Gary Livingston: Baseball Memories

Earlier this week I found an email from my Uncle Gary. In it he shared his baseball memories, and I think this is a really great way to extend the On the Force or the Tag series. Please feel free to send me your baseball stories and pictures, and I’ll be sure so add it to the page. – PAL

Gary Livingston in the vintage jersey. 

Blogger and nephew, Phil, has inspired me to recollect my youth and past baseball memories. Unlike Phil, I was marginally talented. Like Phil, I loved the game and I knew the game.

My first memories of playing catch are with my mom. I later learned she was a small-town farm girl legend as the tomboy who could play ball. In her day she played kitten ball. I still have the kitten ball she gave me. She had a great arm and I never had to worry about throwing too hard to her. Phil captures the essence of who has the game in their blood, when he writes that when the simple game of catch is enough to entertain for hours—you know they love the game.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in which moms stayed home and kids played outside until supper. We had a group of 3 “big” kids who dictated our play. They were four years older and wiser. I was among the 6-10 little kids. The big kids decided the sport—baseball, football—how—waffle ball, left-handed—where—street, yard, sandlot. They decided rainy day activities—chess, trivia, and the king of indoor games of our youth—Little Baseball.

Little Baseball consisted of each player picking a major league team. We had little plastic baseball players from cereal boxes as players and found the bakery sold plastic players to be used as cake decorations. We each painted and named our players from the MLB team. I remember the detail and pride we took in painting our players: the black and gold of the Pirates, the number on their back to the color of their skin.

We made a game board from a 4’x4’ sheet of plywood or sheetrock. The players took the field and guarded circles with hits labeled in each. We pitched the ball/marble by rolling down a ramp and the hitter would strike with a wooden dowel bat. We kept score, statistics, played a whole season, which included an All-Star game and World Series. Each year was a new season and brought more sophistication to game. Dave, a big kid with creative talent, helped turn our boards into works of art including lights, spectator bleachers, and scoreboards. The Big kids were their league of choice—usually American—and we little kids would be the National. I still have my Cardinals Curt Flood and Vada Pinson and Pirate- Roberta Clemente as I painted them 50+ years ago. Remarkably, our favorite players would perform the best in our board game. We could hole up for hours playing in the basement and at night compile batting averages and ERA’s.

The Kitten ball and the hand-painted figurines.

My organized baseball began with T-Shirt league at the local park. I was a Tiger in Little League. Dick Wilder was my coach. I remember him as knowledgeable, kind, and always encouraging. Everything you want in a youth coach. Looking back, I was a shy, skinny kid, unsure of himself on hard ground balls and overmatched against hard throwing pitchers, yet coach let me play second base and admired my good eye and bunting ability to find a way to get on base. As a teen I tried out and did not make the cut to play Babe Ruth. That hurt; I remember the 5-mile walk home from the practice I was cut at. I cried and did not want the ride home with the coach. Kids are resilient. I was asked if I wanted to play Minor League. It consisted of kids who had not played the game seriously. The coach was a dad who had limited knowledge of baseball. The coach recognized I played the game and asked if I wanted to run practice, make line-ups, pitch, play shortstop. I knew this was not high quality baseball, but I had fun.

My real baseball experience as a kid was playing with friends. I can’t say an adult, besides my mom, or coach taught me to play the game, or any game for that matter. We all learned to develop an intuition for all sports by playing with friends. I’m befuddled by major laagers with limited baseball sense—not knowing what base to throw to or not knowing when to take the extra base. Summer days were a game in the morning, lunch, and double-header in the afternoon, supper, backyard wiffle baseball. The games were designed around the number of players, location. Some fields dictated we all bat left-handed. Advantage Tony-the only lefty.

I do not remember any adults having input in our play. We just had to be home for supper. One summer, I guess 1966; we had the idea to involve the girls of the neighborhood. We were 13-14 and discovered that having the girls around was a good idea. The Big kids took the girls ages 13-14 and coached them to play the game while we “little” kids took the new little boys ages 8-10 and prepared them to play the older girls. We discovered what I think we already knew; the girls were athletes.  We enlisted Tom, a mild Downs teen, to ump the big game. I don’t remember the outcome; it doesn’t matter. I don’t think it mattered then. This is years before Title 9. I’m impressed by the insight of these kids. Over the years I have come to conclusion that adults are much too involved with kids play. Kids left to their own devices are wise and creative. Kids today have become dependent on adults to dictate their play, their thinking, their creativity. Youth sports has become more about the adults.

As a group of friends we played baseball, basketball and touch football through our teens. As young adults we joined local rec leagues to play touch and softball. It was always more about playing with friends than the game, though we were competitive and took the game seriously. Sometimes I regret we did not play baseball versus softball, but there were not the adult opportunities that exist today to play hardball. That said, the athletes I played with and against were truly great athletes and the play was high caliber ball.

As part of my softball experience I became a certified softball ump. My first lessons about umpping came through the director of Brooklyn Center Parks & Rec. I was the organizer and captain of our softball team and attended the organizational meetings. Director Arnie made it clear that arguing with umpires was not tolerated. He was an ump and a good one. He finished every meeting with the reminder that unless you were perfect in bed with your wife don’t expect perfection from umpires.

 

I understood from my experiences that umps/refs make mistakes. Players, coaches, parents make mistakes; unless you are perfect expecting perfection from others is unreasonable. I am distressed when I hear a young person blame a loss on poor officiating. This is learned from adults. In the rare instance when a game is decided by an officiating error, I wonder if every single player can look back at that game or any game and say they played the perfect game—there was not an instance where they could have changed the outcome with better play. I always taught players, students, parents—“The ump/ref is always right, even when they are wrong.” Once again I blame the over-organizing of youth sport for the inability for kids to self regulate their own play, settle their own differences and arguments. They have been taught to rely on adults to organize and officiate their play.

My baseball life became complete when the Twins won the ’87 World Series and again for frosting on the cake in ‘91. Like most Minnesota sports fans, we had never experienced the thrill of being the champs. A baseball fan highlight was attending the welcome back Twins homecoming at the Dome in the evening after defeating Detroit and earning the right to play the Cardinals in the World Series. Unexpectedly, the building was filled with true fans starved for a chance to celebrate. It brings a tear to my eye to this day. Now if the Gophers can get to the Rose Bowl before I die.

I am 65. Sports are in my DNA. I was a sports rube; I lost sleep with Viking/Twins loses. Minnesota teams are in my DNA, but today there are many more important things in my life then if a team wins or loses. I just don’t care that much about who does what any more. Sporting contests have become events and big business. Baseball games have become too long. I do not enjoy the angst displayed with every pitch, every play. That is what has made the games so long. The deep breaths, adjusting of the glove, the manager examining his analytic card, players with analytic cards, finding the perfect matchup or pitch—it drives me crazy—just play the game. This lack of interest carries over into watching my grandkids play ball. Maybe I am a bad grandparent, but I do not feel a need to watch all their games, and I hope they do not feel a need to play in front of me or anyone for that matter. Play the game for the joy of playing, not for performing for adults. Truth be told, I find the games boring. I just hope the kids have fun; and I am able to play catch with them as my mom played catch with me.

Gary Livingston

 

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