the old ballgame

George Carlin said it best. “Baseball is a nineteenth century pastoral game in which the object is to take a walk in the park, go home, and be safe.”

Library of Congress photo

History likes to put each thing in it’s place, tag it, annotate it and make a profound statement. But thats not it. Nope. No one knows anything in its entirely, can’t put a finger one it, when did it start, who did it, no one really knows. Somethings just are. Like this.

The boy threw a rock at his friend. The friend tried to catch it. A game for two. A third boy joined in and then another. Soon there were too many boys. They would Gang-Up on someone and soon enough someone got hurt. Without thinking too much, they made up some rules. There we go, its done.

All games are created by kids. The best games. They all come out of little boys and girls imaginations. The very best are stolen by adults. They are refined, packaged and marketed and become a part of society and community, but the most important parts belong with kids.

When I was ten, I used to walk home from school with two friends, Charlie Silva and Kenny Talley. We were forbidden by our parents to walk on the county road so we walked through the farm fields. In the upper Arroyo Grande valley the dirt is known as adobe. It’s heavy and chunky and black and it makes the best clods in the world. Before baseball came to our valley the adobe was used to build houses. The Californios and other early settlers built everything from it. Near our little two room school was the site of the very first permanent home built in our valley by Don Francisco Branch and his wife Manuela, that was in 1835. Long melted away, its adobe walls tumbled down and returned to earth it provided us with a bountiful supply of ammunition. All of us farm kids could throw, no one “threw like a girl,” not even the girls. Melody Patchett could throw and hit a baseball a mile by the time she was 13. Hilda Antonio may have been even better.

Rural schools in the fifties were not overly blessed with playground equipment. We had a teeter-totter and a slide and a little set of monkey bars thanks to the time and generosity of our fathers, but that was it. The playing field had been gouged out of the hillside and leveled after a fashion but the ballfield was more of a rectangle than a diamond. There was a big oak tree hanging over home plate, the fence on the first base side cut off anything resembling right field and if you hit the ball over the fence it could roll down the hill, across Branch Mill Road and end up in either Kaz Ikeda’s irrigation reservoir or all the way down the hill into his broccoli fields. That would effectively end the game as we never had more than one ball and to fetch it took up the rest of recess. Center field had another old oak as a feature which was backed by a Bob wire fence and a pasture beyond. If someone flew to center, the centerfielder had to climb through the four wire fence and root around in the Foxtails and cow flops in order to dig out the ball. The hitter could just stroll around the bases for a home run and the centerfielder got a ration of foxtails in the socks, the cuffs of his jeans and hair and maybe, if lucky, some rich manure on the shoes which would excuse them from wearing shoes the rest of the day. This was not, as town kids might think any kind of tragedy, it was a bonus and taken in stride by both students and teachers. Bare feet are always better than shoes. Left field was a cutbank and any ball hit up there might actually roll back into the field of play or if the hitter was lucky, get stuck in a gopher hole or one of the foxholes boys dug in order to fend of the Nazi’s who might attack our school at any moment. Boys actually brought shovels to school and yes, it was allowed by the principal Edith Brown. That was along with “Gun Day,” or “Huck Finn day.” Those are both stories for another time though.

Library of Congress photo

Baseball is an American game. There are mentions of the game as far back as the revolutionary war. There are old photos of both Union and Confederate soldiers playing when in camp. After the war between the states the game exploded across the country. Just before the war the Brooklyn Excelsiors had toured the east which took them as far north as Canada and as far south as Baltimore. The outbreak of war had smashed any thought of new tours until 1867 when the Washington Nationals, a club that had formed prior to the war, announced that it would take a trip unlike any thus far attempted.

The famous Washington club will start upon their proposed Western trip on the 10th of July, visiting and playing friendly games with the leading clubs of Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Chicago, reaching the latter place on the 24th. . . .The Washington Clipper newspaper.

The Washington club was not yet famous, but wished to become so. They had played only five match games in 1865, when they had welcomed clubs from Philadelphia and Brooklyn to play on the lot behind President Andrew Johnson’s White House. The President had the first box seats. During the three weeks of their Western tour the Nationals made a show of maintaining their amateur status by refusing payments of any kind, even declining reimbursement for travel expenses; these, of course, were covered by their employers, who had graciously permitted them to abandon the desks at which they had seldom been anyway. The aim of the National Club directors in going out on tour was not monetary gain but social distinction and pride. Western teams of hayseeds had been getting a bit chesty about their brand of baseball and, it was thought back in the East that they needed a dose of reality at the hands of a real experienced ball club.

A trip to the far reaches of the country in 1867 would have been quite an adventure. They traveled by rickety railroads and horse drawn coaches. They took a steamboat down the Ohio and when they reached Saint Louis they were on the edge of civilization. It was a long, long trip west to California. A wagon train or stagecoach was the only way across. California boys were playing ball but it was going to be a long time before they would play on Eastern teams. The baseball world ended at St. Louis.

The Nationals prepared for their trip by posting lopsided wins over some local cupcakes until it was time to head west to Cincinnati to play the Red Stockings in a battle of two unbeaten nines. The Cincinnati Base Ball Club, already called “The Red Stockings” for the new style of pulling up the cuffs of their trousers the better to display their manly calves sheathed in form fitting carmine hose while all other teams still wore long trousers, had already given a drubbing to four local clubs.

The Reds were humiliated by a score of 53–10. The Nationals showed their sportsmanship by treating the humbled Red Stocking to a champagne dinner after the game. This would be the Red’s only loss of the year and it came against their only opponent from outside Ohio. A lesson was there to be drawn. At the end of the season the Red Stocking directors instructed the manager to follow the Nationals’ model and begin recruiting professionals from all over the place. The brazenly professional Red Stockings of 1869, undefeated against all comers from coast to coast became the first all professional baseball team and no longer a club.

Harry Wright, Red Stocking pitcher, 1867

Boys followed the exploits of their favorite teams and players just as they do today. In the days before radio, newspapers like the Arroyo Grande Herald Recorder carried box scores of not only the national teams in the east but local clubs, high schools and even grade schools. Every town of a few hundred or more had teams. Just before the turn of the twentieth century local clubs were traveling the state to find games.

The San Luis Obispo nine, The Invincibles are about to travel to the southland to take on a team from Los Angeles. Their splendid hurler, Colin Dana of Nipomo intends to spin the spheroid and baffle the opponents hitters. The team will take the steamer from Port Harford on Friday and arrive in San Pedro Saturday morning. After the inevitable defeat of the local Los Angeles club the Invincibles will return on the Sunday night boat.—-San Luis Obispo Tribune, 1898

Johnny Donovan of the Nipomo district had just donated new uniforms for the entire team and they were quick to praise him as a fine fellow to all present. Bragging right were taken seriously, very seriously.

As time has passed, the professional game has been tamed. Players are such valuable commodities that the rules have been changed to protect the owners investments. That hasn’t always been the case. In the old days especially before WWII men and boys played hard. Most were not white collar workers especially here in the west. They were blacksmiths, vaqueros, field hands, fishermen, men who worked with their hands. It might have been called the industrial age but the term applied to how industrious a man was, he was still doing most things with a strong back and hands that were hard with calluses. They played just a hard for free as they might have for money. Mickey Mantle worked in the Zinc Mines of Oklahoma, Warren Spahn was a cowboy in Texas, Eddie Matthews who played his high school ball at Santa Barbara High worked in construction. (The ballfield there is named for him.) In 1947 the average baseball player earned $5,000 a year—the average salary for the everyday American worker at that time was $3,500. That’s why players often had to work ordinary jobs in the offseason to feed there families. They didn’t live high on the hog either, Willie Mays lived in an apartment house in Harlem and used to play stickball with kids in the street.

San Luis Obispo Tribune,1898

That was my grandfather, a man who never did anything by half. He worked when he worked, he plowed when it was time and he played some hardball. The year after the above he came sliding into home and snapped the leg of his closest friend Asa “Ace” Porter. They dragged Ace off the field and the game went on. Revenge was had though, Ace defeated my grandfather in the the 1930 election for district four county supervisor, by 47 votes. Probably Huasna Valley baseball team “Cranks” who objected to Jack’s style of play.

John William “Jack” Shannon, leg breaker, ballplayer. Shannon Family photo

By the turn of the century the game had evolved into the form we see today. Bases were 90 feet apart, home was a plate, gloves were in pretty universal use and the baseball was no longer the “lemon peel” which had been both lighter and smaller. The baseball is now made to an exacting standard which has not changed in over one hundred years. In 1893 the old “pitchers Box” was replaced by a mound to cut down the advantage pitchers had and increase scoring. Fans, or “cranks” as they were called liked offense. As Oakland A’s slugger Mark McGwire once said, “Chicks love the long ball.” The sense of it is that a pitcher throwing from level ground, particularly sidearm pitchers who deliver the ball at an up and sideways angle which is more difficult to see than a pitcher throwing from a 15″ high hill which gives a much better view for a batters eyes to pick up the flight of the ball. The boys of old were no slouches, they could throw a ball in the 90’s just as pitchers do today

The nicknames of early twentieth century hurlers demonstrate what hitters thought of them. “Smoky” Joe Wood’s reign as one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball history left an indelible impression on those who witnessed it first-hand. “Without a doubt,Joe Wood was one of the best pitchers I ever faced in my entire career,” said Ty Cobb. In 1911 and 1912, Joe Wood won 57 games for the Boston Red Sox, including a no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns on July 29, 1911, and an American League record-tying 16 straight wins in the second half of the 1912 campaign. He wasn’t large or overpowering, standing 5’11 3/4″ and weighing in at about 180 pounds, but concealed in his lanky frame was one of the most overpowering fastballs of the Deadball Era. “I have seen a lot of speedy pitchers in my time,” Red Sox catcher “Tubby” Spencer quipped in the spring of 1909, “but Joe Wood can make sparks fly better than anyone else I ever saw throw a ball.” Three years later, Walter Johnson, nicknamed the “Big Train” for the sound of his hissing fastball could only agree. “Can I throw harder than Joe Wood?” he told a waiting reporter. “Listen, mister, no man alive can throw harder than Smoky Joe Wood.”

Howard Ellsworth “Smoky” Joe Wood, Red Sox photo, 1910

Here in our county we had the Paso Robles Sycamores, San Luis Obispo’s Invincibles, The Cambria Nine, a Nipomo team almost completely made up of sons and cousins of the pioneer Dana family. They played on sandlots and behind high schools. They played on fields that would be unrecognizable by today’s standards. A little leaguer plays on a finer ball field than their own great-grandfathers did. Dirt infields used to be so rough that a shortstop or second baseman was likely to have a chipped or broken tooth or two. They had to catch a bouncing ball with both hands because their little unpadded gloves had no leather strings between fingers or a net between the thumb and index finger. My mothers father had broken his hand several times during his baseball playing days.

Nipomo Baseball, 1910
Depression Era Baseball. Library of Congress photo

Baseball was so popular that the box scores from grammar school games were published in the local paper. Large crowds turned out to see fifth, sixth and seventh grade boys play on a Saturday afternoon. Both my father, George and my uncle Jack played in this game. I still have uncle Jack’s glove which he gave me when I was about the same age. Obsolete by then but I have it still. It shares out sweat.

Brother vs Brother, Arroyo Grande Herald, June 1923
Jackie and George Shannon, 1923, seventh and fifth grade. Shannon Family photo

Consider that professional sports other than Boxing, Horse racing and baseball were practically nonexistent before television. Football was almost entirely a college sport. You could listen to a radio broadcast but if you wanted a major league game it had to be Saint Louis which was then the team farthest west. Out here it was the Pacific Coast League with teams like the San Francisco Seals, The Los Angeles Angels, The Sacramento Solons, the Oakland Oaks, the Salt Lake Bee’s, the Portland Beavers and the Albuquerque Dukes. Formed in 1903 it was the first serious west coast league. The level of play was so high and as the old story goes when Joe DiMaggio signed with the Yankees in 1936 he took a pay cut to go east. The east coast teams figured out pretty quickly what a goldmine the west coast was and Joe was quickly followed by his little brother Dominic, “Dom,” to the Red Sox, San Diego’s Ted Williams, and Bobby Doerr, all Red Sox. All Hall of Famers.

My dad always remembered a guy named Thornton Lee who was from down in the Ocean district. His family lived on a little farm next to the Hodges. He was a big, Lanky left-hander who went on to play a couple years at Arroyo Grande High School with my uncle Jack. He also played at the little agricultural Cal Poly college in San Luis Obispo where he starred in every sport he played. After graduation he was signed and played in the minor leagues for a number of years with the Salt Lake Bee’s, the Globe Arizona Bears, the Tampa Florida Smokers, Tampa was the cigar manufacturing center of the US at the time, hence the name. He bounced around some more, playing for the New Orleans Pelicans, Toledo Mud Hens, Wilkes-Barre Barons and finally made it to Cleveland Indians where he launched what was to be a 16 year career. He pitched until he was 40, quite a feat in the days when pitchers threw complete nine inning

The Margarita nine has Lately added some flash players and sent the humbugs packing. They are going up to play the Atascaderans on Saturday. The contest will only last five innings so the Margaritas can catch the last train down.”—-San Luis Obispo Tribune, April 26th, 1893.

We played in plowed fields with a broken bean pole and rocks. We threw balls over the roof of the barn to someone on the other side, we played catch with dad whenever we could corner him. He did it whenever asked, though he had likely put in a full day working in his fields and was bone tired. He taught us to take a step back first on a fly ball to make sure we could see it. He showed us how to hold a bat and which side the label should be on. How to move on a ground ball and best of all how to hold a baseball. Across all four seams for a fastball, he showed us the grip for a sinker and the curve ball. He explained how the spitter worked and where to cut the ball to make it move. How the hand and wrist could make a ball hop, twist and fade away. To think if you are a pitcher, anticipate if you are a fielder and don’t ever think if you’re a hitter. No time for that. He said, “If a pitcher can make you think, you’re a dead duck.” He would say, “It’s a game of physics, geometry and speed.” He emphasized that size and strength meant less than agility. In this he was right.

We have an old high school photograph taken of the Santa Maria High School baseball team of 1904. The diminutive short stop in the military type bib shirt with red piping and Santa Maria emblazoned across the front in old style Gothic letters is my great uncle Robert “Bob” Gray, my grandmothers older brother. He is twenty in the photo which is a comment on the school imperative in those days at the turn of the century. Taking time off to bring in a crop or work the fields was a common thing for young men. He seemed to have plenty of time to play ball though.

Mu mothers parents were married in 1915. They were both nineteen and fresh off the farm. Sometime in 1916 they were living with his parents, Samuel and Vancey Hall in a little house in Deer Canyon in what was then known as the Verde District. Arroyo Grande was just a short three miles away. My great-grandfather Sam made his living managing ranches. Bruce, my mothers father loved to play ball. He and his brothers played at every opportunity. Town teams roamed the county, riding the trains to games as far north as San Miguel and as far south as Santa Maria and Guadalupe. There was no real season in those days, games were played whenever two teams could arrange a contest.

Eileen Hall abandoned wife. Shannon Family Photo

My grandmother Eileen had been raised by an indulgent mother who was focused more on herself than her only daughter so grandma was a little short of the basic wifely skills such as cooking and cleaning. She soon found out that she and her mother-in-law were to cook for the field hands that grandpa Sam managed. Grandma would have been satisfied with toast and a cup of coffee but she soon learned the the men working the haying crews burned huge amounts of calories in the days when it was still mostly hand work and they needed to be fed twice a day. Breakfast was fried pork chops, fried potatoes, eggs, bacon and gallons of coffee. Vancey knew her duty and she taught my grandmother how to navigate the kitchen. She was just nineteen and already six months pregnant with my aunt Mariel. Being young, it was an unexpected burden and she got to feeling the blues. One Sunday grandpa Sam walked around the corner of the barn and found her sitting against the side with her head down on her arms crying. When Bruce rolled in after the game his father took him aside and lit into him. He said, “You’re a married man now Bruce and you have to act like one. Eileen needs your help and attention because she’s having a hard time. You have a good wife to think about now and you’d better do it.” He did too, they stayed together and raised four great children including my mother Barbara. He still played ball though. The old photo below was taken in the oilfields around Orcutt California where he was working as a driller for Associated Oil Company. The two little girls are my mother and my aunt Mariel. It’s 1919 and though he looks much older in the old wool uniform he is just 24

Bruce Hall and his girls, Orcutt, California 1919. Shannon Family Photo

The Old Ballgame Part Two

Sometimes in little towns threads cross each other and create a human fabric woven from disparate and yet similar experience.

Coming soon………



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