It’s October, and the boys of summer are jousting once again for the World Championship of Baseball. Where but in the U.S.A. could the champs be crowned? No other nation has the same extensive professional league structure and widespread amateur interest in the sport.
In more than 100 years, baseball has caught some public fancy in Canada, Japan, and parts of Latin America, but gets little or no attention elsewhere. In the U.S., the sport gradually has lost its position as the national game to football. Why? Basically, baseball games are slow-paced with long intervals of nothing much happening interspersed with a few moments of furious action. In other words, watching baseball is boring most of the time. It’s also getting expensive to go out to the old ballpark—this summer fans had to fork over $6.00 for a hotdog in the Chicago White Sox’ stadium.
Perhaps as a way to add some interest, statistics expanded in scope and depth as the baseball years rolled by. From the start number crunchers have provided fans with batting averages and totals for such essentials as home runs, runs batted in, strikeouts, and walks. For pitchers, they gave us won-lost records, strikeout and walk totals, innings pitched, and (relatively recently) earned-run averages. Now the keepers of the record books seem to have gone mad.
The Geezer watched a playoff game on TV a couple of nights ago. A pair of announcers filled every second of spare time with numbers. There was a lot of spare time as the teams changed pitchers whenever a hitter looked threatening. Viewers learned how many pitches a hurler had thrown in every conceivable situation, how every batter fared historically against every pitcher, and the speed of fastballs in miles per hour. We even were treated to something the announcers labeled a “productive out.”
Where there are numbers there will be records. Someone, sometime won the most games, hit the most home runs, and drew the most walks, or was the first to do something or other. These are significant things to baseball fans. However, we can get along well without knowing that Justin Verlander retired an average of four left-handed hitters with an outside slider every time he lasted five innings when he started a game in 2009.
Negative records perhaps are atop the pile of unimportant baseball matters. For example, do we really care if Los Angeles Dodger infielder Eugenio Valez this season set the modern-day record for nonpitchers for consecutive times at bat without a hit? Perhaps Mrs. Valez does, if there is a Mrs. Valez, but I don’t. And I’m sure Mr. Valez would rather not have his performance noted in the record books for all to see.
Other types of trivial baseball records sound positive, but mean very little. High on that list are accounts of the first person to do some obscure thing or other or the only one to perform a trivial feat. The Geezer holds that sort of baseball record—one that probably never will be equaled.
I was the only person ever to play in both the junior and senior championship games in the same Wisconsin State Amateur Baseball Tournament. Wow!
Some might be awed by this achievement. Wisconsin has held amateur championship tournaments for 63 years. Back when I played in the 1950s every little town and many companies sponsored teams. Today, although interest in baseball is much diminished, Wisconsin still has about 60 amateur teams concentrated in northern and western parts of the state. So my record might be considered a biggie, but how I earned it is as bizarre as the honor is unimportant. It was a pure case of being in the right places at the right times.
Through some mysterious manipulations by the chamber of commerce, my hometown (Tomahawk, Wisconsin) was selected to host the 1953 state amateur tournament. At that time, tournament sponsors invited teams to compete in two divisions, also by a somewhat mysterious process.
Players in the junior division could not be older than 17. They played seven-inning contests. The senior teams had no age restrictions, and apparently few or no requirements about who might be considered an amateur or a regular member of the team. All the teams, junior and senior, were known to add any talented players they could find to beef up rosters for the tournament.
I don’t know if the sponsors considered it a courtesy to the host city or needed a couple of teams to fill the brackets, but that year they invited one team from Tomahawk to participate in each division. Apparently, the invitation came somewhat unexpectedly. Managers had to hustle to assemble the two teams. No one expected the locals to win anything—just play one game and take a bow after the defeat.
I was working that summer in a National Tea store. Bob Koth, a local businessman involved with American Legion baseball, showed up and convinced my boss to let me off work because he needed a catcher for the junior division team he was assembling. I had played Legion and high school ball and was 17. The first game was the next afternoon. Our ragtag nine wore the Legion team uniforms. We won. We won the next day. To the amazement of one and all we were headed into the championship game.
The performance of the senior Tomahawk team perhaps was more amazing. Competing against teams loaded with former minor league professional players, the local all-stars also won their first two games, which were nine-inning affairs played at night, and advanced to the championship game.
Our junior team had a big problem. We only had two pitchers and it would have been a disaster to put one of them back on the mound with inadequate rest. Mr. Koth learned that high school pitcher Dave Lemke was returning from a trip to Chicago the day before the title game. He met Lemke at the train station and gave him a briefing and a uniform. We had our pitcher, a guy with a strong arm but not as much experience as the first two we used.
Lefty Lemke was superb for six innings. He was up against a team of stars from the Wisconsin Rapids area, a hotbed of amateur baseball. One outfielder had signed a professional contract after a tryout. We were tied 1-1 going into the last inning. Then we broke down defensively, and the visitors wound up winning going away for the championship.
I barely got home and shed my uniform when the manager of the senior Tomahawk team phoned. His catcher had been called up by the National Guard and he couldn’t find another one when he checked with all of the area mens teams. Would I play in the championship game that night? I did. We took a terrible thumping from a team that competed in a Milwaukee industrial league.
Two championship game appearances in one day—two sound defeats. Not a record to be pointed to with great pride. But my very own record, nonetheless.
Recently, two local authors published a 550-page “History of Tomahawk Sports” book that covers teams and events from 1897 to 1980. The book includes records and noteworthy accomplishments by athletes while they played on school teams and afterward in college or elsewhere. Yes, I’m in there. My appearances are in those standard pictures of a bunch of kids lined up to pose for high school football and baseball team photos.
My 1953 amateur baseball record does not appear in the book. The authors obviously have a keen perception of the importance of things.