Prairie Hill – a prequel short story

My novel, Prairie Hill, has its origins in a short story first published in Fan, a baseball literary magazine, in 1992. Although “Jimmy Lathrop” is not an autobiographical tale, the setting and atmosphere come from my own experiences playing high school baseball in the late 1970’s. No doubt the strangest game I ever played took place against a reform school run by monks. We wore old-fashioned flannel uniforms, but the reform school team donned tattered uniforms dating from the 1950’s. Their baseball diamond featured an outfield that no one had mowed yet and a rocky infield with ruts and pits, a non-existent pitcher’s mound and a rusty chain-link backstop.

After publishing “Jimmy Lathrop,” I kept thinking about the central character and I began to take notes about his life, sketching out a character study, meeting his family members, exploring his world. A few years later I passed through a quiet, dusty small town in Wisconsin. Looking out the window, I spotted a forlorn-looking black and white Holstein cow, waving to passersby, inviting them to stop at a local inn for the “best burgers in town.” The image stayed with me and, in time, came together with the mysterious Jimmy Lathrop, only he wore a chicken costume instead…

My brother Jeremy graciously rummaged through my mother’s meticulously kept photograph albums and scanned a few photos of me in my ball playing days, used here to illustrate “Jimmy Lathrop.” As an avid collector since the age of six, I took the opportunity to try out some of my favorite baseball card poses!

Jimmy Lathrop

Pulvey parked on a dirt lot next to a couple of baseball fields. Behind a thin line of trees and up on a hill, I saw a huge, gothic stone building with slate-shingled turrets.

“Come on guys! Get a move on!” yelled Pulvey. “Let’s warm up. The other team ain’t here yet.”

We shook out our travel-weary legs and trotted past the rusted chain link backstop and onto the lifeless ball field. I shagged some fly balls out in right, but grounders were hopeless. The grass grew above my ankles.

“This place sucks!” shouted Snitzer in center, when a grounder stopped short ten feet in front of him.

“Shut up, Bump,” came Pulvey’s voice from home plate. His words, and the next ball he swatted, died with the wind that kicked up dust and candy bar wrappers.

The sun had snuck behind clouds when the St. Boniface team filed down the hill to the filed, followed by a monk in a brown robe. We Emory Friends Schoolers crowded onto a bench, and watched them play pepper. Their ratty flannel uniforms were too big or too small, depending on the player. They seemed unfriendly…and strangely silent.

Pulvey walked over to the monk and said, “I’m Coach Pulvermacher,” and held out his hand. The monk ignored it. “We will play seven innings,” was all he said. They exchanged lineup cards.

Bump nudged me as their pitcher took the mound and fired some in. “Look at this dude. He probably shaved when he was ten.”

The St. Boniface pitcher was well over six feet and dark-faced, pockmarked. He threw one hard that got past the catcher and lodged in the backstop. “Be glad that’s not your baby face,” said Butterfield, our second baseman.

The umpire, whose blue shirt strained over his immense belly, shouted “Play ball!” I was the first batter up and stepped into the box. I felt the sweaty presence of the catcher next to me, and behind the cage, the monk. I nearly fell on my butt when he growled, “Hum it in there, Jimmy!” The first pitch was a called strike. The monk kept up a steady patter, “He’s no hitter; Swing! batter batter Swing! You got a strikeout Jimmy, hum it.” I swung hard at the next pitch, which hit the dirt in front of the catcher, and knocked him back. I dug in.

Pulvey was dancing around in front of our bench. Our players struggled to see past him. “Good eye, Kimball, good eye. This guy’s wild. Take your time.” I took the next pitch for a ball. Jimmy shrugged his shoulders up and down in a way that looked familiar to me. He kicked high and the next one came in fast and low. I swung, missed, heard the monk cheer, but not a word from the players perched on the St. Boniface bench. I gazed at the mound and saw a look of intensity on Jimmy’s face that was damn familiar.

Pulvey ignored me as I plopped down. He was already shouting at Bump. “Get your ass in there, Snitzer. He ain’t gonna knock you down!”

I asked this little eighth grade kid, Tony Lopello, our “manager,” to pass me the scorebook a second. I looked down their lineup. Batting fourth and pitching, Jimmy Lathrop. Jesus, the last time I saw him he was my height and sunny-faced. Sixth grade. Five years ago. “Hey Coach.” I jogged up to him.

“What?” He didn’t look at me. “Jesus Christ, Bump. Keep your eye on the g.d. ball! What do you want, Kimball?

“What are these kids in here for?” I asked.

He glanced at me quick, raising up one of his railroad track eyebrows. “Shit, I don’t know. All kinds of stuff. They mess up at school. They steal cars. They beat people up. You know. Delinquents.”

“Thanks Pulvey.” I sat down again. The Jimmy Lathrop I knew was a gentle farm kid. Apple orchards – I remembered climbing up the mountain of sweet-smelling apple crates to a tunnel that led to his hideout. We’d talk about girls and whether the Phillies would finally reach the World Series again. Baseball. He was always good at that.

We went down in our half of the first. I grabbed my glove and crossed the hard-packed infield. I passed by Lathrop. “Hey Jimmy,” I said. “Pete Kimball.” His head jerked a little, but he kept right on for their bench.

Our team made no progress against them. We misplayed grounders hopping off infield pebbles, threw to the wrong cutoff men, under threw, over threw. Once a heavy kid pounded a ball into the outfield. I was sure he was too much of a snail to get very far, so I ran it down. Snitzer had the same idea. “Outa my way you fucker!” he yelled. His blue cap flew off and his curly hair bounced around like it was trying to hold on. We nearly crashed, then watched the ball drop. We stomped around the tall grass, looking for it. The umpire was all ready to call it a ground rule double, when Snitzer (the bozo) came up with the ball and a fistful of grass. “Here it is! I found it!” The fat kid made it home, no problem.

Back at the bench again, Snitzer tapped “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his teeth – teeth tapping is one of his few talents. “Bump, next time you run for a ball, leave your ego at home,” said Pulvey.

Butterfield picked up his bat. “I wish he’d leave his teeth at home.”

Bump kicked at a dried out patch of grass. “Hey, this team is really gruesome. The pitcher’s psycho.”

“What you need Snitzer, is a muzzle,” said Pulvey walking away.

I faced Jimmy again in the top of the fourth inning. We hadn’t hit a lick off him, but he walked a couple of us. It was either a walk or a strikeout. “The bastard throws about ninety miles an hour,” said Pulvey. “I don’t know why the hell he isn’t on their varsity.”

I wanted to say something to Jimmy. Ask him how his sister Molly was. Ask him if his Dad still rigged up the tap so apple cider’d trickle out. Ask him if he still spent hours in his homemade darkroom. I still have the photo of me in a field holding up a gourd shaped like a girl’s breast…His first pitch slammed into my butt and I limped to first base. I watched those shoulders shrug up and down again.

When Jimmy hit the next two batters, Pulvey’s face turned red and he kept wiping his brow and mussing up his brillow-pad hair. He didn’t like his batters knocked down, but he wanted the run. Maybe the only one we’d get that day? The monk strolled out to the mound, and Jimmy stepped off the rubber, which was actually a wood plank with the paint rubbed off. The monk slung his arm around Jimmy, turned his head and spat, just like a big league manager. “Is he always like that?” I asked their third baseman. He ignored me and took a pinch of Skoal from the can in his back pocket.

I was positive the monk would trip over his robes as he jogged off the field, but he didn’t, and sure enough Jimmy settled down. Three strikeouts and he was out of the inning.

“Nice going,” I said to Jimmy as I passed him. He didn’t even look up.

The score was eight-zip by the top of the seventh inning. Jimmy’d walked a few, hit a few, struck twelve of us out. He had a no hitter going. Pulvey paced back and forth in front of us. “He’s tiring,” he said. “I can tell he’s getting tired. You gotta take advantage. Get in there, Kimball.”

My last time up probably. I stepped in again. Jimmy took his time out on the mound, inspecting his cap, the ball, hiking up his stirrups, scraping up some clay. We used to play something we called “Great Catch.” You’d throw the ball in a hard to get place, and the other guy would dive for it, leap or jump at a weird angle, then roll over, twisting and turning, at last coming up with the ball, smiling and filthy. We’d play past dusk. Did Jimmy remember? “Come on, Play Ball!” hollered the ump. Old fart probably wanted to get home.

Jimmy finally let one go and I tipped it back into the cage. “That’s the way, Kimball. Good eye. Good eye!” yelled Pulvey. Jimmy’s next pitch was so slow I missed it by a mile. I peered at him. No, he didn’t look tired. Just fidgety. He threw the next pitch as fast and wild as ever. “Ball!”

I heard the monk again. “Lay it in, Jimmy. He’s no batter!” Jimmy kicked up and threw another slow one. I’m positive I heard the monk mutter “Jesus Christ.” I hit a weak grounder that just got by the third baseman, who must have been in shock. I raced to first and beat out a single.

Pulvey clapped his hand on my back. “Way to go!” He stepped back away from the bag and their first baseman elbowed me. “Quaker prep shit,” he said. I looked over at Jimmy. He was smiling.

After I stole second base, Jimmy struck out Snitzer and our catcher. When Butterfield popped up, the game was over. Our team huddled together, fists in the center for a desultory post-game cheer. “Hurrah Res, Hurrah Res, Hurrah Hurrah E.F.S., Yay St. Boniface!” After an incomprehensible cheer from them, we stood in line to shake hands and mumble “good game” a couple dozen times. When I got to Jimmy he looked straight at me and shook my hand hard. He held on just a little longer than he had to, but when I started to speak, he moved on to the next guys. From the bus I watched him climb the hill, the last in line.

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New Publication: Baseball Pioneers 1850-1870

Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870


I have a chapter entitled, “Olympians of Beloit College,” in Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870, a lovely oversized paperback recently published by McFarland Books. While the history of baseball after 1870 has proven fertile ground for exhaustive scholarship, we know much less about its earliest period, as teams sprang up and popularized the sport across the nation. Founder of the “Pioneer Project,” Peter Morris, asked me to write about the Olympian Base Ball Club of Beloit College, a highly successful but short-lived congregation of battle-toughened Civil War veterans and fresh-faced youngsters. I delved deep into the Beloit College Archives, uncovered vivid accounts in diaries, letters and newspapers, and pieced together the story of a dynamic club from a tiny Wisconsin school on a bluff above the Rock River. The scholars of Greek and Latin somehow lived up to their Olympian name by becoming the champion base ball team of Wisconsin in 1867 before fading away. Along with coverage of their activities on the diamond, I included biographies of each player. It was a time when baseball had not only become a national pastime, but a national passion, as one Beloit College student noted in the college newspaper: “The Base Ball mania has prevailed quite extensively during the year, but has proved fatal to none except visitors. The Olympians have met all of the principal clubs in the State the past year, and not suffered a single defeat. This would not seem to indicate that the students of Beloit are a puny race. No, we develop muscle as well as brains.”

Olympian Club of Beloit College. Courtesy Beloit College Archives

For those interested in baseball’s pioneering days, I highly recommend dipping into Base Ball Pioneers, which features detailed and colorful accounts about teams from all over the country. The book is available at bookstores and online. Here is a link to the McFarland Press page for the book:
Base Ball Pioneers 1850-1870

Rain Dance – Celebrating Baseball

Roy Smalley letter, June 1975


Although my novel, Prairie Hill, is not about baseball, it includes scenes at a vintage minor league baseball stadium. I’ve always loved the game, from playing typical sandlot contests in my childhood, to playing catch with my brother Jeremy and countless friends over the years, to keeping my ears glued to Phillies games on the radio when I should have been doing my homework, to rooting for the Beloit Snappers here in Wisconsin. Back in the early 1990’s I wrote a piece about a rather special game I attended with some friends in June 1975, between the Baltimore Orioles and the Texas Rangers. “Rain Dance” first appeared in slightly different form in Fan: A Baseball Magazine #15 Spring 1994.

The rain spattered the empty seats and the concrete steps. When thunder cracked louder than a broken bat, the crowd, the vendors, and the players all moved back to shelter. The grounds crew spread the tarp and the umpires watched the sky. Pete, Mark, and I reluctantly stood near one of the ramps, along with dozens of others, feeling steamy in the stifling air. When the rain let up a little, we walked down to the fence near the visitors’ dugout where a few Texas Rangers emerged. They were beating the Baltimore Orioles and seemed pretty happy about that, joking with each other, laughing. The PA system blasted an Elton John song and then “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” by John Denver. One Texas player, a shaggy-haired young guy, began to dance a jig as he played catch. His name was Roy Smalley, a recent call-up from Triple A Spokane. We watched the rookie shortstop knock off second baseman Lenny Randle’s cap and then run away at top speed. Randle, one of the game’s speedsters, kept a poker face, plopped down next to his cap, and stretched.

A few of us kids hanging over the fence tried to call some of the players over. A couple of older players, Cesar Tovar and Jim Fregosi, nodded and smiled. Others ignored us, but Roy came over with a big grin. “How you guys doin’?”

“Can we have your autograph?” Arms stretched out. Scorecards riffling in the wind.

He snapped a ball into the pocket of his glove. “Sorry guys. The rules say we can’t do it while the game’s in progress. But stick around. I’ll sign when the game’s over.”

I got up my courage and leaned over the fence. “Nice hit,” I called out.

“Thanks. It felt good.” Roy took a mighty pretend swing and we all shouted, “BAM!”

“How do you like the majors?” asked Pete.

“Hey, I’m getting paid to do something that’s fun. How can you beat that?”

He jogged off and we watched as he horsed around with some others, imitating their fielder’s crouches and batting stances. He had as much energy as a little leaguer at his first game.

The bright, artificial light poured down on the glistening grass as men unfurled the tarps. The Public Address announcer reported that the game would resume, so we hiked up the aisle and slid back into our seats. A light drizzle fell, almost a mist, but the players warmed up in earnest, pitcher toeing the dirt around the mound, infielders whipping the ball back and forth across the field. Then it began to rain harder. Rumbling thunder. Zigzagging lightning. Those still huddled in the stands held scorecards and yearbooks over their heads and raced for the exits. The retreating umpires called the game after only four innings, wiping it from the official records. Too bad Roy Smalley’s hit wouldn’t count, I thought.

We stared at the empty Oriole dugout. “Come on,” I said. “Let’s go down to the Texas dugout. Just for a minute.”

By the time we got there we were as soaked as the grounds crew pulling the tarps over the sodden infield. We gripped the fence, leaned in and peered around the side of the dugout. The rain danced amidst the litter of paper cups, sunflower seeds and tobacco. Then a door creaked open and a player burst out. I watched the rain turn his blue cap nearly black. It was Roy Smalley. “Sorry about the game,” he said. “Let me sign those for you.”

As Roy stepped back toward the dugout, he turned again, smiling, faked a hit, and waved.

Roy Smalley autograph on scorecard

Postscript: Nearly thirty-seven years later, I still have his scrawled pencil signature on a scorecard page crinkled from rain. I was so impressed by Roy Smalley’s generosity to a few bedraggled teenage fans, that I wrote a letter, thanking him. A short time later I received a personal response on Texas Rangers stationery. From then on, I followed Roy as he played for the Twins, Yankees and White Sox through 1987 when he retired after playing in the World Series, topping off a fine career featuring 1,454 base hits and 163 home runs.

Roy Smalley's 1976 Topps baseball card

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