In search of Lou Gehrig - Jamie Boss
In search of Lou Gehrig and all things good.
In 1958, in a field with waving straw in a small Connecticut town, a Little League Monument was built and dedicated. In short order, the men of the Milford Little League Organization had transformed an empty field into a memorial for the great Lou Gehrig. Fittingly, his mother, who lived in Milford, was there opening day to watch dedication of the field to her son. Although I was a very young boy, it was my privilege to watch the proceedings. Across a field of yellow straw marched all the miniscule teams, replete with brand new uniforms, colorful banners held in front of them proclaiming the names of each glorious team and, best of all, all marching in time to the grand music of John Philip Sousa. It was, by all standards, a magnificent scene to behold. A long parade in golden sunshine of youthful hopes and dreams. To a young fourth grader, it was mesmerizing. How rarely our children experience such moments today!
Eventually the Lou Gehrig field was bulldozed, and Jonathan Law high school was built were it stood. The afternoons of sitting with your feet in the nearby reservoir and getting your uniform wet were now gone. The sound of bulldozers and payloaders drowned out the echos of John Phillip Sousa, the smack of a home run hit and the roar of the parents in the stands cheering a young boy rounding third base on his way to home plate.
My attendance at the opening was all due to my father. My dad was the Little League (and later Pop Warner) guru of Milford. His endless energy with the association was remarkable and he was also the head coach of the Milford Cardinals. His team had the best players. (At least I thought so) Guys like John Bestoff, Peter Rabler, Richie Smith, and Linwood Sawyer. Linwood was one of the few black players in the league, but boy could he hit that ball. One day I watched him hit a line drive from home plate directly into the scoreboard and knock a whole mess of numbers off their hooks on the board.
Initially, I was put in as a Bat Boy, with the awesome responsibility to retrieve the bat after the batter ran to first base. I was enthusiastic in my mission. So much so, the many times when there was a base hit with bases loaded, I would get between the man on third sliding into home and the catcher looking to tag him out. In most cases I carefully threaded the entanglement and avoided catastrophe. Once in a blue moon the runner would hit me hard and send me flying. In all instances my father wanted to skin me alive. There was a time were Richie Smith struck out and, in his frustration, tossed the bat like a fast pitch behind him. Few noticed when it hit me point blank in the face, as the runner on first stole second. The resulting stars were enormously entertaining.
Eventually my dad would acquiesce to try me out in right field.
Yes. Right field. Like the Peter, Paul and Mary song:
“Right field. It’s easy you know.
You can be awkward, and you can be slow.
That’s why I am here in right field,
Just watching the dandelions grow.”
I assure you I watched every dandelion grow from sprout to flower. Once in a season, a batter would "pull" and the ball would fly off in my direction. The sun behind me and my newly oiled Mickey Mantle glove grasped firmly in my hand, I would hold out the mitt where I believed the ball would eventually fall. Incredibly, it would always hit me right in the forehead. After a full season of bumps on my head, my father decided to get my eyes checked with an eye doctor in Devon. Yep. Nearsighted! Prescription glasses solved the “hit in the noggin” problem. I would eventually go on to pitch for the team, however, it would be short lived. It was easier to hit the batter with the ball rather than to pay attention to where to catcher wanted it to go. My circular journey back to right field was now complete.
Milford’s recreation department had a fellow in charge by the name of Herb Westerfield. Herb was black but it never occurred to any of us that his color might be a problem. To us, he was just “Herb”. One year the team won the area championship, and it was scheduled to take the long trip to Florida for the play off for the league Championship. It was a big deal to all of us. Being the coach’s son, and therefore had the honor of waiting in the bleachers as the couches gabbed after the end of a game, I heard my father describing a telegram the league received from the league in Florida. They had heard that Herb was black and flat told us if Herb came down with the team, there would be no playoff. As word got around to the players, it was unfathomable to all of us. We had never heard of such a thing. This, in a very serious way, was our introduction to full blown racism.
The league had a meeting with the parents of the team. Everyone agreed. They would support Herb and not attend the playoffs. There were many Little League tears that day.
At that moment John Phillip Sousa’s march seemed distant and insignificant. The waving American flag on high no longer glistened in the sunlight. The proud throng of young boys anticipating their first game of the season appeared far less important. Something new had been introduced into the many young minds of our little league team that day. First, we all came to touch one of the many tenticles of racist hatred. Secondly, we now understood that there were times in life when you took a stand for something more important than yourself.
Where was Lou Gehrig when you needed him?
Jamie Boss published his Vietnam journal, Crazy in Rocket City through Home and Abroad and Military Experience, an organization that works with veterans. He spent 18 years writing technical training scripts and television commercials. Boss is also an accomplished acoustic instrument luthier and has published several books on the subject. He resides in rural Connecticut and is an active member of the UCLA Wordcommandos, a renowned writing workshop for veterans.