Summer baseball and softball are just around the corner. Youth foundations throughout Wood County are having sign-ups for the spring and summer tradition of America’s game.
The very first team Little League team I played on was a team called the Yankees. It was really difficult for me to play for the Yankees because I was a big fan of the Milwaukee Braves and Pittsburg Pirates, although I did love Yogi Berra. We had no major league team in Dallas when I was growing up, but my Dad loved baseball and we spent many nights at Burnet Field in Oak Cliff watching various renditions of Dallas minor league teams from the Dallas Eagles to the Dallas-Ft. Worth Twins and eventually the Dallas Spurs who moved the franchise to Arlington and a place called Turnpike Stadium. We finally got a pro team in Texas in 1960, but it was in Houston and they were called the Houston Colt .45’s and played in a mosquito pit of a stadium. At least I got to go see my favorite teams, Milwaukee and Pittsburg, play every summer when my little league team took an annual trip. I got to see my heroes, Hank Aaron, Eddie Matthews and Warren Spahn of the Braves along with Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazerowski and Elroy Face of the Pirates.
From the late 1950s through 1968, I played for teams in Boys Baseball, Inc.(BBI). We did not have a draft so you went to try-outs and if you were good enough you made the 15 man (boy) roster. I first played what was called Class A ball with ages 9, 10, and 11. It was while playing at that level I learned a good deal about patience. Unless you were some kind of a superstar, you sat the bench until it was your time to play. That first year, I may have gotten two at bats. I spent the summer “riding the pine” as they used to say. You made every practice and hoped to just get a chance to get in a game.
The next year as a 10 year old, I got to play a little bit more and at the mature age of 11 I got my first season starting gig as a first baseman who batted second in the line-up. I batted second because I learned to bunt at an early age. One of my coaches, Buddy Johnson, whose son Jerry (we called him Buddy too) taught me the ins and outs of laying down the perfect bunt. If we got runners on and needed a run, I got the bunt signal. It was a tool I would use often as I grew older as a player and a coach.
Every year BBI would have a huge “Opening Day” event. Every team would play a four- or five-inning exhibition game the Saturday before regular season opened, but the best part of the day was the punch card each player got for food. First, there was a parade with each team participating all with a team sweetheart sitting on a convertible driving through the streets of Oak Cliff on our way to Kiest Park.
The punch cards had $1.50 worth of food items on it. Hot Dogs were a dime and drinks were a nickel, so a young kid could make himself sick eating those grilled dogs. I would always latch on to extra cards from those who were leaving early so I had an eventful culinary outing. I think my record for one day was 19 hot dogs and two days throwing up.
I stayed with those same Yankees through Classes 2A (14 and under) and 3A (16 and under) and I missed the 1967 season when I had my first spinal fusion. We did not have “elite” and “travel” teams at that time. You played baseball in the summer, football in the fall and basketball in the winter. There were no “club” teams and you played with your neighborhood buddies. If you did not make one team, you tried out for another until you found one with an opening.
After my surgery, the Connie Mack level (17 and 18 year olds) Yankees had gotten to be the best team in BBI so I had to find another team to play on. In other words, I was not good enough for the Yankees anymore, but I was okay with it and understood why. They did not need another player at my position so I had to move on, a lesson in humility which served me well. My last two years I spent one with the Dallas Police Association team and another with the Oak Cliff Kiwanis.
Until 2014 when I returned to the newspaper business, I either played or coached the game I have loved since a young age for almost 60 years. I can say with pride those men who took the time to coach had a positive effect on me. I learned a lot about patience while sitting the bench and even more about loyalty to your teammates and coaches. My coaches were my Dad (Clent Tucker), Tracy Wright, Buddy Johnson, Phillip Holt, R.A. Collins, Ernie Crayton, Waymon Bryant and Pat Bridges in summer ball. They are all gone now, but memories of them and the summers of my youth are forever ingrained in my spirit.