afternoon, one p.m., sweat dripping, no breeze. Typical July
afternoon in Minnesota. The usual neighborhood kids were running
around the park ball field, oblivious to the heat. Treece was up,
waggling the bat above his head, waiting for just the right pitch
to slam over the chain link fence in left field.
summer games were always the same. Forming the nucleus of players
were Treece and his brother, Steve; Per Olaf, my oldest friend--I
knew him since kindergarten; Hamey; Schirmer; and me. The other
positions were filled by whoever else in the neighborhood was
available. The ball field at Wheeler Park was usually unoccupied,
and being central to North Kater Town, it's where we normally
fought our pickup games.
had put on his insane grin, the one that waited for the homerun
pitch. Without much enthusiasm, I manned short stop. Treece's
main desire was a fat pitch he could crank out, across Center
Street, and into the yard of the house across the street. Per
Olaf stood in left field, looking determined to stop anything
coming his way. He hovered in the only shade on the field,
provided by some of the tall elms along Center Street. He looked
a little more optimistic than I felt, because on occasion, Treece
actually did not hit it out, giving the fielder something to do.
having enough players for two full teams of nine players each, we
had adapted the rules to our straitened circumstances. Each team
absolutely needed two outfielders--left and center. A pitcher was
helpful, but one of the opposing players could pitch to his own
teammates if needed. With enough players, we filled shortstop,
although it was not absolutely necessary. Providing a catcher was
nice, but an opposing player could play the position. This, of
course, was not ideal; if your team were in the field and the
catcher belonged to the batting team, you could never quite trust
him to get in the way of his teammate chugging toward home, arms
flailing, head back, kicking up dust puffs. If the catcher were
feeling ethical, he might take a throw from the field and put on
a half-hearted tag. If he were not feeling generous, he might
"accidentally" miss the throw, or the teammate crossing
home might "accidentally" knock the ball from his
first baseman was unnecessary, because any fielded ball was
thrown to the pitcher. If he caught the ball before the runner
reached first, the runner was out. Naturally, with no umps for
mediation, plenty of arguments erupted, some of them almost as
hot as this afternoon. It was a matter of honor, even though the
games meant nothing other than killing a couple of muggy hours
The key component of our games was the imaginary line
extending from home plate, over the pitcher's mound and second
base, across center field, and off into eternity. In our case,
that line bisected the junction of Center Street, running along
left field, and Wheeler Avenue, paralleling the right field
fence. Any ball hit to the right--infield or outfield--was an
Hamey sweated out in center, keeping up
the chatter like always, even though no one, except maybe Per
Olaf, could hear him. But even from the infield, I could see the
thin dribble down Hame's shirtfront--the tell-tale stain that
said he had a chaw of Copey in his cheek but still hadn't learned
to spit it without some dripping down his chin. It's a tough
skill for a twelve-year-old to learn.
In the white light
of early afternoon, I squinted at home plate, smelling smoldering
infield dust. During our first games in the spring, the grass had
been green and smelled newly mown regardless of when the parks
department guy had come through with the mower. Even at lunch
time, you could hear robins and blackbirds and sparrows singing
in the trees. Now, in July, a dry, papery smell shimmered in the
air, the green having long ago faded to brown during our usual
dry months, and any birds dumb enough not to be napping were
probably down at the park taking a dip in the swimming pool.
Standing at short, I reached down to pluck at a sandburr
in my sock--plenty of those around. Experience said it was best
not to roll around in the playing field if you could avoid it.
You sure didn't want to walk barefoot across it.
a friendly smile on his face--he used that face to good effect as
he later became a beloved local politician--served up a big, fat
melon. One more bat waggle, and Treece cracked the bat onto the
ball. I turned my back on home plate to watch it fly. Although he
shouted "I got it," Per Olaf could only watch as the
ball left the park. Hame watched it go too, hands on hips, a
mathematically perfect parabola, no doubt describable by a
precise formula. For us kids, it was just a wonder, a work of
art, rising, then descending in slow motion.
ball hit Center Street, normal time resumed. The ball bounced
high off the street, leaving an indentation in the heat-softened
tar. The ball made for the rose bushes in front of a neat, tiny
house. The ball seemed to know exactly what it was doing, always
landing in those dang bushes. Per Olaf trotted to the opening in
the middle of the left field fence, hoping to retrieve the ball
before the old lady came out--again--to scold us for ruining her
roses. Treece had already circled the bases and was gathering
splinters in his rear by the time Per Olaf flung the ball to
Hame, who had moved over to take the cutoff.
being out of play, no one at first noticed the man walking along
on Wheeler Avenue. As well, after playing a couple of hours, most
of us were ready to go home for lunch or a quick swim down to
Spring Lake Park--or as we called it, Mud Lake--a few blocks from
our game. It had the only swimming pool in North Kater Town, sand
bottom, only the occasional warm spot in the water where a
toddler had stood moments before. But that's what chlorine was
meant to take care of.
As I said, no one paid much
attention to the fellow walking along right field. When I heard
Hame call out to Per Olaf, I looked over my right shoulder to see
the two in conference. Then I became aware that the entire ball
field had fallen quiet, the afternoon pressing its hot palm down
on everyone, muting all sounds. In fact, everyone's mouth seemed
to be open, staring at right field. And no wonder, I could see
now. The man strolling along was a black man, not an everyday
sight in North Kater Town back then. He moved gracefully, not
ambling, but not hurrying either. He had a dignity and sobriety
about him, but he was watching our game with interest.
noticed Hame pulling on Per Olaf's arm, gesturing toward the man,
Per Olaf holding back. So Hame left and trotted solo toward the
man, starting to talk to him.
I hissed. Schirmer closed his jaw and looked at me from pitcher's
mound. I mouthed the words "Who's that?" He mouthed
something back, but I couldn't understand him, so I walked over:
snorted contemptuously. First, black people did not casually
stroll through North Kater Town. Second, major leaguers did not
pass a field full of ball playing boys. Third, where were the
reporters and fans who would watch every move of the man closing
on Babe Ruth's home run record? But I seemed to be the only
Meanwhile, Hamey was leaning his arms on the
right field fence. In a minute, Hame reached his mitt over, and
the man removed a pen from his pocket and signed it. The
afternoon lifted its hand, and suddenly everyone could move
again, heading for the outfield, no one wanting to miss the
chance to talk with the great man. I moved too, harboring silent
doubts. True, he looked like Henry Aaron. I supposed he talked
like Hank too, though I had only heard him once or twice on the
radio, so that wasn't saying much. Still, just in case, I asked
him to sign my glove too: "Henry Aaron."
was just as friendly as you could wish. He was asking about our
game, and Hame--assuming the mantle of spokesman--explained how
it worked. Hank he said it reminded him of the ball games he
played as a kid. "I wonder," he asked, "would you
all mind if I played with you awhile? I have some time before I
need to be somewhere, and it sure looks like it would be fun."
Hame said, "You betcha." And so it was decided. Hank
would bat for a while, and we kids would rotate through the
You could tell he was taking it easy.
He had learned our names, calling to each in turn as he gave us
little lazy swats we could easily field. He put the ball exactly
where he wanted it, every time, even when the pitch was nowhere
near home plate.
For twenty minutes, that field was pure
joy. Laughing kids, laughing adult, laughing game. I still
doubted it was Hank, but what the heck. We capered around the
grass, which looked greener, the game now a sip of cool water for
boys and park alike in the swelter.
All too soon, Hank
called out that he had to be going. "Aw no!" "C'mon,
just a little longer!" Everyone was disappointed the time
had gone so quickly.
"Tell you all what," said
Hammerin' Hank. "I'll hit one more. Where do you want it?"
It was like we all had one brain (usually we had about
one brain between us): "Hit one out of the park!"
smiled, held the bat a little firmer, kicked his toe into the
dust in the batter's box, and looked at the pitcher. Me. I said,
"I'll give you a nice fat melon ball. Ready?" And I
wound up like a big-league pitcher, looked to hold an imaginary
runner at first, and let fly. Hank waited forever, and I thought
he was going to let it pass. But just as the catcher was reaching
out to catch the ball, Hank said something that sounded like
"Perfect." He stepped forward with his leading foot and
whipped the bat so fast I couldn't see it. I remember hearing the
crack of the ash wood, I remember turning my back on home to try
to see where the ball went, I remember Per Olaf and Hame--both
back in the outfield again--watching the ball too. Flying up and
up, and out, another work of mathematical genius. Unlike Treece's
shot, this one kept going, completely clearing both rose bushes
and house. Hame took off after it. I saw the ball hit the street
beyond the house and bounce. Hame would never get to it.
ran to my Schwinn one-speed, all red fenders and white hand
grips, righted it, and pushed off, leaping onto the seat. I stood
up to pedal, gathering speed leaving the park, just glimpsing the
ball bouncing again, this time off a house roof. I tore after
that ball, passing Per Olaf, who was chasing the ball. Passing
Hame, who had a longer head start. Keeping my eye on that ball. I
dodged garbage cans, I juddered up and down curbs, I wove between
parked cars, never losing sight.
I believe that ball knew
what it was doing. It bounced off a patio, leaped over a fence,
rolled between flower beds, dodged car tires. I could almost hear
it laughing, exhilarated. But I bore down, standing and pedaling
through the heat rising from the tar. My entire world became that
ball. It headed for the entry to Spring Lake Park. No longer
bouncing but still rolling and jumping as it hit a small stone or
crack in the street.
Sweat filled my eyes, but I was
catching up. The ball looked back, saw I nearly had it, and began
a leisurely roll into the parking lot. I passed the ball and hit
my coaster break, skidding my rear tire and leaving a thirty-foot
black mark behind. I turned my bike in front of the ball, which
was as tired as I was, gently coming to a rest, lightly kissing
my front tire.
I picked up the ball. Something on its
trip had put a thin mark across its face that looked exactly like
a smile. But I had no time for that. I had to get that ball back
to home plate. I climbed back on my bike and returned toward
Wheeler Park. I saw down about a block that someone was limping
toward me, hand on his aching side--Hame. I waved at him, and he
wearily stopped, hands on knees. I braked to a stop again, got
off my bike, and pegged that ball to my cutoff man. Hamey picked
up the ball on one hop, wheeled and fired it back down the
street. Just then, I saw Per Olaf another block down the way, and
he picked up Hame's throw, spun and hurled it toward Schirmer, at
the corner of Center Street and Wheeler Avenue. I was riding back
toward the park by then and could see Schirmer's throw to Treece
in center field, who relayed it toward home, where Hank stood,
clapping his hands and laughing. He caught the ball barehanded
and stepped on the plate.
I was coasting, catching my
breath, bumping over the brown outfield grass and sand burrs.
Hank watched us straggle back to the playing field. We gathered
around him once more to say good-bye. "Boys, I had the best
time today. Thanks for a great game!" He shook all our
hands. Then he took his pen again and wrote something on the
baseball before tossing it to me. "I appreciate it," he
said, then resumed his interrupted walk, out of the ball park,
turning right onto Center Street, and out of sight.
ball said, "In gratitude for a perfect home-run pitch. Hank
I still don't know if that was really Henry
Aaron or just someone who looked a lot like him or who just
happened to have the same name. I suppose I could have had the
ball or my glove examined to see if the signatures there matched
any known examples of his writing. But if I had, where would be
the magic in that?