From – “Maybe It’s Just Me!”
This is a bit long for a blog. It is my favorite story from “Maybe It’s Just Me!” and it fits in with this week’s theme of Youth Sports, so if you want to take the time, please enjoy:
THE GREAT GEORGE GARBAGEBOATWALK
The game of baseball takes on many shapes to kids with little space and lots of imagination. In the streets it becomes stickball and punchball. When the streets are too crowded, stepball prevails. In the backyards of suburbia, in the late fifties when the Yankees were kings, the ultimate form was wiffleball.
The Wiffleball is a small hollow plastic sphere with holes strategically positioned so that the slightest change in grip will produce a variety of inshoots, outshoots, risers and drops. The weight of the ball precludes the possibility of a broken window, and when struck with a bat it can be driven such a limited distance that the smallest yard can become Yankee Stadium.
A popular game for many in our neighborhood, my brother Chris, four years my senior and I developed wiffleball into an art form. The rules were designed so that one person could form a team. We had three bases; first, third, and home. Second base was discarded as our yard was not wide enough to form a normal diamond. A fielded grounder thrown within three feet of a base and ahead of the runner was a putout. We allowed two outs to an at-bat. Any ball which did not at least reach the pitcher’s mound was foul. There were no walks, no called strikes, (you were expected to swing at anything close) and three strikes you’re out. There were never any arguments; tie goes to the runner and the rest of the rules were clear.
There was no left field in our Stadium, only left center. A right-handed pull-hitter was in danger of reaching the yard of the dreaded Mrs. Rosenthal. This became an automatic out due to the danger of Mrs. Rosenthal leaping out of nowhere to abscond with any ball which might land in her precious yard.
A ball hit over the hedge in center and into the Tully’s yard was a homerun. A pop fly lofted over the telephone wire in short right field, our own pennant porch, was also a homer.
If a ball landed and stayed on the roof of our house along the right field foul line it was an automatic out and the batter had to shinny up the drainpipe to retrieve the treasured 19 cents of plastic gold.
Our bat was a forerunner of modern equipment. We used a section of an aluminum shaft from an old spear gun. It was the first aluminum bat.
The actual game as my brother and I played it was of secondary importance. My brother was older and more skilled than I, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would score the most runs. The real game was in creating the illusion of a big league contest. Each team required its own special line-up.
Unlike other kids who assumed the personalities and line-ups of their favorite major league team, we had to invent our own players because we were both diehard Yankee fans and each refused to compete against his heroes. Inventing and developing players became one of the chief skills of “The Game.”
We developed and acted out the persona of each “member” of our teams. Yankee P.A. man, Bob Sheppard, announced lineups, pinch hitters and pitching changes. Mel Allen called the play-by-play. Great fielding plays received a “how about that” and all homeruns were greeted with the obligatory “going going gone” that was Mel’s trademark. We had bean ball wars, players were thrown out of the game for arguing, and all players were described as “one of the nicest fellahs off the field that you’d ever want to meet.”
Each player on our squads had a particular skill and a unique personality. Any variance from these traits was strictly forbidden (an unspoken rule). The player’s skill and personality was dictated by his name; much like professional wrestling at this time, Killer Kowalski, Haystacks Calhoun, Gorgeous George….
For years the stars of Chris’ team were Little Louie, a quick shortstop and clever punch-hitter, and Big Mike, a slow but powerful slugger. Louie was allowed to run fast to first base but had no power as he always choked halfway up the bat. Big Mike was a tremendous power-hitter but was so slow afoot he was a sure out on any grounder. Chris cleverly managed to sneak his favorite Yankee pitcher on the mound, Whitey Ford, by introducing a crafty right-hander by the name of Blacky Buick.
Other members of my brother’s unbeaten team were Cyclone Sam, a speedster, Killer Klu, a slugger who rolled up his sleeves and assumed the stance of Ted Kluszewski, and Happy Harry, a utility fielder and team flake.
For the most part my club concentrated on speed. The outfielders were Hurricane Hank, Rapid Rupert, and Cheetah Chaz. Chokeup Charlie played shortstop, Lumbering Luke was my power-hitter, and catcher Stu Pid was my resident flake. To combat Blacky Buick I developed Flower Weekly, another crafty right-hander who threw a knuckler suspiciously like Yankee star Bud Dailey.
Every game new players were invented and brought up from the minors to meet specific situations. If they played well they stuck. If they struck out it was back to triple A. I tried numerous players and constantly juggled my lineup, but never could I beat the great Chris All-stars.
Most games did go down to the last inning, a result of Chris’ manipulation to prevent “laughers” which made “The Game” dull. Manipulation of the game was of prime importance. The object was to give a glimmer of hope that my troops could possibly win, and at the same time force the All-stars to demonstrate their great skills in the clutch.
If Chris was in the middle of a big inning, he would kill the rally by sending up Killer Klu who generally struck out due to his tendency to take prodigious swings with his eyes shut. On the mound Blacky would help me back in a game by throwing his famed “elbow pitch” change-up. The elbow pitch was a weird lob which I was able to consistently hit, provided I could keep from breaking up laughing at the outrageous delivery with which it was thrown. If the game was still not close enough, Happy Harry would resort to his flakey fielding to tighten up the score. Harry would try to catch flies behind his back, in his pocket, or on a rebound off his head.
Once I was back in the game, the All-stars would finish it with a dramatic pinch hit homerun or by the superior pitching of the master, Blacky Buick. The results were always the same. Mel Allen would announce a typical exciting finish. “Bottom of the ninth, 6-4 Chris ahead, one out and the bases are jammed. Gripping the old aluminum comes Lumbering Luke to the plate. Luke is a real slugger who could ice this game up with one swing. Blacky goes into his windup, delivers the pitch…swing and a miss on a wicked inshoot! Blacky remembers the third inning when Luke pounded an elbow pitch over the hedge in center and you can bet the chairman of the board won’t make that mistake again. Here comes the pitch….swing and a pop-up to short. Little Louie is under it, he pounds his palm, and the ballgame is over.”
Although I never beat the All-stars, I did achieve the next best thing in the summer of 1959. I invented a ballplayer that Chris fell in love with and had to have on his own team.
One of Chris’ favorite players was Yankee great, Moose Skowrun. The “Moose”, Big Bill, Chris loved him, but as with most of his heroes he could not find a way to slip him into his lineup.
One warm July afternoon, Mel Allen announced a pinch hitter for the Joes. “Now batting, up from Columbus, is the latest sensation, first baseman, number 14, Big George Garbageboatwalk.” “Time out”, Chris protested, “what the Hell kind of name is Garbageboatwalk?” “What is a scow”, I responded and without waiting for an answer, “it’s a garbage boat, “and” I hastened to elaborate, “The opposite of run is walk. Scow-run, Garbageboatwalk, it fits.” I loved it and though he said nothing, I knew Chris loved it also.
So determined was I that Garbageboatwalk be a success, I distained the left-handed stance we normally assumed to avoid the crazy lady in leftfield, and made and made “Big George” a right-hander, my natural stance. As much as I wanted George to be a star, my brother wanted him on his team. Unbeknownst to me he plotted a course of action which would set up the first trade and biggest steal in wiffleball history.
From the outset Chris mocked the name and refused to acknowledge my ingenuity. For weeks, every time Garbageboatwalk stepped up to the plate he saw only the best inshoots and drops which Blacky could muster. The great Buick threw no elbow pitches and his risers had a little something extra on them.
George was an immediate flop. Mel began to refer to him as “the biggest disappointment in wiffleball history.” Hitless in ten games and with eighteen strikeouts, I was ready to give up on “Big George”. It was then that Chris struck. “Tell you what”, he offered casually, “I’ll trade you even up, Little Louie for Garbageboatwalk.”
The deal was made. I had to do it. An established star for the “biggest disappointment in wiffleball history” could not be passed up. The first trade in wiffleball history was sealed, and like the Yankee purchase of Babe Ruth it changed the face of “The Game”.
Little Louie was damaged goods. The veteran had lost a step, his hands were not as sure, and his bat was not as quick as it was in his All-star days. Meanwhile, George Garbageboatwalk became the greatest hitter in all of wiffleball! His first five times up as an All-star he pounded out tremendous homeruns. George batted over .700 for the rest of the year, and he averaged one round-tripper for every three times at bat.
The ultimate manipulation became a Garbageboatwalk blast in the ninth. It was the cruelest humiliation over which I had no control. Flower invented new pitches, threw bean balls, and refused to throw the ball over the plate. It did not matter; George was just too great. He was far better than my old nemesis, Big Mike who Flower could occasionally get out.
I dreaded Garbageboatwalk’s every at bat. The joy of the game was over for me. It was devastating to face the “greatest hitter in wiffleball history and know he was once my property. Every time up the introduction was the same. In the best imitation of Yankee PA Bob Sheppard, Chris would drone, “Now batting ing ing number fourteen een een the first baseman and onetime property of the Joes, the Great George Garbageboatwalk alk alk!”
1959 was the last season of Wiffleball for my brother and me. Chris got his driver’s license and became too grown up for his kid brother and a silly game. “The Game” and the “Great One” were soon forgotten. Chris went to college, and then to law school. Our folks moved from Long Island to New Jersey, and later retired to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Chris married, took up law practice in Atlanta, and became father to two sons. I graduated from college, married, and became a Jersey-to-NYC commuter. My wife and I had three children, a girl and two boys.
Years later, during a summer reunion at our parent’s new home, we stumbled upon the old aluminum bat. We began to reminisce on the way we used to play “The Game”. “They just don’t make players like Blacky Buick or Cheetah Chaz today” Chris asserted.
He did not mention George, “Guilt”, I thought to myself, “he knows he stole him. Now it’s like it never happened.”
I wanted to say something about Garbageboatwalk as some wounds never heal. I decided to let it slide, let bygones be bygones. Instead I followed up on his thought. “Probably have a relief pitcher today named Cocaine Carl,” I joked. “Yeah” Chris followed, “with a peculiar habit of first going to the rosin bag and then to his nose in tough situations.” “Or Millionaire Mike”, I continued, “a DH with special designer shoes and Gucci batting gloves who spends most his time on the dugout phone talking to his stock broker.”
We continued on this vein for some time when Chris issued a challenge. It would be he and his two boys versus me and mine. I accepted but suggested we play the game straight so as not to ruin our image with the boys. “Yeah”, Chris agreed, “God forbid they find out we used to be kids too.”
And so we purchased a new 69 cent wiffleball, established ground rules, explained the game to the boys, and play began.
Three against three, Chris and I both full grown; he no longer had the obvious advantage of strength and coordination. In fact age was now to my advantage and I had my first real chance to actually defeat the All-stars. As agreed upon we did not play with the old childish flair. There was no play-by-play announcing, and we assumed no alter egos at bat. On the mound, though unnamed, the pitchers’ deliveries were unmistakably those of Blacky Buick and Flower Weekly.
It was a low scoring, uneventful game as the boys were usually easy outs. Going into the bottom of the ninth my team held a 6-5 lead over the All-stars. Little Chris, my brother’s oldest, popped out and with Grant, his youngest, at bat I felt my first victory was at hand. Grant managed a bloop single, but I still felt in control when my greatest fear was realized.
As Chris strode to the plate, I recognized a familiar grin on his face. He underwent a strange transformation. His 5’9” slightly paunchy frame seemed to grow to 6’2” 210 pounds of steel. Muscles bulged and a vein in his now 17” neck started pulsating. Aluminum was flaking off the bat under his now powerful grip. Nothing was said, but in my head I heard the familiar Bob Sheppard voice, “Now batting ing ing, number fourteen een een, first baseman and one time property of the opposition on on…..”
A lump formed in the pit of my stomach. If guilt had caused Chris to forget, competition and the threat of his first loss had revived his memory. The outcome of “The Game” was once again a foregone conclusion.
The Great George Garbageboatwalk was coming to bat!