Frank Sinatra once sang, “And there used to be a ballpark, where the fields were warm and green, and people played their crazy game with a joy I had never seen. Yes, there used to be a ball park right here.”
The death of a ballpark is a sad thing. Whether it is majestic Ebbets Field in downtown Brooklyn, where the lights grew dim and slowly extinguished, or the dirt diamond at a small high school in Ohio. Most likely someone and the ballpark has spent quite a long time together.
Sometimes the team leaves softly, through school consolidation, or yields to the temptation of riches and the lure of the deserts of Los Angeles.
I have always been a baseball guy. On most summer days of my young life, I would saunter out of our house, stand in the middle of the street, and gaze across town at the Port William High School baseball diamond.
If there was a game going on, I hurried back inside the house, grabbed my Ted Kluszewski ball glove, Vada Pinson bat, jumped on my bike, and rushed to the school.
After we chose sides, we would play baseball for hours, or at least until the sun began to set behind the trees at the old Mason Farm.
Our official teams played a doubleheader every Sunday. Port William belonged to the Tri-County League and usually had good teams. Don DeVoe, Donnie Fields, John Trivett, Mike Mason, Lou Martin, Butch and Bobby Hooper, Larry Bartram, Jumbo Gray, Bill Bill Beal, Gary Kersey, Gary and Keith Mason, David Kline, Fred Ehlerding, Larry Runyon, Bruce Grooms, Bill Bayless and Rick Fitzpatrick all played for Port William.
The first pitch was thrown precisely at one o’clock as a steady flow of cars quickly filled the parking lot. The overflow of Fords, Chevys and Pontiacs moved to the top of the hill under the large shade trees.
When a Port player hit a double, the horns on the hills sounded like a dozen geese heading south for the winter. A home run sent the horn blowers into a chorus of Rossini’s William Tell Overture that would make the Lone Ranger blush.
I spent 15 years, or only about 20 percent of my life, in Port William, but as my dad, Bob Haley, once told me, “As we approach the later years of our lives all we have left are our memories. They take you somewhere you haven’t been in awhile. Try to cling to them as long possible.”
I’ve received a lot of blessings throughout the course of my life, but my dad was right. Port William is sated with memories for me, and some of the brightest resided at the old ball diamond. It wasn’t just the game. It was the smells, the people, and the way it made us feel.
The summers of baseball moved quickly and the years vanished. As time progressed, the memories of the Port William ball diamond began to scatter into the wind that blew from the same trees on the hill that was sacred ground years ago. They were the hardest to let go.
Last month, Brenda and I sat at the Corn Festival across from Tolliver’s Apple Butter tent and watched the smoke curl from their copper kettle as customers gathered around the fire.
On the last night of the festival, Joetta Tolliver, a former Port William classmate, called me over to their tent. “I have something for you,” she said.
Joetta handed me a large bag. “Here, I want you to have this. I couldn’t think of anyone who would appreciate it more, ” she said.
The bag was heavy, and I had no idea what was in it. I untied the cord and opened the sack. I felt a thick piece of rubber. It was a white baseball home plate, trimmed in black. “It’s the home plate from the Port William baseball diamond,” Joetta whispered.
I slowly touched the precious relic. And it touched me.
“I have touched it many times in my life, Joetta. I never thought I would feel it again, but you are correct. No one will appreciate it more than the Haley Family,” I replied.
My sister, Rita, and I are the only ones left from our family of seven. The others are gone. Oh, how we wish they were here to see this gift.
“The smoke from the old kettle must have gotten in my eyes,” I told Brenda. She smiled, knowing that sadness and happiness often go hand-in-hand, and Joetta’s kindness touched my soul.
A few weeks ago, I was reading a story to my grandson about an aged Shoshone Indian Chief who spoke about gifts. “When a favor is shown to a white man, he feels it in his head and the tongue speaks out; when a kindness is shown to an Indian, he feels it in his heart and the heart has no tongue.”
Joetta gave us a rare opportunity to touch home plate one more time. And our hearts have no tongues.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.