The boys were in the backseat asleep with the youngest sandwiched between his two brothers, and he rested his head on the oldest brother’s shoulder. The steady highway motion on the Merritt and Hutchinson Parkways caused them to drift away. It was an image their mother will not forget during the ups and downs of this day. A small moment in their history. No, it will never be as important as the seminal events over time, like a graduation or wedding, but it will be one of the many small memories that make a family history.
As their SUV crawled down the Major Deegan Expressway, her husband grew increasingly anxious. In the distance, they saw traffic coming to a crawl. A matrix of red brake lights stacked on the horizon, and it was building towards them. With both hands clamped tight on the steering wheel, his jaw muscles danced. Since having the kids, they seldom traveled into the Manhattan or any of the boroughs, and she wondered if he was feeling overwhelmed by the volume of traffic that was not part of their lives anymore.
The morning created a foundation of stress as they corralled the boys and readied them so they could leave on time. To her, this trip was no different than getting them ready for school. However, this wrangling and fighting was something her husband never saw, since he left for work before the boys were even awake. She had this daily dance with time before leaving for her job.
As he navigated three lanes of near bumper-to-bumper traffic, she told him about a dream. With his eyes staring into the staccato flashing of brake lights, he didn’t say anything, which she assumed was his permission to continue.
“Last night I dreamt I was on the ball field again,” she said. “It was so much fun.”
He nodded and murmured, “shit.” He extended his arm over her breasts as if his sinew and bone would be more sufficient than her seatbelt. He slammed on the brakes. They didn’t screech but pulsed to a quick stop and caused the SUV to snap backward. They were inches from the bumper in front of them. He allowed his right hand to release the steering wheel and wiped the thin layer of sweat that had accumulated on his top lip. He adjusted the air conditioning, and she reached for her jacket, which she always carried when they traveled. They were almost there.
“No matter what time we leave, we seem to hit traffic,” he said.
“That’s the price of admission to the big city,” she said, trying to make light of it. “We have plenty of time.”
He snorted. He started to say something but stopped. He was always careful when the boys, whether sleeping or awake, were within earshot. He wanted to give them the impression that everything went smoothly when their father was in charge. He wanted them to trust authority while she constantly pressed and cajoled them into behaving or doing their homework. She wanted them to learn how to stand up for themselves and jostle that trust.
“It’s Old Timer’s Day,” she said as if he needed reminding. “We should have left a little earlier.”
“Obviously,” he said. A tone of annoyance threaded through each syllable.
She rubbed her hand on his thigh as a way of apologizing for further upsetting him. She looked in the rearview mirror. The boys were asleep.
She slid her hand up his thigh, gave his crotch a light touch and gave him a little wink. He smiled with forgiveness.
Having three kids in six years left Ally’s body in shambles. Even now, with the boys now 5, 7 and 10, she never regained her tautness. This was difficult for her since she was once an elite athlete and accustomed to the freedom effortless movement brought her. Her husband, Jack, who had grown paunchy, still had the defined torso, broad back, and bulging arms of the Division I college linebacker he once was. Remnants of their athletic bodies were disappearing while they gave the boys entryway into the world of athletics.
Jack slammed the brakes once again, and the boys stirred this time.
The middle child, Kevin, “Mom,” he called in a sleepy voice.
She turned around. He wiped spittle from the corner of his mouth. He was fighting to keep his eyes open.
“Can you tell me again, what’s Old-Timers Day?” He was the most like his mother and the most interested in baseball. Once finished he curled his body and leaned his head against the window as though she would tell him a story that would return him to a dream state.
“This is when the Yankees invite players back who played a long time ago.”
“Like you mean when you and dad were my age?”
“Yes,” she said. “And some even before that.”
“So that means, they’re really old,” Jason, the oldest and wittiest, added.
“Some of them will be closer to Grandpa’s age,” she said, knowing every adult looked ancient compared to their fresh, cherubic faces.
“And they going to play baseball?” Kevin asked.
“No, not really. It will be like watching guys in slow motion play baseball.”
“Ugh,” Jason said. “Then why bother?”
“It’s fun,” she said. “It’s like when we play in the backyard. It’s also a chance for people to remember what they did when they played. It’s not about what they are now, but what they were then.”
“Do they sell hot dogs during it?” Billy, the youngest, asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s good enough for me,” he added.
She turned to look at him. He already had closed his eyes, nestled back towards his older brother’s shoulder, and placed his thumb near his lips. He was a thumb-sucker, and they were trying to wean from it. Kevin, now fully awake, paged through the Yankee yearbook. Jason stared at the endless apartment buildings, which was quite different from the exurb where they lived. The traffic momentarily loosened, and they continued their pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium.
The tickets were a gift from her husband, Jack. It’s almost a cliché, but many of her best childhood memories were going to baseball games with her family. They usually went once a summer, and it was a tradition she wanted to have with their kids even though Jack was not a big baseball fan. However, he wanted the boys to be more enamored of baseball instead of football. He wanted them to have no part of football, which his wife appreciated.
For the boys, there was nothing noble, political, or generational about baseball for them. It was just fun. Like typical kids, all they cared about was which parent could throw strikes and who was a better hitter than their father. Each one could make that claim since Jack looked like one of those cartoon players. He was so large that the bat looked tiny in his hands. He could never square the bat to the ball. They boys could, and so could she.
This summer whiffle ball batting practice finally turned into backyard games since Billy, whose big hands and feet made him look like a floppy puppy, showed hand-eye coordination that impressed his parents. When the boys chose teams, Ally was quietly pleased they would fight over her. She was the preferred parent.
This is all she ever wanted – to be recognized for her ability and let the chips fall where they may.
The boys again stirred.
“Are we almost there?” Jason said. “I’m hungry.”
The SUV slowed down and stopped parallel to an elderly couple in their mid-sized sedan.
“Is that an old-timer?” Kevin asked.
“No, you dope,” Jason, the oldest said. “They’re just old.”
“I didn’t know you were listening,” Ally said.
He shrugged. He reminded her of her brother Frank, whom she missed every day. He allowed her to play baseball with him and his friends when they were kids. Like Ally, he was an outstanding All-State player. Despite being a late-round draft pick of the Padres, he joined the military instead. He was a captain in the Army when he died during the First Gulf War – a hero saving his platoon at the cost of his own life.
“One day your mother will be playing in an Old-Timers Game,” Jack said.
The boys went slack-jawed before voicing their skepticism.
“That’s right,” he said. “When the Little League has Old Timers day, they’re going to ask to her play.”
A big smile came across his face.
“They have Old Timers for Little League?”
“No, your father is just being silly,” Ally said.
“Girls play Little League?” Jason asked.
“Yeah,” Ally agreed.
“Your mother was one of the first girls to play Little League.”
Until this point, neither of them told the boys stories about their playing days. They didn’t want to live in their past glories, and they didn’t want to pressure their children into a path that might not be theirs.
“Not only that,” Jack gushed. “She was an All-American in College.”
There was no recognition from the boys. Jack glanced in the rearview mirror and saw their blank faces.
“That means she was like one of the best players in the entire country.”
“And your father played football,” she said, wanting to change the subject.
“No duh, mom,” Jason said. “That’s all we hear every time when he can’t hit.”
Jack’s jaw clenched, and she tried not to laugh.
“Your mother was good. No great,” Jack said, trying to change the subject back to his wife and her accomplishments.
All three boys were awake and listening. They always enjoyed hearing stories of the past as they imagined their parents in full adult form convening life as children.
“Were you good?” Kevin asked innocently.
She smiled, paused, and said, “I was an All-Star.”
“She was All-State in high school, and an All-American in both high school and college,” Jack interjected with pride.
“No, softball,” he said. “Fastpitch.”
She sensed some deflation in the backseat.
“Did you ever hit a home run in Little League?” Jason asked.
“Yes, just one,” she said.
“But,” she added quickly. “It was during the championship game against the Dodgers.”
“Was it far?”
“Well, it cleared the fence,” she said, not feeling the need to embellish. “The game was tied in the last inning. There were two outs, and the coach said to me, ‘get a hit, we’ll have you steal second, and score when JB is up.’”
“Who’s JB?” Billy asked.
“Sure, sure,” she said. “JB was Johnny Baldwin. He was our clean up hitter.”
“That means you hit third in the lineup?” Jason said.
“Oh,” he said with recognition of her importance.
“The pitch comes right over the middle, and crack!” she exclaimed. The boys straightened in the backseat. “The ball rose and rose. I nearly stopped running to watch it. The left fielder was backpedaling and pow!” The boys straightened again. “His back hit the fence. The ball barely dropped over.”
“But it did,” Billy said.
“Yes, it did.”
“I don’t remember much after that, but when I reached home, everyone on the team started patting my helmet, and we all hugged like we won the World Series.”
“Cool,” Jason said. “That’s really cool.”
She nodded. “It was.”
When they walked into Yankee Stadium, Ally was just as mesmerized today as when her parents took her sister, brother, and her to their first game. While some kids, like her less athletically-inclined sister, was interested in getting a pen shaped like a bat or popcorn, Ally loved studying the players on the beautifully manicured field. They glided over it; every throw appeared effortlessly perfect, and they joked and chatted as they waited for the ball to be hit to them. These men were two-dimensional gods of her making. Ally looked into the dugout to see if she recognized the faces of some of the Old Timers. Some looked fit, and others were tottering old men, which she less found difficult to reconcile with their achievements and once youthful prowess now that she had entered middle age.
The players were announced with their career accolades, and they trotted along the first and third baselines.
Hank Bauer was introduced. He played a dozen years for the Yankees and was a solid professional. There was a fair amount of polite applause.
“There’s a brave man,” Ally said to Jason.
“I’ll tell you later.”
That evening after they put the boys to bed, Ally curled into Jack’s arm and placed her head on his chest. He clamped his arm over her shoulder and held her tight. She smelled the day’s stale remnants on him: a soft odor of sweat, hot dogs, and beer.
“I bet you were something,” he said.
“When you were playing Little League,” he said.
“I was,” she said, matter of factly. She kissed him on the cheek.
“I would have had a crush on you,” he said.
He aimed the remote at the television and turned on the MLB network for a recap of the day. In a few minutes, she heard the small grumble of his breath moving in and out.
Ally closed her eyes and returned to those days that were distant and fuzzy. She didn’t remember all fifty games that constituted her Little League career but still recalled a few things besides being one of the first girls to play Little League and hitting a home run. Her memory encompassed everything around those summers, which was more important than the games.
Her love of baseball came easily, and the sense of loss pressed down on her chest. Her biggest advocate, her brother Frank, was gone. He was responsible for cultivating her love for the game when he let her join his friends on the field. They needed another body, and Ally was more than capable. Frank, not her parents, was the one who urged to try-out in 1975.
Prior to try-outs, her parents attended a meeting at a local hotel called by the league’s board of directors to address concerns about girls able to play. When they returned late that night, Ally was awake and wanted to hear about the meeting. Her parents said the room was jammed, mainly with men, who were upset. Ally’s father half-joked the room was filled with fathers whose sons were marginal players and would be on the wrong side of the cut. They couldn’t imagine their sons being beaten by girls. The league’s president explained a court case determined girls had to be admitted and they better get used to the idea. Ally’s father asked her if she still wanted to play. She nodded ‘yes.’ Tears welled in his eyes. He pinched her on the cheek, kissed her forehead, and told her to get some sleep.
She went to try-outs on a cold April Saturday morning, and when Ally thought of this some thirty years later, her palms still felt tacky. There were about one hundred boys in jeans and sweatshirts and three girls. She kept to herself and hustled with every instruction. When it was her turn to hit, she smacked three line drives down the left field line. The coach who was pitching, Dave Zysk, smiled and said, “one more.” He grooved one down the pipe, and she hit it to the fence. “Not bad for a girl,” he said.
Frank’s former coach decided not to pick her. Instead, Ally went to the Pirates coached by Zysk. She recalled moments that were lonely and dispiriting, but even after all of these years, she was unsure how much of those emotions were from being the only girl or the nature of baseball. During batting practice, the coach didn’t like them to gather in groups and talk. As she stood alone at second base, others gathered in pairs to talk about the upcoming game or some movie.
She chuckled audibly when she remembered Zysk saying, “Don’t throw like a girl,” and he never had to say it again. That night she went home and played catch with Frank for hours until the hitch in her throw vanished.
The day when Zysk handed out uniforms and hats to the players, he told them to the inside of their hats with their name. He took Ally’s hat and with a magic marker wrote, “Girl.”
The most hurtful event occurred after a game, and she never shared it with anyone. As she left the girls bathroom while her team was at bat, she tried to slide by a group of boys so she could get back to the dugout. One of them mumbled to “dyke” as she tried to slip by. This elicited a laugh from his thug friends. It wouldn’t be the last time she heard such a taunt.
Her two years playing Little League, despite that moment, were mostly asexual but those would be the last where she would play in the world where only performance mattered. Through her playing days in high school and college, she would be judged by her appearance in her uniform or any clothes as much as her ability. Men still checked her out, more interested in her appearance than her ideas. When they can, they’re still trying to glimpse of her breasts when she bends forward.
She lifted Jack’s arm from her shoulder and tenderly placed it on his hip. She would let him stay on the couch until he found his way into the bedroom. She turned off the television and the light.
Next to her bed was a small bookcase, which held more pictures than books. Most of them were of the boys or family gatherings that included her siblings and parents. She held the picture of her with her father – the last one of them together before he died. She didn’t return it to the shelf but placed it on the nightstand. She pawed away a film of dust and made a note to clean tomorrow. She removed a book that had been partially hidden by the picture. It was Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964 by Peter Golenbock. Her father had given it to her when she wanted to learn more about the Yankees, the team he adored.
She paged through it to see who was at the Old-Timers game today. But she stopped. There was one passage she remembered from the first time she read the book. Hank Bauer. She turned to the page where Golenbock wrote how Bauer nearly climbed into the stands when he heard racial slurs directed at his teammate and friend Elston Howard, who was the first African-American player on the Yankees. Bauer was prepared to fight the entire stadium if needed.
She closed the book and rested it on her lap. She never told the boys why Bauer deserved a standing ovation. She was tired and now emotionally spent. The house was quiet. All of her boys were asleep, dreaming of what she hoped were better days.