By Richard Little
Richard Little grew up in Sacramento. Though he has lived in Bellingham for more than 30 years, he has trouble getting his head around his “new” home team, the Mariners, versus the amazing Giants, the team he rooted for as a kid.
Eleven and 12 were my Little League years.
Growing up in Sacramento, it was also when the New York Giants moved west to San Francisco. As an adult, I only now truly appreciate the magic of hearing on my backyard radio every home run Willie Mays hit those years – and Russ Hodges’ Hall of Fame call: “You can tell that one, bye bye Baby!”
On matchstick ankles disappearing into what passed for spikes, small for my age, and sporting (I use the term loosely) a Nellie Fox glove that Abner Doubleday himself must have designed, I’d decided second base was my position. (Fox, a second baseman, still holds the White Sox career record for triples – 104.)
I had no arm, so pitching and the outfield were out of the question. People got hurt at third or shortstop, playing catcher was suicidal, and somebody else always nabbed first, first. The Keystone Corner it would be then.
My dad stuck it out through every game, even coached for a while. As I’d ride home with him after yet another loss, he’d say all the right, encouraging, non-Little League Dad From Hell things. We’d stop and get a soft ice cream at the Frosty Freeze in the balmy Valley night.
Dad and I also went to Sacramento Solons games downtown. Some of my friends and I belonged to the Knot Hole Gang, a local promotion to get some – any – backsides into the seats. We kids didn’t care. It was baseball; these were guys who got paid to play baseball! We’d pile into our boxy, blue and white Chevy station wagon, wearing outsized goofy-looking hats and cheesy T-shirts with our logo, “Leo’s Produce,” on them. We’d take our gloves, get autographs, run around in the stands, eat hot dogs, get mustard on our shirts and drink Coke in tall waxed cups full of crushed ice that it took two hands to hold.
Minor-league teams weren’t bad in those days of serious farm systems and before free agency. The Oakland Oaks, San Francisco Seals, Seattle Rainiers, Hollywood Stars, Los Angeles Angels, Portland Beavers, and San Diego Padres comprised the rest of the respectable Pacific Coast League. The Seals had spawned Joe DiMaggio; Ted Williams started out with his hometown San Diego Padres, for heaven’s sake.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday and Thursday nights, we played Little League. Like in most small towns across America in summer, the ballfield – two or three or four adjoining diamonds – was lit by tall telephone-pole stanchions. There were as many shadows as paths of light. Moths, gnats, and mosquitoes danced in the brightness. Chain-link backstops and fencing guarded hard wooden stands three levels high and separated the onlookers – envious little brothers, oblivious little sisters, toddlers, anxious moms – from the real ballplayers. Us. Forget the fact that we were in the “minors” – not good enough or old enough to rate full-fledged uniforms or fields where there was actual grass.
I was not very good. And, as marginal as I was at second base, that was nothing compared to dreaded times at the plate. And nothing compared to my career-ending appearance.
Joe Gordon Jr. was pitching. Son of the Joe Gordon of the New York Yankees. In his twilight years, the senior Gordon was a manager/player with the Solons. The family lived in our neighborhood. (Gordon Sr: 11-year career in the majors, 253 home runs – ironically, also a second baseman.)
Son Joe Gordon, even as a youngster and like many a future major leaguer or success in any sport, was a real athlete. He could pitch and hit and run like the wind. The rest of us, like many a golfer as an adult, played at the game.
I don’t remember the score that evening. The name of the opposing team is lost to time. I know that we were in the minors, and this tall kid, obviously from the “majors,” must have been slumming for a night or something. He was warming up throwing fastballs that whistled. They smacked the catcher’s glove with a crack that echoed across the diamond
I was up. My heart was pounding as I took my position at the plate and scuffed my wobbly spikes in the dirt like a pro. I looked out at the confident kid on the mound who had to be 14, at least.
The first pitch crossed the plate before I finished my warm-up swings.
I backed out of the box. I took a couple practice swings with a bat that felt like a shovel and hurt my wrists. I stepped back in. Why had the place gone silent? Where was my dad in the face of this obvious mismatch? Why was I there?!
The second pitch had me backing away before young Joe finished his wind-up. I thought I heard a giggle from the other bench.
The summer before my sixth grade was apparently going to be one of those times in life when boys are confronted by peer pressure of the young male variety – the inevitability of certain situations that supposedly define who we end up being as adults. Example: Later that year at school, my first girlfriend Sally Wentz grabbed my hand at lunch period and held it, where everyone could see, including her father who taught science.
So, no way out that night but to stand back in at the plate. The third pitch headed straight for my helmet.
Here’s what I remember: I remember lying flat on my back in the dirt by the plate, looking up at frightened faces backlit by the glaring lights. I remember my dad driving me home not saying much. I remember my head hurting a lot. I remember my horrified mom putting ice cubes wrapped in a towel on my temple and asking why on earth a 14-year-old, let alone the son of Yankees Great Joe Gordon, was pitching against a Little League minors team. I remember my little sister spooning conciliatory ice cream into her mouth at the kitchen table and my dog whining worriedly. At least I didn’t cry.
Here’s what else I recall. I spent the rest of that hot and dry Sacramento summer and many that followed, heroically shouldering mighty blasts out of Candlestick Park time after time – two-out, bases-loaded, game-winning grand slams in the bottom of the ninth, driving in Mays, McCovey, and Cepeda ahead of me – all from the safety of my backyard.
Neither Joe Gordon did that.
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