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It was 1938, and I returned to my farm just after my 20th birthday and I had 60 days leave that I had to take. We were preparing for war with Germany and Japan, although, at the time, I am sure most Americans didn't think it was coming as soon as December 1941. The World Series was over and lots of things were happening around baseball that winter. The owners were trying to find ways of putting more people into the seats. With Ruth and Gehrig both gone from baseball, there were only a select few that were carrying baseball along its path, as America's favorite sport and past time. Joe D and a young player by the name of Ted Williams were the two most exciting players the season before and I had missed a lot of games because I had Naval Acad classes and duties for 4 years prior to my return to the farm. My grandfather was getting on in years and my father was starting to slow down from the hard work that had to be done on a daily basis. In addition, with me gone, it was harder for both of them. I kept in contact by letters and both my grandpa and parents tried to come up to Maryland to see me as much as they could. Knowing what was starting to happen on the European war front made me more determined to go home for a while because if war broke out anytime soon I wouldn't have a chance to go home until it was over.
That season, Dad and Grandpa came up and we got to go to Yankee Stadium for a couple of games and then sometimes to Fenway or Griffith Stadium (where the Senators used to play). It was easier then to get tickets to Fenway then the Senators because the government wanted to get a little entertainment and the Senators were the only game in town that you didn't have to sit in the snow to see. The World Series was over and down comes the waywere son, home for the holidays and I over from the shipyards and Maryland Naval Base to the farm and surprised everyone sitting at the breakfast table. Grandma, Grandpa, Dad, Mom, my brother, and a few cousins who came over to see everyone. Walking into the kitchen was something always special to me because it was always considered Grandma domain and you didn't go in unless you were either asked to or called. However, this time, I just ran through the door and surprised the family so much that I almost got hit up the side of my face by grandma because she didn't hear me or see me until I was right in her face.
Sitting at the table next to Dad and Grandpa was as was normal for years, Joe Jackson (to everyone who doesn't know who he was, he was known to the baseball world as Shoeless Joe Jackson, most likely one if not the greatest hitter in baseball lore, but that is another story). Joe had known me since the day I was born and he among a few others from the baseball world was my part time father, teacher, and just fun to be around. You think I have some stories? Good God. Sometimes we would sit around at the fireplace at night and he would talk about playing and watching other players play. He would also tell stories that really put a different idea about why and how the early baseball players played. Well, Joe looked up and almost fell off his chair, as did my dad and granddad.
The rest of the day was just eating, talking, drinking and late in the afternoon. All of us went outside to the pond and did some fishing for a late dinner fish fry and I guess you would call it a "bullshit center". I spent that whole day listening and laughing at everyone talking about what it was like for me in the Navy and how school was. I had graduated earlier than what was normal and I didn't think the second World War was coming anytime soon. By 6:00 PM, after drinking way too much beer and White Lightning, I was well on the way to falling over asleep. I must have gone to bed around 10:00 or 10:30.
The next thing I remember was waking up to the sounds of the barnyard animals waking up themselves. I walked out into the kitchen to my grandma cooking breakfast and Dad and Joe and Grandpa drinking coffee at the table. What I didn't see immediately was Grover Cleveland, Mel Ott, Lefty Grove, Leo Duroucher, Casey Stengel, Josh Gibson, and PaPa Bell standing at the kitchen counter getting coffee from the large pot my grandma use to always have available for anyone. You would usually just grab a cup from the shelf and the sugar and milk and sometimes cream was sitting right next to it.
It seems my father had planned a hunting party weeks before and had invited everyone that could make it down for hunting, fishing, and eating, which included a hell of a lot of moonshine and homebrew. Now I was 20 years old and grown up and a few of them hadn't seen me for almost 5 or 6 years. I still remember to this day about all the hitting and patting on the back that went on from what seemed then forever. I wasn't surprised to see PaPa and Josh because over the years they had been here so many times that it always seemed normal to have them over. I remember they used to go barnstorming around the south after the season with Ruth and many other Major Leaguers. Stengel was a close friend to Dad, particularly after Miller Huggins died; they had become even closer and Leo was then kind of young and immature who loved to hang around with the boys.
After a huge breakfast and all the talk that was repeated from the night before, it was decided that the hunting would wait and it was time to play baseball. I always felt and it was confirmed later that Joe and Dad wanted to have me play some ball with everyone because they didn't know what was going to happen with regards to my Naval career and the situation at the time. So out to the back 40 and the ball field we went. Sides were picked and everyone started warming up and getting really to play ball. We must have just gotten out onto the field when we heard a car's horn coming from the barn and out comes Babe, Tony Lazzari, and Bill Terry of all people and they were all yelling, "Wait for us!" (with a few more colorful words put in). It was decided by Babe (of course) that he was going to have the final pick of who would be on his team. All the moans and sounds coming from everyone are sounds I still fondly remember. Babe was, by then, way over the hill and was into his final year, looked old and fat and entirely out of shape. Regardless of what you hear or read, most of the ballplayers liked the Babe. God, you couldn't not like him being around him. He really was larger than life and to me, and my favorite baseball player, and one of the funniest individuals I have ever known. Casey Stengel starts talking all kinds of crap and gets everyone really going and, finally, it is time to start playing.
Grover was going to pitch for one and Lefty for the other, My father, a very good player in his own right, says to me, "Why don't you play third base and lead off. I looked at him and then at Stengel and Babe, who both just smiled and agreed with him. Why was I replacing Honus Wagner at third and leading off? Maybe it was just pride from my father and grandfather, or maybe it was because everyone knew it could've been my last time on the farm. So I agreed halfheartedly and continued to warm up playing catch with Bill Terry and PaPa. Lefty walks out to the mound and starts to warm up with Dickey behind the plate. I think about it now and can't even believe it. Grover is sitting in a rocking chair on the third base line that they had given to him years ago because of his age and always were rubbing it. Lefty stops warming up and walks over to me in the on deck circle and tells me to be alert because he doesn't know if he still has his control right now, that the season is over, and he hasn't been working on it for awhile. Babe walks up behind him and says to me, "Little fella," (a name he had been calling me for over 15 years, even though now I was at least an inch taller than he was) "You just remember smack that ball up the middle and we will see how much Lefty doesn't remember about playing his position." Then he walks away, winks at Lefty, and sits down on the benches that were on both sides of the field. I am standing at home, Lefty Grove is pitching, Bill Dickey is catching, and umpiring was, of all people, my grandfather.
In my mind at the time was total disbelief and wonderment at what was happening. From my first introduction into playing in these games as a 6 year old until now, I never really wondered why until then. They just liked to play baseball and have fun. At the plate I am listening to Dickey trying to get me out of any kind of mindset and on the side, I can hear my dad, Honus, and Babe all telling me to hang in and wait for my pitch. Now, at 92+ I am truly understanding what it was all about. Lefty Grove didn't lay one in for anyone and that included the son of one of his best friends. Honus and even Grandpa had told me to let him show me a pitch that I could hit. They didn't think he was going to bring in the high hard one because it was just after the season and he didn't want to hurt his arm. Babe and Honus had told me that Lefty loved to brush you away from the plate and then take it away, and boy were then right about that one. The first pitch was a little up and in, but nothing that could be considered a high hard one. Dickey is back there laughing yells out to Lefty "His knees are shaking and he is holding his hands to high to hit it." So for whatever reason Lefty, just like they told me he would tried to put the next one out over and down from me. At that time, I was using a 38 oz./42 in. bat that my grandpa had made me as a teenager 6 or 7 years ago, and it gave me a lot of reach over the plate to hit pitches like that. I waited until it started to break away from me and I reach out like Babe and Rogers Hornsby had taught me over the years and drove it to left field and down the line landing over Mel Ott's reaching arms. I just stood there for a while and then heard Babe, and even Dickey and Lefty, yelling at me to run. So I took off like a bat out of hell, according to my granddad, and started running to first and looked up and realized that Mel had no way of getting the ball in to get me even if I were to go to third, so I turned the corner on the bag and started towards second. Casey Stengel and Leo were playing short and second and trying to get me to slide, but for some reason I looked out at Mel and turned and just kept running through second and towards third. I am looking at third, and Shoeless Joe is standing across the bag reaching for the throw. I just kept on going and didn't decide to sling until almost it was too late. My dad, is standing in the coaches box yelling and signaling me to go down and slide to the outside and down I went with a classic slide away that I had learned from the likes of Shoeless Joe, Rogers Hornsby and Tony Lazzari. Everyone in the dugout is yelling for me to slide. "Bill! Slide!" Down I went and as I slid to the right and outside, Shoeless started to receive the throw from Ott and I just slid in under the tag and my grandfather yelled safe and signaled the hands and everyone started jumping and yelling all kinds of things. I got up and looked out at Mel and then to Lefty who just stood on the mound, smiled without saying a word and asked for the ball. The next batter was Terry, who grounded to third. Then the classic challenge of them all, the Babe. came to the plate. Babe was then an old man and you could see it in his face but stood up he did and he hit Lefty's first pitch so far to center that it never was found until after the war.
That was my return to the farm and during the next couple of weeks, lots of games were played with all kinds of people and it was certainly interesting to sit and remember now. During the next 6 years we were at war and I was in the Pacific and didn't have a lot of time to think about going back to the farm much at all. The only saving factor in the war, if there was any, was I really got to know Ted Williams as a friend and fishing partner that lasted for many years until his death.