‘Boys of summer’ learned meaning of team

I grew up in Uvalde, Texas, where I was privileged to live among many friends up and down Second Street and beyond. In the mid 1950s, in the era before television captured our time, there were enough boys of middle school age and above, to field an entire squad of players, both at bat, and in field. We all lived near the Baptist Temple, on East Main Street, and the church elders, or deacons, generously allowed us to use a huge vacant lot adjacent to the church building for a sandlot baseball field. To us, it was Yankee Stadium. We were all Yankees and Dodgers, in our imaginations.

The church officials asked no more of us than to clean the field of rocks and debris each spring, which we gladly did as a group. Some of the boys, who were adept at carpentry, and their dads helped construct a backstop, complete with large utility poles and chicken wire to keep the ball from going too far behind home plate. One or more of the guys would bring a ball, and we didn’t have any to spare, so we had to safeguard the ones we had. The plate was a perfect replica of a real pentagon shaped plate. We found square boards to make the bases, and we scraped up dirt, and piled it up to make a fairly decent pitcher’s mound, complete with a “rubber” – actually a wooden plank – for the pitcher.

Some of the boys who gathered to play, and I hope I don’t omit too many, included Bobby Culp, a UHS varsity high school player who was our self-appointed “coach,” Gordon Ray Culp, Bobby’s younger brother and always a pitcher; Mel Glauberg, Joe David Payne, Norman Massey, Johnny Stewart, Jimmi Stewart, Robert Ladley, Steve Smallwood, Charles Everett, whose his dad was a retired catcher for the Boston Red Sox!, George Brown, Eddie Lowrance, Bob Blevins, Mondo Flores, Sam Rainey, Jackie Luce, Bill Dillahunty, Billy Palmer, Nick Fohn, Louis Fohn, Gerald Fohn, Robert Rowland, and many others. What adventures we had!

I mentioned that Bobby Culp was our coach, because that’s the role he assumed. He spoke with authority, and none of us ever dared to question it. He was a skilled and confident leader. Bobby would lead by demonstrating proper stance at the plate. He would critique our stance and observe: “Raise that back arm,” or “Make your swing level,” or “Don’t anticipate the pitch,” or “Don’t crowd the plate,” or “Watch your swing, because if you swing early, you’ll hit to the opposite field, or If you swing late, you’ll foul the other way, and don’t anticipate the pitch, just try to meet the ball.” If we were in field, he would observe how we were to scoop up a ground ball, and he cautioned: “Be sure you use both hands, and hold your glove with the fingers toward the ground, then keep your eyes on the ball, and anticipate its path, and get in front of it. If you try to catch a fly ball, get under it first, then use both hands to catch it, and don’t try to show off, by using only the gloved hand, or you’ll flub it.”

Bobby had no patience with lazy slugs! If you fouled up and made excuses, or pouted or threw tantrums, you spent time on the bench (we didn’t really have a bench, but you sat it out on the ground, in front of everybody. Not good!

During those summer days, we didn’t just learn about baseball. We learned about how and why it’s important to get along with other guys. Most of our gang were pretty good guys, who could get along well with one another. We did, however, have our “prima donnas,” too.

One particular spoiled kid, would be brought over to the field by his mom, in a shiny new sedan. He would have a new glove, bat, balls, everything he wanted, and get out wearing a new T-shirt, and cap, and real baseball shoes, with steel spikes, even! Wow! The rest of us, had old mismatched hand-me-downs from older friends or cousins, but we did alright. I had a pair of old brown leather oxfords. I went to a local store, like Western Auto, and bought cleats. I took the shoes and cleats to Landis Boot shop, I believe, and had the cleats affixed to the soles. Then I got some liquid black shoe polish, and voila! Black baseball shoes, with cleats! Even though the brown still bled through a little, they were perfect, for me.

Well, we all knew, that sooner or later, the little prima donna was bound to get mad at his glove, or his bat, or the rest of us about some perceived insult or something. He’d pout, then grab up his stuff, and leave to go home. We didn’t care. We didn’t like having to appease his stubborn ways, and we let him know! We’d breathe a sigh of relief, nod as a group, and whisper something like: “Good riddance!” Sympathy? No!

Sometimes our guys, the “Second Street Gang,” would get a challenge from kids of a team in another neighborhood, clear across town. We’d gather our bats, balls, gloves, etc, and set out walking to the agreed site, like another church lot, or the high school practice field, and play the other team. We’d win some, and lose some, but we were a team, and supported each other, against those “other guys,”

We didn’t have commercial team sponsors, uniforms, batting helmets, coaches, umpires, Gatorade, or any of the trappings of Little League, or the older Pony League. No parents attended our “games,” or intervened in our differences of opinion. Win or lose, we gathered as friends, and parted as friends, all with some very special memories from the 1950s of happy lazy summer days in Uvalde. The boys of summer? Yeah, that was us!

Louis Fohn is a practicing attorney in San Angelo.

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