Confessions of a Green Hornet
As a youngster like most boys my age I was a big fan of baseball. During the summers I recall late at night listening to the Detroit Tigers games on the radio in my bedroom well after I should have been asleep. Van Patrick and Dizzy Trout called the plays; it was WKMH-1310 on the dial.
In the early summer of 1953 I was twelve and small for my age. It seemed to me everyone was bigger than I was. Some days I would spend hours bouncing an old taped up remnant of a baseball against the metal cover of our coal bin located on the driveway side of the front porch. I would practice fielding the ball further back in the neighbors drive. Whenever we had a pickup neighborhood game I would likely be near the end of the players chosen by team captains. The method for choosing was a hand over hand progression to the end of a bat and the last captain to gain a grip chose first. It was standard practice. I didn’t have a bat of my own so had to use the other kids who of course being bigger had big bats. I never got the hang of hitting with a big bat. I couldn’t drag the bat through the hitting area over the plate without some help from my right hand. Which when doing so would throw the bat either above or below the baseball. Kind of a loopy swing; it would take me a few more years learning to swing the bat smoothly through the hitting area.
There was an ad placed in the Dearborn weekly newspaper that I was then delivering about little league tryouts on the following Saturday afternoon. I decided I would go give it a try but I was the only one from my neighborhood that was interested in going. So at the appointed time I climbed on my bike and headed for the little League baseball fields then located on Outer Drive and Michigan Avenues.
There were several hundred or so kids that showed up for tryouts and when asked had to decide on a preferred position. I of course chose the infield because about all I could do was field a bouncing ball off of the coal-bin door. We were divided into groups of teams and set to scrimmage one another. Our opposing team had a pitcher that could scare the paint off of a wall just by staring at it. This pitcher, let’s call him Mike because I think that was his name, had wide set eyes with a squint so narrow you thought his eyes were closed. He also had a very wide mouth that sported a perpetual frown that appeared to stretch from ear to ear. Not only was there his frown to deal with he was actually foaming out of the corners of his mouth apparently from chewing on a huge wad of bubble-gum. This kid, mind you not a big kid, could throw the ball faster than anyone I had ever seen. His windup involved nearly facing the centerfielder then a quick turn toward the plate and while looking out of the corner of his squinty left eye, he hurled the ball at his catcher. I wasn’t looking forward to stepping into the batter’s box and, neither was anyone else.
I walked. Yup, four balls and Mike the zipper walked me. I’m guessing I was so short he couldn’t find the strike zone and I got lucky because I for sure could not have hit the ball even with a small bat. As it turns out I didn’t get selected for any of the teams. I was disappointed surely… but I also learned I wasn’t ready for prime time.
The rest of the season I played pickup baseball with kids in the neighborhood. And later that summer my new neighbor, Harold the rookie cop (my newest Harold) moved in next door. I trashed his new car in his backyard with my bike one day and he taught me how to throw a curveball; I basically got a reward for my careless behavior. We played balls and strikes almost daily for the remainder of the summer, till daylight shortened and the sun went down in the fall. I’d developed a new weapon and a pretty strong arm for a little guy if I say so myself.
1953 was the summer that 18 year old rookie Al Kaline broke into the Tiger lineup where he was to remain for the next 22 years. Like most twelve year old baseball fans I collected baseball cards that came wrapped in bubblegum packets. I was never able to get all of the Detroit players but I had most of them. One in particular stands out today… his name was Ray Herbert. He was a pitcher born and raised in the Detroit area and was signed by the Tigers after graduating from Catholic Central High School. After a brief period with their farm club, the AAA Toledo Mud Hens, he was called up to Detroit to play in the major league in the early 1950’s. I was a fan initially because Ray was born on December 15th, same as my birthday, but he was 11 years my senior. Ray was a young fastball pitcher with good control.
After being snubbed in my little league baseball debut in 1953, 1954 brought on a new opportunity that unfortunately I still regret today. I could throw a mean curve ball and had a little zip on the ball for my size; although it was nothing like the wiz I had faced the previous summer; that wild eyed Mike with the awesome fastball.
A school friend, Adam Johnson and I would on occasion ride our bike (we only had one and we took turns pedaling each other riding on the handlebars) down to a local baseball diamond located near Oxford and Westlake Streets. Taking along our gloves and a baseball it was our intention to throw a few balls and strikes to each other using the fenced backstop at the park. Or, if lucky enough, maybe get involved in a pickup game. Unfortunately there was a live game occupying the diamond when we arrived. So, being creative, we set up shop on the other side of the backstop and began throwing to each other. Adam was a natural born catcher and a good all-around athlete and obviously he was much bigger than I was at the time. I seem to dwell on how small I was only because it was a factor, and when small “is you” it matters a lot.
After a couple of rounds I was throwing again to Adam, and while he’s in the customary squat of being the catcher, an older gentleman who had been watching us sidles over to him and asks “how old are you kid?” Adam told him he was twelve. The man then asks if we had ever heard of the Green Hornets Little League baseball team and would we be interested trying out? Adam replied “Naw, I don’t think so” or something to that effect. Then, unexpectedly, the man looks over at me and says… “How about you kid?” I don’t recall the exact words of my reply except it came out as a “Yes, and where do I sign up?” He asked about my name and could I come to the ball field at Outer Drive and Michigan Avenue on Saturday morning; which of course was the scene of last year’s humiliating experience with Mike and his foaming grin; the same kid that threw the hot potatoes at us.
It turned out to be a most fun summer. I became a Green Hornet and me and the curve ball did OK. I also got to play third base when I wasn’t pitching. I still wasn’t a very good hitter although I managed to make the All-Star Team as a third baseman and played in the game held at Ford Field in mid-summer. The problem was… I learned to late I was too old and shouldn’t have been playing in the league. I had turned thirteen the previous December which was a few months too early. There were thirteen year olds playing but their birthdays came later than mine. I’m guessing that because I was smaller than most of the kids on the team no one ever asked about my actual birth date. I became aware of the problem midway through the season but was afraid to say anything… to fess up, which would have been the right thing to do. And, I was having so much fun playing and believed they were depending on me. We made it deep into the state playoffs and it would have been a tragedy had we won and then have to forfeit the title because of me. It is one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t have the courage to come clean.
Oddly, my parents never attended any of the games that season, or any season for that matter, but my Uncle Louis, my roommate, made it to the All Star game and took a picture of me playing third base. Even under the circumstances I am very proud of that picture mainly because he took it. It wasn’t unusual for parents not to attend games. My Dad worked the afternoon shift and my mother didn’t drive; soccer Moms weren’t yet in vogue.
I became a huge Al Kaline fan that same season and went to several Tigers games at Briggs Stadium. I would take the bus down Michigan Avenue by myself; it is something parents would never let their kids do today. Life has changed in so many ways. I would arrive at the stadium early enough to watch batting practice and warm ups. It was then I learned about the fungo bat, a bat specially designed by baseball coaches for practice. The small diameter allows coaches to easily hit pop-ups to catchers and infielders. What I found fascinating about watching warm-ups was the lackadaisical approach the players took. All of their actions were seemingly in slow motion as if continually posing. Nonchalant might be a better word and Al Kaline was the best doing that.
Last summer I paid a visit to Ray Herbert, the former Detroit Tigers pitcher, the one I was fond of as a kid and who also shares my birthdate. Ray is married to my cousin Patsy and they now live in Central Michigan. Pat is the same cousin that babysat with me when I was first adopted by the Hart family who then lived on 32nd Street in Detroit. Patsy Bronikowski and her family lived up the street in the next block. Her little brother Leo was near my age and became a big part of my life with the extended Hart family while growing up (see Cousin Leo).
After my visit with Cousin Pat and Ray Herbert, as I was set to leave, Ray asked if I would like a little souvenir to take home, and with that he handed me an autographed baseball and the signature on it read… “Al Kaline.” What a great way to say good bye.