Neatsfoot oil, as my father worked it into my glove, smelled like an old, greasy body shop. He said it was the only way to get rid of the creaks it picked up over the long Massachusetts winter.
I was about four years old the spring my father took me out to the yard, a baseball in one hand, and two leather baseball gloves—one very worn, the other very small and very new, in the other.
My father looked like a giant to me. He was a little over six feet tall with broad shoulders. Whenever he looked at a baseball, his wry smile showed his crooked front teeth, yellowed from many years of drinking coffee. He was only in his mid-thirties, but wrinkles encased his eyes from so many years of squinting at the sun. He was the handsome man who still made my mother giggle whenever he walked by and patted her on the rear. Under the wear and tear was a spark, an energy I knew nothing about.
When we went out in the backyard to play ball, he wore the clothes from under his shipyard overhauls—worn, faded blue jeans with frayed cuffs, a worn white t-shirt, white socks and his steel-toed safety boots. He looked happy and comfortable.
But he looked especially happy when he had a baseball in his hand.
He lifted the two gloves in his hand, holding them as if they were the World Series trophy.
The older glove needed new stitching between the thumb and the forefinger. It had a lot of mileage between the palm and where the hand entered the leather for protection. Written in heavy black pen, but barely visible, was the name Jimmy B., short for James Bailey. The smaller glove was the color of gold April sunshine, with its brand new stitching, stiff palm and shape. Inside, my father wrote: Jimmy B Jr.
“This glove needs some work,” Dad counseled. “Here’s how we’re going to do it. We have this oil we have to work into it, and then we’re going to throw the ball around. When we’re done, we’re going to put the ball inside the pocket of the glove and wrap it in elastics. We’ll leave it that way for a few days and see what happens.”
Dad worked in the shipyard, so his huge, calloused fingers were strong and did the work of an impact wrench on the leather. Round and round he rubbed the oil, until the glove changed from its sunny color to a deep earth tone.
“That should do it for now. Here. This is yours now,” he said.
Mine? Really? A glove of my own?
I tried to put the glove on my right hand. It fit me like an overgrown snow mitten. Backwards.
“No, no,” Dad laughed. “You’re a righty. That means the glove goes on the left hand. You throw with your right hand, you catch with your left. See?”
He put his own glove on his left hand to demonstrate.
I nodded in awe. He stood back about two feet from me and threw the hard baseball to me. I didn’t catch it. He showed me how to cradle the glove, then tossed it again gently.
I dropped the ball and started to cry.
“Don’t worry, son,” he assured me, “it will come.”
We went out just about every night after dinner. It didn’t matter that he had come home tired after working overtime at the shipyard and just wanted to relax, read the newspaper or catch up on how the Red Sox did that afternoon. Playing catch was a priority, between me and my dad. My sisters had to do something with our mother, and I liked it that way.
In 1945, right after World War II ended, my father had been a top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinal organization. He wanted to be with the Red Sox, his hometown team, but it was the Cards who picked him. So he worked his way up through the ranks. Single A. Double A. Triple A. In Triple A, he pitched a no-hitter, and he was cruising. He figured he was “this close” to being called up to the majors, to “The Show.” He didn’t smoke, drink, or chase women; instead, he worked on perfecting his pitches.
During the off-season in those days, major league players usually had to take other jobs to pay the bills, like selling cars or insurance.
Some of them, like my dad, worked in a shipyard.
That’s where he met the gorgeous blonde knockout, Mary Simmons, the one he called “The Filly.” She was a secretary in the main office, and once he caught a glimpse of her, he was smitten.
She looked like the pin-up girls whose photos graced airplanes and ship lockers during World War II. She was over six feet tall. When she walked down the street, both men and women were stunned by her height, and turned to take in her beauty and grace. She pinned her ash-blond hair up on top of her head so it fell down in soft ringlets, which she then secured with hidden bobby pins, accentuating her steel-gray eyes. Her make-up was always perfect—with just the right touch of foundation and perfectly blended rouge on her cheeks. Her lipstick was always fresh. She could have been on the cover of any magazine, without even the slightest touch-up from a professional cosmetologist.
The first time she noticed my father, he was walking down the road to the main entrance of the shipyard, lunchbox in hand, and she wanted to know who he was. She asked one of her co-workers, and found out that he was a baseball player. “Minor leagues, somewhere,” they said.
“He’s kinda cute,” she mused.
“Mary, these guys are a dime a dozen,” her supervisor said, walking away.
“Kinda cute” meant he was tall with a ruddy complexion from playing ball in the sun. His short-cropped sandy-brown hair framed his face, revealing high cheekbones under slightly rounded cheeks. He had a boyish look for someone who walked with a confident, masculine air. She guessed that hiding underneath those work clothes was a muscular, virile physique.
She decided she’d find out who he was and where he played ball. She didn’t like baseball or know anything about it. But she’d learn.
She went to the ballpark to watch him pitch. Her knowledge about the sport didn’t grow, but her crush on Jimmy did. She wore her most stylish hats and high-heels, crossing her elegant legs while she cheered his every pitch. When he wasn’t pitching, she paid no attention to the game; instead she filed her nails or primped her hair.
She saw a cadre of young women throw themselves at the ballplayers, particularly in the bullpen. She looked down her nose at them. “Cheap and disgusting,” she thought. “They wear dime store makeup and it looks taw- dry. Their skirts are way too short. And they wear sleeveless shirts. Sleeveless! My mother would never let me out of the house in a sleeveless shirt!”
The boys in the bullpen ate it up. They whistled and hooted at those girls from the bullpen bench. Mary made the Sign of The Cross and called on the Virgin Mary to save the souls of those vixens. “Boys will be boys,” she thought, “but girls should know better.”
Although she trusted her Jimmy not to react to “those girls,” she knew what a temptation they could be. She knew some of the bullpen boys left the ballpark with one of those women on his arm, heading toward some rundown hotel for a temporary tryst, and bullpen bragging rights for the next day.
In 1948, she saw Jim’s second no-hitter. Without the walk he gave up in the top of the ninth, it would have been a perfect game. But she still didn’t know how important that was.
The next day, he asked her to marry him. She was coy about it for five minutes, then turned around, lifted her wide-brimmed hat, batted her eyelashes at him, and said yes. They were married two months later, in a small service at a Catholic church. She carried yellow roses and wore a tea-length pale yellow dress that she already owned. It was almost white. She wished she could afford a new white dress, but this was nice, too. Anything she wore was stunning, he thought. Only a few people were there, but it was a nice wedding for them. Afterwards, they went into the church basement for punch and cookies.
In the back of her mind, Mary knew the day could come when he might get the chance to play in the major leagues, when he’d be traveling across the country, exposed to all those temptations, all those scantily-clad, over-made-up girls who stalked baseball players looking for a quick romance with someone who might become famous one day. The thought haunted her to the point of obsession. She would not allow it. No. She would not let him go into the majors. What was more important to him? Baseball or her?
Soon she hated the smell of anything that even remotely resembled leather—new boots, a wallet—anything that might remind her of a baseball glove. The sight of any uniform with a number on the back made her anx- ious. It didn’t matter if it was a football jersey or an employee of the gas company.
That spring, just before 1949 baseball season, my big sister Debbie was born. At the end of April, my dad got the call, up to the bigs. They offered him $5,000.
He went running home to The Filly and their four-week-old baby.
“Mary! Mary! They want me to pitch in the majors!” he screamed. He woke up the baby.
The Filly hadn’t slept in a couple of days. She was not amused. “You cannot be serious,” she said. “You don’t mean that you would be leaving me here alone with this baby, do you, Jimmy?”
“But it’s the chance of a lifetime,” he insisted. “They asked me to join...”
She cut him off. “This baseball thing...Is it more important than your family? I mean, is it more important than me?” She looked at him with her soulful Ava Gardner eyes.
“No...It’s not more important than you or the baby or family...It’s just... It’s just that it’s what I’ve always dreamed about, and I don’t know if the chance will come again,” he said. “They offered me $5,000, Mary. I could only make $3,000 as a full-time worker at the shipyard. Think of it: Five thousand dollars!”
“What if you get hurt? What if you run off with one of those floozies? What good would that $5,000 do me then? I’d be all alone with this baby and you’d be running free.”
His eyes pleaded with hers. She was not budging. The sleep deprivation was battling with his yearning desire to be a major league ballplayer.
“Well, I have one thing to say,” she insisted. “If you go to St. Louis, don’t come back. It’s the Cardinals or me.”
“What? Are you giving me an ultimatum?” he asked.
“Yes. That’s what this is,” she said. “An ultimatum.”
He went out behind their tiny house and paced back and forth. How can she do this to me? She knows how much this means to me! She knows how hard I have worked for this! How can she ask me to give up this dream? I got through being on a destroyer in the Pacific during the war, knowing I could come back to baseball. Now she wants me to give it all up? I love her so much. So much. But baseball is what I do. How can I give up one for the other?
The tug of war went on for two or three days. But she wouldn’t give an inch.
Finally, he acquiesced. “Okay,” he said. “I won’t go to St. Louis.”
Soon after, the Cardinals dropped him completely. So now, instead of working at the shipyard during the winter months, he worked there full time.
My other sister, Donna, was born two years later, and then me, in 1954.
Finally he had his boy. He could teach him all he knew about baseball.
From the day he handed me my glove and the can of neatsfoot oil, he taught me all his pitches, his tricks, his mental exercises, his warm-ups. I was his blank canvas, his Jimmy B, Jr.
When I was six years old, I tried out for Little League baseball. I could throw strikes even then. All the Little League coaches wanted me on their teams.
Not good enough for Dad. He started his own team.
My dad had a knack for finding talent, whether it was hitting, pitching, throwing, catching, or running. He looked at my friends to see who had talent and he snagged them for his team.
And every night, he took me to the backyard to play catch. He put down a pitching rubber and a plate, and he expected me to throw from the pitching rubber to him over the plate. He called balls and strikes. It was easy for me to follow his directions.
We were winners. Statewide Little League champions. Pitcher of the year by the age of 12, then 13, then 14. High school pitcher of the year at 15, 16, 17, 18.
“Jimmy B, Jr. looks a lot like his dad,” the newspapers declared.
“He could be the second coming of what his father might have been, had he not quit baseball abruptly,” said a radio commentator.
I was the new king of the hill in my town. Everybody knew me as I walked down the street. I liked being a celebrity.
I came home from school one day after turning 18 and found a bunch of reporters surrounding my house. Dad was waiting for me at the door. A scout for the Montreal Expos had come to the house, contract in hand, to make an offer.
My dad was walking on air. The Filly was in the kitchen, crying. I thought of the most adult thing to say to the scout, without spilling my guts to him. “I....I...I have to be concerned with the high school championship first,” I stammered.
“Of course you do, Jimmy, of course you do. We wouldn’t want it any other way,” he responded, as he reached out his large calloused right hand to congratulate me. It seemed as if he and my dad had already worked out the whole thing. The Filly was having none of it.
“He’s too young for this, James!” she protested to my dad. “He can’t go on the road all alone! He’s too young! He should go to college or some- thing. He needs to stay with me!”
“Oh, come on, Mary,” Dad insisted. “I’ve taught him everything I know. He’s amazing. A great student. Now it’s time for him to go with the professionals who can take him to the next level.”
My sisters, with hands folded across their chests, snickered in the corner of the kitchen. Debbie, who was almost as tall me, and as gorgeous as The Filly herself, whispered into our younger sister’s ear. They started to giggle, but covered their mouths so they wouldn’t laugh out loud in front of The Expos scout.
“I see we may have a difference of opinion here,” said the scout. “I’ll go speak to his high school coach for a while. I’m supposed to meet with him today anyway. I’ll be back later, after you folks have had some time to work this out.”
He went out the door, put on his cap, and addressed the crowd of reporters still waiting on the lawn. “Not much to say right now, boys,” he told them, as he got into his car and drove away.
Dad and The Filly went back and forth for a few hours.
Finally, The Filly gave up. “But YOU will be responsible if anything goes wrong!” she promised Dad.
“Nothing will go wrong. He will be supervised and taken care of,” Dad insisted. “It’s not like in the old days.”
The scout returned with my high school coach. The reporters were gone by then. Dad and I met with them and signed the contract offer. The Filly stayed in the kitchen and refused to acknowledge the event.
Debbie said she hoped I would introduce her to some handsome baseball players when I made it to the major leagues. My younger sister Donna rolled her eyes, went to the fridge and picked out a Coca-Cola, tipped the cap off of the bottle, and went upstairs.
The story hit the newspapers. My ego grew exponentially with the recognition of my name and face by others. Girls were impressed and their boyfriends were jealous of me.
I pictured my name on a plaque at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I’d show The Filly that baseball could be a life. It would be baseball for me. Baseball forever.
When I walked across the stage at graduation, in the spring of 1972, I felt relief. I could leave this podunk town and get on with the business of baseball.
But my podunk town was a bustling metropolis compared to where The Expos sent me to play Single-A ball.