The summer of 1869 was hot, in more ways than one. At 16 years of age, I had moved to Clearwater a little over a month ago, seeking employment as a farmhand. It was in the orchard where I was picking peaches when I first heard mention of a game by the name of base ball. Not even a week later, there I was in full uniform, ready to play.
I adjusted my tie and checked my cap. Johnny elbowed me. I grunted and turned to see what he wanted. He winked. “Something wrong?”
“Nah,” I said. “Why do you ask?”
He smirked and knocked off my black cap. “You keep fidgeting like that, and you’ll set in on crooked. Wouldn’t want the ladies to see that!”
Nervously, I scanned the crowd. Lance reached for my cap, dusted it off and handed it to me. “Go easy on the muffin,” he said to Johnny. “You keep at it, and the ump will fine you again.”
“Fines?” I gulped. “Nobody said anything about paying. I don’t have much…”
“Don’t worry about it,” Lance said. “We all stick to gentlemanly behavior, and there’ll be no fines to pay.”
The umpire signaled for us to join him on the field. Before he left, Johnny tucked in his shirt, causing me to double check my own shirttails after replacing my cap.
Lance, my elder and a member of the team since it’s inception patted my knee as he stood. “Don’t worry, kid. Just listen to the man.” He nodded toward the umpire. The word in the peach orchard was that Lance had brought the game of base ball home from the war with him. Now, nearly everybody in town turned out to watch the matches.
We stood in two rows, 18 men facing each other with the umpire at the head.
“Good evening, gentlemen, and welcome. First, the rules. Fielders must hold their initial positions until the ball is struck. Hurlers must pitch with an underhand throw. Basemen may take one step off the sack. Any ball caught in the air or on the first bound puts the striker dead. A fair ball remains in play anywhere except in the trees or on top of the privy. A base runner is dead if he is forced at any base or tagged in a non force situation. Running more than three feet from the base path to avoid making an out is not allowed. There will be no bunting, no sliding, no leading off, no stealing bases, no betting, and no swearing. Remember, men, this is a gentlemen’s game.”
We reached across the way and shook hands with the members of the opposing team and then took our places. As I jogged out to right field, I tugged my cap again.
The club nine we were playing tonight was the Cattle Runners. They’d come over from Little Ridge. Those who had family in Clearwater had picnicked with loved ones while the rest kept to themselves. Still fairly new to the area, I’d picnicked with a few other fellows from the orchard. Lard sandwiches and peaches all around with some iced tea to chase it down.
The match was about to begin. The first fellow up popped a sky ball, and Harvey, our third baseman caught it easily. He threw it to Lance who wound up and tossed it in to the next fellow. CRACK! That one sound, and my heart was taken. From that moment forward, base ball had me in its grasp. The ball flew at mighty speed past our short stop and into the outfield. It was a daisy cutter. Charlie, our mid fielder, caught it up and threw it to Johnny at second, but their runner was safe, safe at second with only one out. The next ball bounced to Flint at first.
“Out!” called the umpire.
Only one more to go. I readied myself by placing my hands on my knees. Lance pulled back and tossed in the ball. Another CRACK! filled the air, and when the dust had settled, there was a Cattle Runner at first base and… Their first striker rounded third and kept on running! Hurriedly, Lance tossed it to the behind, but it was too late. The striker slid in safe and sound. He smiled in good humor when the umpire fined him two bits, then he ran over to the scorer and rang the tally bell.
The next man up held still. He let a few balls sail by until finally, the umpire began calling strikes.
Even from the distance, I could see the striker’s jaw clench. He barred he teeth at Lance, but uttered not a word.
Lance hurled the ball, the striker swung the bat, and CRACK! It was a high one. I lifted my eyes to the sky and felt my cap fall off. With no time to worry about that now, I turned and ran back toward the trees in the distance. In the nick of time, I turned and the ball landed in my bare hands with a thwack! O’ that stung, but at the same time it drove the love of base ball into my soul, and the cheers of the throng embedded themselves into my everlasting memory.
* This fictional short story by S.L. Wallace follows the rules of base ball as adopted by the National Association of Base Ball Players in March 1860.