The oddest game I ever managed? That’s easy. Back in ’70 or ’71 I took my squad, the Overton Beavers, across the state to play Piscataw. We needed a win to make the playoffs. The Piscataw Picadors were going nowhere, but they were tough to beat on their home field. During the bus ride, I fretted about ground rules, strategy, the umpires–everything except uniforms. Ironically, it was our uniforms that decided the game.
My club was banged up. Only ten players were healthy enough to make the trip, and one of them was Splinter Jones, who couldn’t field a lick. Otherwise, Splinter was the perfect bench player. He never bugged me to put him in a game, and he was willing to do anything from keeping the scorebook to filling the water buckets to earn his keep.
It was Splinter who brought a problem to my attention during pre-game warm-ups. Our slugging first baseman, Joe “Bigfoot” Mulvaney, couldn’t get over to cover the bag. Every time he tried, he’d fall flat on his face while the baseball sailed into the seats. That was a head-scratcher. Joe usually only tripped on every third or fourth play, so I knew something was wrong.
Splinter pointed at the ground. I eyeballed Joe’s dogs and feared the poor boy was injured. Both sets of toes pointed toward the outfield instead of at each other. I looked back at Splinter. He said, “It’s his shoes.”
Now my vision has slipped a little from the days when I could count the stitches on a baseball as it sped toward the plate. But I could see well enough to realize that Joe was wearing two left shoes. “He doesn’t always dress like that, does he?” I asked.
Splinter shook his head. I hitched up my pants and trotted out there. “What’s the idea, Joe?” I asked.
The big fellow was on his knees, spitting dirt, so he took a moment to answer. “Well, Skip, I grabbed some gear from my locker and crammed it into my gym bag. When we got here, I noticed I brought two left shoes. Any chance I could borrow a pair?”
That remark wouldn’t have been half so funny if Joe didn’t have the biggest feet in North America. About the only way we were going to get a replacement pair was if one of the elephants in the Piscataw zoo had extra cleats lying around his cage. I said, “No, son, I don’t think we’re going to find any.”
Joe struggled to his feet and threw an arm over my shoulder. He hopped toward the dugout, flipping his mitt to an ashen faced Splinter when we got there.
“Skip, I can’t play. This game is important,” Splinter whined.
“Then think of something,” I replied.
As soon as he reached the bench, Joe yanked the shoe off his right foot and tried to massage some feeling back into the toes. I slipped off my size 11 and held it up for comparison. It was hopeless. Unless Joe folded his toes underneath like an old time Chinese maiden, there was no way his foot was going to squeeze in.
I racked my brain for ideas, but all it produced was a headache. Splinter led our team in as the Picadors took the diamond. Rubbing a fresh bruise on his left forearm, he made a suggestion. “Maybe Joe could play barefoot.”
Joe pulled off his left shoe, which was his way of saying he was willing to try.
Splinter breathed a sigh of relief and swapped Joe’s mitt for the scorebook.
The game started, and we went down in order on a couple of weak grounders and a pop-up. Joe was in the on deck circle when the inning ended. He grabbed his mitt and gimped out to first base. Well, the sight of those giant flippers protected only by a pair of white socks that had seen better days, drew the crowd’s attention. The laughter started as a low murmur, and grew to a roar by the time Joe reached his position. The big fellow stood on the bag wiggling his toes in embarrassment.
The base umpire, a rogue named Finley, tapped Joe on the shoulder. When Joe turned to face him, Finley gave an elaborate wave toward the dugout that brought the crowd to a new level of merriment. Terrified, Splinter said, “Aren’t you going to fight for him, Skip?”
I hustled out, signaling Joe to hold his ground. Finley folded his arms and waited. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Haven’t you heard of Shoeless Joe Jackson? This here’s his grandson.”
That didn’t get the laugh I was hoping for. Finley said, “Either he gets in uniform or he leaves the field.” I was so desperate that I tried the truth. Finley had no sympathy. “Rulebook says all players must dress uniformly,” he insisted.
I fumed and kicked my hat a couple of times for form’s sake. Just as I put my arm on Joe to lead him to the dugout, Splinter dashed out, waving the rulebook. He really didn’t want to play first base. “It’s no use,” I told him. “Finley’s right.”
“No, he’s not, Skip. Rule 1-11 says all players must be uniform. Why can’t the whole squad play shoeless?”
That loosened my dentures. “I can’t ask the team that,” I said, although I was turning the idea over in my mind. Anything was better than replacing my power hitter with a guy who weighed a hundred twenty pounds after a big meal.
By now, half the squad had gathered, despite the efforts of the home plate umpire to shoo them away. Shortstop Chick Harley pulled off his cleats and hurled them toward the dugout. The rest of the boys followed suit. That sent Finley and the other ump into a conference. The Piscataw fans hooted and howled while my boys minced around the infield, trying to get their feet used to the torment.
At last, Finley shrugged his shoulders and turned to me. “Anyone gets hurt, it’s on you.” I thought that might bring Ace Riley, the Picadors manager out to argue, but he sat in the dugout, arms folded, a nasty smile plastered on his puss.
Artie Johnson, our starter, threw his eight warm-up pitches. Clink Evans whipped the ball to second base, the infielders threw it around the horn, and at long last, we were ready to start.