Some of you know this story, many of you don’t. But it is definitely true and is a lift from a book that I’m throwing together for release in who-knows-when. Given that we are now well into the baseball season, I thought it might be appropriate and a little fun. At the time, way back in the 1950s, it was hardly a laugh for me, but now it makes for one of those war stories that we pull out of the box, saying something on the order of, “Oh yeah, you think that was tough? Listen to this!” Plus, I’ve got a nifty scar on the bridge of my nose as proof.
In those days, we started our own baseball season nearly the moment the snow cleared away at the end of March. It was too cold to play, as we were always reminded with how hard the ball would hit the glove. But the allure was strong, and we found a couple of bats and someone who owned a ball, often covered with black industrial tape because the horsehide had long since fallen away, and headed for the “campus,” a rough softball field that was less than a block from our house.
This was “sandlot” baseball at its purest: teams determined by the grip of a bat, no umpires, and games that continued into the early evening when the ability to actually see the ball was a challenge. Since I rarely provided the ball and was confined to deepest right field, I was typically among the first to call out that I had to go home. That was generally met by a low chorus of “Aw c’mon,” followed by “You dork!”
Yet there we were on one occasion in late March, wearing light jackets, sliding in soft mud, and making an attempt at playing the game, with a mixture of kids my age – ten – and older, bigger guys who rightly would not have been with us. And, given the availability of the mud, it made sense to augment play by heaving mud balls at one another.
I don’t recall being hit by a mud ball, but a flung bat did strike home.
I’ve never thought it was intentional, but a kid named Karl, who had been especially active in the mud ball exchanges, let a bat slip from his mud-slicked hands that flew a distance of perhaps 20 feet and struck me full in the face, demolishing the bridge of my nose.
What I saw in the space of a full second was a shadowy object that was at once confusing and imminent. There was no idea of moving out of the way: the collision occurred that quickly. I felt a debilitating thump at the center of my face, staggered momentarily, then went down to my knees, and then rolled over on my back as blood began to cover my face, even as I remained conscious. Instinctively, I kept my eyes closed as someone knelt beside me and placed fingers at both temples. There was no real pain; the shock of what happened was enough.
Then a light cloth was applied to my face – courtesy, I discovered much later, of a nurse who had been walking her dog at the edge of the ball field. Moments went by as I blindly tried to assess my situation. Then I was being lifted by adult arms — those of my dad who had been summoned from two blocks away where he was walking home with groceries. Then I was being carried at some speed, with consoling words. Meantime, my brother Mauri, who had been at the scene, ran home to tell Mom that “Jack [my childhood nickname] is lying on the grass at the campus and I think he’s dead.”
I may have passed out, perhaps not, but the next recollection was of being on a table with the blood cleared from my face and a man – a doctor – looking down at me as he prepared to make some basic restitution to my battered nose.
It had, in fact, been a major blow. The bridge had been completely shattered, with little left but fragments and a hole that I could actually breathe through, so serious that repairs had to be made even as I was conscious. There was me, wailing my heart out, my dad trying to offer encouraging words, and one Dr. Klepetar with doubtless his most trying patient of the day. But I was, indeed, sewn up in probably less time than it seemed to me, put on my feet and helped down the stairs to the entrance where both ball teams were waiting, along with my dog; the only people missing were the camera and sound crew.
Part two entailed one visit to a specialist in a nearby town who announced that there wasn’t a “goddamned thing he could do,” which was hardly the encouragement I was hoping for. So we next moved to another specialist in Albany, who ultimately introduced me to the horrors of ether and pulled the bridge of my nose back into a solid structure. Amazingly, people from around the town contributed to a wad of cash that my parents used to cover the hospital expenses.
That was medicine in the 1950s. The reconstruction was basic, but with little concern for cosmetics. Again, I still carry the scar, which is generally understood as the result of the glasses I wear, but I can still feel the roughness of the bones underneath. Now, of course, I would have inherited a gorgeous new beak, with absolutely no evidence of the trauma I endured more than a half-century ago. Then again, it is a good story, and people who were there then occasionally mention it as though it was one of the major events of their lives.
You would naturally assume that the incident precluded baseball ad infinitum, but it didn’t. I gave the game some space for the balance of the summer, yet the very next season, glove in hand , I returned to the playing field, making sure, however, to allow greater distance between me and the batter. Ironically, over the years I’ve seen bats flung with abandon in the major leagues, even traveling into the stands, but never resulting in the consequences that I became acquainted with.
And more, it was and is a game that I continued to love, even now, although my playing days, which went on into my 30s, have been replaced with a spectator status.
For us so long ago, it was also dirt cheap. Only one of your friends needed to provide a ball, you found a nearby field to play on, and brought your own glove. You got somebody to bring a bat and you were good to go. It was slow pitch and you continued until there was a consensus to go home; typically, I provided the incentive for that.
And the sandlot variety was always to my liking, certainly because of its improvisational approach, and it didn’t cut into the rest of my life – you know: girls – with the nuisance of team practice.
As a supplement we collected Topps baseball cards, with our heroes mostly confined to the Brooklyn Dodgers; Jackie Robinson, oddly enough for those times, was especially prized. I stored my cards in a shoebox in my hall locker, always at the ready for trades. Naturally, my entire collection ended up in the trash – how could we have known that certain players can now fetch thousands of dollars? Hah. I decided that I had outgrown them. If any of us had sent a Jackie Robinson card to safe keeping in the attic, today we’d have been able to sell it for as much as $6,500. Who knew?
The old blood, sweat and tears. But the good news is that my brother was quite wrong in his initial assessment. That’s a relief.