Remembering baseball's pros and cons
As another baseball season begins, I recall with a smile my debut as the youngest professional baseball player in history. I was eight-years-old.
The story began in 1946 when Uncle Bud gave me a first baseman’s mitt with “Hal Trosky” engraved on it. Trosky, who lived in Cedar Rapids, was in his fourteenth year as a major leaguer. While he played first base for the Chicago White Sox that summer, I made my debut in what became a paid profession on the lawn of the county courthouse in Guthrie Center.
With my Trosky mitt in hand I reported to the local makeshift diamond where an exposed tree root served as home plate and the county jail as the backstop. A group of junior high boys had assembled for their daily game.
I approached Gene Devilbiss, a tall and commanding eighth-grader who seemed to be in charge. “Can I play? Can I play?” I begged.
“Why, sure,” Gene replied. “We’ve got a perfect spot for you.”
My eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. “What position do I get?” I asked.
“Pigtail,” Gene replied.
I thought I knew all the positions in baseball, from shortstop to catcher, but had never heard of “pigtail.”
“Where does a pigtail play?” I asked.
“You stand behind the catcher in front of the jail. If a wild pitch or a foul gets away, you chase down the ball and run it back to the pitcher.”
“Do I get to bat?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” came a halfhearted reply.
I wouldn’t be playing first base and an opportunity to bat seemed doubtful, but I was in with the big boys. I dutifully took my position in front of the weathered, brick jail. “Play ball!” I hollered.
Several inmates clutching rusty bars became our fans, complete with cheers and catcalls. As the nearest member of the team, I drew their attention.
“Hey, DiMaggio,” a raspy voice called. “What position you playin’?”
“I’m the pigtail,” I gushed.
“That ain’t no real position,” the voice responded. “What the dickens are ya supposed to do, anyway?”
“I chase down foul balls and wild pitches and return ’em to the pitcher.”
At that moment a tipped ball ricocheted off the jail. I scooped up the battered cowhide and dutifully ran it back to Gene, now pitching, while my jailbird fans laughed in the background.
The raspy voice again caught my attention as I returned to my pigtail spot. “They’re workin’ ya, kid. They want ya to do the dirty stuff. You probably don’t even get to bat.”
“Gene said he’ll see.”
“Ya know what that means, doncha? It ain’t gonna happen.”
I didn’t question the confirmation of my doubts. But neither did I want to hear it.
“Hey, slugger,” another inmate called. “I’ll give ya a nickel to go get me a Pepsi.”
A nickel! That was enough for a chocolate ice cream cone, a Hershey bar, or, most important, a sack of popcorn at the Garden Theater. Dad would give me a dime to attend a Hopalong Cassidy or Tarzan movie, but never the extra nickel for the popcorn he considered a frill.
The tempting offer caught my full attention. But I had a big league career in mind and playing pigtail with the older boys was the first step.
I chased down a few more errant balls, returning each time to my post by the jail. “C’mon kid. It’s now or never. D’ya wanna buffalo head or not?” the raspy voice teased. “There’s more than five cents in this for ya. I’m gonna be in here all summer. You can make a lotta loot
runnin’ errands for us.”
Visions of nickels danced in my head. I aspired to one day take Hal Trosky’s place as the White Sox first baseman. But in the meantime, Lash LaRue would be on the Garden Theater screen Saturday afternoon. I could already smell the popcorn.
“OK, mister,” I said. “You gotta deal.”
Between games, and sometimes in lieu thereof, I ran errands to Sue’s Diner to pick up candy bars and pop for my behind-the-bars employers.
Hal Trosky’s best year came in 1936 when he hit 42 home runs and drove in 162 runs. My best year came a decade later when I amassed a pocketful of nickels and feasted on popcorn at Saturday matinees.
I wasn’t proud that the rewards of my pigtail position were bankrolled by the local underworld. But I enjoyed being a professional. I did take pride in that.
Unfortunately, Hal Trosky and I were both forced into retirement at the end of the 1946 baseball season. In his case vision problems ended his career at age 33. My professional career came to an abrupt end while crossing the courthouse lawn with an armload of soda pop and candy bars.
The county sheriff, Clark Kindred, stepped out of his office and into my path. “Where are you goin’ with all that?” he asked with a frown.
“Well … er … uh … some of the guys in the jail are thirsty,” I stammered.
“You know there’s a law against delivering contraband to inmates, don’t you?” the sheriff continued while trying to suppress a smile. “You don’t want to join them, do you?”
I certainly didn’t. And although the meaning of “contraband” was beyond my second grade vocabulary, I understood I must be doing something wrong. All I could offer was a feeble, “I’m sorry.”
Sheriff Kindred patted me gently on the shoulder. “Here, give me what you’ve got and run on home. I’ll take care of the inmates’ diet from now on.”
I ran home as fast as my legs could carry me. My baseball-related career had ended.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who now lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this column misspelled Hal Trosky’s name.