Granddad’s Ballgame

How Franklin Wilson got a nickname and became a professional baseball player.

Baseball in a mitt

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When my Granddad was just a boy, to hear him tell it, there were only three things he ever wanted to do in his life. One was to get the girl who lived on the farm catty-corner to take a shine to him. Another was to see the world, or at least some part of the world outside Indiana. The third was to make a ballplayer out of himself.

Now by the time he left school, truth be told, he hadn’t made a whole lot of progress. The neighbor girl, Katie Lee, had taken to a chaste courtship with an older man, though Granddad reckoned that arrangement would prove temporary, on account of the wife everyone knew the man had back in town. The farthest Granddad had yet ventured was down to Bean Blossom for a couple of FFA get-togethers, which showed him so little of the world he deemed it statistically insignificant.

Baseball, though, that was going right nicely. He was no bona fide professional, but he could swing a bat as well as any of the boys on his local team, and played the infield a fair bit better than that. The way he figured, a baseball career could give him a leg up on his other two goals.

His own daddy felt otherwise, and used to tell him that the world needed ditch diggers too, and that there weren’t anything wrong with that honest profession. Granddad didn’t have much choice but to listen while under that roof, but once the consumption took his parents in the spring of ’41, they didn’t have much say in the matter, and the last ditch Granddad dug was to bury his folks on the family plot out back of the farmhouse.

Now in those days, to hear Granddad tell it, the only way to get a tryout with a real ball club was to get your reputation known. Even bona fide professionals didn’t make all that much money back then, not like it is these days. Baseball was more like a good summer job, but you still had to make your wages in the offseason. Men came home and pumped gas, worked the farm. Pick the right day, you could buy a soda from a fella who spent the summer in the big leagues. The team bosses were making their money, but …

Sorry, where was I? So Granddad was no dummy. He knew he had the talent to stick, but every town for miles had a half-dozen players as good or almost there.

Lucky for him, that winter Japan sent a mess of planes out over Pearl Harbor, and the country reacted right quick. Men his age from all over were finding themselves sent off to fight, but Granddad was 4F on account of a fallen arch in his right foot. The country reckoned he was better used getting paid not to grow corn on the family plot, so as to keep prices from cratering, giving him plenty of time to try to practice his swing. He made a point of playing on every team that would give him a fair shake, switching teams when he had to so he could play every day, just so he might catch the eye of traveling scouts fixing to replace all the ballplayers called up to active duty. He did a lot of talking, too, spreading a few tall tales among the other players, hoping something might be memorable enough to stick.

Before he could consider himself a real ballplayer, he felt like he needed a real ballplayer nickname. To Granddad, there was something romantic in the notion that a man could play one game without footwear and be known as “Shoeless Joe” for generations to come. He thought names like “Pie” Traynor or “Hippo” Vaughn were memorable enough, but he had a tiny bit of spare tire about his belly and didn’t want anything that might draw questions about his figure. He liked the ring of something like Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown, but felt a nickname that literal required a degree of sacrifice to which he couldn’t quite cotton.

He told my Daddy years later that he would have liked something along the lines of old “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, if he’d been around then, until Granddad learned its origin was nothing more exciting than the name of an Alabama town near where Wilmer Mizell came into the world. Granddad hailed from the less colorfully monikered locality of Franklin, which was his Christian name already and seemed rather redundant.

Pardon me, I’m digressing rather a bit.

Anyhow, Granddad rightly subscribed to the notion that a man can’t well give himself a nickname, but he saw no reason why a man couldn’t try to get one from others. So he tried his hand at leading his teammates in the direction of something suitable, trying to earn one with, what’s the word, affectations. No matter how well he played, his teammates never suggested “One Sock” Wilson, or “Sleeveless Frank” Wilson, and his attempt to earn the “Eye Patch” Wilson moniker earned him nothing but a welt from an inside fastball he didn’t see coming.

All through the summer of ’42, Granddad hit like one of them metronomes, steady as they come. Teams come through town on barnstorming tours, and teams gone home talking about the shortstop from down in Franklin County. Not much power, but the man could get on base and range like a jackrabbit, though he was developing a bit of a reputation as a colorful character on account of his affectations.

Now as Granddad always told it, the first weekend in August, the whole county had itself a big tournament to show off the local boys for a mess of big league scouts who were trying to fill up their minor league farm teams with some young players, on account of how many regular players were off playing on Uncle Sam’s team. Mostly the whole county turned out too, and Granddad had never played ball in front of so many folks. He spied that Katie Lee was there with her daddy instead of her beau, tipped his cap to her, and winked as he sprinted out to the field, but he lost her when the park kept on filling.

They didn’t play the national anthem at ballgames in those days, so the crowd never really stood still while they was waiting for the game to start. By the time it did, there was so many curious folks, they had to line up around the edge of the field. Granddad’s squad even paid the players a little taste of the gate, on account of the bigger crowd, which in his eyes counted as making him a bona fide professional for a change.

Good thing he crossed that off his list, he used to say, as once the game against the boys from Brookville got underway, Granddad wasn’t having himself much luck. Whether it was the sight of the neighbor girl, or knowing all them scouts were there, or the flashbulbs from the local news reporters, he couldn’t focus himself. He wasn’t alone neither; the umpire lost track of the count Granddad’s first time up, but it just let him badly miss at four pitches instead of three. Next time up, he tried to pull back his swing too late and sent the ball just a few feet straight up into the air and straight back down again into the catcher’s mitt.

The other players on his team fared a bit better, so Granddad looked all the worse by comparison, but the team was winning. Granddad liked to win as much as anybody, but he was no dummy, and he knew the rest of the boys looking good when he didn’t wasn’t going to be much use to him. Their pitcher, Lefty McCullough, was striking out so many Brookvillers that Granddad hadn’t even got a chance to make a play at short.

Come the ninth inning, the fellas from Franklin was up by just one run, and McCullough’s arm was starting to tire. He hit one batter, then gave up a roper that put men at the corners with two out, and the biggest farmboy in Brookville at the plate, swinging the biggest bat most folks in the county had ever seen.

That boy hit the ball hard but low, what Granddad used to call a wormburner, a situation shouldn’t have given him much trouble. Wouldn’t you know it, the ball found a pebble on its way to see Granddad and hopped up like a grasshopper. He had to stretch to his left to corral it, and it spun him halfway round before he could make the throw to first off his back foot.

Now, any man watching would have called it a bad throw, seeing as it sailed so wide off first that old Tommy Bennett could have grown eight feet high and still not been able to reach far enough. Granddad was rightly mortified, even more when he saw the ball heading toward the crowd and spied a spectator moving right into its path.

Those folks who didn’t see the man get hit sure did get to hear it, seeing as the ball smacked the side of his skull and knocked him straight over like a tenpin.

The crowd, as you might expect, flocked to the spot to see just what happened, and check if the man could get his wits back about him. Even the umpire called time once there was enough commotion that the players couldn’t fairly concentrate.

Now, what Granddad had no way of knowing at the time was that the man he’d nearly sent to old St. Peter’s doorstep was in the process of absconding with a pile of purses he’d unhelpfully collected from women as he worked his way through the stands, using a penknife to cut the straps and carefully removing the rest. When the crowd figured out the thief’s plan, largely on account of the dozen handbags that fell when he did, Granddad found himself treated to a proper round of applause.

To be fair, he never actually claimed he meant to hit that man and save several ladies from difficult circumstances; he just didn’t see any reason to disabuse anyone of that notion. Especially when people saw fit to rush the field and lift him up on their shoulders, or when the future Katie Lee Wilson gave him a peck on the cheek on account of his rescuing her pocketbook.

They finished the game as a formality, but mostly people forget the result. They remembered “Bull’s-Eye” Wilson, and people told the story of that perfectly timed throw round these parts for a long, long while.

Figuring the publicity might draw a few fans, the St. Louis Browns gave Granddad a spot on one of their farm teams, seeing as the war kept better players otherwise occupied for a few years, and gave him his chance to see more of America. As good a hitter as he was for a boy from Franklin County, he never quite measured up to the bona fide professionals, and spent most of his two summers as a ballplayer sitting on the bench. After his deal with the government as concerned his farm, Granddad had gotten right used to drawing some money without having to do much for it, and always said he got paid to watch games from the best seats.

Now he’s gone, I have to tell I never quite knew how much of Granddad’s stories were monkeyshines, or how many really were truthful. To hear him tell it, though, he sure did hit the bull’s-eye on life, and there ain’t no denying that.

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Comments

  1. Interesting story Jeff. I like your writing style. It seems like a story I might overhear sitting at a ‘Twin Peaks’ style diner at the counter while waiting for dinner. Whether in town on business or just passing through, you get a slice of life regarding at least one family who lived there, and the important role baseball plays in the town as a whole.

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