COOPERSTOWN, NY — Back in the day, there were some hotly contested Wiffle Ball games in my backyard on Reynolds Street.
We would assume the batting order of our favorite team and play nine-inning games against each other. It was one-on-one, but you could feel the drama building like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
I was usually the Yankees. Walter Roman was always the Phillies. My lineup featured Bobby Richardson, Tony Kubek, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Bill “Moose” Skowron and Clete Boyer.
And I would always get Johnny Blanchard in the game. Johnny served in the U.S. Army with my dad’s friend, Bobby Novak. When Johnny came to Plymouth, Bobby would call my dad and tell him to “bring the kid down, Johnny’s here.”
To be authentic, we had to bat from the same side as the player in the lineup — right-handed and left-handed — and depending on who was pitching, Mantle, a switch-hitter, would hit from the appropriate side of the plate. It was a rule.
We even offered play-by-play and color commentary. Walter would usually pitch a righty against me every time to keep Mantle in the lefty box.
The “stadium” was my backyard. A single was anything past the pitcher. A double was on the roof of our back porch. A triple was on the main roof of the house. And a home run was over the roof, often landing out on Reynolds Street.
The games were heated. We played to win. And with a Wiffle Ball, pitches would break every which way.
While we played these games, we dreamed. We dreamed of one day being a Little League All-Star. And then a high school standout and from there — the big leagues. Yes, we were all going to play centerfield for the Yankees, or catch for the Phillies, or pitch for the Dodgers. Like I said, we had dreams.
As with most dreams, there comes a point when you wake up and you realize it was just that — a dream. And you return to your normal life of driving a truck, or teaching, or writing for a local newspaper.
But the dreams never die.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was about the 15th time for me to visit the home of baseball — where Abner Doubleday invented what I will always maintain is “the National Pastime.”
Baseball was born in me. My dad was a die-hard baseball fan, having followed the New York Yankees all his life. I, too, became a Yankee fan. My dad would take me and my mom to Yankee Stadium several times a year to watch the boys of summer play in those glorious pinstriped uniforms. I vividly remember watching Mantle track down an opposing player’s hit between the monuments in centerfield of the original Yankee Stadium.
There are so many memories of baseball, all thanks to my dad, that I can’t relate them all. One memory is of a trip we took to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates against the San Francisco Giants. Dad said he wanted me to see Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, two players he said were as good as anybody ever was. He was right.
I remember a Giant hitting a ball down the right-field line into the corner of Forbes Field. Clemente tracked it down, picked it up, turned on a dime and fired a strike to third base to nail the runner. It was the most amazing baseball play I have ever seen. This was real baseball.
I can recall Mays and Willie McCovey hitting monster home runs out of Connie Mack Stadium against the Phillies. I saw Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews, Joe Adcock and Warren Spahn play for the Milwaukee Braves in the same park. And Boston’s Ted Williams went 4-for-4 against the Yanks in more than one game I saw.
Like I said, so many memories of baseball at its best.
So I was sure to visit all their plaques in the gallery at the Hall of Fame. I said hello to Mickey and Willie and Hank and Roberto and Ted, and Sandy Koufax, Jackie Robinson, and Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Harmon Killebrew, and many more.
I walked through every level of the Hall of Fame and stopped to marvel at many of the displays. Every time I go there, I learn something new and I stand in wonderment of the accomplishments of these great players.
I walked the Main Street. I stopped at Doubleday Field, I bought a souvenir or two.
But most importantly, I was a kid again. Seeing the names and reading about these Hall of Famers took me back to my childhood — back to those Wiffle Ball games in my backyard.
Back to those days when Mickey and Willie and Hank smashed those tape-measure homers over the roof of my Reynolds Street house — all the way to Cooperstown and the Hall of Fame.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]