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Of Frogs and Baseball Cards

By Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

In 1977, I moved from Massachusetts to Arizona in a 1975 Pontiac Astre with 3 boxes, a sleeping bag, and an inflatable raft. Last month, my wife and I moved from Nebraska to Texas with 150 boxes, 100 unboxable “things,” two cars, and a moving truck that arrived two weeks after we did. The only thing lost on the first trip was oil, its slow burn spanning 2500 miles.

Trip #2? A different story…

Blinkers were first to go. I lost them after gassing up in Salina, Kansas. Normally, that isn’t the worst thing in the world because there are always hand signals (even though most people think you’re waving to them). When you’re pulling a U-Haul trailer, however, driving without directionals becomes a bigger problem. I nearly lost my wife, Linda, several times while traveling through Oklahoma City. Despite closely following me, frantic lane-changers cut her off several times. Try finessing your way through the I-35/I-44 crossover loops without turn signals during the rush hour scramble. You are sure to raise Oklahoman ire and a few middlemost fingers of homebound motorists.

***

The relief we felt when the long-haul truck finally arrived was quickly replaced by stress as the four workmen dollied in countless boxes. It was my job to check off the numbers on a form that corresponded to each box. In short, I could not keep up with the dozens of boxes piling up on the front porch and in the hallway. Some were carried off to rooms without me ever seeing them. It was a losing battle and I knew that there would be an inconsistent count at the end of the day.

When the men began bringing in the pieces to the dining room table, I cringed as they struggled with the 400-pound oak tabletop. It was not a good sign when one of the men cursed in Spanish and walked away with his hands up in despair. But the real stressor?

Two missing table legs.

The rest of the day was a blur. Boxes. A workman’s injured shoulder. More boxes. A clipboard full of unchecked boxes. The foreman’s sudden, hacking cough. Crushed boxes. Heavy bookcases stranded in the middle of the garage. An unassembled bed. Coughing. An upside-down dining room table. The truck pulling away from our house and the many boxes in its wake…

***

There are countless techniques for relieving stress and I have used most of them over the years: writing, listening to music, and going for walks to name a few. None worked that evening.

After skirmishing with and eventually cornering three mammoth bookcases in the garage, I rested on one of the day’s damaged dining chairs, its loose arm not much support. Then, an unusual sight…

Two unblinking eyes on a plastic tub were calmly staring at me. I stared back. It was a frog.

Frogs generally don’t have much an effect on me. Frankly, I just don’t see that many of them. Why a frog? Why now? Why not a missing table leg?

For another minute, I studied the little guy and, must admit, I felt a little less stressed. But it wasn’t an Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels” moment. I simply smiled, cupped him in my hands, and released him onto the lawn.

It was when I came back that I took another look at the tub upon which he sat. No, the table legs were not inside. What I found instead were books of cards – but not just any cards.

Baseball cards.

For me, there’s magic in an old baseball card. I leafed through a few from the late-50s: Moose Skowron of the Yankees, Pete Runnels of the Red Sox, and Al Kaline of the Tigers. I was 8-years-old again opening up bubble gum packages full of prizes: Redlegs, Pirates, and Senators.  It was baseball bliss, a slight respite from the day’s bloopers.

All because of a frog, maybe a magical one at that…

(Afterword: The trucker called a week later to say he found the table legs in a lower compartment in his truck. As for boxes, they are still everywhere.)

Something Courageous

by Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

You know how there are some people you automatically like even though you don’t know them?

When you’re 8-years-old, it can be the new kid in class with the over-sized eye-glasses that keep sliding down his cheeks or the girl with the long, braided hair in church who shyly glances over her shoulder at you. Sometimes, it’s an adult like the janitor who tosses hula hoops and dodge balls from the school roof at recess.

Something about them – a look, a gesture – something that leaves an impression…

That’s how I felt about the new second baseman for the Boston Red Sox in 1959: Number 12 – Pumpsie Green.

I liked the way he gobbled up ground balls and fired them to first baseman, Vic Wertz. I liked how he never flinched at balls thrown too close to his head. He simply scooped up dirt, rubbed it on his hands, and stepped back into the batter’s box more determined than before.

It was late-July when the Red Sox brought up Pumpsie Green from their minor league team, the Minneapolis Millers. He was a top hitting, sure-fielding prospect. He was also a “Negro,” the first to play for Boston.

In 1959, no one used the term, “African-American.” In many circles, people didn’t even use the word, Negro.

More colorful language was used in our all-white neighborhood, names like “jigaboo” and “bush-boogie.” They were words we first heard from adults and then from each other. They were mostly said in fun – mainly because we had never met anyone with dark skin. Even Dad kidded around with the names and often found a way to work in “watermelon” whenever Pumpsie came to bat on our black & white Motorola TV. The way he said it made me laugh.

I didn’t know any better.

***

The thing I remember most about the time I first saw Pumpsie Green play at Fenway Park was not the fifth-row box seats or the way he proudly trotted out to second base when the Sox took the field. It was the hecklers.

One sat in front of me. With mighty hatred, he screamed terrible names. “Go back to the jungle, you f***ing spear chucker!” As the game progressed, others joined in and the attacks became worse. I could not understand why they hated my new hero so much. Not once did Pumpsie look our way. I was ashamed.

***

I’ve never been to a jungle. Four years ago, I learned about one in Tanzania from Jeff Mugongo, one of my students in the Social Work Program at Chadron State College – and a 2020 graduate. Here’s an excerpt from one of his early essays:

“Back in Africa, I didn’t go to school. I would spend most of the day feeding forty-one goats in the middle of the jungle. Over here, parents tell their kids not to go to the store by themselves. My parents, though, would let me go into the jungle with forty-one goats as a 9-year-old. Trust me, I was terrified.”

Imagine that! While I spent most of my days as a kid playing baseball, Jeff spent his childhood tending to and guarding goats from snakes and hyenas in a jungle.

Before settling in Colorado, Jeff and his family lived in Rwandan refugee camps. His dream is to one day work with refugees, to help kids face the challenges he once experienced. Jeff knows how to help people get back into the game because he knows something about determination.

If you met him, you’d like him. Those hecklers would have liked him, too, if they could have seen past the skin thing. Like the proud second baseman I admired as a kid, there’s something about Jeff…

something courageous that leaves an impression.

Close Calls

by Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

There are times when, even before a ball is thrown, you can sense the glory.

Maybe it’s your bat, your infallible grip. Your practice swing is smooth, confident. Maybe it’s the way you’re dug in at the plate, your feet perfectly positioned – braced for a swing that will leave everyone around you talking for days: “What a shot!” “Man, he zapped it into another time zone.”

That’s the way I felt in the summer of 1967 during a Park League baseball game at South Junior High School in Braintree, Massachusetts.

With the pitch on its way, I had visions of scaring up a storm of grasshoppers in the chest-high weeds well beyond the left fielder.

Except it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t swing.

“Strike Three!”

As the players ran in from their positions to take their turns at bat, I stood there in the batter’s box, numbed by the call. I stared out at the umpire who was standing behind the mound, the one who called me out.

It was my brother.

***

We are moving. My wife, Linda, and I are leaving for Texas soon where we will be closer to family and I will be starting up a new Social Work Program at the University of Texas at Tyler.

For weeks, we’ve been packing. Perhaps the most difficult part of it for me is gathering up my things at work where I’ve taught in the Social Work Program for the past eight years.

Over the years, graduating classes have presented me with small thank you gifts. Since I’ve spun a few baseball stories into my lectures, I usually get things like class-signed baseballs or Red Sox baseball clocks. One year, I got an autographed home plate. Another year, it was a wooden sign (left) with a saying from Alexander Pope – one that I’ve been studying very closely these days.

***

My brother, Steve, and I have hashed over the called-strike thing a few times during our lives. “Up and away,” I say. “Hit the outside corner,” he counters.

The one thing we’ve settled on is that it was a close call – close enough that I should have swung. For me, it was a life lesson. For him, it was a lesson in thinking twice about umpiring a game in which one of players is your older brother.

***

I’m one to take chances. I don’t often get caught looking at opportunities brushing the corners. The time I traded in a lucrative sales career for social work? No regrets. The time I traded in job security to become the oldest student in graduate school? No regrets.

But now? Raised eyebrows and questioning tones from friends are the norm. “Don’t know that I’d be making a move like that right now.” “Can’t you wait a few months?” Or, simply, “Jeez…”

It’s not as though the decision to move happened overnight. It’s been in the works since I gave my notice at work last November. It became reality in early February when I received the job offer – before Covid – when second thoughts were second stringers.

Times have changed. I struggle with questions of safety and responsibility. Is it the right move? Is Linda all in? The other night, before I could ask her if she had any apprehensions, she answered with a just-sent digital photo of our two-year-old granddaughter.

***

It’s 1100 miles from Chadron, Nebraska to Tyler, Texas. We’ve got masks, wipes, and six-feet sensibility.

Still, it’s a close call and the pitch is on its way.

Jeez…

Of Viruses and Late-Inning Rallies

by Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

This is a story about belief and disbelief, a softball ball story from 1979 in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I was the northern Arizona regional salesman working out of, what the firm called, a “country office” in an old hotel. From a less-than-lavish suite three floors up, I sketched business forms, the kind with pieces of carbon in between multi-layered sheets of paper.

There, inside the supposedly-haunted Monte Vista Hotel, the same place known for bygone movie greats, I crafted purchase orders and restaurant checks. I was especially good with utility bills, the kind with directions stating, “Grasp here and gently snap.”

Despite the ceiling leaks, a slow-running clock and eerily creaking floorboards, it was a good job – with perks: I knew the shoeshine guy in the lobby and the bartender downstairs who always tossed me quarters for the jukebox.

I had moved up to Flagstaff from Phoenix during the winter and was itching to play ball that summer. Fairly new to Flag, however, and not knowing many people, I put an ad in the newspaper seeking players. To my astonishment, twenty guys showed up for the first practice. Aside from two brothers, nobody else knew each other.

As it turned out, we morphed into a pretty darn good team. Well… we won more than we lost, a little better than .500. The game I want to share with you, however, is one that most players on that Moore Business Forms team have probably (and gladly) forgotten over the years. But I remember it only too well.

It was against the last-place team on the last game of the season. Every club in the league had pounded them, running up football-like scores. And, we were on the verge of doing the same. Up by eleven, I was on the mound under the lights arcing unhittable high ones all night – until the last inning.

That’s when the other guys started to believe, when hope clearly broke out of its shell. Their comeback was quick and electric. It was unlike any rally I had ever seen. There was no derailing them. When the winning run scored, it was as if a loose boxcar from the city’s train depot rolled right over us. With our pride flattened, we walked off the field in foggy, slow-motion disbelief.

To this day, I can still see the mob scene at home plate.

So, why the story? Why now?

We are on a team that hasn’t had a win all season. We’re being pounded mercilessly by a bully, a rogue virus that won’t quit.

We need a spark, a check-swing single down the right field foul line. We need a late-inning rally, a come-from-behind shocker to grasp and not-so-gently snap its ghostly neck.

Believe… just like those guys swarming the plate did so long ago.

In time, it’ll happen – a world-class mob scene (albeit social distancing). You know and I know it will happen.

And, when it does, I’ve got a quarter or two left over for an ancient jukebox.

Flagstaff, anyone?

Rich Kenney - MBF 1979

 

 

Sweet Spots in Sour Times

by Rich H. Kenney, Jr.

I miss baseball.

The shoestring catches. The headfirst slides. The smoke of shut-‘em-down closers.

I miss strategy. The hit-and-run. The suicide-squeeze. The regrettable intentional walk.

I miss fast-start winning streaks – 9 games, 10, suddenly 15. And the phenom rookie, the kid no one heard of, batting .550 with 21 ribbies not yet out of April.

But there’s a runner loose, a big-time base thief, and it’s stealing more than signs and bases. Reckless, defiant, and cutting down anyone in its path, it is the Ty Cobb of viruses. It plays to win, daring anyone to stop it. And, right now, no one can.

The runner, sneaky and hard to pick-off, spikes hope at every turn – mine, yours, and the kid’s next door. It’s out of control and running at will.

What can we do?

Remember those times as a kid when you’d get a hold of a pitch and whack it over walls, fences, or into trees? It was all about finding the sweet spot on your Adirondack.

Maybe you played tennis or hockey – same thing. You had to find the sweet spot on your racket or stick. Once you did, nothing was insurmountable.

Now more than ever, we need to find our sweet spots.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a sweet spot is “the area around the center of a mass of a bat, a racket, or the head of a club that is the most effective part with which to hit a ball.” The Free Dictionary by Farlex offers a secondary definition: “a particularly fortunate or beneficial circumstance or factor.”

Sweet spots, then, are not limited to sports.

“Whenever I feel down,” a social work student once told me in class a few years ago, “I play Reveille on my trumpet.” I recall the amused looks on the faces of the other students and how I smiled imagining her belting out the tune. The memory and mental image have stayed with me over the years. Music was her sweet spot.

A few years ago, I brought one of my classes to an on-campus art show. I remember looking at one of the pieces on display. It was an out-of-focus photograph of a leaf on a branch. One of the students, standing nearby, told me she thought life was like that leaf. “In the big picture,” she said, “life is still beautiful, even when it’s a little fuzzy around the edges.”

Nice way to see things, I thought. Her bright outlook, her sweet spot.

When I was a kid, my sweet spot was in the upper pocket of my Mickey Mantle Rawlings baseball glove. I tracked down countless mile-high fly balls on a rocky, old sandlot behind the long-gone Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in East Braintree, Massachusetts. Camped under balls wrapped in black electrical tape, it was what I lived for. In those waiting moments, I found strength and purpose.

Yeah, life is blurry for most of us right now but, sooner or later, someone’s going to come up with a pick-off move. Someone’s going to put the tag on this maniacal, dust-choking demon.

But… it’s not going to happen between innings. We’re in it for the season; some say two.

Maybe it’s time for a trip to that place deep inside ourselves, perhaps to the nook of inner resolve we don’t visit often enough. Social distancing restrictions don’t apply there. Sweet spots roam freely.

Consider yours.

A song, an attitude, a memory?

Maybe a poem for the mask-makers… Maybe a prayer for the hospital troops…

Sweet spots – it’s time to find them, time to share them.

Rich H. Kenney, Jr. is bringing back his blog after a 9-year hiatus. His explanation: “I miss baseball.”

 

A Braintree Sandlot Revisited

I can’t remember the last time I visited the sandlot behind Lincoln School off of Hobart Street in Braintree, Massachusetts. It’s probably been more than thirty years since I last set foot on the old field. That all changed when my brother, Steve, and I recently walked the sacred grounds of our youth, “The Bank’n.”

Our elementary school, Abraham Lincoln School, is long gone. I believe it was razed sometime in the 80s or 90s to make room for a park. The park itself is very green. Gone are the glass shards you would find along the third baseline or in the rocky outfield. Gone are the occasional boulders we used for bases. Gone, too, are the kids who used to bring that place to life. On a perfect day for a pick-up game, we didn’t see one person out on the field lofting homeruns into the left field woods. Not one kid was shooting baskets on the now-level playing surface of the basketball court.

There was a time when kids would sit on the side of the hill with their bats and gloves ready to take the places of anyone who had to leave the game. Broken arms or knees, though, were the only ways players exited games. Sometimes, we’d sneak into the outfield trying to blend in. But we were nabbed as soon as we’d make our ways to the cardboard plate hoping for at least one whack at the ball wrapped in black tape.

As I looked out to left field wall, well hidden by vegetation, I recalled the thrill of launching one into the treetops, the thrill of rounding the makeshift bases of tree parts or milk cartons or the third base boulder that doubled as a resting spot.

It felt good to be back, to be on Hobart Street. Steve and I visited the corner candy store now known as the Braintree Variety. Decades ago, it was Edward’s Variety run by Mrs. Mutzenard who used to let me take home jars of pennies so that I could fill my penny collection book with old coins. I once found a 1909 VDB. Anything older than 1959 was too new…

It’s good to go home again, good to see some old friends who stayed loyal to the neighborhood. Mike C and I were in every class. He kept me laughing from kindergarten through sixth grade. Sometimes, he made me laugh so hard teachers made me stand in the corner. And Mike M – he and I carried JFK signs up and down Hayward Street when John Kennedy ran for president in 1960.

Back on Hobart Street with my brother, Steve. He hit his share of long balls into the trees in back of Lincoln, too. I guess we need to get back more often,  to get back to our home field. Next time, we’ll bring a few bats and a ball wrapped in black electrical tape.

Throwing Strikes at Semis

All the snow we’ve had the past few weeks in Oklahoma reminds me of the great snowstorms we had as kids growing up in Braintree, Massachusetts.

“No school, all school, all day…”

That’s the phrase we listened for on the radio in the early morning whenever the snow fell. My brother, sister and I would sit by the radio (was it WJDA in Quincy?) as the announcer alphabetically read the list of school cancellations by town. We waited with anticipation as he finished reading the towns that began with the letter A. When he got to the B’s, we braced ourselves for the words we so desperately wanted to hear. And when we heard him finally say, “Braintree Public Schools,” it was pure joy. A free day off!

Snow days meant many things. It meant earning extra money shoveling people’s driveways on Hobart Street, after, of course, we had dug out our own. When my brother and I came back for lunch, I remember how we’d pull out all the bills and change from our pockets, how we’d hold up an occasional 5-dollar bill, thinking how rich we had just become.

Snow days meant building snow forts or sledding down the hill in back of Lincoln School on saucers, toboggans or Flexible Flyers. Snow days meant making snowmen or snow angels.

To most sandlotters, however, snow days meant throwing strikes at semis. We’d assemble arsenals of snowballs and wait behind trees or bushes along Hayward Street for the ambush. And when those 18-wheeler semi-trucks rumbled by, we’d spring out from our hiding spots, pelting the sides of their trailing boxes or tubes.

POP, POP, POP – KABOOM!

What better way to sharpen our throwing skills? (and running skills when the truck drivers sometimes stopped to give chase…) We learned the art of timing, to aim high and throw early.

SPLAT!

We learned how to find the sweet spots of our targets.

BOOM!

_ _ _

It’s been warm here, lately. The other day, I was walking down the road and spotted a few remaining patches of snow. One of the melting mounds was the kind we’d seek out as kids when we set up camp on Hayward Street. I scooped up some of the white stuff and rolled it in my hands, crafting a snowball the way we used to do, so many years ago.

I couldn’t help but think of snow days and sweet spots.

All I needed was an 18-wheeler…

A Paper Boy from England

Mark Walmsley is a sportsman from England.  He’s played basketball, rugby and football most of his life. He, too, delivered newspapers as a kid. Here’s his story:

“Back in the 70’s in Hull, East Yorkshire, England at the age of 14, I started my first job as a paperboy, there where 5 of us who were employed at Southcoates Lane News agency. My round had about 45 papers that I delivered 6 days a week, (twice a day Monday to Friday and three times on a Saturday.

Setting off in a morning at 6:45AM, I had my blue plastic delivery card with my run worked out, l checked and loaded the papers into my paper bag made of sacking, got on my 12 speed racer (the envy of the street) and set off. I covered Holderness Rd and onto Garden Village (Built by a revolutionary industrialist James Reckitt for all his staff) back onto Holderness road and Southcoates lane again, 50 minutes of hard cycling. Unlike the US, every paper had to be folded and hand delivered through every letter box on every front door AND pushed all the way through.

I repeated the round again at 4:30PM delivering the “Hull Daily Mail” but on Saturdays, I opted for an extra 6:00PM round to earn an additional 50 pence which was delivering the “Hull Sports Mail”. This delivery was lighter (about 25 papers) and was a very distinct publication in that it was Green in colour. Mainly it was about the local football team HULL CITY, back then in the old 4th division playing the likes of Halifax Town and Rochdale.

So in all weathers in all seasons 13 deliveries a week my payment was £3.65
About £20 in todays money.

In the 70’s I always remember the £ being really good against the $ so back then £3.65 would have been $7.30c – Nowadays £20 is worth $32.00c.”

A Paper Boy Remembers Delivering the Patriot Ledger in the 1940s

Tom Saunders of Ellenton, Florida, used to deliver the Patriot Ledger newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, back in the 1940s. He was kind enough to share his paper boy recollections:

“I was a paper boy for the Quincy Patriot Ledger beginning around 1940. I had 105 customers and the paper cost 4 cents per paper. We all endured the usual weather elements: hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters. I think a certain comradeship carried us through.

The Circulation Manager made me a District Manager during high school for the boys who picked up their papers at the main office on Temple  Street in Quincy. I counted out the papers for the boys and kept track of their totals, perhaps about 60 carriers. The papers were distributed on the lower level of the building next to the ‘pressroom’ where the papers were printed (I can still hear those presses). The boys would line up to receive their papers, down three flight of stairs to a large counter table where I worked.

Every Saturday, all the managers would collect the amount due for each paper route from the boys. We handled a variety of coin wrappers – pennies, nickels, dimes to be wrapped and prepared for the ‘night deposit’ at the local bank.

By noontime, the presses ran again and the process to distribute and deliver papers began. Such afternoons found the boys trying to collect money from customers who had not paid, usually collecting what many times was their pay for the week before heading to a favorite activity, be it baseball, football, hockey or the playground.

It was a time when the boys made new friends and were in contests to solicit new customers. One time about fifty of us were winners and attended one of the first night baseball games in Boston in the early 40s, between the Braves and Giants.

To look back almost seventy years ago I have to think, maybe, unknowingly, we self-educated ourselves in acquiring early salesmanship and management skills by working with customers and managing our time. I applaud all the newspaper carriers of that era, and all the boys, girls and adults of today who deliver newspapers, especially, the Quincy Patriot Ledger.”

(Tom was also featured in this blog on June 1, 2010. Here’s that link:  

https://rhkjr51.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/sandlot-baseball-a-kid-from-the-30s/)

The “Paper Girls” Speak Out

Here are a few comments from “paper girls” in response to the recent Safe Havens story:

From Celeste Kaseburg, Phoenix, AZ:

I delivered papers as a kid in Estherville, IA. It was a pretty easy route overall except it was kind of hilly and that wasn’t fun in the winter. Not only was it cold but traction with my snow boots just didn’t cut it sometimes on ice.

I always hated it when I wouldn’t get enough papers for my route. I would pick who wasn’t going to get a paper that day and it usually was the people who were mean. The memory that sticks out the most is the abandoned, run down house that I had to walk by every day. I always liked to stop in there and walk around inside. It looked like a castle to me from the outside and I always wondered who lived there and how much money they had to have such an amazing house. I also remember this house really didn’t look like it belonged there, it was so different from all the other homes.

From Dawn Marie Thompson, Chicago, Illinois:

Sometimes back in the mid sixties, I “helped” our neighborhood postman deliver the mail (held it for him from the last mail box to the next mail box). After about 3 houses, he would give me a penny or two and sometimes even a nickel! That was 1 or 2 pieces of candy, but on the nickel days it was a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

From Ann (Di Napoli) DiNella, Massachusetts:

I’m writing to you because I just read your commentary in the Patriot Ledger, posted Dec. 12. I wanted to thank you for the memory! I grew up on North Bowditch Street. The Abraham Lincoln School was my elementary. The field below the “sledding hill” holds fond memories for me also. I remember walking to McGinnis’s corner store on Shaw Street and the little “corner store” on Hayward Street. Both were on my daily paper route. I’m sure I saw you on your route. Lincoln was & still is a landmark and a memory holder! I’ll always remember the great “field days” they had. And after…The LINCOLN LOONIES! Thanks for the memory journey. I will always be an East Braintree girl.