MEMORIES OF FINCH FIELD

by Don Gardner

 

Dad and I were on our way to Finch Field to see a doublehitter. I didn’t know much about baseball in the beginning and asked how two hitters could bat at the same time. "Doubleheader, son. That means two games, not two hitters."

We attended almost all the games at Finch Field just after World War II to see our beloved Hi-Toms play baseball. I could hardly wait for him to come home and eat dinner so that we could pile into the truck and go to the night’s game. Dad was rushed through many meals while I impatiently waited, sighing pointedly if he poured a second glass of iced tea.

"Junior" Leonard and Guy Prater were my heroes. Leonard, tall and muscular, had a beautiful swing and drove the ball out of the park often enough to keep me on the edge of my seat when he batted. Prater seemed six feet wide in his upper body. During the one season he played for the Hi-Toms, Prater hit several tape-measure home runs. My brother Bobby saw a game I missed where he claimed Prater hit a ball over the light pole in right field . . . but he probably stretched that story a little.

One of my childhood fantasies was to hit rocks in our driveway, pretending to be batting for the Hi-Toms. The left field wall was a fence at the back of our lot, which extended into straightaway center field. In the middle of right field was a neighbor’s house, which somewhat messed up my Finch Field, so I concentrated on hitting to left field. Being a right-handed batter, that’s where my power was anyway.

Early in May, 1949, the High Point Enterprise announced that Coast Guard recruiters were coming to town and I decided to enlist. Bobby, and my brother-in-law Richard, had served in the Navy, and I liked the sailor’s uniform—the Coast Guard uniform in those days was almost identical to the Navy’s.

After overcoming my initial terror of anyone with a stripe on his uniform, "boot camp" was not too difficult. Calling mops "swabs," walls "bulkheads," and floors "decks," was almost like learning a foreign language. The chow was good, too. You could load your tray up, and go back for seconds if you were still hungry. We even had watermelon once at noon chow. I soon learned to love eating beans, hash brown potatoes, and that Stuff On a Shingle at breakfast, gaining twelve pounds during those weeks of feasting on adult life and starchy food.

Returning home on leave after graduation, I enjoyed being the center of attention. Everyone wanted to hear about my experiences for a change. There wasn’t much to tell—I had been away for only ten weeks. Describing how the barber had clipped my recruit company’s hair in what must have been record-setting time earned a laugh from everyone. My scalp looked like "Curly" Howard’s of the Three Stooges, thanks to the efficiency of a busy barber.

As the days of my leave wound down, I became unaccountably depressed and restless. Once I reported for duty, the rocky road toward adulthood would begin. An urge to experience one last youthful fantasy overpowered me. In my imaginary Finch Field, I began hitting rocks. An important part of my life seemed to ebb away during this ritual while winning crucial games for the Hi-Toms—it was always in the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and runners were on base when I came to bat. My homeruns crushed Mooresville time after time. Rounding the bases with the winning run, I would always remember to tip my hat modestly to the cheering fans, especially to the pretty girls who sat near the dugout.

When mom called me into the house, I put my stick bat away. The following day I caught the bus to Norfolk and reported for duty. During the 21 years that followed, the Coast Guard, as Alex Haley once said, became my alma mater.

During those intervening years, I visited a number of major league stadiums; the sights, sounds, and aura of a baseball park are forevermore pleasing. I saw Ted Williams and Fenway’s “green monster” wall in Boston—Ted’s swing reminded me of Leonard. I watched the Philadelphia Athletics play one long-ago weekend. With my two sons years later, we stood and applauded as the owner of the twice-removed Athletics presented Vida Blue with a new car the day after he pitched a no-hitter. My sons and I were in D.C. Stadium one night when Frank Howard hit a homerun deep into the seats—we were avid Senators fans. Whenever Howard hit one of those home runs into the upper stands, a seat was painted white the following day to show where the ball had landed.

My youngest son and I were in Memorial Stadium the day Brooks Robinson retired from baseball. My boys and I attended a few games at Dodger Stadium, and we also saw the minor league San Jose Bees play (their clubhouse was named the "Beehive").

I met a "Coastie" from Thomasville years ago when I was on the GRESHAM. We began talking about the Hi-Toms. He asked if I remembered the farmhouse behind the grandstand. I remembered it well, for the farmhouse kids would gather behind the grandstand to run down foul balls and turn them in for admission to the game. He was one of those kids!

At the beginning of the baseball season last year, I revisited my old friend. I knew that a professional baseball team had not played there for slightly more than a decade, but I wasn’t prepared for the sight that followed. The farmhouse had disappeared without a trace; numerous small, dingy industrial shops occupied what had once been the parking lot. Entire sections of rusty outfield fence have fallen, and tall weeds profusely covered the playing field. The tall light poles seemed to stand as patient beacons, waiting forlornly to be illuminated again for a night game. Peeling paint exposed countless scabs and scars in the wooden grandstand, which looked ineffably tired and worn, as if ready to give up the ghost.

In spite of its dismal appearance, memories of the good times at this once-splendid ballpark came flooding back. I remembered how I always ran up the steps of the grandstand ahead of dad, anxious to see the players on the field and drink in the scene with one quick, exciting gulp. I could almost hear the sounds of balls smacking into gloves, and the sharp, explosive crack of a bat followed by the sudden roar from the fans as a batter drove in a run. I remembered the pleasant smell of grass, freshly mown before the game; and, there, in the seats behind the dugout, is where the pretty girls gathered to get a close look at the handsome Eddie Matthews.

I remembered shelling roasted peanuts and putting them in my Pepsi®—skins on or off, it didn’t matter. After taking a drink, there were always a few peanuts to chew on. Another treat was Cracker Jack®, with a prize at the bottom of the box that I inevitably lost the next day.

There was the one glorious year the scoreboard had a large mechanical goose, and how everyone laughed and cheered as she slowly waddled her way across the scoreboard, squawking dramatically over the p.a. system as it laid its "egg" each inning the opposition failed to score. And this year, too, our batboy was named Egolly. Whenever he went onto the field to deliver baseballs to the umpire, the fans shouted, "By golly, there’s Egolly!"

Once, while home on leave between duty assignments, I brought my new wife to see the Hi-Toms. The home plate umpire had a rip—a major league rip—in the seat of his pants; bending over to call a pitch, he flashed a magnificent view of white underwear. Between laughter, we tried calling this to his attention, but several entertaining innings passed before he realized what we were yelling.

After many years I had returned. In most ballparks, I had often felt like an interloper, a temporary spectator who would be transferred to another duty station before a deep allegiance to the hometown team could be established. But Finch Field was comfortable and cozy, like being at home, and it was here in the beginning where I had fallen in love with baseball.

My plan was to walk onto the field and stride up to the plate as if I was batting. Before stepping into the box, I thought to stand there for a moment and look over the playing field and imagine how it might have been. Would Mooresville play me to pull to left? (I would have to adjust my stance if they did.) Could I have hit a fastball over the wall as I had done so often and effortlessly in my imaginary games? Would the pitcher throw low and inside where my one little hitting weakness was, or would he make a mistake and throw belt high out over the plate?

The gate to the field was open and there was no one around to see me while I took my swings. But I couldn’t move—my feet were frozen in place, unable to carry me onto the field. I felt vaguely embarrassed to be here as the scene etched itself forever into my heart. Finch Field had once been a special place for me, but now I felt I was standing on the grave of a loved one.

Reliving long-ago memories, to see the change and disfigurement time has wrought, is often bitingly painful. It would have been a wonderful miracle to be seventeen once more, at least for a day, and to see another baseball game here at Finch Field.

I don’t know whether the tears were for my old friend or for me as I drove quickly away, pursued by ghosts of bittersweet memories.

Since this visit, I have passed by Finch Field on the National Highway numerous times. If you slow down and look carefully, you can see in the distance the light poles rising slightly above the nearby trees and buildings. I can’t help from looking each time.

The same rush of excitement courses through me as it did when I was a young boy riding with dad in his truck, knowing we were almost there. Then, after we turned up the dirt road and gained the top of a slight incline, the ballpark would come wonderfully into view, and another baseball game would soon begin.

 

Time has healed the sad memories of this visit, and life goes on.

 

 

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