YOUNG BOYS, BASEBALL, AND HORSES
It was 1949, and like everything in that era, I remember things in black and white, because they were.
They said we were moving to Milwaukee. Where was Milwaukee? My brother and I never heard of Milwaukee. My older brother, Gary, was born in Philadelphia. I was born in Wisconsin Rapids and the first four years of my life we lived at 1940 Gaynor Avenue in Wisconsin Rapids on the second floor of my father’s parent’s house. They converted their upstairs into an apartment for my mother, my older brother and myself, while our dad was away during the war. What more could a kid want, right? Live with your parents and have your grandparents living just below you to spoil you and give you the things your parents couldn’t or wouldn’t give you? What kid would want to leave that arrangement? Now we were finally moving out on our own as a family. My father had enrolled in the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee and he was starting in the fall. My dad grew up in this same house and at that time, they called the neighborhood Dog Town because everybody had a dog, some chickens and not much else. The dogs were always running loose around the neighborhood following the kids wherever they went. My dad’s friends were rough and tumble like Spanky’s Gang. There was Red Sullivan, Big Russ Davis (who married my dad’s cousin Elaine), Bill Gross, Glen Pike and Jim Gazely. My mother grew up in Wisconsin Rapids as well, but she was from the “other” side of the Wisconsin River.
Truthfully, I cannot recall how I felt about leaving, but looking back on it now, I must have felt some regret. For those first four years of my life, and, as it turned out, most of my life, my grandfather was like my father. He taught me how to ride a bike, throw a ball and he provided comfort for me when I was afraid or hurt, but most of all, he was always there for me when I needed him and now I would be leaving not only him but my grandmother and their dog Boots, a Collie, who had become our dog too and the only home we had known. Plus my brother and I had friends we would be leaving.
Hank Wakely helped us move. He rode with my father as they pulled a small house trailer behind our car to set everything up in a trailer park just off Highway 100 in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee. Looking back on it now, that entire house trailer wasn’t as big as the kitchen we had on Gaynor Avenue. Hank might have helped because he had experience pulling a trailer as he had horses. Hank and his wife, who all the kids in the area knew only as Mrs. Wakely, were an older couple who also lived on Gaynor Avenue, but across the tracks in the Town of Wisconsin Rapids where the oiled gravel Gaynor Avenue ended and it turned into a dirt road. At that time, it was common to put used motor oil on the gravel to keep the dust down. The Wakely’s didn’t have any children. At least none that we knew of or ever saw. They lived in a small light blue house with a gray six stall barn in the back. Mrs. Wakely had white hair that was always pulled up in a bun at the back of her head. She was a very sweet lady and some summer days after we finished playing ball, if we were lucky, Mrs. Wakely would call us over while she stood on her front porch with a platter of her freshly baked chocolate chip cookies offering each of us one.
I don’t recall seeing Hank Wakely without his gray Stetson hat that sat perched on the side of his head so I don’t know what color his hair was, most likely gray, or whether it was long or short, or what it looked like or whether he had any hair at all. Also, I never saw him in the house. He smoked cigarettes a lot and said very little, at least to us kids. In fact, I don’t think he really liked kids all that much.He seemed to spend all of his time out in the barn with the horses. He was a horse trainer and a rather harsh man.
The little house was trimmed in white and had white lace curtains in the windows. The few times I can recall going inside was with my grandmother and it was always neat and clean and smelled like a grandmother’s house. That is, it had the smell of something that was freshly baked. They had a big clock hanging on the wall and I remember the house being quiet and hearing the clock ticking while I sat in a stuffed chair listening to the drone of Mrs. Wakely’s and my grandmother’s voices as they visited. There was no television.
They had a few acres of land and always had horses, big draft horses. There was something about those big beautiful horses that drew me to them.They fascinated me and I would often go into the barn and look at the magnificent animals as they were resting in their stalls. The draft horses didn’t belong to the Wakely’s. They belonged to the Mead family, the town’s wealthiest family that lived on the “other” side of the Wisconsin River. The Mead’s owned the paper mill in town, Wisconsin Rapid’s largest employer. They hired Hank to train and take care of their horses.
I saw Hank go into his barn one morning, so I walked up to see the horses, hoping Mr. Wakely might let me ride. I always hoped he would let me ride and I hoped that this would be that day. I could smell the pungent mixture of oats, hay, manure, and horse urine as I walked across the dirt floor. I couldn’t see him as he was on the other side of the horse bent over, trimming its hooves . The barn was open on both ends like most barns are, allowing you to see out the other side. When you entered the barn you would be temporarily blinded by the change from the bright sun to the darkness of the inside until your eyes could adjust. I couldn’t see Mr. Wakely that morning, due to my eyes adjusting to the darkness inside, but I knew he was there. I could hear him working.
As I approached I reached out to touch the haunches of the horse he was shoeing, when Mr. Wakely suddenly appeared, rising from the side of the horse like a dark apparition in the morning mist. All I could make out was his silhouette standing next to that huge horse. His gray, sweat stained Stetson hat was pushed back on his head and he held crimpers in his left hand. He stared at me before setting the crimpers down on the ground. He removed a small white bag from his shirt pocket along with a small piece of paper. He tapped tobacco from the bag into the paper making a cigarette. He pulled the string on the small bag with his teeth, shutting it tight before returning it to his pocket. Then he ran his tongue down the length of the cigarette sealing the tobacco in while twisting both ends shut before sticking it between his lips. I stared transfixed on the small cigarette that he just made while he drew a kitchen match from his shirt pocket and struck it across his leather apron. A flame shot in the air, casting dark shadows across his face as he put the flame to the end of his cigarette. He inhaled the smoke deep into his lungs before blowing it over the head of the match and extinguishing it.
He looked at me before saying, “Don’t you ever walk behind a horse like that or he will kick you so hard you would wish you were dead.”
I was both stunned and scared and all I could do was stare slack-jawed at the cigarette that was jumping up in down in his mouth as he was talking. I swear I thought it was alive.
The sudden appearance of his silhouette from the side of that horse, coupled with the flame of the match eerily casting shadows across his face, left an indelible impression on my young mind and taught me a horse safety lesson that I still remember today. He also didn’t let me ride that day.
I recall him pulling into the driveway on occasion with a trailer full of horses while we were playing ball in the pasture. The horses would be calling out to their new pasture mates and we would stop what we were doing and watch as he methodically unloaded each horse and led them into a separate pasture. He bought and sold horses for a living as well as trained them. A profession that seemed to me to be in its twilight years, along with old Hank. As much as I wanted to ride horses, you just didn’t see many on the roads. It was all automobiles.
On most summer days we would get up and our grandmother would make us a hearty breakfast, usually consisting of a pound of fried bacon and half a loaf of bread toasted, soaked and slathered in 100% pure Wisconsin butter before being lavishly sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. She would cut these in four small squares making it easier for us to eat. This was followed by a bowl of freshly picked strawberries, blueberries or raspberries, floating in 100% real cream that had just been skimmed that morning off the top of the bottle of milk that was delivered fresh to the house by the local milkman. We were allowed to cover the cream and berries with as much sugar as we wanted. We finally washed everything down with 100% whole Wisconsin Dairy milk.
The Wakely’s let us use one of their pastures to play baseball in and that’s where my older brother, Gary, and I headed once we finished our healthy, hearty Wisconsin Breakfast of Champions. We would bike down to the Wakely Field, with our baseball gloves strapped to the handlebars of our bikes, those of us lucky enough to have one (bike and/or glove), with a ball stuffed inside the back of the glove and our favorite bat laid across the top of our handlebars. If you were one of the fortunate ones, you would be wearing a new pair of summer blue jeans that would have to last you until school started, ‘so you better be careful and don’t tear them’. The only thing we had to worry about in those days seemed to be the vicious horse flies the size of chestnuts that constantly attacked us in their attempts to extract all of our blood. Their bites were really painful. Before we left the house we were told what time to be home for lunch. As long as we abide by those rules, everything was okay.
On our way to Wakely’s Field, we would head north and cross the train tracks and our first stop was at Gordy Juranek’s farm to see if Gordy was done milking the cows and finished with his other chores. He usually put a whole day of work in by the time the rest of us were just crawling out of bed. The Juranek’s farm was located on both the east and west side of Gaynor Avenue. Their house and barns were situated on the east side of Gaynor Avenue and in their west pasture they had a cheese plant, a long red brick structure with many windows along both sides. You couldn’t see in or out of these windows even though they were only about a foot off the ground as they were covered with dirt. A few years later Juranek’s would rent this out to a local brewery, called Preway, to warehouse and ship their finished beer.
Gordy Juranek was a small, thin, perpetually tanned boy with dark hair and a permanent smell of cow manure which is every dairy farmer’s perfume del dia. I remember him giggling a lot. Maybe I did too. We got in trouble with his dad one time when we were caught riding one of the dairy cows. His dad was in the back pasture on the tractor when he saw us and came driving toward us and before we could safely get off the cow and make a run for it, she decided to lower her head and dump us in the urine-filled mud along the creek. When his dad drove up he was fuming. He said we would ruin the milk by riding those cows. We smelled so bad and were such a mess I don’t think he had to worry about us doing anymore rodeoing on his cows after that. We also snuck into his corn field on a few occasions with a corn cob pipe and we would strip the corn tassels from the ears of corn and sit down between the rows and smoke the pipe. One time Gordy’s mother looked out her kitchen window and saw the smoke rising from the corn field and thought the corn field was on fire. Fortunately for us, she decided to check it out herself before getting Gordy’s father. Both of these incidents happened years later when I was a little older, maybe ten or twelve years old. Gordy wasn’t much taller than I was even though he was two years older. It was always a crap shoot whether or not his dad would let him come with us to play ball, so we kept our fingers crossed when we rode up his driveway. I have no recollection of how good a player he was but it didn’t matter we just wanted to have fun.
Next, we would stop at the Davis’ house and pick up Larry and Dennis Davis. Their house was on a hill set back from Gaynor Avenue about a half a mile. The road wasn’t even a dirt road. It was sandy and was on an incline and it was really difficult to ride our bikes in that sand up to their house. They would plant vegetables in their front pasture and at the end of summer they would pay whoever was interested $0.50 for every 50# bag of beans or peas they would pick. I made the mistake of allowing myself to get roped into doing that one morning when I was about nine or ten years old. It was after my grandparents had taken me to get a new pair of light colored blue jeans. It had rained and the ground was muddy and I didn’t want to get the knees of those jeans dirty so I picked beans all morning by just bending over. I never once knelt down on my knees. By the time we broke for lunch, I had picked only one 50# bag. Everyone else had picked about five bags each. When I walked over to get my bike to ride home for lunch, I couldn’t straighten my back. I walked stooped over like an old man. I didn’t go back in the afternoon.
The Davis brothers were good athletes. Larry Davis was the oldest and had dark hair. I remember him having a different way of walking than the rest of us. Sort of a confident bounce in his movement. Later, in the 1960s, when Larry was older, I thought he bore a strong resemblance to John F. Kennedy. Dennis was a year younger than Larry and had blonde hair and freckles. I recall how he would strut around like a Bantam rooster but always with a big smile and an infectious laugh. He had a cocky, confident walk. It was fun to spend time with him. Both Larry and Dennis were always smiling and didn’t seem to have a care in the world. It was a testament to their mother and how she was raising them. She was widowed. Their father was killed in the war when they were both just toddlers. They were friendly and kind to everyone. They also had the connections to get more players, like Bill Davis, their cousin. He lived a few blocks away from Gaynor Avenue toward town on Seventeenth Avenue. Then there was Bill, “Willie”, Pavaloski, whose father owned a small grocery and butcher shop in downtown Wisconsin Rapids where my grandparents went to get fresh meat. I remember Willie as being a little different than the rest of the guys. He didn’t live in the “neighborhood” which meant on or near Gaynor Avenue, Dog Town. He had blond hair, that he wore in a buzz cut, crooked teeth, and freckles and batted left-handed, all important statistics for a young baseball player.
The Davis’ knew a few other potential ballplayers as well, like a Chippewa Indian. No one knew where he lived. Somewhere back “there” I guess. Unfortunately, we all knew where we could find his dad. He would be drunk, leaning against a white clapboard building next to the tracks along Seventeenth Avenue on the way to downtown Wisconsin Rapids. He would be there every day by 2:00 p.m. and we would ride past him on our bikes on the days we rode down to Sweet’s Grocery Store for a soda pop. Our Chippewa friend was never with us, though. He didn’t have a bike. All of us were poor, but not as poor as he was. He was a little overweight and slow and threw a ball like a girl. He was the only one in our group who was darker than Gordy Juranek.
When we arrived at the ball field, we would leave our bikes lying in the ditch alongside the road outside the barbed wire fence. We would throw the bats, balls and gloves over the fence before we climbed between the strands of wire, hoping we would not snag our jeans or shirts; but inevitably, someone would snag something. We would look at the tear for a moment and then forget about it and take off and run to our “ball field”.
Hank Wakely allowed us to put up a backstop which consisted of two old fence posts and some leftover chicken wire. The posts were wobbly and over the course of a summer, the chicken wire would break and the bottom would be bent up from everyone reaching under it trying to retrieve a ball because we were too lazy to walk around to pick it up. But it served its purpose, stopping most of the balls.
Before we started our game, we would walk around the field, making sure the horses hadn’t left anything unpleasant for us to step in. Once we were satisfied that it was safe to run and slide, we made sure our bases, usually the flattest stones we could find, were in the proper place.
Now it was time to choose sides. This was an interesting ritual. I was the youngest and smallest and I threw left handed, none a characteristic that made me a worthy choice for a team captain to pick for his team. I was known as the equalizer, the last one chosen. I equaled out the sides, usually three on three, or four on four, depending whether or not Gordy had finished his chores and whether or not the Indian, our other equalizer, showed up. My brother, Gary, was probably the best player and was usually a captain or one of the first picked. I knew if he was chosen to be a captain that day, it was unlikely that I would end up on his team unless I was chosen as his “equalizer”. In any event, if not last, I was always close to the last one chosen, sometimes even after the Chippewa Indian. That meant I was put in the field, where nobody would hit the ball.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t catch the ball, I could, a little. The problem was I didn’t have a baseball glove of my own. I did have a glove; it was my grandfather’s old catcher’s mitt that he used as a kid growing up in Chicago back in the early 1900s. It was for right-handers and had a pocket, or sweet spot, right smack dab in the middle of the glove with a tremendous amount of padding surrounding that sweet spot. There was so much padding in this glove I could barely hold it up. Sometimes the stitching would pull apart and the cotton stuffing would stick out and we would have to push it back in and sew it up with string or just tape it closed; plus it was a glove for a right-handed adult player, not for a left-handed kid. I had to wear it backward and it was impossible for me to squeeze the glove around the ball once I caught it. No one was able to squeeze that glove around the ball once it hit the pocket no matter how strong their hand was. Not even Gordy Juranek who squeezed a cow’s teats every morning for an hour could do it. I had to knock the ball down instead of catching it.
There were always others playing with us who didn’t have a glove. I know the Chippewa Indian didn’t have a glove. Some of the guys that had a glove were willing to share unless their glove was relatively new, but no one was left handed so I had to make do with what I had.
Most of us had a favorite bat. There were no metal bats. Everything was made of wood and Louisville Sluggers were the best. They were made in different lengths and weight and the handles would be different thicknesses all to replicate the real bats used in the major leagues by the major league baseball star whose signature was on the bat. When you came up to bat the first thing everyone noticed was where the Trademark on the bat was located. When you held the bat, you were supposed to make sure that the Trademark was facing up and if it wasn’t, they would yell and scream at you to let you know about it. The bat was more susceptible to being broken when you hit the ball if that Trademark wasn’t facing up toward heaven. One way to get your friends angry with you was to break a bat, especially a favorite bat.
Sooner or later the handle on a bat would crack. That didn’t mean its life was over, it just meant we went to somebody’s garage and got out a roll of their dad’s adhesive tape, or if we were lucky duct tape. After we wrapped the cracked handle on the bat, we had to cover it with dirt so our hands wouldn’t stick to the handle. This would prolong the life of our favorite bat until it finally just broke in half. Once that happened there was no bringing it back.
As for the ball, sometimes someone got one for a birthday present or for some special occasion or just saved his money until he had enough to buy one. When that happened we couldn’t hit that ball until every last resort to save all of our old balls was tried. This included putting water logged balls in a warm oven to dry out and, once again, using tape to tape the horsehide back on once it started to come off the core of the ball. If we could no longer preserve the horsehide, we would then cover the core of the ball with tape.
Baseballs start out white with red stitching but most of ours ended up a dark brown. They would roll through dirt, mud and water and not only would they become as heavy as a rock, they looked like a rock. Finally, when that ball was totally destroyed, we could pull out the new one. Anyone that wasn’t playing when this occurred was very disappointed as playing with a new ball was rare for our group. Some of the balls we ended up with were printed with, Made in Japan, and the cover didn’t last long on those. In fact, the balls didn’t last long. After one game, or during that game, they would begin to fall apart. Not only would the stitching start to unravel, but the shape of the ball would change from round to oval. There was no saving these balls with adhesive tape because as soon as the cover started to leave, the inside of the ball started to fly out. They stuffed these balls with a Japanese newspaper that was shredded into small pieces, or old Japanese propaganda leaflets left over from the war. We thought this was exciting because we never saw Japanese writing before and this was only a few years after the war.
In the end, the condition of our equipment didn’t matter all that much, although I always wished I had a glove that was a little lighter so I could hold it up for an entire inning without having to rest it on the ground; but most of all, one that fit on the correct hand. But our main purpose was just to get together and have fun playing.
One warm summer morning we were in the middle of a real close game. The horses had gathered around the outfield fence, their tails swatting flies and heads hanging into right field, watching with interest what the six little boys were doing in their pasture. I was moved to second base because Larry Davis came to bat. He hit left-handed so our team called timeout and made the Larry Davis switch where the left fielder moved to right field and our infielder moved from shortstop to second base. My brother Gary was pitching and he had a wicked fastball for a ten-year-old. Which meant if someone timed it well they could really tag it and make it fly. Gary looked down at Larry and went into his windup to throw his first pitch when we saw our grandma pull up along the fence in her new Chevrolet Coupe. Our grandparents always got a new Chevrolet every two years and this one still sparkled in the bright sun.
We wondered what she was doing there. Unlike today when parents seem to be everywhere when kids play, we rarely saw a parent or an adult, so this was unusual.
Gary stopped his pitch and the game temporarily came to a halt when our grandmother stepped out of the car. She called me over to the fence. I dropped my old catcher’s mitt, it was too heavy for me to run if I was carrying it, and I ran to the fence. When I got there my grandmother handed me a box and said, “Your grandfather and I thought you needed this.”
I opened the box and just stared. It was my very first baseball glove. A left-handed fielder’s mitt. It was signed down the right side of the glove where you insert your baby finger by Ray Boone. He wasn’t even left handed but that didn’t matter. He played third base for the Cleveland Indians and instantly became my favorite player, that is until the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 with a left-handed pitcher named Warren Spahn. I don’t think I had ever been happier. I was the youngest child. I lived on hand-me-downs. I rarely got anything new, let alone a new baseball glove. I can still smell the leather of that glove to this day.
After giving my grandmother a hug and kiss, I ran out to my second base position ready to play. I tugged on the bill of my cap and bent over, pounding the pocket in my new glove before looking around at all my friends and I couldn’t keep a big smile from creeping over my face. I looked at my horse friends in right-field, still swatting flies with their tails and, I swear, shaking their heads in approval of my new glove. I was ready to make history. Play Ball I yelled!
I would like to say I made the game winning catch with my new glove that day but that wouldn’t be true. I can honestly say that I kept that glove up in my face and close to my nose, smelling that new leather, for the rest of the day. My grandmother made me put it down so I could eat but that night I slept with that glove and probably the next few nights as well.