On Their Sleeves: Part Seven
Before the cows at Little’s Field watched their first game of football they watched the local kids play sandlot baseball on a diamond Mr. C cut out in a patch of high grass that had been left to grow wild in the far corner of their pasture. It was no secret that baseball was Mr. C’s first passion. He was once an incredible baseball player; a pitcher who could play every position on the field (except catcher) and bat in the top part of any lineup.
By definition, “Sandlot Ball is a North American adolescent game that generally follows the basic rules of baseball. More specific rules can be set for games and may vary each time the game is played. These rules are usually agreed upon before the game begins by teams of young boys or girls usually from the same neighborhood. The word sandlot refers to the makeshift field, which could be nothing more than an empty piece of land in the area composed of grass, dirt, or sand that is big enough to facilitate the game. Objects used in playing the game can be improvised to take the place of bases, balls, or bats if they are unavailable.”
When Jackie and his neighborhood friends entered junior high they outgrew the clearing in the wooded area at the end of Winslow Road where Stonybrook Road connected, so Mr. C took out his small gas mower and made a larger makeshift baseball field for them in the cow pasture. Word quickly spread of the new field and kids began showing up to play “sandlot ball”. Gradually the equipment improved and the game more closely resembled organized baseball.
When school let out and summer vacation officially started, Mr. C began spending more time teaching the kids the skills they needed to play organized baseball. It was during the second year at Little’s Field that the sandlot kids had developed their skills enough to play competitive baseball. That season Mr. C set up games against teams from Hyde Park where he once played club baseball and had developed lasting friendships.
According to one former baseball player, pitcher Steve Pokorski, “We traveled to Hyde Park to play baseball and were involved in some very competitive games there. Even though some of us were still in junior high, I remember at least one bench clearing brawl-” Mr. C never condoned violence in athletics, but always fielded spirited teams.
After I became a ‘member in good standing’ of the Sharon Red Devils in 1967, I was asked if I wanted to play summer baseball for Mr. C. I was decent defensive catcher, capable of blocking balls in the dirt and protecting home plate like a football player. I jumped at the opportunity.
Joel Peckham Sr. was an All-American catcher at Tufts University before he moved to Sharon from Winchester, Massachusetts where he had been a standout high school baseball, basketball, and football player. After a chance meeting with Mr. C at one of the fields, the two talked baseball for longer than they had time for and at some point during their conversation before they headed home, Joel agreed to be Mr. C’s assistant. In his mid-to-late twenties at the time, Mr. Peckham was a great help to all of us, including Mr. C. The two coaches worked incredibly well together and that made us a better baseball team.
We had a blast barnstorming around the state that summer, usually in Mr. C’s station wagon, which functioned as a dugout on wheels. It was before seatbelts became law and so we were able to squeeze the entire team into one vehicle. It was a team made up of mostly football players, but in those days it could easily have been said the football team was made up of mostly baseball players. We all played several different sports and Mr. C coached football, hockey and baseball. The key ingredient to playing on any of Mr. C’s teams was desire. He knew if you had it, and if you did, he always had a spot on his roster for you. Where my own skill lacked, my desire carried me (with Mr. C’s help).
On game day Mr. C would load his small walk-behind mower into the station wagon and go cut grass, insuring our fields always looked good. Some of us showed up early to help push the mower and we enjoyed every minute of it. When Mr. C unrolled some four-foot high chicken wire and set up a home run fence at one of the fields at the East Elementary School, we were thrilled. Mr. C genuinely cared about us and we knew it and we appreciated it. He made our athletic experiences meaningful while keeping us focused, off the streets and out of trouble.
It was during a 'father and son game' in the summer of 1968 that one weak-hitting catcher drove one beyond the chicken wire off Mr. C. He hadn’t hung one either, but rather threw the straight fastball I was hoping for (OK, it might have been an off-speed pitch). I was jumping for joy as I rounded the bases and judging from the smile on Mr. C’s face, he was as happy as I was. That was the only home run I’d ever hit…