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Reducing the volume with his right hand and then pushing the peanut bag on the passenger side farther back in the seat, he wondered if this trip in early May to scout another ballplayer would be like many others. See a player, recommend him, or place his name on file had become a repetitious routine only a lover of baseball could endure.
Thanks to playing in one professional baseball season after returning from the War, "WW II" as he referred to it, he had met R. W. Johnston, a pitcher whose career lasted much longer than that of his roommate, the catcher who too often blocked home plate too well.
As the song reached "only you beneath the moon and under the sun," he wound through the campus while visualizing the play in a Class D game at Fort Wayne that changed his life.
On a summer night in the lowest level of baseball's minor leagues, he had awaited an outfielder's throw through a steamy haze hovering over the field in the late innings. After clutching the one-hop throw, he leaned to his left in an attempt to block the runner's slide and make a tag only to hear a pop louder than the umpire's call of "out!"
Unfortunately, the aggressive play also featured a torn cartilage resulting in a road map of stitches on the catcher's left knee - a type of autograph marking the end of a pro baseball career.
Yet, the catcher was lucky because of R. W. - Richard Waldo Johnston, who achieved what was called a "cup of coffee" with Cleveland in the major leagues, and later married the daughter of a team executive. Regardless if from friendship or pity, the catcher became a scout and had a job in baseball.
"Another Mickey Mantle" were neatly penned words of a letter partially visible from beneath the peanuts.
As the former catcher turned scout drove past a sign proclaiming "St. John's College" and into a parking space in front of a one-story building, he ignored the reference to the sensational New York Yankees outfielder in deference to a note paper clipped to the letter.
"Charlie, please take a look and phone me ASAP. Regards, R. W."
"What college kid could be like Mantle?" thought the scout.
For Charlie "Peanuts" Becker, being a left-handed batter with power was enough for a Cleveland scout to offer $500 and a bus ticket to the minor leagues. But that was in 1945, and the strapping youth from the Hoosier State never recalled being compared to a Yankee.
After taking a light-weight jacket from the back seat and a worn brief case and folding chair from the trunk of the Buick, Cleveland scout Charlie Becker realized he was being watched but did not hesitate to approach his observer.
"Baseball field around the corner?" he asked a coed whose wholesome appearance stood in contrast to the weathered, brick building which served as a recreation center at St. John's.
"Down that path and around the back of the building," she said as her sun glasses reflected Charlie's stare but not thoughts that had him comparing her to beauties seen only in magazines or on movie theater screens.
"Oh to be in college," he said to himself while admiring each step of the leggy blonde's ascent on stairs leading to the roof top. In addition to serving as a baseball vantage point, the flat surface provided a place to soak in sunlight on a Saturday that erased a winter of memories.
Looking directly toward the north, he knew the wind originating off Lake Michigan less than a hundred miles away could make games more suitable for kite flying than baseball. However, on this day, the noon sunlight contributed to baseball on a field cut from a farm pasture a half century ago but displaying the required home plate, bases and pitching rubber.
"Baseball is baseball," thought Charlie as he approached small metal bleachers behind a backstop that was a far cry from the setting in Chicago where the Indians would be playing the White Sox in a major-league game.
After stationing himself in the first row of the bleachers, he placed his folding chair in a position so that it became a holder for his valise featuring the Indian head of the Cleveland logo. Reaching into a pocket of his jacket, he removed the St. John's schedule and roster R. W. had sent.
St. John's vs. Valparaiso had an interesting ring since it meant a Catholic college opposing the representatives of a Lutheran-based university.
"Would the Pope throw strikes past Martin Luther?" he wondered.
After introducing himself to coach Barton Griffin of St. John's as his team prepared for infield-outfield practice, Charlie sensed the rivalry and its level of intensity.
"Let's get these bastards," said a player with lowered head as he laced his spikes while seated on the long player bench on the third base side.
With rosters in hand, Charlie looked for the name of Randy Wilson as the St. John's starters took the field. Listed third in the batting order and playing center field was No. 27, Wilson, whose particulars had been scribbled on the back side of the roster by his coach in response to the scout and their first meeting.
"Junior, Bats: Left – Throws: Left, 5-11, 180 pounds, Crown Point, Indiana," was limited information preceding equally brief verbal info, including "good kid, .350 hitter, fast, with power, and a strong throwing arm."
The bespectacled, scholarly-looking coach did not have enough pre-game time to expand on Wilson, but Charlie did not mind.
A nine-inning game would allow for enough at-bats not only for him to observe players from both teams, but to appraise the outfielder whose initials were the same as another R. W., but whose talent had best be superior.
In the absence of batting practice, infield-outfield practice provided Charlie with an eye-witness assessment of Wilson's throwing arm. Time and again he threw on-the-fly to second and third base, and both of his throws to home plate sailed past the first baseman as a cutoff target and to the catcher on one bounce.
By then, the scout had adjusted his sun glasses and reached into his valise for a notebook on which he began a player profile. After the first and third innings, he noted how the left-handed batter turned on fast balls thrown by the tall Valparaiso pitcher for first a line drive single and then a double to right center field.
If the logo on his valise and his position behind home plate had not been enough for the handful of fans to determine that a scout was in attendance, Charlie provided final proof when he revealed a stop watch.
No need to double check on the 3.4 seconds the watch recorded. Wilson's home to first base speed was as evident as the enthusiasm he showed after a steal of second in the first inning. A base on balls in the fifth inning prevented additional timing but did reveal the batter's patience and ability to avoid swinging at pitches out of the strike zone.
In the eighth inning, a left-handed Valparaiso relief pitcher's curve ball seemed logical. But when it hung in space, Wilson snapped his wrists and forearms through the ball that landed well beyond a 330-foot sign attached to the fence in right field.
Subsequent screams from the sun-soaking coeds atop the recreation building were related not only to the 5-4 lead St. John's had taken but to the toss made by a student who had walked between the fence and the building, retrieved the home run ball, and preferred lobbing it to the roof rather than back to the playing field.
"Over 400 feet. Off a left hander," Charlie wrote as Wilson touched home plate and returned to his cheering teammates.
Expect a starting pitcher on the first 80-degree day of the spring to ignore the pressure of recording St. John's first victory over Valparaiso in 10 years, and the home team had earned its jitters.
One pitch, and one swing resulting in a long, line drive to left center field brought Charlie to the edge of his seat and closer to the screen where he was about to learn more about Randy on the ball field where the player's personal life could not be revealed.
More pre-game time would have allowed Charlie to speak with coach Griffin, who was told in September that his 20-year-old junior center fielder would be on his own regarding much of his future.
The only child of Tom and Claire Wilson of Crown Point, Randy had a typical childhood as a result of Tom working in the maintenance department of a Gary, Indiana, steel mill and Claire adding a wage as a cafeteria worker for CP High.
Had it not been for complications during her pregnancy, Claire would have had another son - two years after Randy's birth, but premature delivery was followed shortly thereafter by the infant's death.
The Wilsons never dwelled on the baby's death or Claire's hysterectomy, preferring to relish Randy, who learned work had rewards. Whether from odd jobs or summer employment, including at the steel mill, he accumulated enough money to purchase a 1949 Ford prior to his junior year at St. John's.
At the crack of the line drive off the bat of the burly, right-handed cleanup batter, Randy pivoted to his right and sprinted toward a spot past the 405-foot sign in deep center field.
Aware of the two-out situation and the score, the speedy runner at second base knew he would have little trouble scoring the lead run if the ball fell for a gap double or possibly a triple. And, like the third base coach, the runner envisioned the high blast winning the race.
Returning to college became a routine Randy enjoyed as a junior because his purchase of the used Ford allowed him to avoid having his parents drive him back to campus. Comfort came to a halt two weeks into the first semester when he received an early-morning knock on his dormitory door and was informed by a St. John's priest about a house fire the previous night in Crown Point. And, yes, his parents had perished in their totally destroyed, conservative wooden frame home.
For Randy, returning home meant first hand observations of the remnants of an apparent gas line leak and subsequent explosion whose flames also engulfed the one car garage and its contents. Within three days, he also faced the rigors of a wake and funeral. Other details would have to be handled by phone, mail, or by a visit at the semester break.
Resuming work toward a bachelor's degree in physical education allowed him to consider a future that could include coaching and teaching on the high school level rather than working in a steel mill.
Although St. John's had a coed enrollment of nearly 1,000, the 230 women considered part of the total student body either lived in the only women's dorm on campus or commuted from nearby communities. Once an all-male school, St. John's had followed the lead of some eastern colleges in opening its doors to women, but for Randy, a "hello" or "how you doing?" were about the extent of his words with women. Dating had not been a priority even in high school where playing basketball and baseball held his interest while he agreed with Dad's advice of "they can wait".
As a result of being left handed and wearing his glove on his right hand, Randy knew if he ran fast enough, he might have a chance at catching the ball - even if after a head-first dive.
He had made diving catches before on the sandlots of Crown Point, but never faced the challenge offered by the presence of an outfield fence.
First the dive. Then, the extended glove hand, and a catch that would be a game-winning grab if he could maintain his grip of the ball as he crashed not only into the fence but into one of the shoulder-high metal stakes that helped tie together the vertical sections of red wood.
Popular with his college classmates and easily recognized by his piercing blue eyes, blond flat top hair cut, and deep dimple in his left cheek, Randy enjoyed a college life that had him involved as an intramural captain of his dorm team in touch football and in basketball.
Academically, he felt secure after being told at the start of his junior year by a St. John's counselor, "You're on track to reach your goals" while referring to the P.E. degree and a national need for teachers and coaches. Playing baseball on a partial scholarship had helped reduce costs, but the sport was not as important as becoming the first person in his father's or mother's family to earn a college diploma.
Randy's catch of the line drive had a whiplash effect. After clawing the ball in the web of his glove, he became draped over the fence which buckled but fought to straighten itself because of the stakes that had served as security.
In the process of being knocked back to the outfield surface, the center fielder experienced more drama as a stake dug into the right side of his face. However, after falling backward, he was able to hold his glove high enough for an umpire to see its contents and signal the out.
Helped from the field by an assistant coach, Randy ignored blood dripping from the towel he had been given and relished the cheers of victory as he was led to the St. John's campus infirmary where he was lucky to have a doctor available.
After walking across the front porch and into the lobby of the infirmary, Charlie had no trouble finding Randy because of the voices he heard coming from a room at the end of the hallway.
When Charlie peeked into the room, he saw Randy still in uniform and lying on his back. The scout was not surprised to find a doctor stitching the right cheekbone area of the player's face as a nurse responded to the visitor, "No concussion, nothing broken, just stitches."
As the doctor proceeded, Charlie found a seat in the hallway where he was joined by coach Griffin, who indicated the team had only one week and two games remaining, and there would be no need to return the center fielder to the playing field.
"We're 10 and 12, out of the conference race, and exams are right around the corner" said Griffin, who emphasized that his decision was not being influenced by Charlie's presence or a desire to see more of Randy in action. Meanwhile, since both men had time to discuss the player's past, including the deaths of his parents, the future became a topic.
According to Griffin, Randy could remain at St. John's during the summer, find campus employment, and live in the second story of the infirmary during the time when the dorms would be cleaned, disinfected, and prepared for another year.
Fortunately, Charlie had an alternative - one he thought of after watching the game. He would phone R. W. Johnston with more than a report. The center fielder's efforts were enough to cause Charlie to consider where Randy could play during the summer - something that appealed to the coach.
After being dismissed by the doctor, Randy continued to apply an ice bag to his face which revealed contrasting features, swelling on one side and a dimple on the other.
Taking a place on the porch with his coach and the scout, Randy learned of the proposal. Charlie would phone a friend in southern Illinois and seek a place for Randy to play as well as a place of employment.
With no home to return to, Randy welcomed a change of scenery and a chance to play in a men's league where improving his skills could lead to a summer visit by the scout. After providing his dorm phone number where he could be reached once Charlie had finalized arrangements, Randy shook hands with the scout and headed back to the baseball locker room where he discarded his dirty, blood-stained uniform.
Excerpted from One Home Run by Art Voellinger Copyright © 2011 by Art Voellinger. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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