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Diamond in the mud

BASEBALL statistics are fascinating, and if I mightn't be me I would admire to be the only left-handed pitcher ever to strike out nine men in an opening game under lights at St. Louis. I'm not sure if that particular statistic is in the books, or if anybody ever did it, but not all the good statistics are in the books, whether anybody did them or not, as I am well aware. In our town, baseball had been played ever since it was invented on a mini-diamond that makes tiny Fenway Park look like the Great Open Spaces. On the first base side we had our town hall, its windows covered with ``mashin','' which is the down-Maine word for heavy screen wire, and so close that most foul pops bounced on the roof. On the third base side was the high school, its windows similarly protected from foul balls, and standing close enough so the side steps were used as a grandstand. This building was of ancient and curious architecture that had lived long beyond its time, its steeple still fitted with a big bell to summon shining morning faces but now disused because its ringing might shake the steeple down. The outfield was cut short just beyond second base by a street, so a center fielder sometimes had to step aside while a wagon passed. Close behind home plate were the tracks of the Maine Central Railroad's eastern division, and every baseball game was interrupted at 3:30 o'clock while the down-state freight leisurely passed the switch from the single iron to the double iron. This consisted of exactly 100 cars, mostly paper and lumber, and the speed over the switch was 1/2 m.p.h. The game had to pause, because a foul tip could either go under the wheels and desist, or it could fly in an open door and move along to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore.

It was a grand day, as you can imagine, for us athletes when annual town meeting decided to build a new high school in another place and lay out a baseball diamond o'er hill and dale.

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When the new school building was finished, I entered it as a high school freshman, and from the windows we could look out on the immense area that Tilly Magoon and his hired man, Ase Guppy, were grooming for our diamond. They had a team of horses and a loot. Maybe that should be lute -- I don't know. It was a horse-drawn scoop with handles like a wheelbarrow's, so Ase could make the thing dig, ride along, and dump.

Tilly drove the team. Back and forth, doing what any bulldozer does today, they went, leveling the area, and they had to quit when the ground froze. But we had a promise that come spring, we would find the new baseball field ready for our opening game. This promise was kept, and to our ancient rivals from the next town we lost 10-2 -- they had beaten us consecutively for 11 years and were to continue on that streak for nine more.

The field was, indeed, ready, but there are gradations of meaning. The infield had been spread with good gravel, and a steam roller had been brought by railroad to pack it hard. The bases were fastened down and the flags up for the foul lines. The ledge that Tilly and Ase had found on the first base side was to be blasted away during the summer ahead, but it remained a miserable hazard during our first season. Dipsy Ruggles, our first baseman, wore sneakers instead of cleats and was able to shag foul balls over the ledge with the grace of a mountain sheep, but then he would fall down running bases.

Grass? No. Backstop? No. Grandstand? No. Players' benches? No. They came later. The outfield, still loyal to the memory of spring mud-time, was no more than a dismal swamp, and as my position was at left field there was little for me to cheer about. Fact was, we scored our two runs on a mud fly. Billy Summers got an intentional walk, so they could get at our pitcher, and our pitcher closed his eyes and swung a blooper out over short. It hit the mud with a great plop noise. Everybody knew where the ball was, but the boy couldn't pull it out of the mud for suction. That gave us two runs. The other team scored their runs on errors, so as left fielder I didn't have any chances. But I'd stand there and feel my feet sinking in.

When our second game came up, I brought my rubber boots. The coach let me wear them for one inning, just to give people a laugh, but then he made me put on my cleats. That summer they dug drainage ditches. And blasted the ledge. But I should be in the books for playing left field in clam diggers' rubber boots. -- 30 --

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