Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

March 26, 2012

Recalling a time when daydreaming about old baseball fields was OK

The Little League baseball field in Washington, Pa., was like a monument to baseball from my small town perspective. Washington was the home of the Pony League World Series, but the sports complex at Washington Park where the Pony League World Series was played also included a Little League field complete with grass in the infield and dugouts that actually went down three steps below the surface of the field.

As farmboys, we were used to playing on irregular fields with sloped outfields and all-dirt infields that a farmer dragged with a wire-mesh affair hanging behind a tractor hitch. The route that my school bus traversed between my home and East-West Finley School passed a few open pastures with abandoned backstops still standing in the middle of open fields. I always imagined that during a generation earlier, kids just like me had played on those fields, pounding out doubles to left field or making a diving catch.

My hometown was close enough to Pittsburgh that all boys dreamed about playing for the Pirates. Before we moved to the farm, we played an entire summer with a ball my dad had snagged when it landed in the bleachers behind the right field foul line at Forbes Field. I made believe that Smokey Burgess had hit the foul ball. By the end of the summer, it didn’t matter. After a summer of playing every day with the same ball, the rawhide cover came off the ball and we covered it with electrical tape to prevent the string from unraveling anymore than it already had.

I wondered about the kids who had played on baseball fields that had been returned to pastures. I always thought that they probably left Claysville, joined the military and didn’t come back to the farm after they finished their hitch. The world was changing. The farms that I thought of as being big weren’t big enough to support a family. Farmboys had to take city jobs just to cover the cost of cattle feed. Even with a city job, they still had to work as hard as farmboys have always worked.

The past weekend caused me to long for a simpler time when I could look out of the school bus window and imagine kids playing on abandoned ball fields. Last weekend, three of my friends passed away. All of them were older than me, but I didn’t think of them as being old.

William E. “Bill” Osborne, the man who came up with the slogan: “Virginia’s Tallest Town,” to describe Bluefield, Va., was 101 when he passed away on St. Patrick’s Day. I hadn’t visited with Bill face-to-face for a while, but we visited on the telephone as recently as sometime during the past couple of years. When I first met Bill, he was very active in politics. He was an American and he believed that people should pay close attention to what was taking place in their nation, state, community and neighborhood.

Also on St. Patrick’s Day, my friend A.S. “Buddy” Tomchin passed away at the age of 95. I knew who Buddy was long before I got to know him. He was a brilliant businessman, and I learned a lot from him. The main thing I learned was that I am not a businessman and I should just stick with writing. I didn’t get to see Buddy as often as I would have liked to, but I recall his wit and wisdom as though he and I were sitting together right now.

On the same day that Buddy’s obituary was in the paper, I saw the obituary for another good friend — Martin Valeri, 94. I didn’t know many people who understood the coal industry as thoroughly as Marty did, and I was always surprised by how open and honest he was with me — especially since I am a reporter. If Marty told me something, I accepted it as the absolute truth. He didn’t embellish anything, and I considered him to be the real deal. He knew Coalwood, but he also knew that I knew Youngstown Sheet and Tube and J&L Steel. I respected him a great deal, even though he played quarterback for Penn State.

I muffed a pop-up fly ball on the only game I played on the fancy Washington, Pa., Little League baseball field. I had been selected to an All-Star team, and the only game the team and I was on was my first night game under the lights. The manager didn’t know me, so he put me in at second base — a position I had never played before. In the first inning, a batter hit a pop-up. I knew by the sound of the bat that it was coming in my direction, but I had no idea where it was. I looked into the lights like a mesmerized deer, held my glove out like a rainmaker praying for rain, and listened as the ball plopped down on the infield dirt a few feet from where I was standing.

It made me long to be on a school bus at a simpler time, when I could look out the window and daydream about what happened to the farmboys who played on abandoned ball fields.

Bill Archer is a senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com

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