Fall Classic Calls Up Bygone Baseball Days

I don’t remember the World Series taking place in October when I was a kid except for the time that my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Cunningham, let the class listen to one of the games of the series during class. Maybe the entire school got to listen to it as the radio came through a speaker above the blackboard and was controlled from the principal’s office by Gordon Huggins.  I only recall one other time when the radio came on during class other than for general school announcements, and that was to deliver the sad news that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

I’m not exactly certain why that particular World Series broadcast was played in our classroom but for me it was a signficant series because it was the classic LA Dodgers against the NY Yankees.  I was a pin-striped Yankee fan, which you may consider curious because I grew up in the middle of country in Kansas.  But it was because of my Uncle Joe that I loved the Yanks.

My uncle Joe, right, taught me to play baseball. My Dad taught me photography.
My uncle Joe, right, taught me to play baseball. My Dad taught me photography.

My uncle had grown up in New York City and was serious baseball fan.  In fact, he was the one who taught me to love the game and who spent time tossing the ball back and forth with me, teaching me how to throw not only a softball but a hardball.  I knew all the players on the field at the time–Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, Clete Boyer, Tony Kubek and Joe Pepitone (my favorite because he played first base), and one other who honestly I can’t remember now.

My brother, Richard, and I spent countless afternoon after school and on the weekend playing baseball games in the black-topped parking area of my parents’ motel, where we grew up, or in the grassy, V-shaped vacant lot next door to my Aunt Marie and Uncle Dale’s home.  I would lay out the batting line up with my frayed-edge baseball cards for whatever teams we would be pretending to be at the time. Then, the two of us would take turns at bat while the other pitched, fielded and played the bases.  Sometimes, friends would join us for a game of ‘work-’em up’.  Wonder if kids today still play baseball that way, rotating around the positions to ‘work up’ to bat.

In Los Angeles, we played softball on Sunday afternnoons. Sometimes I pitched.
In Los Angeles, we played softball on Sunday afternnoons. Sometimes I pitched.

For a girl, especially in the pre-Title 9 days, I was a pretty darn good. It helped that I was a tomboy and had some natural athletic ability. My early vacant lot training days served me well when I started to play first base or pitch on my church softball summer teams as a teenager.  I still have a little scar on my knee from the night that I slid into first base and was called safe. I even have a trophy, now broken and stowed in a box somewhere, from the summer my team won the church league championship. And I recently found in my parents’ possessions, the well-worn ball glove that I used although I replaced it with a newer, better mitt.

My ball gloves and Yankee cap wait for a day of baseball.
My ball gloves and Yankee cap wait for a day of baseball.

When I lived in Arizona, I played on my newspaper staff’s slow pitch softball team in the city league.  I think I covered first base. My husband, to whom I wasn’t married at the time, was on the pitcher’s mound. We made a pretty good team even then. He likes to tell the story of when I first stepped up to home plate how the outfield moved in, seeing a young woman at bat. But after I lobbed one way behind their heads, they never came in again.

Later, as an adult living in Los Angeles, I organized a Sunday afternoon pick-up softball game with friends and their families that played regularly at a local park. We started with just a couple of youngsters, but, over time, we added several more as our families grew. One friend of mine likes to point out how all the new additions were boys. We continued to play for several years, gathering afterwards for beers and pizza. Those Sunday afternoons are some of my fondest memories now.

The Sunday summer softaball team played pick up games for years.
The Sunday summer softaball team played pick up games for years.

Through the years, I’ve become less of a baseball fan. I frankly always enjoyed playing the game more than watching it. I have lost track of who now plays for “my team” although I still wear my Yankee cap whenever I attend a Mariners-Yankee game even risking beer being ‘accidentally’ spilled on me by an annoying Seattle fan.

While I no longer glue myself to the transistor radio or TV for the World Series, I like the feel of the fans’ excitement and thrill when their team makes it to finals. This year, especially, since two classic teams will take to the field.  Though I’m not a Cubs fan, I’m rooting for them, like so many others, to win the pennant.  Seventy-one years is a long time to wait to make it to the World Series. I hope somewhere, kids sitting in that elementary school classroom get to watch or listen to the game.

On the Baseball Trail in Historic Hot Springs

Every summer, Hollywood pitches a new film about baseball to American moviegoers.  Although the sport isn’t as popular as it once was, Americans still regard it as their ‘game’ and the nostalgia for baseball’s golden age sets in.  This year’s baseball film entry is ’42’.  I finally had the chance to see it the other night and it hit a home run in my book.  It’s a solid baseball biography about the legendary Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers team owner Branch Ricky who had the courage to add Robinson to his roster of players.  The only fault I found with the film is that it wasn’t made long before now.

Ball players from baseball's major league teams arrived for spring traiing by train. The station is still in use today and houses display cases of baseball memorabilia.
Ball players from baseball’s major league teams arrived for spring traiing by train. The station is still in use today and houses display cases of baseball memorabilia.

As I watched, I thought of my recent visit to Hot Springs, Ark.  Before World War II, Hot Springs hosted most of baseball’s biggest teams for spring training.  The teams arrived by train and included the Chicago White Stockings (later to be the Cubs), the Cincinnati Reds, the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburg Pirates and, of course, the Brooklyn Dodgers.  At its height, Hot Springs had five fields where as many as 250 players came to train.  Cy Young, Smokey Joe Wood, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth,Joe DiMaggio, Satchel Paige, Dizzy Dean and yes, Jackie Robinson, were among the greats who trained or played in Hot Springs during its golden years of spring training.  In fact, more than half of baseball’s Hall of Famers trained there at some point during their careers.

They were attracted by the area’s natural mineral waters that gurgle up from inside the earth at 143 degrees. Native Americans first enjoyed the healing properties of the thermal waters. Soaking in the hot springs became part of the baseball player’s daily regimen during spring training in Hot Springs. Prior to or after a practice or game, players would take a plunge at one of the turn-of-the-century bathhouses located on the city’s Bathhouse Row.

Built at the turn of the 20th century, the bathhouses of Hot Springs were elaborate palaces for those who came to  'take the baths.'
Built at the turn of the 20th century, the bathhouses of Hot Springs were elaborate palaces for those who came to ‘take the baths.’

All of the historic buildings are now managed by the National Park Service.  (The area became a National Park  in 1921.)  These grand bathhouses, each with their own architectural style, were built by promoters in an effort to outdo one another and attract those who sought relief in the mineral waters. Only two still function as spas. The Buckstaff retains a traditional style treatment with men’s and women’s tubs located on separate floors.

The four baths at the Quapaw Bathhouse lie beneath stained glass skylights.
The four baths at the Quapaw Bathhouse lie beneath stained glass skylights.

The Quapaw was renovated and reopened in 2008 as a full-service spa with four co-ed soaking pools that range  from 99 to 104 degrees.  Like many who come here, I relaxed in the tubs after a refreshing massage.

Flags fly over the entrance that  welcomes guests to the Arlington Hotel.
Flags fly over the entrance that welcomes guests to the Arlington Hotel.

My friends and I also enjoyed a cool drink in the lobby lounge of the historic Arlington Hotel, located at the end of Bathhouse Row.  The grand old hotel remains a popular stop for travelers, just as it was in the heyday of spring training.  It too has its own bath house for guests.

On another day, you can take the self-guided tour of the Baseball Trail, just as I and my friend did.  At each of the 26 stops, a pre-recorded message, delivered on your cell phone by punching in a special code, takes you back to the bygone days of baseball.  At stop number 11, in front of the Arkansas Alligator Farm, you learn that Babe Ruth knocked a 573-foot homer from Whittington Park, once located across the street ,to that spot and and became baseball’s first 500-foot plus drive.  The astonishing hit remains remarkable even today.  Stop 21 is designated for Jackie Robinson who played an exhibition game at the Jaycee Field in 1953.

Stop number 18 salutes the start of spring training in Hot Springs in 1886.

Although the major leaguers left Hot Springs shortly after the  U.S. entered World War II in 1942, the hot, soothing waters of Hot Springs, Ark. continue to draw tourists who want to experience the bathing ritual as so many before them have done.  Some even fill bottles with the scalding water from the fountains found on the street in order to take  piece of Hot Springs, and a little of its history, home with them.

See more of  my photos of historic Hot Springs on my blog’s Portfolio page. http://cherylcrooksphotography.wordpress.com/portfolio/  Learn more about the historic Baseball Trail at http://www.hotspringsbaseballtrail.com/begin-your-journey/

Japanese Mariner Sails to New York

I got the news while in my car driving down to Seattle late yesterday afternoon.  Japanese baseball icon Ichiro Suzuki  who played for the Seattle Mariners had been traded.  To the Yankees.  Really?  Those were the very two teams that I was headed off to watch that evening, the opening game for the New York team’s  three-day visit to the Emerald City, the only appearance they’d make here this season.  And I had a ticket to go.  The question was, which uniform would Ichiro be wearing that night?  The blue, green and gray of the home team, or the famous pin-stripes of the boys from the Big Apple?

Whichever it would be, one thing was for certain–this was to be a historic game in Mariner and maybe baseball history.  While the trade would be considered good for the struggling Mariner’s that have been saddled with Ichiro’s hefty salary, the fans would surely miss this big hitter who had become so beloved in this Northwest city.  And Ichiro, while moving to a team where he might still have a shot at the World Series, undoubtedly had to be a bit sad about switching allegiances even though he’d be joining, as my friend Gil quickly pointed out, seven other former Mariner players who are now on the Yankee roster.

A Yankee fan in the Mariner’s stadium ready for the big game.

I was having a hard time visualizing Ichiro in a Yankee uniform. Would he become–#31–just another number in the team roster?  And what about all those great Mariners’ television commercials showing the slugger had a sense of humor.

Even though I’ve been a life-long Yankee fan, thanks to my Uncle Joe, I haven’t followed the team that closely in recent years, except when they visit Seattle or play in the World Series.  Aside from A-Rod and Jeter, I’d have a hard time giving you the names of many, if any, of the other current players.  My memories of the team came when the likes of Mantle, Maris, Richardson, Boyer and Berra were in the line-up.   But now I’d have Ichiro.  That’s a hard one to forget.

Now I’d have the memory of getting to see either Ichiro’s last game as a Mariner or his debut as a Yankee.  What was going to be just my one game a season outing, had taken on greater significance.  I was glad I had brought along my trusty point-and-shoot camera (my pro camera wouldn’t be allowed in the park).  Maybe I’d get a few shots for the scrapbook.  I had photographed him during a spring training game in Phoenix.  Little did I know then that it would be his last there.

Ichiro, Yankee #31, steps up to the plate for the first time for the team as Mariner’s fans give him a standing ovation.

At the ballpark,both Mariner and Yankee fans of whom there seemed to be an equal number, were talking about the trade.  There was a certain suspense in the early evening air as everyone awaited to learn  for which of the two teams Ichiro would be playing.  The answer came when the announcer read the evening’s line-up for the visiting Yankees.  “Ichiro Suzuki, in left field,” boomed the voice.  He would be a Yankee starting tonight.

Then, in the third inning, he stepped up to the plate.  The crowd clapped and cheered, rising to its feet to salute a superstar player and bid him farewell.  In return, Ichiro stepped away from the batter’s box, took off his helmet and bowed, twice, to the fans.  It was a special moment when fans and player showed together to express the mutual respect both held for one another and the tradition of the game.  And I was lucky enough to be there.

So long #51.  Welcome to the Yankees!