the memorable moments — great, golden moments. At least that’s a big part of my love of the game.

I guess you could say I came by it naturally. Even as a child, my parents told me I was always throwing rocks or bouncing a rubber ball. In fact, mother always said that her most embarrassing moment in life resulted from my rock-throwing.

I was 3 years old, and mother and I had walked down to our church, about a quarter mile down the road from the house. Coming home, mother stopped to talk to “Miss Helen,” our local school teacher, who was somewhat older than mother. Mother felt that she was quite a refined lady (I always thought mother was somewhat uncomfortable in her presence). I was picking up gravel in the driveway and throwing the rocks out in the road. Suddenly, mother said, a piece of gravel whizzed by her head and hit Miss Helen between the eyes, knocking off her glasses. The rock left a small cut on the bridge of Miss Helen’s nose. Mother was mortified. I do protest my innocence, as I was only 3.

My first encounter with baseball was not very pleasant. Four of mother’s six siblings lived within 20 miles of our home. It was nothing unusual for our families to get together for Sunday dinner. This particular Sunday, all the men decided to go to Speedwell to see a county-league baseball game. My uncle Fred, mother’s brother, was an especially big fan. I was sure that I would get to go, but dad said I was too young. I got so upset that I went upstairs and made a trampoline out of mom’s and dad’s bed, tearing all the covers from it. For my efforts I got a spanking.

Another incident resulting from my enjoyment of tossing things involved our Sunday school opening. I was probably about 7 and several of us had speeches to give for the opening that Sunday. Mother was supposed to be my prompter in case I forgot some of my speech. Sure enough, I got through the first part of the speech, then drew a blank. Unfortunately, a child sitting beside mother was misbehaving and she was otherwise occupied. I softly whispered her name trying to get her attention. This didn’t work. So I calmly removed my billfold from my hip pocket and tossed it at her, hitting her in the side of the head. The whole church exploded in laughter. This embarrassed me so much that I jumped the altar, ran to mother, and buried my head in her lap.

Recently, I visited  my hometown to conduct some business at the local bank. A person somewhat older than I walked in and immediately got a grin on his face as he said, “There’s the boy who threw the billfold at his mother.” The incident had occurred almost 60 years earlier.

In the 1950s, there were no organized sports in our neighborhood, so it was up to the kids to organize themselves to play ball. Although our community was small — basically a country crossroads — there were about 20 kids in the neighborhood who were within 4 years of my age. So there were always plenty of playmates and we were able to organize our own sports teams.

I especially loved baseball. It seems the most natural thing in the world to me is to hold a baseball in my hand. There was hardly a day we didn’t play baseball when we were very young. As we got older, some of my friends grew more interested in hunting and fishing; but I never lost my love of team sports, especially baseball.

First Major-League Moment

My first encounter with major league baseball was in 1954, when I was 10 years old. I loved the western “B” movies shown on Saturday afternoons. I would go down and visit my Uncle Arthur and we would watch cowboy movies on TV. One afternoon, I went down to see my movies and there was a baseball game on. It was the World Series game between the New York Giants and the Cleve­land Indians. I was totally disgusted that my cowboy movies were not on (by the way, I still have a great love for those cowboy movies).

But by the next year, 1955, I had started paying attention to the major league games that were on television. That fall the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees played in the World Series. Everyone in the neighborhood, including my cousins, were big Yankees fans. It seemed unfair that one team had all the fans, so I decided to root for the Dodgers. As any baseball fan knows, ’55 was the only year the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. Duke Snider, the Dodger center fielder, hit four home runs and became my instant hero.

Being a little older, I began to try to hone my skills as a baseball player. I spent most all my summer days in the front yard, when I wasn’t helping dad in the fields, throwing a ball up in the air and catching it. We had a large pasture field behind the orchard, and dad let me use our lawnmower to form a baseball diamond in that area. So every time I mowed the yard, I’d go mow my baseball field. Almost every afternoon some of my friends would come over to play baseball.

In the ’50s, most every community had a baseball team. We were the community of Cedar Springs and we played community teams such as Crockett, Groseclose, Cripple Creek, Murpheysville , and others. Most of the games were played on weekends. I was never a great player; however, I was fairly good and enjoyed it to the utmost. Unfortu­nately, we didn’t have a high school baseball team. I played four years of basketball and football in high school, but all of my baseball experience came from community baseball.

In 1957 my cousin and I had gone with his parents to Wytheville, our county seat. We went to the local hotdog stand, E.N. Umbergers’s, to get a hotdog and a drink. I noticed this small pack of bubblegum lying on the counter. It was only a penny a pack and I got a nickel’s worth. My cousin also bought a nickel’s worth. When we got back to his dad’s car we opened our bubblegum and discovered the wonderful world of baseball-card collecting. I thought the cards were the prettiest things I’d ever seen in my life. We scraped together enough money to go back and buy the rest of the box of bubblegum baseball cards. He was a Yankees fan and I was a Dodgers fan, so we agreed that he’d get all the Yankees cards and I’d get all the Dodgers cards. One of my first cards was my hero, Duke Snider; and my cousin, being a Yankees fan, was pleased to get a Mickey Mantle card. Today, my ’57 Duke Snider card is worth $5 and his ’57 Mantle card is probably worth $500!   

I followed the Dodgers closely through Nat Allbright’s “radio re-creation” shows, which were broadcast across the south. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, the only Dodgers games I could get on the radio were the live broadcasts when they played teams like Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and St. Louis. I spent a lot of late nights listening to games from the West Coast. My father’s uncle, Uncle Charlie, was a big baseball fan and loved to visit and sit on the porch late at night, and he and I would listen to broadcasts of these games. Uncle Charlie was the closest thing I had to a grandparent, since my own grandparents had died long before I could remember them.

One of my most memorable games as a youngster was against the convicts at a camp in Dublin, Va. This team consisted of slightly better-caliber players than we local kids were used to playing, and we got beat 13 to 8.

Supposedly, a couple of the inmates had played minor league baseball. The first pitcher I faced in that game threw an unusual pitch we hadn’t seen before — a drop pitch (probably a slider) that appeared to be coming right down the middle of the plate.  Three times I swung and three times I missed. But later in the game, the same pitcher threw a pitch that didn’t break and I got solid wood on the ball and hit a home run over the fence. It was a hit I’ll always remember. Throughout my youth, there were many such memorable moments — that’s one of the things about baseball.

After graduating from high school, I attended Virginia Tech and sports had to take a back seat to my studies. I did play some intramural softball and was somewhat of a gym rat for basketball. For a short period of time there I became more interested in courtship and grades than sports. After graduating from Tech in 1967 and marrying my wife, Lois, in July 1967, we had other things to occupy our time such as jobs, buying a home, and having kids.

In 1968 I attended my first major league baseball game. As an employee of Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative, I was a chaperone for the co-op’s delegation to the NRECA Washington Youth Tour. Our program ended on Wednesday afternoon. The Senators had a game against the Oakland Athletics that night, and several of the kids wanted to attend. Obviously, I was one of the kids who wanted to attend. The delegates notified their parents that we were going to the game and wouldn’t be home until late that night.

In 1973, when my son, Chris, was a little over 2 years old, I felt it was time to introduce him to baseball. We played a lot out on the sidewalk in the front yard, just rolling the ball back and forth to each other. That August, Lois, Chris and I went to Philadel­phia to spend the weekend watching the Phillies play the Dodgers.

I attended Friday night’s game by myself. Unbeknownst to me, they were having an “Old-Timer’s” game. The lineups for the Old-Timer’s game consisted of players who would have been the “Who’s Who” of 1950s baseball. Among the players were Duke Snider, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and even Dizzy Dean. What an enjoyable night this turned out to be! I had never had a chance to see these players in their prime. The following Sunday we all attended the game, and I soon found out my 2-year-old was more interested in cotton candy than baseball.

A Weekend to Remember

I spent another fun weekend in a major-league ball park in 1975. I went to Cincin­nati for a weekend series between the Reds and the Dodgers. I was planning to leave early Friday, around 5 a.m., but was so charged-up that I couldn’t sleep, so I left at 1 a.m. on Fri­day. By 9:30 I was in Cincinnati and couldn’t find a room. I went to about five hotels but everything was booked up. One clerk told me there probably wasn’t a room within 50 miles because of the big game be­tween the Reds and the Dodgers. I crossed the river into Covington, Ky., and found a nice Holi­day Inn — they also had no vacancy. I felt it was a safe place to be, so I decided to camp in their parking lot in my car.

I had heard on the radio that the game was sold out, but they were going to sell a few standing-room-only tickets starting that afternoon. I was disappointed that I might not be able to get a regular ticket, but I would see if I could get a standing-room-only ticket. I went to the stadium and, as luck would have it, I ran into a fellow who had an extra ticket and wanted to sell it. It turned out to be a seat about six rows back from third base.

Needless to say, I was pleased to have such a wonderful seat. Saturday’s game was also a sell-out, but the team decided to sell some overflow room in the press box. I was lucky enough to get one of those seats. NBC was doing the Saturday game on TV. I sat right beside the booth where Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek were broadcasting. On Sunday, I had to settle for a normal seat higher in the stands on the first-base side. That was a weekend I’ll never forget.

During this period, I continued to play not baseball, but softball. I also enjoyed helping with my son’s Little League baseball games. He always seemed to be on a very good team and has many trophies from his playing days.

In 1993 I got the chance to fulfill my longing to play baseball. The Roanoke Recreation League started an adult baseball program. There were two leagues formed, one for those players under 35 and the other for 35 and over. This was my 50th summer and I decided, on a lark, to try out. I thought that if I didn’t make it as a player, I could help as a coach. Much to my surprise, in my tryouts I was hitting as well as any player there. So I was drafted and assigned to one of the teams.

Our team was sponsored by the Davis H. Elliot electrical contractors company. We played two games each week and practiced two other afternoons. This turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. But by the middle of the season, my ankles started giving me trouble. After starting several games at the first of the season, I was relegated to pinch-hitting duties. I guess my 50-year-old body was not capable of standing up to the rigors of baseball anymore. But it was a really wonderful experience, and our team won the league championship. I finally had a trophy to go with all my son’s Little League trophies.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed collecting baseball cards, playing the game itself and seeing others play at the major-league level. I’ve had many wonderful adventures with friends at several different baseball parks. Several times I have been with friends to Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and was fortunate to attend a game at Dodger Stadium with my family while on a trip through the West.

In the last few years it has been my good fortune to attend games at the newer ball parks in Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis and, especially, at Camden Yards in Baltimore. In September 2001, I was fortunate enough to attend the series between the Orioles and the Red Sox and later between the Yankees and the Orioles. These were among the last games Cal Ripkin, Jr., played in before he retired.

I continue to enjoy collecting baseball memorabilia. I’ve always dreamed of being able to listen to all the major league baseball games from across the country. With the creation of satellite radio service, that dream came true. Now I can receive every major league game played and can enjoy all Dodgers games. I finally get to listen to the wonderful Vin Scully bring Dodgers baseball alive in my own home.

My life is complete! I only have one goal left in my “baseball life” — and that is to share my love of baseball with my grandson, Will. 

 

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