A League of Our Own (with apologies to Cindy Marshall, Tom Hanks & Gina Davis)
by: Joel Hancock (“The Education of an Island Boy”)
Monday, July 11, 2011
Baseball has been played here (Harkers Island) since shortly after the Civil War, and maybe even before that. My father often told stories of his grandfather, Billie Hancock (see post no. 4), and of old-timer Cliff Guthrie playing ball long before he came on the scene in 1909. (A story about Cliff included details too graphic to be recounted here, so remind me to tell you about it the next time you see me. You won’t be disappointed.) But when it came to organized teams and leagues, that was something reserved for grown-ups, or at least teenagers old enough to play with grown-ups, who could represent their community on the field of honor – or shame, depending on the outcome. But that all changed in 1963 when I was still ten years old.
The various communities that lay east of the North River Bridge may have appeared to be quite similar to casual visitors, but they were fiercely independent in most matters. Until the County Board of Education mandated a consolidation of the high schools after Word War II, each of them had their own fish houses, their own churches, and even their own schools. I can’t recall any united activities before the school consolidation and only a very few since.
An exception to that rule was the “Downeast Little League” with four teams that were loosely representative of several downeast communities, or at least those that were south and west of Nelson Bay. Its geographical boundaries were roughly a triangle that reached from Harkers Island on the southeast, to Bettie in the northwest, and to Davis Shore in the northeast. Harkers Island and Otway had teams of their own, but Marshallberg and Bettie joined with other communities to field a team, and not always neighboring ones. Marshallberg was joined with Tusk and Gloucester, and Bettie also had boys from Davis, Williston and Straits.
The league had its genesis in the care and concern of a cadre of young fathers. Each of them had played baseball, and they all had sons for whom they wanted something more than the mere sandlot games that their fathers and uncles had enjoyed. Sometime in the Spring of 1963, Dallas Arthur from Bettie, J. C. Dickinson from Otway, J.D. Lewis and his brother, “Wump,” from Marshallberg, and especially my older cousin, Creston “Sno’ Ball” Gaskill from Harkers Island, pooled their energies and resources to organize and then oversee what became for me and my age group “a league of our own.”
I can still recall how excited I was when Sno’ Ball’s son, and my next door neighbor and closest friend, Manley, told me that there was “gonna be a little league and that we were gonna have our own team.” As the school year came to a close, Sno’ Ball, assisted by his good friend, Lomus Jones, began practicing with our group of about fifteen boys, most of us either ten or eleven years old, in the makeshift ballfield that sat behind the Mormon Church. It was mostly just a vacant lot, but with a wire backstop at the northwest corner. But for us it was our Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park rolled into one. After just a couple of weeks of practices there we became a real “team” that was ready to take on the best that the rest of the world could throw in our direction.
The league itself had no official rules or by-laws, no regulation fields, and no paid umpires. That first year we didn’t even have any uniforms. But we did have what Sno’ Ball loved to call the three “B’s”; balls, bats & boys. Seven years later the final piece of that puzzle, the boys, who had started out in this “disorganized” league, were together at East Carteret High School. Before we finished we had won the regular-season championship of the Northeastern High School 3-A Conference, a league that included the largest schools in this part of the state. At closely-cropped ball parks of Greenville, Kinston, New Bern and places in between, and in places as far away as Roanoke Rapids and Elizabeth City, we were able to use the skills and talents that a small group of caring fathers had first helped us develop and hone amid the sand spurs, crab grass, and yaupon bushes of the original “down-east.”.
Even now, almost half a century later, it is hard to express how exciting it was for me and the others to play baseball in a real league, even if it was not a “real” one by some standards. Perhaps an incident that had occurred just one year earlier might help convey that feeling. One Saturday afternoon, while leaving Beaufort after the regular Saturday shopping trip with my family, we stopped by Huntley’s Hardware, a building supply store that was adjacent to the Little League Stadium for the town of Beaufort. While waiting in my sister’s car I saw a ball player, just about my age, walking away from the park wearing an authentic baseball uniform, the whole thing, including a cap with a raised letter, a pin-striped shirt with a number on the back, matching peg-legged pants with colored socks and black spikes (that’s what we called cleats in those days.)
I could not have been more impressed if Willie Mays himself had paraded in front of me in all his glory. That’s the first time I ever remember seeing in “real time” a real “baseball player” uniform. To this day I still can recall and even feel some of the excitement I felt that summer afternoon. The idea that I might someday be able to wear a similar type garb was so foreign to me that it was more fantasy than hope. Then, from out of nowhere it seemed, came the opportunity to be part of a team just like the one the boy with the real uniform had represented. Even if I didn’t have such a uniform (our second year we did), I had the “real baseball” and that was what mattered most anyway.
As to the game we played, everything was based upon the “un-official” baseball rule book, both written and not, that our coaches had grown up with. No effort at all was made to adhere to the modified rules used by the nationally organized youth groups. All games were played at the field used by the Smyrna High School. It had the dimensions of a park for grown-up players, so to make it work the coaches simply shortened the bases by thirty feet and placed a pitcher’s rubber fifteen feet in from the regular mound.
Other than that we played baseball the way, according to Sno’ Ball, it was meant to be played. Runners took leads before the ball was pitched, stole bases when the situation called for it, and broke up double plays with both feet and arms spread in every direction. There were no “free” substitutions that allowed for everyone to get a chance to play. We played hard and we played to win, just like our coaches said we should. There was no such thing as a “mercy rule” to save the losing team from greater embarrassment. With a group of coaches who had come of age in boot camps preparing for wars in Europe and Asia, little attention was paid to sparing the feelings of players or even teams that did not measure up. In their minds, the best way to avoid embarrassment and humiliation was to play good enough baseball that those emotions were never aroused.
Umpires were drafted from both adults and adolescents who happened to show up before the game got started. Sometimes it was even the parents of the players who were calling bases as well as balls and strikes. Despite the apparent conflict of interest, I do not recall there ever being a contested call that was serious enough to interrupt the flow of the game. Even the accepted age limits for players mandated by the national organizations were not strictly enforced. Several boys, who technically were old enough for the “Pony League, ” and thus too old for our teams, instead became the oversized heroes of their “Little League” squads.
Two, and only two, new baseballs were unwrapped for each game. When one of those was fouled into the thick woods that lined the field, play was stopped until it could be found and returned. Other than just a few fathers and older brothers or cousins, there were very few people there to watch us play. But that didn’t matter. It was what was happening on the field that really counted, and as long as Sno’ Ball and Lomus were satisfied, and our teammates were not disappointed, we could not have cared any less for who was or wasn’t cheering from the sidelines.
Once the season had begun, and we started actually playing ball rather than just practicing and getting ready, it was all over it seemed almost before it started. We had just one game a week played on Saturday mornings. We matched-up against the other three teams four times each, so it was a long season by today’s standards. But our Harkers Island team was so good that by the mid-point of the season we were undefeated and the only real contest was for which team might finish in second place. We finished the first season with only one loss, and in my second year we were undefeated. In fact, the most exciting match of both seasons was when as part of the closing celebration the “Harkers Island Sharks” matched up against “all-stars” chosen from the other three teams. Even then the excitement was only in making out the lineups, since we beat the all-stars as handily as we had the regular squads.
After just a few more seasons, the original league gave way to one sanctioned by a national organization. By then each team had matching uniforms, certified umpires called the games, and legions of parents eventually sat on metal bleachers or on lawn chairs to cheer for their sons, grandsons, cousins and friends. At the end of the regular schedule, the league chose an all-star team that went on to tournaments with the hope of competing at the state and national levels. But in our league, this league of our own in the strictest sense imaginable, when we won the regular season title, we were “world champions,” at least of the small world which we knew and were a part of.
We had no misgivings about not being able to play against other teams from other places. For most of us the world we knew was all east of the North River Bridge. At least when it came to baseball, that world was our oyster, and we were eating it raw!