“Everybody run to first base,” he yelled, and his team took off. Two things were immediately obvious. The first was that their knees didn’t bend when they ran, and the second was that they had no idea where first base was.

He walked over to first base.

“This is first base,” he said. And the boys all ran to gather around him.  They’d just learned their first baseball lesson:  how to find first base.

The rest of the practice went much the same way. They took a group tour of the infield, identifying each of the bases, then home plate and the pitcher’s mound. By the end of the hour they had increased their baseball knowledge immeasurably.

It wasn’t until that night, as I was thinking about the practice, that I realized that I could not remember a time when I hadn’t known where first base was. Or, for that matter, what a suicide squeeze, a drag bunt or a sacrifice fly was. I have, so far as I remember, always had a working definition of the infield fly rule. But I grew up on a ball field, and—in season—I watched ball games every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon and played baseball every other day.

It wasn’t that I was a good baseball player.  I chopped my swing, regularly delivering easy-to-catch ground balls to the infield, and my nickname—No Peg—pretty well described my throwing abilities. I was pretty good with a glove, and that kept me from being totally disgraced on the field.  That—and the fact that I came from a baseball family.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, before there was a TV in every living room and when big league baseball was confined to sixteen teams north of Washington, DC and east of Chicago, every town had its own baseball team.  Some were professional (at least at some level), like the Raleigh Caps and Durham Bulls, who played in the Carolina League, and the Dunn-Erwin Twins from the Tobacco State league.

That, except for the occasional pre-season exhibition game, was our idea of professional baseball.

But the teams that we followed most closely were our town teams.  They were technically semi-professional in that everybody still had a day job, but more than that they were men who had loved baseball all of their lives and refused to give it up.

Our team was the Benson Bulls.  We had Jim Thornton catching; he later gave up the position to become a local TV star and in the process launched the career of Jimmy Capps, who spent nearly forty years in the house band at the Grand Ol’ Opry. At first was Will Woodall, the owner of a local clothing store, who was built a lot like Ted Williams.  But what made the team more important to me was that, on most days, we had Ray Holmes in right field, Howard Holmes in center, and Bobby Holmes in left. At either short stop or third base, there was Ed Holmes.  He was my father.

Daddy was built like an in-fielder, compact and very quick.  He was 5’ 8” and about 150 pounds almost all of his life, and he could move to his right or his left as quick as a snake. He also had a tendency to crowd the plate, resulting in a concussion and three broken ribs.

So on any summer Sunday, the Bulls took the field against town team from Coats or Angier—or whoever they were playing—and they were no longer the manager of the tractor dealership, the owner of the grocery store, or the appliance serviceman at the furniture store. They were baseball players. And strained through sixty years of memory, they were great baseball players.

Most of the games have grown fuzzy and have overlapped each other now, but one stands out, apart from all the rest, because there were two things burned into my memory.

The first was that the starting pitcher—and in those days, that was the same as the finishing pitcher—showed up drunk. I don’t remember his name, but his nickname was Red Wing, a composite, I suppose, of the color of his hair and his position as a pitcher.  He was a left hander and was a ringer.  He was imported from Erwin, and I would imagine somebody was paying him. But on that day he didn’t show up ready to work. He staggered up to the bleachers and evidently decided that was as far as he could go.  He laid down and spent the entire game flat of his back singing softly to himself.  I’m not sure how he got back home.

But the second thing meant more to me. It hadn’t been a particularly good game for Daddy. Having gotten on first, he took off at the crack of the bat.  But he lost the ball and—thinking it was still somewhere in the outfield —wheeled around second. The short stop was waiting for him with the ball in his hand. Out three.

But the Bulls, without their starting pitcher and with what Daddy kept calling a “dumb, dumb, dumb play” managed to stay in the game, and—again, as I remember it—held a slim lead going into the ninth. The other team loaded the bases, and it looked like the lead would evaporate. One out. Three men on base. A tired pitcher who wasn’t supposed to be pitching.  A late Sunday afternoon.

There was, as always, a lot of chatter from the infield, telling the pitcher that he could do it, that the batter couldn’t hit, and that nothing would get by the infielders. It was more habit than a testimony of belief.

The pitcher served one up right across the plate and, the batter connected, slashing a line drive—a frozen rope—straight down the third base line, rising from the moment it left the bat.  All of the runners took off, confident that the ball would make it at least to the fence.

But Daddy moved quickly to his right and jumped higher than I’d ever seen him, grabbing the ball in the webbing of his glove.  He came back down on the bag, leaving the runner standing between third and home with his jaw dropped and nowhere to go.  It was an unassisted double play, and it ended the game.  The play more than erased his running error; it was the play that made the difference. Daddy was the hero. 

It was hard to be a hero back then. Money was tight, never really enough. You worked hard sixty or seventy hours a week, and at the end of the month, there was a good chance that you were no better off than at the beginning of the month, and at the end of the year no better off than the beginning of the year.  I don’t think Daddy ever lived up to his own expectations.

But on one fine Sunday afternoon, Daddy had made an obvious difference, one that even he could appreciate. I don’t remember him ever mentioning it again, but I like to think that as long as he lived he remembered the feeling of that moment.

Chuck Holmes, who considers himself to be a part of the last generation of pure southerners—pre-air conditioning and pre-TV, lives in Tucker, Georgia.


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