By Terry Barr
I didn’t fit in well with the other boys on my team, the Cubs. Most had been playing Little League baseball ever since they were six, and given that the best players on our team were either a year or two older than me, they had six years’ experience to my none.
And then there was the fact that in my at most two bats per game, I had struck out almost every time. Once, I had been hit by a pitch on the back heel of my left foot. Once, I had actually walked. Otherwise, I never connected with any pitch — not even a foul tip — in those baseball years of my life, 1966-8.
I was almost a hero, nevertheless, in our final game that first season, as we faced our natural nemesis, the Cardinals. My coach had to play me in the last two innings of the game, as our rotating platoon system insured that one of us perennial bench-warmers must man right field and take his turn in the box to stand up to Bill Martin’s lightning fastball. So while it could have been Tommy Larson leading off in the bottom of the seventh, instead it was me, the guy with the 0.00 batting average.
Yet, for this, my final at-bat for the season, I walked for only the second time that year. I walked, because my coach had pulled me aside before I left the dugout:
“I want you to crowd the plate. I mean get as close to it as you can. He won’t hit you; in fact, he won’t be able to throw a strike. And whatever, you do, DON’T SWING.”
He was right, my coach. In future years, such thinking and persuasion would cast him as our town’s mayor. On this night, though, he got me to first base, and from there, I stole both second and third and, had someone managed to get a hit off Bill Martin, I would have scored and been something.
But no one did, and the game ended in a 4-4 tie, the night’s curfew halting us after one extra inning. That was the season, and because of the tie, the Cardinals won the league. Though my hitting would improve the next year, I would never be one of “the guys” — a popular teammate who got cheered or even accepted by the stars. I tried to be good. I tried to fit in. And sadly, in one embarrassing and regretful way, I did.
Our field stretched over the north end of Roosevelt Park, near the old World War One cannon that, as a boy, I used to love to climb on during those summer nights when our family drove to the park to let my brother and me play. At the Northwest corner of the park was the Babe Ruth/American Legion ball field, a place we all aspired to roam one day. And at the northeast end of the field sat Bessemer Junior High School, where in another two years from this time, I would enter seventh grade during this tumultuous era.
Bessemer, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, dragged its feet on school integration, and so in this same year that I first played Little League baseball, black students were finally “allowed” to integrate formerly all-white schools. In “our” school, Arlington Elementary, 1966 saw four black students enter. None was in my classroom, and while the school and surrounding community didn’t fall apart and no one lined the streets to threaten the little children, you can be certain that in a town where a KKK welcome sign used to greet visitors arriving on U.S. Highway 11, things were tense.
As the school days of integration came upon us, my parents cautioned me: “If one of them speaks to you first, you speak back and then go on about your business. But never, ever, use the word “N****r.”
None of the four black kids spoke to me that year, and I had been admonished about using that horrible word for all my waking life, so in these ways, nothing potentially riotous happened.
I don’t know what all my friends had been told by their folks. That word was used often, and there was pressure to conform. Mainly I withstood that pressure.
The school year hadn’t finished, but Little League season had begun. At practice one Saturday afternoon, we were waiting on our coach to begin peppering us with liners and ground balls, when our star pitcher, one of the coach’s sons, looked out and pointed beyond the center field fence.
We all gazed with him at seven or eight boys our age walking past.
“Look at the jigaboos,” our pitcher cried.
And so we looked, and then some shouted, and the boys looked back and kept walking. What must their parents have advised them this day, or all the days of their youth?
As our shouts crescendoed and then began to fade, our pitcher cried, “Get out of here, jigs.”
To which the rest of the team, including me, the boy who wanted to be one of them, laughed.
And for a moment, we all laughed together.
Feelings of acceptance and sham can coexist, but I needn’t have worried too much about that seeming conflict.
When I strode to the plate at our next game, I heard a few of my teammates behind me, including our star pitcher, mutter,
Copyright Barr 2021