The umpire's cry of "Play Ball!" was heard in many an empty lot, pasture, school yard, and town ball field for the first forty or so years of this century in Nebraska. Nearly every boy and even a few girls grew up playing baseball in the little country schools and small towns. Even the lower grades played. The boys dressed in bib overalls and chambray work shirts, the girls in cotton dresses, they enjoyed the game that the adults were playing. |
When I went to Ritchie country school in Seward County, the kids would choose up sides to play. Sometimes we would get to go to another school and play their team. This was a great adventure to get the parents to come in their Model T's, Model A's, old Chevrolets, Whippets, and even an old farm truck and go a few miles to play another school. Of course no classes were held that afternoon, usually a Friday, so that was a treat.
The ball gloves were thin, the bats were sometimes cracked and taped up with friction tape. Sometimes the ball was even taped with this black tape.
During the Depression it was a common sight to see someone get a hit and run the bases with the sole of his shoe loose and flapping as he ran.
The men formed teams of cousins, uncles, and in-laws playing against other family teams. There were church teams, club teams and lodge teams. The local business men got teams together. The games were usually on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, sometimes double headers that lasted til twilight. The games were well attended by the fans of the teams and the rivalry was fierce.
The teams of adult players were still wearing overalls, or old dress pants and heavy work shoes. If a guy had an old pair of dress shoes, the local cobbler could put some cleats or spikes on them. Some of the merchants' teams had uniforms and baseball shoes bought for them by the merchant. They managed to have a catcher's mask and chest pad and a couple of good bats and balls.
Many of the games in the 20's were played in some farmer's pasture. My Uncle Ed Brown had a small pasture back of his house in Surprise (Butler County.) Now he had a little political influence and he had the county road crew come in and scrape a dirt infield. He also had a little money, so he put up a back stop and some bleachers. One Sunday the Surprise team was playing Gresham on this little field. My cousin Charles Brown (Ed's son) was a track star in high school and he came on the field wearing track shoes. Gresham players didn't like the looks of those spikes and called for the rule book. Nothing could be found against wearing track shoes so they couldn't kick him out of the game. They gave Charlie plenty of room when he slid into base.
There was always a good crowd at these games all thru the years I remember. Many went real early so they could park their cars in a place they could see the game while sitting in the car. A few windshields got knocked out from foul balls. Gradually there got to be bleachers behind home place protected by a chicken wire back stop and later there was chicken wire fences down the base line to save some windshield.
Before the backstop were installed there were several boys at each game, called "pigtails" who chased down the balls the catcher missed.
They had bru-ha-has in those days, same as now. Fist fights, even hitting the umpire, but I never did see anyone SPIT at the umpire!
There got to be some really good pitchers and batters. I remember a few that were looked over by the scouts from the St Louis Cardinals and St Louis Browns. One was offered a contract but didn't take it. Another was drafted into the Army just at the time he was offered a contract and was killed in Italy.
If there was an especially big game that a team really wanted to win they might get a catcher, or pitcher, or hitter from another team who had a great reputation to play for them that day. This was called "Spiking" the team, "Spike pitcher," "Spike catcher." This was against rules but they could get away with it, if the opposing team was not familiar with the players.
These games drew large crowds and were even written up in the local newspaper with some of the players getting prominent mention.
I was a pitcher in high school. Probably my most embarrassing moment was when we lost to another school with a girl pitcher. She threw a slow curve ball you would swear was going to hit you but it came in right over the plate. She had a pretty good knuckle ball aso. Some of the guys said she had some other curves besides the one she threw over the plate.
During WWII from 1941-46 the ball fields were silent as the men were away in the Armed Forces. But after the war the games started again, towns built up their balls fields with bleachers, and even lights. Some would bring in pitchers or home-run hitters from other towns, paying mileage and even a little extra to enliven their team. In a few years, the interest among the men began to fade and Legion baseball for teens took over the ball fields. The baseball era of the small towns was over for Nebraska.
|© Oldtime Nebraska, 2000 -- BASEBALL!!! -- submitted by Ed & Jeanne Cook Walsh, October, 1997|