December 18, 2014

Places I’ve Played: The hazards of baseball

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By Bill Skiff

Baseball uniforms in the 1940s and 50s were 100 percent wool. Itch? Man, I guess they itched. On a hot summer day, you felt like you were wearing a bagful of fleas. But the pride we felt wearing them was priceless, and more than made up for any flea-filled sensations.

One summer, the town of Cambridge decided to buy its team new uniforms. They were made of cotton. Goodbye, fleas! The uniforms were white with red trimming. Each player received a matching red cap and long red stockings. To top it off, on the back of each shirt was printed the name of the business that sponsored it. Mine said: “Nobel and Pearl,” and I was proud to wear it. The girls loved them, which added their appeal to our team.

One Sunday afternoon, we were scheduled to play Underhill. It was the first time we planned to wear our new uniforms. When we arrived, their team was dressed in a mismatched set of dungarees, shirts and assorted caps. They looked like a rag-tag bunch of old hackers. We, on the other hand, looked like a million dollars.  During the course of the afternoon, they provided us with the biggest thrashing we received all season!

Moral of the story: It’s not the uniforms that make the team, it’s the team that makes the uniforms.

The Jericho High School baseball diamond was down in a little ravine in the middle of a cow pasture. It had the usual particulars of fields in those years: dips and dives, stones, and, sometimes, long grass, which slowed the ball.

Sliding into a base on that field was always hazardous. My friend Ken played for Jericho High and shared a hairy slide he experienced on their field. During a game, he hit a line drive into center field and, while trying to stretch it into a double, slid into second base. He landed poorly and dislocated his shoulder. As he recovered, the only comfortable position for Ken was to hold his arm straight up. However, the shoulder didn’t have enough strength to hold it there. To keep his arm up, he bent his elbow over his head, grabbed a hunk of his hair and hung on. The only problem was that the day before the game, his barber had given him a crew cut. His hair was only a half-inch long!

The infield on our homefield was covered with many small stones. During a game, as I bent down to field a ground ball, it hit a stone, bounced up and smacked me in the mouth. While the runner rounded first and headed for second, I stood there spitting out blood…and teeth. The ball had broken my three front teeth in half.

After the game, Dad hit me ground balls until I could field them without flinching and turning my heard away as they approached my glove. I made many trips to a dentist in Burlington, and kept my mouth closed at school. How can you ask a girl for a date while missing all your front teeth? I finally returned to normal.

Years later, I would take my partial plate out and chase our daughters and their friends around the house while showing the large gap where my teeth had been. They would giggle, scream and try to hide. At a later age, they asked me if they could have the gold in my bridge when I died. I said yes.

One Christmas, after I had received a permanent bridge, I had the gold in the old partial melted down and made into two nuggets. I bought gold chains for both nuggets and gave them to my girls with a note: “I decided not to make you wait until I died for the gold in my teeth. Merry Christmas. P.S. Make sure when you wear them out to dinner, you don’t get to close to a hamburger.”

Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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