Thursday, August 28, 2014

Look What I Found: Big Leaguer by William Heyliger and One Minute to Play by Harold M. Sherman

I was never what you'd called sportific.  Artistic, yes; but not sportific.  Save for the occasional Winter Olympics and a two-year fondness for the Braves when I lived in Atlanta, I couldn't care less.  To me, the wide world of sports was loud, boisterous, and boring.   If there is such a thing as a "typical male" (which I doubt very much), I never fit that mold.  I've always preferred an evening with Kurosawa or a combo of Vivaldi (ears) and Austen (eyes) over a two-hour couch-slump with Wade Boggs.

So why was I standing in a Couer d'Alene, Idaho antique shop, excited at the prospect of buying the two books--Big Leaguer by William Heyliger and One Minute to Play by Harold M. Sherman--I held in my hands?  For one thing, the books (published in 1936 and 1926, respectively) were dust-jacketed beauties exquisitely preserved in a mylar wrapper with tight bindings and no loose pages.  I'm a sucker for a tight binding.

More than pristine condition, though, the two novels drew me in with their nostalgic charm.  Geared toward teenage boys, Big Leaguer (baseball) and One Minute to Play (football) describe a sports world relatively free of overpaid athletes, steroid junkies or merchandise blitzkriegs.  From what I can tell by reading the flap copy and the first chapter of each book, these are simple stories about young men trying to better themselves through physical exertion and learning some Serious Life Lessons via the scoreboard.  In this case, I think sentiment trumped my sports-aversion.

Big Leaguer is about Marty Gage, catcher for Arrowhead Prep School and son of "Silent Bill" Gage, the manager of a big league ball team.  Marty spends his summer on the road with the pro players, then takes his "big league ideas" back to his classmates at the prep school.  The book crackles with slang like this patch of dialogue:
"I felt the hits in my bones. Like as not I could have poled out another solid poke if your old man had let me take a cut at the ball in the fourth instead of laying one down. I had that pitcher measured like I was a tailor with a tape."
That's as far as I got in the book before I set it aside, but the flap copy promises it's "one of the most fascinating baseball stories ever written for boys."  The book I found in the Idaho antique store is inscribed to "Lawrence, from Mother & Dad."  Judging by the tight-binding, intact-pages condition of the 78-year-old book, I doubt Lawrence ever read Mr. Heyliger's school-athletics adventure story.  Maybe he was off listening to Antonio Vivaldi and reading Jane Austen.

One Minute to Play, the novelization of a 1926 movie (in which, apparently, Clark Gable was one of the extras), is geared for older boys.  For one thing, there's a love interest: high school half-back Red Wade has a meet-cute moment with "pretty fair-haired" Sally Rogers aboard a Pullman railcar carrying him to college.  The book also sets up a highly-charged showdown between Red and his father, as seen in this synopsis for the movie:
"Red" Wade, a star high-school football player, has intentions of going to Claxton College, which has a powerhouse football team, but changes his mind when he meets the sister of the pitiful Paramlee team and goes to college there, just as his father, an alum of the school, had wished. But his father has ordered him not to play football. "Dad" Wade, has offered a $100,000 endowment to his old school, not knowing his son has joined the football team, but is going to withdraw it if his son plays in the Big Game against Claxton. This puts "Red" between a rock and a hard place.
Like I said, Scoreboard Life Lessons.

*     *     *

The gym was filled with the humidity of boysweat and the chirp of two dozen sneakers squeaking on the polished maple floor.  From the bleachers, I could hear a mid-level murmur, not a decibel-breaking roar, from the parents and half-bored students who just wanted this game to end so they could go home and start dinner.  They had nothing to worry about.  That end was coming soon.

There were 30 seconds left on the clock.  The scoreboard read 38 (Visitor) to 16 (Home).  My freshman basketball team was getting creamed.

I, on the other hand, was doing pretty good at my assigned job: warming the bench.

Like I said, I am not now, nor ever was, athletic material.  As a teenager, my chest was concave and my arms were matchsticks.  If it was possible for a body to have a negative amount of muscle, then I qualified.

Looking back, I can't remember why I joined the freshman basketball team at Jackson Hole High School.  I think maybe I was prompted/encouraged/ forced by my father who thought high school sports would break me out of the shy, socially-awkward rut in which I was traveling.  Perhaps the phrase "meet other boys your own age" was thrown into the conversation--the one-sided conversation--between my father and I.  There might have been some arm-twisting involved, along with a brokered deal ("If you go out for the team, I'll let you stay up an extra hour on school nights so you can read your books").

Whatever the circumstances, I found myself dressing out for the team in the locker room--moist and overheated--as the other boys banged and clamored and jeered.  I was scared to death and knew I was just one wrong word away from having my jockstrap yanked up my ass-crack in a "hilarious" wedgie.  I stayed quiet and tried to melt into the background, while at the same time inhaling as deeply as I could so my chest might flip out to more of a convex shape.

Practice sessions were just shy of Spanish-Inquisition levels of muscle failure.  Because the JV and Varsity players had more privilege and prestige, the freshman team was forced to meet before school, starting at 6:30 a.m.  The older b-ballers enjoyed the luxury of after-school practice when they could show off their moves and muscles for all the pert-breasted girls sitting in the bleachers pretending to do their homework while they ogled Steve and Jim and Bob.  My 1978 Rustler yearbook says "the boys had a really great season."  With a 12-6 record, the Broncs went to the state championships for the first time in seven years.

We lowly freshmen arrived in the early-morning dark to a soundless, cavernous gym still cold from the bitter Wyoming winter winds.  Coach Hoagland, a doughy-faced man who wore V-necked sweaters with the sleeves pushed above his elbows, was there greet us in a voice heavy with coffee and sleep cobwebs.  "Get dressed, boys.  We've got a lot of work to do."  A silver whistle gleamed like jewelry in the V of his sweater.

We ran, we hustled, we took jump shots.  We sprinted to the free-throw line and back, then to the half-court line and back, then all the way to the other side of the court and back.  This was the "fun" part of the practices, competitive races to see who could be the first to come back across the painted lines.  I was always the last one; I didn't even have the luxury of having a fat kid on my team.  All the sports movies I'd ever seen had a token fat kid, so I felt a little robbed.  No one cheered encouragement to me as I puffed and lagged, my lungs screaming, my muscles burning--the solitary runner left on the court.  No one clapped for me because they were all too busy plotting future locker-room wedgies.

I knew I was a disappointment (and a mystery) to Coach Hoagland.  I could see it in the flat dough of his face every time my jump shot bounced off the backboard.  There was no question about it: I would never play a game with his team.  And Coach kept that promise to himself, leaving me to rot on the end of the bench, completely forgotten and ignored.

Until the day came when we were down 22 points in that game against Pinedale and there were only 30 seconds left to be thrown away in sorrow.  Heads hung low on the bench and some bad words were said about the Pinedale players' mothers.  Our ball boy was already gathering up the loose basketballs and stuffing them into a canvas sack.  It was over.  We were defeated.

At my end of the bench, I'd stopped calling out encouragement--"Come on, guys!" and "You can do it, Gene!" and "Let's go, Broncs, let's go!"--and I was already thinking about all the homework I had to do, mentally working out some algebra problems (at which I would also suffer ignominious defeat).  I watched the scoreboard seconds tick down and started gathering my things for the shameful walk to the locker room.

"Abrams, c'mere."  It was Coach Hoagland and he was looking at me.

"Me, Coach?" I squeaked.  I was surprised he even knew my name.

"Yes, you.  Get out there and replace Erbe."  His voice held no enthusiasm or hope; it was completely Last Resort at this point.

As I walked the length of the bench to where Coach Hoagland stood, one of the other boys stuck out a foot and I nearly tripped, but I caught myself in time to stumble up and ask, "What do you want me to do, Coach?"

He winced like I was asking the stupidest question in the world (which I was).  "Go over to the scorekeeper's bench, tell them you're subbing for Erbe, then get out there and play defense."

"Okay, Coach.  I'm ready!" I panted.

I was not ready.

As Kevin Erbe came in off the court, breathing hard from playing nearly the whole game, I didn't even have the chance to ask him who I was supposed to be guarding.  So I took a vague position around a couple of the Pinedale players.  The ref blew his whistle and suddenly we were rushing en masse from one side of the court to the other.  It was the Spanish Inquisition Sprints all over again.

The clock ticked down.  22....21....20....

Then, with 16 seconds left, it happened.

The Pinedale center took a shot and it bounced off the rim.  Like a million-dollar, once-in-a-lifetime sweepstakes win, the ball came through the air straight for my face.  I flinched, reached out my hands, and caught the rebound.

There was a stunned silence from the Bronc bench and then, with one breath, everyone was yelling at me at the same time: "Pass it!"  "Give it to Caresia!"  "Abrams, pass the ball!  Pass the freakin' ball, Abrams!"

I looked down at the orange globe in my hands.  Where did this come from?  Why was I holding the ball?  Oh God oh God oh God!  What'll I do?  What'll I do?

My teammates on the court were whistling and clapping their hands to get my attention.  They wanted me to pass them the ball, but the Pinedale players were moving in on me like wolves suddenly scenting a crippled elk.  My mouth went dry.  I looked down at the ball again.  The shadow of a Pinedale player fell across the pebbled orange surface.  I had to do something.

I broke to the left, and started dribbling down the court toward our basket.  The Pinedale wolves gave chase, nipping at my heels.  I stopped at the free-throw line.  I eyed the basket, then I crouched and leapt, my arms bursting like released springs above my head.  The ball shot off my fingertips into the breath-held air of the gymnasium.

*     *     *

If I'd been Marty Gage or Red Wade, this story might have a different ending.  If I was a character in a school-athletics boys' book, I would have sunk the shot.  I would have been fouled by a Pinedale player in the process.  I would have stepped to the free-throw line and earned us another three points with a couple of nothing-but-nets.  The stands would have come alive with a roar, parents roused from their bored torpor, my classmates putting two fingers to their mouths and whistling, the pretty little brunettes leaping up and bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  Coach would have put Kevin Erbe back in the game and I would have returned to the bench to a series of blackslaps and cries of "I can't believe you just did that!"  Our freshman team would have rallied and incredibly, miraculously tied the score in the remaining 12 seconds.  They might have made a movie about us.

None of that happened.

The ball left my hands too hard, too fast, too full of bundle-of-nerves pressure.  It descended from a high arc and smacked the metal rim of the basket then, with a mocking ping, shot sharply to the East (bound, perhaps, for Pinedale itself).  Someone from the opposing team grabbed the rebound and took it back down the court and that was that.

My 30-second basketball career was over.  All that remained was the inevitable locker-room wedgie.

No comments:

Post a Comment