I always enjoy watching the Little League World Series this time of the year. Sixteen teams of 10-12 year-olds from around the world gather in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for a double elimination tournament to decide who can call themselves champions for this year. And of course I can’t help but compare it to my own checkered history.
Little League baseball in the early 1950s was in many ways different from today’s, but most of the basics were the same. In the Spring a bunch of kids would go through tryouts to (hopefully) get chosen for one of the “major” teams, the ones with sponsors and cool uniforms. They played all their games in a nice, well maintained facility. Those who didn’t get chosen ended up on “minor” teams, who wore t-shirts and played on practice fields.
I was slow and clumsy, couldn’t hit, and shouldn’t have made a major team, but I had one thing going for me. I was big and strong. Not only was I chosen, I made the team that was sort of like the Yankees in terms of history and success. It was the team sponsored by Coca-Cola, complete with snazzy uniforms featuring red trim and the Coke logo. Much cooler than those sponsored by auto repair places or furniture stores.
I don’t think the rules were as strict in those days about every kid getting to play because I mostly rode the bench. I couldn’t catch the ball with any reasonable chance of success, and when I’d bat I would tie myself in knots swinging and missing. I think the fact that I’d close my eyes might have contributed to the problem.
I have two vivid memories. I don’t think I ever got a real hit but one time I pinch-hit and got close. The pitcher fired the ball and I did my usual thing — closed my eyes and swing as hard as I could. The crack of my bat popped my eyes open – and startled everybody else, no doubt – and we watched the ball flying toward the left field fence. Going, going, going. . . .foul.
The other memory that sticks with me was how Coca-Cola threw us a post-season dinner party in a private room at a local restaurant. Platter after platter of golden fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, breaded veal, spicy garlic bread, and more. And of course all the Cokes we could drink. (When I later raved about the food to my mom, she seemed oddly annoyed.) The final touch was a dazzling shiny gold Coke bottle for each of us. I’d never seen anything like that and I ended up hanging on to it for many years. Unfortunately the shiny gold coating eventually began peeling off, and the bottle got lost at some point. At least it lasted longer than my baseball career.