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"This is an exciting tale and one that will be long remembered for analysis of a sportsman who learns through adversity to adjust himself to his team and to his world."--Saturday Review.
"Him!" said the white-haired coach, scornfully. "That Highpockets! Wait till he learns to hit to left field; wait till he learns to play for the team. Then mebbe he'll be a ballplayer."
He raised one foot to the dugout steps, leaned on his knee, and peered out at the green turf spattered with athletes shagging long fly balls, at the quick, nervous movements of the infielders around the diamond.
"Him!" He yanked at the brim of his cap.
Charlie Draper, the third-base coach of the Dodgers, and Casey, the newspaperman, were talking in the coolness of the bench before the game. The sportswriter agreed cautiously with the coach. Jim Casey invariably seemed to agree, yet never did quite agree with the other fellow. This made for conversation and conversation often made for information.
"Yeah, I know, Chuck. Only he's liable to explode a ballgame any time he comes to bat."
The coach turned. "Lemme tell ya, Casey, that-there Spike Russell is the one who wins games. Know what Connie Mack usta say? 'A club can't win pennants without a top class shortstop.' He was dead right, too."
"I'll take Roy Tucker. That lad can catch three-base hits out there all day long. And at the plate he's the boy who comes through with the base knock that breaks up your ball game." Casey's deftness in keeping the conversational ball in play was unique. Somehow the other chap was usually doing the talking.
"Yep, he's murder. I check on that. But Russell, there's the guy who makes the big play that stops the other side cold."
This seemed to settle things. However, if Casey was a genius in the difficult art of listening, he also kept in mind the information he desired. "This new kid, though, what's the matter with him? Since I've been back he's been hitting the long ball consistently. He hits homers for you, doesn't he?"
"Look, Casey! You've been out, you been laid up with that operation—how long? Two, almost three months now. Right. I'll tell you what's the trouble with this youngster. You haven't seen enough of him. He's not a team player. He's not playing for the Dodgers. He's in there every minute playing for himself. Thinks of nothing but his batting average. This has been going on all spring; everyone knows it; the whole club is on to him. So are the fans. You can't fool the fans, Casey ..."
Clang-clang-clang. The bell interrupted him and jarred the whole bench into action. Suddenly the cool dugout became a beehive of motion. The white-shirted players reached for their gloves, and the coach, uncoiling himself, went over to the bat-rack for his fungo stick. Casey rose and wandered across the field, pausing a minute first to talk with each pitcher in his warm-up. Then, turning, he came toward the stands.
"Attention, please. Line-up for today's game. For Brooklyn. Young, number thirty, first base. Tucker, number thirty-four, center field. Roth, number three, left field. McDade, number eight ... right ..."
A roar broke into the loudspeaker. Mingled in the cheers were other sounds, noises indigenous to ballparks, sounds that had in them derision and laughter and also cruelty and pain for those at whom they were directed.
Casey hesitated and glanced up, his ears attuned to the sounds and cries of sporting crowds. Stowell, the manager of the Braves, walked past and looked over significantly.
"They even give it to him up here in Boston," said the sportswriter.
"Oh, sure." The husky manager spoke over his shoulder as he moved along. "They even give it to him up here."
Slowly the merciless cries died away. The loudspeaker could be heard once more. "... Number four, catcher. Russell, number seven, shortstop. Shiells, number eighteen, third base ..."
Casey reached the stands. He opened the low gate that led from the field. Going through the rows of boxes he heard the comments of the occupants and, from higher up, the shouts of the mob heckling the right fielder of the Dodgers.
"You rockhead, McDade ... you rockhead," someone shouted.
"Hey there, Highpockets, you bum! You bum, Highpockets!"
Even up here, thought the sportswriter. They even give it to him up here in Boston!
Casey reached the top of the stand and stopped a few minutes for a hot dog and a coffee. Down below, the game began and the visiting side went out in order. Then he climbed up to the press box above, just as the Dodgers were taking the field. His eye for news fell upon the tall kid trotting out to right, a glove under one armpit while he adjusted his sun glasses. Highpockets! Good name. The sort of tag Casey wished he himself had invented, like Bambino for the Babe, or Mugsy for John McGraw. Highpockets. The boy was tall, over six feet, with legs too long for his body. As he ambled out to the fence, his hip pockets seemed well up toward his shoulder blades. Big shoulders, too, for all his leanness. Casey observed his easy walk. There was co-ordination in his movements that bespoke the natural athlete and suggested speed—the stock in trade of the ballplayer, the asset that means an extra base on a deep drive, that turns the sinking liner into a put-out.
From the perch above, Casey watched the boy approach his position in the field. The jury box, the little separated stand of concrete in right field behind the visitors' bullpen, was crowded with youngsters. The kids rose, an agitated sea, when the Brooklyn fielder drew near.
Too far away to hear their comments, Casey knew perfectly well what they were saying. The boy moved toward them, turned to face the diamond, and stood pawing the ground, betraying his edgy nerves. The shrieks and taunts from the jury box increased, died away, and for no reason at all rose again.
Casey watched closely. Then there was silence as a Boston batter, swinging two clubs, stepped up to the plate. He slung the leaded bat back to the boy.
"King, number two, second base," said the loudspeaker above Casey's head.
The Brooklyn pitcher turned, leaned over, and fingered the rosin bag. The umpire adjusted his mask with one hand. The hitter thumped the plate. From the stands a horrible raw- throated voice that carried through the silence of the moment, penetrated the field.
"Hey, Highpockets, you bum! You bum, Highpockets ..."
Why, even up here. They even give it to him up here in Boston.CHAPTER 2
Most ballparks surround themselves with the festering sores of a metropolis, slums or grim factories in the heart of a big city. Braves Field is on the banks of a river. From the press box atop the grandstand, Casey could see the green expanse below and, beyond the fence in center field, the blue stream sparkling in the summer sunshine. In the distance were the red and white towers of the University, and as he watched, a crew came down the Charles with a launch puffing at its side. Soon two more crews followed, winging their way through the calm water with another launch in attendance.
He sat quietly while the game progressed, listening to the chatter of the press box and the occasional remarks of the men around him. When the two teams exchanged places between innings, one reporter leaned back in his chair and asked, "This Highpockets, now, is he easy to talk to?"
"Not very. Guess he never was much conversationally, one of those mountain lads from some town in North Carolina with a name that sounds like a Grade B Western. Anyhow, seems he learned a lesson during the war. Highpockets was on some island out in the Pacific, and the boys in his outfit discovered he was in pro baseball, so they got to talking and asking him questions. One night after mess there was a gang sitting around chewing the fat, and he told 'em how he often nailed an ambitious runner off first. See now, a man singles, takes his turn around the bag, and starts halfway to second. Highpockets fields the ball leisurely, then suddenly turns and rifles it into first, nailing the runner getting back to base.
"Well, they listen, all 'cept one big soldier who gets up, stretches, and says, 'One of these days, young feller, that runner is going to bolt for second and you'll look mighty foolish.' Then he walks away, and Highpockets just sits there with his mouth open. 'Say! Who's that chap?' 'No one in particular,' they told him. 'Just a man by the name of Greenberg.
Played a while with the Tigers,' says someone. Since then, they say he just won't open his trap."
"You can't blame him. Here he comes now. Let's see what he does this time."
The lanky boy stepped up, bat in hand, accompanied by a chorus from the stands. There were hoots, jeers, and other raucous sounds. The reason for this, the reason why the fans disliked him so intensely, was soon apparent.
The fielders shifted over to the right as he came to the plate. The shortstop took a position on the grass directly behind second, the second baseman went into short right between the bags, and the first sacker was deep and close to the foul line. Only the third baseman stayed in his normal spot.
The tall rookie swung a mean bat at the plate; his looseness was apparent as he watched the man in the box. The first ball he took. It was high, inside. The second was close also, and Casey saw from the press box that they were throwing onto his wrists, giving him little at which to hit. On the two and nothing pitch, he lashed out. The sound of his bat echoed all over the park. It was a sizzling ground ball directly at the first baseman's mitt. Ordinarily it would have been just inside the foul line and good for two bases at least, but not with the present setup. However, the ball was so hard hit that the fielder juggled it momentarily, picked it up, and then tore for the bag. It was a desperate race. Highpockets won by one step.
Turning, he walked slowly back to the bag. There he stood, waiting, watching the official scorer in the press box high above home plate. Thinking of his batting average, said the Boston players. Always thinking of his batting average, said his teammates on the bench. Look, he's thinking about his batting average, said the fans in the bleachers.
Still he remained motionless, looking up. Then the E sign to indicate an error and not a hit flashed on the scoreboard, and the official scorer above shook his head. The big chap on the bag flushed. He clapped his thigh angrily and held his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand to indicate what he thought of the decision. The gesture was plainly visible, lost to no one on the field or in the stands. The hoots and jeers increased all over the ballpark. It was easy enough for Casey in the press box to understand why the fans were down on him.
The game went along until the eighth inning with no score on either side. Then, with two out, the Braves filled the bags on an error, a base on balls, and a bunt too hard to handle. There was a long struggle over the next hitter, who fouled off pitch after pitch to the screen. At last he caught a fast-breaking curve and swung hard. The bat on the ball had an ominous sound. It was tagged, a terrific liner toward right that seemed to rise in flight, that Bob Russell, the second baseman, leaped for in a one-handed stab and missed. Highpockets went back, his long legs covering the ground rapidly, back toward the fence in deep right, back until he reached the cinder path just below the wall. Then, with no apparent effort whatever, he jumped gracefully at the exact moment. The whistling liner was in his glove.
Fast as ever, Roy Tucker was following the ball, too. He neared the fence, came closer as Highpockets grabbed it, and was only a dozen feet away. The big chap came down from his leap in the air, and with an effortless gesture tossed the ball underhand to his teammate. Then, turning, he loped toward the dugout. Even the jury box in right stood applauding as he came in toward the stands.
Casey noticed that the boy ran grimly into the dugout, refusing to tip his cap or make any conventional gesture to the yelling crowd above.
"Makes it all look so easy," said the reporter next to him.
"Just what I was thinking myself."
Now the Dodgers came in for their last raps, the two teams battling evenly and no one across for either side. Roy Tucker, the first batter, beat out an infield roller, and the next man, attempting to sacrifice, popped to the pitcher. There was one out as Highpockets came to the plate. The Boston infield shifted. A roar rose over the diamond.
The whole park stood. Out in left field even the two bullpen pitchers paused to watch the drama. Every time he had come up, Highpockets had hit the ball straight at the fielders on the right side of the infield, going three for nothing. Yet the pitcher knew how dangerous he was and worked on him with care. It was pitcher's weather. The sun was low, and an east wind had come off the river, blowing the smoke from the locomotives in the Boston and Albany yards directly across the diamond. Out of the smog and smoke the fast-ball hurler of the Braves was not easy to sight. He had control, too, and could spot the ball where he wanted. The odds were against the batter.
Yet Highpockets seemed not to care. He stepped into the batter's box in a din of catcalls, croaks, hoots, and various forms of the raspberry, as calmly as though he were deaf. If he realized the importance of the moment or heard the derision of the stands all round, above, and behind, he gave no sign. Loose as ever, he stood swinging his bat, waiting coolly, while the runner danced off the bag at first.
The opening pitch was low, inside. He glanced over at Charlie Draper behind third. The coach rubbed his hands across the front of his shirt, and Highpockets tapped the plate twice with his bat to show he had the signal for the hit-and-run on the following ball. One glance at Roy Tucker off first proved that he, also, understood and was set to go. The pitcher wound up. Highpockets dug in his spikes.
He intended to hit, he fully meant to follow instructions, but the ball was inside, hard to reach, difficult to get a piece of, and suddenly he thought of his batting average and let it go past. Instead of swinging to protect his teammate scampering for second, instead of trying to foul the ball, he did nothing. The catcher rifled the ball down to second, and Tucker was out by a yard.
Of all this byplay the fans knew nothing. Only Highpockets' teammates on the bench, the coaches in the field, and Casey in the stands, who guessed by their movements what had happened, realized the sin he had committed. Roy Tucker picked himself up from the dirt and walked slowly back to the bench, looking intently at Highpockets in the batter's box. Highpockets, setting himself for the next pitch, never saw the look. Casey in the press box was much keener.
It was a fast ball, belt high, and he creamed it. You lost it momentarily in the haze over the park, and could only see the center and right fielders racing back, and Highpockets tearing around the bases with all stops out. Then you saw it, high above the layer of smoke and fog. The ball seemed to hang in the air, slowly clearing the bullpen in deep right and the jury box, which was a mass of excited kids with outstretched arms, and so over to the street beyond.
There was nothing grudging in the tribute of the crowd as Highpockets circled the bases. Yet the gesture he made to the applauding thousands as he trotted in toward the Brooklyn dugout could hardly be described as complimentary.CHAPTER 3
Late that afternoon he sat in the Coffee Shoppe of the hotel, his long limbs wrapped around the unsteady legs of the little table. Directly opposite was the door.
Across the door was a thick, plush cord, and behind the cord was a line of would-be diners with hungry, anxious faces. Highpockets noticed neither the door nor the line. He was thinking whether to order another ice cream.
If he failed to see the waiting crowd, he also failed to notice the girls eating at various tables in the vicinity. Most of them observed Highpockets. His long frame, his face darkened by the sun of a dozen ballparks, his sport shirt open at the neck, made him noticeable among the white-faced people in the dining room. The girls glanced over at him from time to time, yet he never stared back because he never saw them. He was thinking intently about that ice cream. It had been a tough day, fighting the Braves pitcher and the hostile crowd; consequently he was both exhausted and hungry. Maybe he should sort of celebrate that homer in the ninth with just one more shot of ice cream
Excerpted from Highpockets by John R. Tunis. Copyright © 1948 Lucy R. Tunis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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