However the new baseball season turns out, it won't possibly match my favorite season of all time. That's the season of 1950, the year that I, a 17-year-old shortstop not yet out of high school in San Francisco, took the first step toward what I was certain would be major league stardom.
You had to start somewhere, and my somewhere was Boonville, home of the Loggers, one of six teams in the semi-professional Mendocino County League.
Boonville. It sounded as if it was thousands of miles from San Francisco, and although actually only about 120 miles north, it might as well have been. There were only a few hundred people in town, two grocery stores, a service station, pool hall and a combination bar and restaurant with a dozen crumbling one-room cabins behind it — the Boonville Lodge, our principal source of food, lodging and entertainment for the summer.
Though small, Boonville was exceptionally well placed, in the heart of massive forests of pine and redwood and lush farmland. Narrow towers of dense gray smoke surrounded the town, tall aromatic sentinels rising above lumber mills, guarding Boonville's economic well-being.
The Loggers played only on weekends; their fans were overwhelmingly preoccupied with work at other times. But, my God, those weekends!
The fans barreled into town at noontime on game days, straight down the highway that doubled as Main Street, climbed out of pickup trucks and long fish-tailed sedans and hurried into the bar and restaurant. They jostled good-naturedly as they yelled out their orders. Beer and chicken-fried steak, beer and hamburger steak, beer and fried chicken or, for those feeling flush, beer and the house special, T-bone steak.
Soon the laughing, noisy crowd headed for the ballpark just across the highway, grasping bottles of beer and washtubs filled with ice and more beer.
The heat rose in waves. You could see it through the thick clouds of dust kicked up by infielders warming up as the fans clambered up into the bleachers, rattling the seats formed from sagging wooden planks, old, dry and smelling of resin. They bellowed advice and encouragement full blast through the afternoon, and some came down under the bleachers between innings to offer icy, dripping bottles of beer that the players downed in quick, gasping gulps.
It didn't end with the games. We walked, players and fans, the sweat-soaked lot of us, across the highway afterward, replaying the games as we made our way to the lodge, there to continue our talk, inside and in boisterous groups that spilled out onto the sidewalk. More beer, and the raucous, endlessly blasting jukebox sound of country boys singing country songs.
It was like that in all the league towns, none more than an hour away by car.
We spent very little time in the cabins that were our homes away from home. There was work at a lumber mill, from seven in the morning until three or four in the afternoon. Then came two to three hours on the practice field, where the boss was the Logger manager's right-hand man, Woody, once a first baseman in the Chicago White Sox minor league chain.
Woody was the "old pro" who was standard on such teams as the Loggers, a heavy drinker in his mid-40s who'd been drifting around the country for the past ten years. He knew no trade except baseball and had no skills but those of a ballplayer, skills too blunted by age and hard living for him to make it with teams at any higher level.
Woody was just another hand at the lumber mill, but at practice he called all the shots, a drill master with a fat stomach and a long, thin fungo bat. He'd slap balls to our left, to our right, over our heads, balls that would hit just in front of us and pop right up. He'd stand us up at home plate while the pitchers fired away, reaching out to straighten our shoulders, twist us this way and that, move our feet together, then apart, out from the plate, then in, move us back in the batter's box, then forward.
Practice, practice, until our eyes stung with sweat dripping down our foreheads.
Woody didn't say so, and we certainly didn't think so at the time, but we were experiencing true joy. The moist warmth enveloping our bodies, our muscles responding spontaneously and uncomplainingly to our every demand, dashing across the field full tilt to catch up to a ball, sending a ball flying far beyond us with the mere swing of a bat, our bodies doing just what they were supposed to do, just what they had learned to do.
That's what it meant to be young.
That's what it meant to be playing baseball. That's what Woody Wilson never said, but never forgot.
(Copyright©2014, Dick Meister. )