It doesn’t matter that I only lived there 6 years back in the late 50’s. It doesn’t matter that I’ve established my home, profession, raised my kids, and have many friends and deep roots in Stockton after traveling the world. I’ll always consider Roseville my home town.
George Webber, the main character in Thomas Wolff’s 1940 novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again”, realizes, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood… back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame… back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time…”
Reliving memories of youth is not as fulfilling as the creation of those memories. But one can revisit the places of memory creation, though family, friends, neighbors, school and team mates have all long-since moved on. When I do this it’s like awakening long-napping fond memories. Funny how not-so-good memories tend to stay dormant. I like that part.
Recently, I had a little extra time on my hands and coincidently found myself near enough to pay a visit to Charlie Richards Field, my old Little League diamond in Roseville, on the hunch that a game might, just might, be in progress. Jackpot!
Taking a seat in the stands was like sitting at the controls of the H. G. Well’s Time Machine and setting the dial to 1958 when I was 11 years old. Memories began rushing in like a Texas flash-flood. I played on the 1958 and 1959 Yankees. We were the league champs in 1959 and I still have the ‘gold’ baseball-on-a-chain that each player was presented on the field after our final win to prove it. Of course the ‘gold’ was actually copper and it has tastefully tarnished over the years.
The Angels and Reds are playing tonight and infield practice is about to give way to the meeting of managers and umpires at the plate. I played on that field’s first full season in 1958 and the next as well. The ball yard is meticulously cared for just as it had been in my day when it was new. It was innovative for its day because it was one of the few Little League diamonds with lights allowing night games. It was exciting to be there. I was proud.
My visit last week was a bit disappointing. The original cinderblock-framed grandstand had been demolished and replaced by run-of-the-mill aluminum bleachers. In and of itself, not a big deal. But in dead center of the back of the high – to me at 12 years old – wall was a piece of black polished granite in honor of Charlie Richards. Right below his name was also chiseled these words, “A diamond is a boy’s best friend.” I thought those words were clever then and still do, although I haven’t been able to find the origination of that phrase other than the substitution of the word “boy’s” for ‘girl’s” in the song made famous by Marilyn Monroe. I hope someone saved that polished piece of black granite.
Another slight disappointment for me was the lack of an announcer. The batters came to the plate without names amplified for the crowd as had been done in my day. There was a scoreboard operator behind home plate and it wouldn’t be too difficult to plug in a mic and have someone read the names of the batters.
I mention this because it was one of the biggest thrills of my 12-year-old self at the time; that of having my name come over the PA system for all to hear as I swaggered toward the plate with a death-grip on my personal Adirondack bat bought with Sacramento Bee paper route money at Wolfe and Royer Hardware in downtown Roseville. I’m wearing my baggy Yankees uniform – a couple sizes too large for me – complete down to the stirrup sox, knicker-high pants and numbered jersey. Itchy wool, mind you, not the polyester pants and tee-shirts of today. Our cleats were rubber, not steel. Hey, we were kids.
Then, an aging Charlie Richards himself would say my name, MY NAME, so that EVERYONE in the stands could hear. “The batter is Turner!” crackled through the overhead speakers. Talk about pressure. If I made a fool out of myself I wouldn’t be doing it anonymously.
In the batter’s box I always felt intimidated; I was a bit small for my age. That goliaths (to me, least) out there on the mound only 46 feet away, had trouble finding my narrow strike zone so I got on base by walking more than I did by hitting. Drawing a walk is as good as a hit, right?
Speaking of hitting, our bats were wood then, not aluminum like today. On the rare occasions I did connect, there was a satisfying sound that cannot be duplicated by the cheap-sounding aluminum ‘ting’ we hear today. Left and right field fences are 202 feet away with center field 206. That didn’t matter to me, I would never put a ball anywhere near that fence. Except for the time I smacked a line drive in the gap between left and center and the ball took a fortuitous odd bounce. Stand-up triple! Glory days…
In the field I was a fair to middlin’ second baseman, the only position I ever played. Interesting how in one inning I could make a decent play or two and have the pleasure of lots of pats on the back coming back into the dugout. Then, in another inning, boot a play that allows a run and the silence is thick as Delta fog in January. Kids will be kids.
Remember the milk man? Tom McNeil was ours. His day job was delivering Golden State milk in glass bottles to our front porch. He was also our coach. He was kind of a quiet guy but a good and patient teacher of the game. He was more interested in our learning skills and sportsmanship than actually winning. I never saw him upset or even disappointed when we lost or when someone made a dumb move. Winning certainly met with his approval but not in a way that made us feel like winning was the be-all-end-all. He started coaching Little League when his son became old enough to play. That had been some years before I showed up but he loved it so much he continued – much to our benefit. After every game, win or lose, he would pile us into the back of his pickup truck (today a very big no-no) and take us all down to the little Dairy Queen for ice cream cones. When I got out of the Navy years later and started working at the Roseville Press Tribune, I tried to look him up to say hi. Sadly, I was a few years too late; he had died way too young. Coach McNeil taught us to do our very best every day, to lose and to win gracefully, and to always take pride in ours and our teammates efforts. And, above all, to have fun. To this day I wish I could thank him personally for some damned fine memories.
So, can we really go home again? As George Webber indicates, and has become evident in my visits to my home town, not in the literal sense. Home of course is the geographical place, the houses, businesses, schools, and ball parks we remember as kids. But in the truest sense home is gone because the people are, too. It’s the people that really make home a home.
We can never relive those events of long ago, those events that helped shape who we have become many years later. However, visiting the ballpark of my youth with a game in progress certainly fueled the fires of my virtual time machine.