The Boys (and Girls) of Summer
By Cynthia Tyler
Every weekend during spring and summer when I was eight or nine years old, my Dad would take me to watch my brother play third base for Valley National Bank, his Little League team. The teams were all sponsored by local businesses back then, so Pete’s Paints might play Central Screen or Walt’s Hardware. Red Carpet Liquor would roll around with Wigs by Pierre, and they’d all get the stuffing beat out of them by the bigger kids from Frank’s Auto Upholstery.
I wanted to play the game so bad, but there were no leagues for girls in my hometown in the ’60s. I used to daydream about which position I’d play if I had the choice, and what it would feel like to hit a home run or make a dazzling catch. I loved the mitts, bats, balls, cleats, batting gloves, jerseys, caps, the 3/4-sleeve t-shirts with the white body and contrasting colored sleeves … I coveted that stuff. There was nothing like it for girls back then. We were supposed to like Paul McCartney and mini skirts and Yardley eye shadow. Those things were okay and I was even captivated by the little pots of colorful make-up, but you couldn’t really do anything with it.
Once, when nobody was home, I snuck into my brother’s room and put on his uniform, bunching my long hair up under the ball cap. I remember being thrilled and terrified, knowing how angry he’d be to have his uniform inhabited by a girl, but I wanted to know what it felt like to wear it. Would you suddenly have special powers to bat, field, pitch and catch when you wore it? Would you feel bigger and stronger? I buttoned up the jersey, grabbed a bat, ball and mitt and went out to the backyard to find out.
But there wasn’t much I could do out there by myself without a team. So I ran around the backyard wearing the baggy uniform for a while, swung the bat around a few times like I’d seen those guys in the on-deck circle do, tossed the ball straight up in the air and caught it in the mitt, and practiced a slide or two into the base of an elm tree, pretending it was home plate. Then, a bit disappointed, I went in and changed back into my jeans and Keds and that was that.
I still had fun at the park, though, still enjoyed watching the game. I liked seeing the fresh baseball diamond before a game, with its perfect white powder lines, the sunshine on the bleachers, the smell of the grass, my Dad stuffing quarters in my hand for the snack bar. I always took my hand-me-down Rawlings glove, just in case I might snare a foul, or pick up a game of catch with somebody’s little brother.
One Saturday morning, half an hour before the game was about to start, I heard a commotion and saw a big group of kids running toward some old guy.
“It’s Casey! Casey!” “HEY CASEY!” they shouted as they streamed by on their way to mob him. My Dad stood up from his seat in the bleachers, shaded his eyes with the newspaper he was reading and stared with great interest.
“Who is it, Dad?”
“I don’t know. … It looks like Casey Stengel.”
My Dad got up and went over and conferred with some other adults who told him that it was indeed the baseball legend. It turns out he’d retired in Southern California and was on the board of directors for Valley National, the bank that sponsored the team. He’d stopped by the ball field to do a little PR for the company.
After waiting for the big boy crowd to thin out a bit, I walked right up to him, and he shook my hand. Then he leaned down, revealing a lined, slightly rubbery face, and signed my baseball glove. I remember the beautiful old-fashioned penmanship, the flourish on the top loop of the “C” — he signed it on the thumb side, under the webbing. And then as fast as he appeared, he was gone. It felt surreal, like when Humphrey Bogart suddenly materializes in front of Woody Allen in “Play It Again, Sam.” If he’d only shown up in the backyard the day I’d tried on the uniform, I might have become the first female to break the baseball gender barrier!
He was older then, recovering from a broken hip that had ended his managing career with the Mets in 1966. Although I never saw him again, he lived the remainder of his life about six blocks from our house and died in 1975, a baseball hero forever.
I wish I still had the glove.
About the author
Cynthia Tyler is the published author of two novels, Descanso (Haworth Press, 2005) and Shadow Work (Haworth Press, 2006). Her website is www.cynthiatyler.com. A lifelong Dodger fan, she lives in Pasadena, California.