Spring training

Hal Newhouser
Hal Newhouser (source: Wikipedia)

It’s snowing pretty good now. Besides, it’s a school day. So even if the weather were clear, there would be no kids at the ball fields in Foster Park when I jogged by.

Saturday was a different story. There were kids at both ball fields and plenty of action. Adults batted grounders and flies. Moms and younger brothers and sisters sat in the family cars parked along side the ball fields.

As I stopped to observe, I thought the ball players didn’t seem to mind the 50 degree temperature. Yet I know from long ago experience that it really stings your hand when you catch the ball this early in the season.

I didn’t complain, though, when I was on the high school team for Blue Creek, a consolidated high school in northwest Ohio I attend part of my sophomore and junior high school years. Coach Ned Jay would have made fun of you if you complained.

He sure was a fine geometry teacher, though.

Watching the young ball players Saturday brought to mind so many baseball memories. When my son John played in the Little League near our Fort Wayne home, I found myself coaching the kids. I gave them batting practice and engaged in pitch and catch for hours on end. John and I even played catch daily in our side yard on South Anthony.

Years later, we’d drive to Cincinnati to see a Reds’ home game. One year, on opening day, we were in the stands to witness the home plate umpire suffer a fatal heart attack. Owner Marge Schott called off the game and we got tickets for a later game.

The only Big League game I saw growing up was in Detroit. My friend Dave’s parents drove us from Defiance, Ohio, to Briggs Stadium to see the Cleveland Indians, Dave’s favorite team, play the Tigers, my favorite team.

My hero Hal Newhouser pitched a nearly flawless game against the Indians’ Bob Feller. Needless to say, it was a quiet ride back home to Defiance. Still, I really appreciated the treat of seeing a real big league game.

My grandparents, Mom and Tom, in Latty, Ohio, listened to all the Tiger games on the radio. I’m sure they must have heard the game I witnessed. If there was a rain delay, Mom Hayes would switch her Crosley table radio dial from CKLW to WLW to the hear a play-by-play by Waite Hoyte for the Cincinnati Reds.

More recently, after I retired from writing editorials at The Journal Gazette, a guy in Defiance stopped by the main library there where I was signing books for visitors. He wanted to trade me a large black-bound book he had for one I had written.

It turned out the book contained the history of Defiance Little League games in the 1940s. His father, who had organized the league, compiled it. The box standings included the roster of my games, “L.Hayes, pitcher.” at the bottom of the list of names, names which I had long forgotten. Let the record show that while I didn’t get many hits myself, I did win a few games for my team, Schatz Motors.

I can’t say I watch ball games on TV any more. During the season, I do check the standings to see how the Tigers and Reds are doing in their separate leagues. At various high school reunions, I have enjoyed sharing ball playing memories with old friends, one a neighbor of my grandparents and another, my Little League catcher who became a doctor in Detroit.

I think that playing and, later, coaching baseball taught me valuable lessons about team playing and how to be a good loser. I learned something about the limits of my athletic prowess. I know the game had enriched Dad’s life. He often talked about driving to St. Louis to see World Series games one fall in the 1930s. Playing catch with him sure gave me quality time with a parent, time I might not otherwise have enjoyed.

Maybe by this coming Saturday, the snow will be gone and the Little Leaguers will be back in Foster Park getting practice in before the season commences later in the spring. When I see the line of cars and vans and hear the kids yelling, I’ll stop at the fence and watch the kids pitching, catching and taking a healthy cut at the ball. And remember.

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Field of dreams

2012 Live Arm Champs - Dick's in Foster Park
2012 Live Arm Champs – Dick’s in Foster Park

When I jogged past the Foster Park ball fields yesterday, I guessed it would be too wet for the kids to play today.

Sure enough this morning, one of the Wildcat League coaches was standing on the corner to give the word to the parents driving by. No ball today. I imagine he was letting the mom or dad know that the coaches would have the diamond ready tomorrow, July 4.

I often stop at one of the three fields during my morning run to watch the kids. I love to hear the “batter, batter, batter” chatter from the infield as some tyke with a helmet as big as he is steps to the plate. I marvel at how quickly even kids of eight or nine pick up the routines of America’s pastime. They pound a fist their gloves. They search the sky for the pop ball just past second base as the hitter dashes for first. Are they born just knowing which direction to run or what it means to tap a base-runner with the ball?

In Little League, in the late 1940s, I was the pitcher for the Schatz Motors Little League team in Defiance, Ohio. Larry Pelok was my catcher, who later would go on to be a surgeon in Detroit.

A few years ago, a guy had never met came up to me at the Defiance, Ohio, public library. I was signing the memoir of my years as a journalist for the Fort Wayne, Indiana, paper. This stranger wanted to swap my book for a black-bound volume. The man’s dad had been a Little League organizer when I was a kid. He had compiled newspaper clippings that recorded the stats of each ball game over several years.

I gladly made the swap. And what a treat it was to read the record of my sports career. To my amazement, the record shows, I pitched a few winning games. That easily beat my later career. As a teenager, I pitched for one of the high schools I attended. It was a role noteworthy only for my habit of throwing the ball over the backstop.

When my son John played Little League in Fort Wayne, I was one of the coaches. One year we were assigned to the Pizza King team. Another year it was the Barber Shop team. That bunch of kids went the season undefeated. I imagine John recalls more than I do about those happy summers. But I do look back with pride at being a part of such an important time in his childhood and that of his teammates.

We are a such a country of team sports. In school, we choose up sides to play Red Rover and run relay foot races. When I was in first grade one fall, the neighborhood guys divided into teams for a scrimmage with the football. No helmets, no padding. (That’s how neighbor and best friend Davy Morehouse ended up with a broken collar bone.)

We can learn so much in sports about getting along with others. We learn about playing by the rules or get yelled at when we get caught trying to cheat. When our games are organized such as in Little League or Wildcat, we accept the decisions of the umpire – the judge – even when we think he or she is wrong.

“It was a strike,” we’re just sure. “He was out,” we’ll believe the rest of the week. No, the judge’s decision stands. No wonder that in senior government class studying the federal courts seems so familiar.

This workshop in democracy runs all year. Every American takes his or her turn one time or another at the game. It’s there we can acquire the values of democracy. It’s there we can
look past differences in background, in ethnicity, in race and gender. It’s in sports, organized or not, we learn about winning. And, just as important, we learn about losing.

So these days I find it hard not to stop and watch the kids at the ball fields. A few of them likely will end up playing ball in high school or college. Then there’s that rare player who will turn pro someday. It’s just hard to say what will become of a nine-year-old third baseman.

But every child who plays will be a better person and, I trust, a better American.

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The giant with the Tiger ball cap – Remembering Charles Redd

Charles Redd
Charles Redd

I was going to say that his life proves that any person can change the world. But then I realized that I was so wrong. My old friend Charles Redd wasn’t any person. I’d say he was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known.

As he lay dying at his home on Fort Wayne southeast side, he wondered aloud to wife Jackie
whether his life had made a difference to anyone. She climbed to the attic to retrieve his many plaques and other awards and then displayed them on the wall.

As humble a man as you’d ever meet, he nevertheless enjoyed the display, which he christened “the gallery.” Jackie told a reporter he invited visitors to take notice.

Of course, even a thousand plaques couldn’t begin to tell the whole story of this African-American’s story. I knew him when he first came to Fort Wayne to head the local Urban League. He used the director’s position not only to develop education, health and welfare programs to serve the poor. He naturally assumed the role of advocate.

Throughout the community, he talked up the need for jobs, health care services and voter education drives. He was a voice for justice on behalf of inner-city black kids, stuck in
segregated and inferior schools.

He helped organize the school boycott in the late 1960s. He counseled parents and kept black ministers focused on the call for equal opportunity. When he confronted school leaders, he was courteous and reasonable. Yet he insisted that officials not offer excuses or point to white opposition. “Let’s just do the right thing,” he would say, often with his
trademark smile.

I’m sure white officials didn’t know what to think of this soft-spoken black man with his Afro tell them how to run the schools.

I didn’t have to twist his arm to write op.ed. columns for the paper. The pieces read the way he talked. So they sounded fair-minded, respectful but clear about the changes in the schools that were called for.

When he joined the City Council, representing the 1st District, he brought that spirit to the position. And he proved to be the same champion for the poor and the downtrodden he’d been at the Urban League.

No wonder when the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission fell into internal squabbling, they tapped Charles to serve as interim director, setting things right. He would identify a need and quickly enlist others to join him. He deserved a lot of credit for creating the Voter Information Center. I’m positive that center has boosted the black vote ever since.

I also knew Charles through the Unitarian Church in Fort Wayne. He had served as a board member, a congregational president and representative to the state and national Unitarian Universalist organizations. It was no surprise to me that people easily recognized his leadership qualities.

After Sunday services, he could always be found chatting with an old friend or a visitor. He had a knack for making a person feel welcome and special. When I spoke for the service, he would compliment me warmly. I never heard him speak a hurtful thing about another member.

When I visited him a week or so before he died, he struggled to speak, just barely above a whisper. But even at 82, he was curious about the world. He wanted to know what I thought of the prospects for gun control. As a councilman, he had introduced a tough, local ordinance himself.

He was proud that he could see President Obama take the oath of office for the second term.

Before he was confined to his home, I would see him at church or at Kroger’s. He originally was from Detroit and showed his loyalties with his Detroit Tiger cap. He wore that all summer long. In the winter, he wore a Greek fisherman’s style hat.

I didn’t make it to the funeral. I was sick with a sore throat and fever. The service was held at Turner Chapel, Jackie’s home church where Charles also kept a membership. But I joined my wife Toni for the calling at the funeral home the evening before the service. It was mostly black people who had their own memories, their own stories of this special man.

I gave Jackie and a daughter a hug. I expressed my sympathies to Charles’ sons. I struggled to hold back the tears. I felt such a bond with them all, as we said goodbye to a sweet man who had made a difference.

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