Regardless of where you were stationed, Baseball was a part of growing up as Military Brat. Bill shares with us his learning about baseball from his caree Air Force father.
It was in the early spring of 1962 when my father came home from work with two new baseball gloves and a ball. He had decided that it was time for me to learn how throw and catch a baseball. I now firmly believe that he had been anxious to get me started much earlier, but due to Mom’s objections opted to postpone the event – until that afternoon. I was five years-old.
Dad was in the U.S. Air Force, and in 1962, we just happened to be stationed at Etienne Air Base in France. No one had any idea that in just two years, French President, Charles DeGaulle, would order all U.S. troops from French soil. Nothing could have been further from my mind at the time, but as I think of it now, I can imagine that on that sunny afternoon, I was one of the last five year-old American kids to play catch with his father on an U.S. air base in France. Nevertheless, on that mild and cloudless afternoon, my introduction to baseball, or at least two basic fundamentals of the game, throwing and catching, came to be. After a final concerned warning from Mom, we went outside onto the meticulously manicured back lawn.
Base housing on Etienne was state-of-the-art. In addition to well kept grounds and roads – new and beautiful single and multifamily dwellings had been built by the air force. Later in my life I learned that when DeGaulle ordered the U.S. to leave France, they would be leaving to the French, the housing, multiple structures and the airfield. This upset a lot of American servicemen. We were already home in the states when the word came to Dad. Apparently, before their final departure from the base, some unidentified personnel poured concrete into several hundred toilet bowls in the base housing area. It was our parting gift to the French.
Today, I can recall very little about our throwing and catching session that day. I don’t remember putting on the glove, or catching and throwing the ball back and forth. The one thing I do remember perfectly well, however, was the high fly ball he threw, and his instruction to “get under it”.
My father always bought the finest sporting equipment, whether it was baseball, football, golf or fishing – always the best. The mitts were full-grained leather Rawlings brand, and the baseball, a regulation hardball. My introduction to baseball would be a realistic one.
I clearly remember looking up and seeing the ball and what I would later in life learn was the effect of gravity on falling objects. I got under it and lifted my glove to the proximity that I deduced would intercept the course of the plummeting ball. My calculations, unfortunately, were incorrect and the regulation hard ball fell unobstructed, directly onto the tip of my nose.
It took a few seconds for the initial shock to wear off, but as soon as I realized the extent of my injury and the pain associated with it, I ran into the house crying and bleeding as profusely as any five year-old so injured could. Mom applied immediate first aid while at the same time vehemently giving my father the “I told you so” speech. It wasn’t long before the bleeding and pain subsided and we were back outside playing catch again – this time uneventfully and with a far greater degree of care on my part. It turned out that I liked playing catch and whenever Dad was ready, so was I.
When we got back to the states, we moved in with my grandmother who lived in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Whenever our family was in the period of transition between duty stations, we’d stay with Memere. Dad was stationed at Westover Air Base for a while, but it would be barely a full year before we got new orders for Andrews Air Base, in Washington, D.C. We would spend a year at Andrews before returning to Westover, and Memere’s house on South Bridge Street in Holyoke.
The next set of orders Dad got seemed to arrive before we had the chance to settle down. It was the fall of 1963 when we learned that we would be spending the next three years at Sembach Air Base, in Germany. The time we spent at Sembach is peppered with so many stories that detailing them here would be impossible. Let’s just say there was school and play, and Dad and I continued playing catch when the weather permitted. I was getting stronger and the accuracy and speed of my throws was improving.
Before we left Sembach, in 1966, Dad began stepping off what the distance between home plate and the pitcher’s mound would be on a youth baseball field. He also began to assume a catcher’s squat and I, a new awkward wind-up and delivery. But now the focus was on accuracy – hitting the mitt wherever he placed it. We didn’t use a backstop, so my errant pitches often rolled a great distance beyond my catcher who had to retrieve the bad throws. This didn’t seem to bother Dad. He was very patient. It bothered me though.
I didn’t like him having to chase my wild pitches, so I began to concentrate harder on hitting the target. My throwing suddenly took on a seriousness it didn’t have before. Although I still threw wildly from time to time, it had become less frequent. Along with the concentration on accuracy, I developed more confidence, and with it came an overnight increase in the speed of my pitches. Dad was impressed and so was I. All that practice was paying off.
We left Sembach, Germany and landed in Chicopee, Massachusetts, where we spent the next full year. Dad wasn’t with us for that year. He got orders for U-Tapau Air Base, in Thailand. There were no provisions for spouses and dependent children. The Vietnam War was still raging and U-Tapau was a main staging base for B-52 bombers used in the U.S.’s relentless bombing campaign in Vietnam.
It was a long year without Dad. I signed up for a youth baseball team – my first year of organized sports. I played soccer that fall too, but pretty much warmed the bench in both sports. I was the new kid again. Like all air force brats, I was always the new kid.
I’m sure Mom had my best interest at heart when she enrolled me at St. Joan of Arc, a Catholic elementary school, in Aldenville. Parochial school was a culture shock I had some difficulty overcoming. Everyone has heard the stories of the Catholic nuns who teach in those schools. I never got whacked with a ruler or had my ear yanked on, but I saw it happen enough times that I did my best to avoid having it happen to me.
I didn’t have much opportunity to throw the baseball that spring and summer, other than playing catch with a teammate. I missed my catcher – we all did – Mom especially. I remember the night he came home. We were all asleep when the ruckus started. It was a great reunion. He was back, and along with all the souvenirs he brought home with him, he also carried a new set of orders. We were moving again.
Dad’s new orders took us back to Germany, this time to Ramstein Air Base, where we would spend three years. It was late winter when we arrived at Ramstein. Dad was anxious to throw the ball again. It had been a year since we last played catch. I knew we would have to wait until spring. No one played baseball with snow on the ground. You can imagine my surprise when he came home from work one evening and suggested we play catch. He said he had a place. He had gotten permission from his commanding officer to use a heated warehouse building that housed all the civil engineering supplies for the base. That’s what Dad did. He was Senior NCOIC of the 86th Civil Engineering. The building had more than enough space, and throwing indoors where it was warm and comfortable was safe for my growing pitching arm.
Every other night we used that warehouse, until it finally began to warm up outdoors. When it did, we found a place out in back of the building we lived in. It was an open area, again with no backstop which necessitated Dad having to chase some of my wild pitches. But I had improved markedly. I was throwing seven out of ten strikes consistently and with velocity. I could see him wince from time to time after a good fastball. Finally, one night, he just pulled the glove off and held his hand in pain. It seemed the Rawlings fielder’s mitt that had served him so well was no longer enough protection from my fastball. The very next night, he came home with a new Rawlings glove – a catcher’s mitt.
It was a cool and sunny afternoon at Ramstein when I first stepped onto a pitcher’s mound. I had to learn to pitch from the rubber, and not just on a flat surface. It took a little adjusting, but soon I had it down and my fastball was finding its mark. It was the spring of 1967. I was nine years-old.
Dad had gone to the AYA, which was the program for all sports on base. He had gone in to sign me up to play that spring. It turned out the program was short on coaches and before Dad realized it, he unwittingly found himself coaching a baseball team of nine and ten year-olds.
They called it the minor leagues because the distance from the mound to the plate was about 4-feet shorter than the regulation American Little League distance. This gave me quite an advantage as the distance Dad and I had been throwing was the regulation little league distance. By that time I was throwing the ball pretty hard and with consistent accuracy. None of those kids could hit my fastball and I felt like I had total control over the game.
Then came the day that I stood stunned as I watched a homerun sail over my head and well out of the park. I can’t remember the kid’s last name, but his first name was Stan, and he was probably the biggest kid in the minors. Apparently I wasn’t infallible after all, nor were all of my pitches perfect. I recall the high and inside fast ball. The kid just stood there like a deer in the headlights. It hit him solidly in the forehead just below the bill of his helmet. He dropped like a rock and lay on the ground twitching for a time. Everyone was pretty shook up, including me.
The kid’s mother was yelling, complaining that I was too old to be pitching in the minors – an untrue statement. I was just the fastest pitcher in the league. Kids who faced me had never seen a ball thrown that hard. When they reluctantly stepped into the batter’s box, they were either afraid, or entirely incapable of making contact. In some cases, like the kid I beaned, they just couldn’t get out of the way of the wild ones in time. It turned out the kid I hit was okay and everyone, including me, was pretty happy about that.
That first year in the minors was an excellent introduction to pitching for me. I averaged twelve strike-outs a game. Even though I still had one more year in the minors, some of the other coaches were suggesting that I try out for the majors, and when the spring of 1968 rolled around, so too did baseball season and tryouts. There was only one major league diamond, a regulation American Little League field, which at the time was called Lavelle Field. It was a beautiful, well manicured field, with dug-outs and a concession stand behind home plate.
That day, all the teams were conducting tryouts. I remember there being twelve teams in all. All the teams adopted major league names like the Phillies, Mets, Yankees, Giants, Cubs, Braves, Cardinals, etc., and had the actual major league club emblem on the uniform hats. It was pretty impressive, especially for a 10 year-old – who was probably trying out for a league a whole year earlier than he should. But I was eligible and Dad thought I should give it a shot.
Dad had a friend who was coaching the Phillies team, and the guy agreed to let me try out at pitcher. It was a good showing on my part. I threw about 25 – 30 pitches to the team’s catcher. Ninety percent of them found the strike zone with pretty good speed. The Phillies coach was impressed, but he said he had plenty of pitchers, and even as good as I was, he thought I might be sitting on the bench a lot. He suggested that I play one more year in the minors, and I would surely be a starter next season. We thanked the coach and left. It was disappointing for both of us. Dad and I both thought I was a shoo-in for the spot.
We didn’t know it at the time, but being cut by the Phillies coach turned out to be the best thing that could have happened. The very next day, Dad learned that the Cardinals’ team didn’t have a manager. He seized the opportunity and quickly took the position. Because I was his son, and I was eligible, I joined the Cardinals without a tryout. That was the rule and Dad took advantage of it.
The 1968 Ramstein Little League Cardinals were a diverse and interesting bunch of characters. There was Jim Hurst at third base, Tony and Jamie Parks at second and short, respectively, Steve Moeller and Darryl Wilkerson, both excellent catchers, Ron Grief, in the outfield, Butch Vest, a kid named Reggie who played outfield and pitched occasionally and Mark Gregory, a pitcher, who threw every bit as hard and straight as I did. Gregory, a wide-shouldered twelve year-old also had a talent for hitting homeruns with relative ease. Any pitcher who made the mistake of putting it where he could hit it quickly found that out.
Forty-plus years have caused me to forget many of their names, but suffice to say, we were a force to be reckoned with. We had pitching that that was practically untouchable and an infield that swallowed every ball that came near them. We also had a group of kids that could hit the ball well. It made for a pretty good little league team – good enough, in fact, to win the championship that year, as well as the following year.
Before the start of the 1968 regular season, Dad and I continued to work out, throwing between 50 and 70 pitches every other day. One perfect spring afternoon found us alone at Lavelle Field. I had just begun to warm up when suddenly a team showed up for practice. They were the Braves and their coach was Reed Graham. Coach Graham was my youth football coach the previous fall. It was my first year playing football. We were the Bears and we dominated our age group both years I played for them winning back-to-back championships. Coach Graham was tough. He played on the base adult team, the Ramstein Rams, and they played many other army and air force base teams in our area.
Coach Graham had never seen me pitch, nor had any of the Braves players. When they showed up, we stopped throwing and Dad went over to talk with him. Dad was willing to give up the field so the Braves could practice, but Coach Graham suggested that I pitch batting practice to his team – that they needed to do some hitting. It was a temptation Dad couldn’t resist. I still needed to warm up a little bit more, so their catcher took his position and I continued throwing easy, half-speed pitches.
Coach Graham offered to put some of his fielders behind me, but Dad told him he wouldn’t need to do that. The coach laughed and said he had some pretty good hitters. Dad just smiled. I was nearly warmed up by then so I decided to throw a few fast balls. I warned their catcher that I was going to throw some hard ones, to which he just shrugged his shoulders. My adrenalin was flowing a little faster as I released the first fast ball. It was perfect, right at his chest and very fast. The ball hit his mitt and bounced out and he fell back on his butt. He started paying better attention after that and I threw some more hard ones, mixing in a few curve balls.
One by one, the Braves batters stepped into the box, and one by one I struck them out – thirteen in all. The one hit they got was a little slow dribbler that stopped at my feet. Coach Graham was visibly embarrassed. His face was red and he was barking at his players. Dad thanked him and we quietly left the field to the Braves. It was one of those moments that not even the passage of forty-plus years could erase from my memory.
And so the 1968 season began in earnest. With the exception of the Braves team, only a handful of the 150 or so kids in the league had ever seen me pitch. The very first game of the season found me on the mound. I had warmed up previously and was ready to take the rubber. As I was throwing my last few warm-up pitches, I was taking it easy. Dad gave me the nod from the dugout which meant to bear down and throw hard. On the first hard pitch, I threw it nearly six feet over the catcher’s head and into the backstop screen.
This brought laughter and catcalls from the opposing team’s dugout. I was pretty embarrassed and a little mad at myself. I would not do that again. I quickly regained my composure and delivered the next pitch. It was hard and perfect. It met the catcher’s mitt with a resounding “Whop”. This brought an entirely different sound from the opposing dugout – the sound of a few soft mumbles and whispers and a couple of nearly inaudible moans.
That warm-up pitch was the pace I set. With the exception of some curve balls here and there, I bore down and fired as hard as I could. At the end of five innings, I had struck out thirteen batters. One kid managed to smack one to the third baseman, Hurst, who scooped it up and threw him out at first. I also hit one batter. The kid kept crowding the plate. I backed him out a couple times by throwing inside, but he just kept getting back in there and hanging over the plate. I finally threw an inside fast ball that he couldn’t avoid. It hit him fully on the left thigh. As his coaches were attending to him at home plate, I played catch with my infielders. About three to four minutes later he was limping down to first base. He would not be the last batter I would whack in my short pitching career.
Then came the winter of 1970, and with it a new set of orders for Dad. We were off to K.I. Sawyer, a strategic air command base on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. When we first got to Sawyer, there was no base housing available. We’d have to wait a full month before getting a house on Liberator Avenue. Until then, we lived in a small trailer park on the edge of the flight line.
I remember the snow being so deep (we had 201 inches that winter) that the walkways between the trailers were like miniature canyons, the snow piled so high on each side that it was over Dad’s head, and he was 6’ 2”. For the month we lived on the edge of the flight line, we didn’t need an alarm clock to wake up. Every morning at 0400 hours (that’s 4 A.M.), the reason for the base’s existence came to life. Some fifteen B-52 Stratofortresses as well as a contingent of KC-135, refueling aircraft, would fire up their engines and blow blinding snow everywhere, shaking the trailers so hard that something was always falling off a shelf. We’d all just stand there in the kitchen and laugh. What else could we do?
K.I. Sawyer was Dad’s last posting. He retired from Westover AFB, in Massachusetts, as a senior master sergeant with 24 years of service. Our military life came abruptly to an end, and the new task was readjusting to a civilian lifestyle.
When I look back on all of it now, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a great childhood filled with many good memories and friends we had made all over the globe. Being an air force brat is unique and I have always felt more experienced and worldly because of the many places we had been and the people we met during the adventure. The only sad part of it all is that it ended, and the very best part, the memories of everywhere we went and all the little things that came with life on an air force base.