I think it’s fair to say that if it weren’t for baseball, I wouldn’t be here. Every story I’ve ever been told about when my parents met goes something like “well, both of our dad’s played baseball.” I’m not sure what else they had in common. I guess I’ve never asked. He’s Catholic. She was Methodist. She grew up in small southern town. He grew up on a farm in Indiana. But, Ovalee and Big Lew, they played baseball, and THAT gave their son and daughter something to talk about.
A few months ago I sat down with my Grandpa and picked his brain about his baseball days. He is always more than happy to share stories with me. He knows how important it is to get them written down.
He’s a Cardinals fan now, but that wasn’t always the case. He started out a Reds fan. That was the only team he could listen to on the radio. He remembers playing baseball games thrown together by his brothers and the neighborhood kids. Never played for an actual team growing up, but they would “go over to Aunt Berthie’s and play for hours.”
Gramps said, “every small town had a baseball team.” When I asked him why he started playing baseball, he said, “because our dad did, I guess.” He remembers his dad, Levi, taking all of the padding out of his leather glove, and spitting in it. My dad recalled watching my great-grandpa Levi play and said he would “field a ball and come up throwing.” Levi was a 2nd basemen and by all accounts in that neck of the woods, coulda made it to the big leagues.
All that changed with the war. Gramps became a Navy man. Played on the softball team. It was a way to pass the time. After the coach watched him play one game, he was asked to try out for the baseball team. He looked into it and decided that wasn’t for him because, “they wanted me to exercise too damn much.”
After the war, with the boys back home, those baseball teams, in all those small little towns across the country, came back to life. Ovalee, all of his brothers, and his dad, made up the bulk of their town’s team. He played well into his 50’s, until his back just wouldn’t let him swing that bat anymore. Grams hauled all eight of their kids to his games throughout the years so they could watch their dad play the game he loved.
I spent a couple hours on the phone with my Uncle Lew a few weeks ago. He still lives in that same small town my mom grew up in, six hours away from us. I had so many questions about my Grandad, Big Lew, who passed away in 2011.
He was a big man, no surprise given his nickname, played first base. Considered to be one of the best baseball players around those parts of Kentucky, along with a man named Big Jim, who played in the Negro National League. Down the road, those two and their sons would play against each other, trading beer for fried fish.
I loved hearing the story about when my Grandad filled in for a catcher one game. Pitchers and catchers were brought in and paid, the only paid positions in that league. Grandad had a brand new refrigerator that needed paid off. After the game, the opposing team offered him a catcher’s position. Enticing because he could use it to take care of that new fridge. His own team caught wind of it, told him they would just pay for the fridge so he wouldn’t leave. Knowing my Gran, she may have been involved in that transaction.
When he was 53 years old, my uncle saw him hit a ball farther than he had ever seen anybody hit a ball before. He was playing in the church softball league. If there had been a fence, he would have hit it over by a mile. Had plenty of time to make it home. Stopped at 3rd. Big Lew had torn both of his hamstrings, running those bases like he was still a kid.
My Grandad helped start the Little League in Sturgis, Kentucky. Spent countless hours working on the diamond, every evening they were at the fields. Except for Wednesday’s. Wednesdays were for church. He coached more kids than anybody could ever keep track of. The three most important rules for playing baseball, according to Big Lew…
- Catch it.
- Throw it.
- Hit it, and hit it hard.
Now, imagine those being said in a deep voice, in a slow southern drawl, by a man that was larger than life. Oh how I miss him.
What I wouldn’t give to have seen them play. Gramps and Grandad. Ovalee and Big Lew. With homemade bats. Mitts with little to no padding. No batting gloves. No sunglasses. Some of the guys wore overalls as they stood up on the pitcher’s mound. Many times there were no uniforms to be had. They didn’t have names on their backs. They rarely even had numbers on their shirts. They wore whatever shoes they owned. They didn’t take lessons. They didn’t spend hours and hours practicing. But, they showed up to play. And, they played, and played and played. The game they loved. The game that brought their families together on Sunday afternoons. That made brothers and dads more than just family, it made them teammates too.
My great-grandma played baseball with the boys. Third base. Too ornery and probably too good to be told she couldn’t. My dad played 1B. His sisters could hang with the best of them on the field. My brother. My uncles. Several cousins. My Gran coached softball and my mom and aunt played. There is no other sport that my family has been more invested and involved in than baseball. Not one super star among the whole lot of them. Just a whole bunch of people who loved to play the game.
This past summer, Brady played travel baseball for the first time ever. We watched him make over 80 plate appearances. He saw over 300 pitches. More than once he got up at 5am, rolled out of bed and into the car, only to have me roll the window down to wake him up in time to get his jersey and cleats on. He sat in hot dugouts. Stood in the blazing sun. I watched him shovel cheeseburgers down in between double headers and prayed he didn’t throw up while playing first base. My car took on a smell, the likes of which I have never experienced before. Dirty, sweaty, boy.
Everyone says baseball is in Brady’s genes, and, it is. His absolute love and adoration for the game is bone deep. He is an old soul and baseball is a game for the old souls of the world. I love watching him play. I love our chats to and from the games. I love listening to Cheap Seats by Alabama and Centerfield by John Fogerty as we head to the field. I love that Gracie has become his biggest fan. I love knowing that my Grandad has the best seat in the house, probably whispering, “always swing at that first pitch” when Brady gets up to bat. I love that my Grandpa, at 93, follows his games on his iPad and grins ear to ear when he watches videos of him playing.
This summer, Gramps even played pitch and catch with him in the front yard of that old farmhouse. The front yard that has seen more wiffle ball games than you can shake a stick at. The front yard that makes ya just wanna go get a ball and glove and find somebody to throw with. He still loves the game. If his body allowed it, I think he’d still be playing.
I hope Brady can play the game for as long as he loves it. I hope he loves it forever. I pray that one day, as an old man, he gets to play catch with his great-grandkids. I hope he teaches them all he knows. And, I hope he tells them all the stories, of Big Lew, of Ovalee, of the greatest game ever played.
As always, thanks for reading!