Spring–and baseball dreams

In the midst of War and Covid, my mind goes to baseball. Maybe because it is spring, and some of my best and earliest memories are about baseball and spring. How I hung out at a Minnesota Youth baseball program meant for older kids until they let me practice, and once travel to a game on the Red Lake Reservation and play an inning in right field.

We moved to California, Little League started in our town, and then there was Babe Ruth and high school ball and all-star tournaments—and dreams of Little League World Series, high school championships, and more baseball.

No Little League World Series, no pro ball, no college baseball. For me, more baseball meant coaching it, from T-ball to American Legion. I loved every minute of it. Loved playing and coaching, watching my kids and grandkids play basketball and football and run track as well. But there is something special about baseball and spring.

On Sunday I drove to La Grande to watch a baseball game. Eastern Oregon University has taken up the sport again, and they were playing a double header with Bushnell University from Eugene. Bushnell is an old Christian college with a new name, and has revived its baseball program after a 50 years hiatus. Both teams have losing records.

But what a treat! My first thought on walking up to the field—no tickets, no pay station—was that it looked like the United Nations. There were Black players and Brown players, by their names some were Asian and some Latino. Plenty of White players too—as one would guess, it being Eastern Oregon.

Bushnell’s shortstop, no more than 5’6” tall, turned two nice double plays and had a great arm from deep short. Their stout Black DH, named Fripp, knocked one out with the bases loaded. Garcia, Eastern’s skinny left fielder, poked one out too, and Hino, the other 5’6”er from Bushnell, caught one beautifully against the wall in center field.

I got to the game late—top of the fourth inning—and had to leave before it was over. Baseball doesn’t know a clock. But the chatter of the players, the whoops and hollers with a homerun, and the rises in the crowd took me back to so many baseball times in my own life. I could remember being behind the plate and watching a good curve ball into my mitt, telling the batter the ball had better eyes than he did. And I could see my sons hitting, throwing, and running the bases—they were both much faster than I was.

As I drove home from La Grande, I thought about all those kids out there on the field, dreaming of hitting it out, maybe dreaming of making it somewhere bigger, like Oregon State or the pros. How in baseball a guy who is 5’6” but blessed with speed or a strong arm or fast wrists can still compete—and dream. Baseball is all about dreams.

And then I thought about our upcoming exhibit, “Native Sport,” and about Levi McCormack, “the most beloved Spokane player of all-time,” and the father of good friends. Reading up on Levi, and looking at the photos that his daughter sent for the exhibit, it occurred to me that this “Chief”—Indian ballplayers were always called “Chief”—might have made it to the major leagues but for war and chance. In 1940, his batting average was .327, he had 108 RBI’s and scored 130 runs, and in 1941 he led Spokane to the Western International League (later Pacific Coast League) championship, with his 191 hits.

And then 1942—and the War.

The War took years away from Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and many more. It came on as Levi’s career was ascending, and, in 1946, when he returned to Spokane, chance struck and robbed him again of bigger dreams. The team bus was headed to Seattle, and a wrong-lane driver coming over Snoqualmie chased it over the road’s edge. Levi was on that bus, and survived with injuries that would end his career the following year. Nine teammates died, and six were severely injured.

There was a Levi McCormack night at the park in Spokane; 8,000 fans showed up and they gave him a new car. His name is engraved on the “Rim of Honor” at Avista Stadium in Spokane. He went on to success in business and having a gaggle of fine kids. And just maybe, baseball dreams helped Levi—and Williams and DiMaggio and others—make it through their wars.

His dreams of 80 years ago are probably matched by those imagined by a bunch of young men from Eastern Oregon and Bushnell universities. And, even without war and Covid, the chances of one of them making it to the Big Leagues are probably smaller than his were in 1946.

Life takes its turns, and baseball dreams weave their ways into thousands of young minds today, as they have for as long as there’s been baseball.

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