Little league baseball was close to a religion in Jackson, Georgia. I remember one season in particular. I got the call. “Will, I hear you like to play short stop. And I hear you can pitch.” I was 11 years old and was going to be on Homer William’s little league baseball team. Homer was legend in Jackson. He had coached little league baseball teams for the Parish Drug Co. for more than 20 years. (A good thing about a small town is the way the local businesses sponsored the local recreation teams.) I had never met Homer but had heard the chatter around the baseball diamonds about his teams. Like many coaches, he had learned how to recruit players. He would choose a player’s parent to be an assistant coach. Parish Drug had 4 assistant coaches that year.
On the first day of practice, Homer was holding a worn green canvas bag full of baseball equipment. This was a standard issued equipment bag from the Butts County recreation department. When you saw that bag as a kid, you almost began to salivate. Baseball had arrived. Homer had a plump red face, gold rimmed glasses and chaw of Red Man tobacco tucked away in his right jaw. At the end of the season, many of the parents wanted to gift Homer with a month’s supply of Red Man, but other parents, including my mother, didn’t want their money going to the tobacco company.
This was before the days of travel baseball. Perhaps there were travel teams around, but they just didn’t travel their way to Jackson. I would not have had it any other way. Most of my friends didn’t just play one sport. We played them all and were the better for it.
There was some hard lessons in baseball. The rule was that every player got to bat and play in the field each game. That seemed fair enough. Except it became common practice to put in players at the end of the game to satisfy the rule. I watched many of my classmates gingerly cheer on the team as they awaited for the coach to put them in the last inning with the game usually out of reach. I’m not sure if this was a lesson in the real world or more of a reality about competition, but it was part of the game. I remember not liking it.
Perhaps the most exciting day of the whole year as a kid was opening day at the baseball field. It had all the ambience of Easter. Spring was in blossom. The crowds populated the bleachers. The uniforms were colorful and the concession stand was loaded with frozen Reese’s cups.
We had the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch. It was usually done by the mayor. Ernest Biles, the director of the recreation department, would call out every single player from all different ages to jog onto the field. It must have taken an hour but we didn’t mind as we stood in the spring breeze with the scent of hamburger smoke passing under our noses.
It would take a longer blog post to describe the next point, but it’s worth mentioning. Little league baseball brought together black and white people. Jackson was an amazing town, but it was also a southern town with all the tensions of our racist pasts. Although I had good friends at school who were black, we rarely saw each other outside of the classroom. But the baseball field was one of those places. It reminded me that fields were a place of reconciliation where I could learn to speak a common language of strikes, double-plays, pop-flies and teamwork. We shared lots of laughs together and built trust. In some small ways, I am haunted by sports fields to this day because I miss them and the common ground it gave my black friends and me.
As I think back to the opening day of recreation baseball, it was a beautiful moment to watch unfold. The parents stood in rapt attention. Every single player’s name was called. The crowd cheered for every child no matter the color of skin. We stood in the sunshine, our back pockets filled with gum, our heads tilted high with the hope of a new season. Yes, opening ceremonies felt like a sort of Easter, but maybe more so.