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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

No. 109 Wilson Davis, A Man Who Hit .300

Note: In 2004 I was asked to speak at the funeral for Wilson Davis, one of my boyhood coaches who remained an important part of my life. The following is an excerpt from my remarks.

I must have been a teenager before I realized that the name "WILSON" stamped on baseballs, gloves, and catchers' equipment was something other than the ownership marking of a man who was very much a part of my life, Wilson Davis. Let me explain.

Cap Anson, one of the earliest heroes of baseball (a player and coach for the Cincinnati Redstockings of the old National Association) chose to have the following inscribed on his gravestone. "Here lies a man who batted .300." In baseball, there is something magical about that number. Hitting .299 and everything below it is failure, or at best mediocrity. But a .300 average and all above it means you did it right; you were a success.  Wilson Davis was not just a .300 hitter. He was a .300 person.

One of the main lessons I learned from Wilson was that the game of baseball is supposed to be fun. There is a reason that each game, according to the official rule book of the game, must  begin with the words, "Play Ball" You should play it hard and play it well, and play to win, but baseball, like life, should be fun. As he once said, ''If it ain't fun, you ain't doing it right.''

I knew Wilson almost all of my life. I had hundreds of conversations with him, maybe a thousand, and BASEBALL was part, in one way or another,  of almost every single conversation:  how to play it, how to enjoy it, what it teaches us, what it meant and what it still means.

Even as we grew older; or should I say, especially as we grew older, the lessons we learned in baseball seemed to have more relevance.

In Ray Kinsella's classic novel, "Shoeless Joe," one of the characters (depicted in the movie "Field of Dreams" by James Earl Jones) makes an observation as he heads to the left field corn rows and into eternity.

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. ...”

There is a reason that old men go back so often to see the game they once played, because more than any other, it has remained the same from generation to generation. Old eyes look again on the game they played as boys, and if for only a brief moment, they are somehow young again.

When young men cross the lines of white
Things are as they seem.
Boys play pall, the throw and hit
And run the fields of green.

Then as old men they come once more 
To cross those lines some day
But its in their hearts and their mind's eye
That once gain they play.

For when young men cross lines of white
Things are as they seem
But for old men it something more
It becomes a Field of Dreams.

(Field of Dreams-Joel Hancock 1985) 

But if baseball were of value and interest only for old men, wishing they were still young, then it would not have become the generational glue that it truly is.

Hence the following observation,

''Somewhere, at this moment,  ... in a backyard, a young child and a parent begins to play catch. The child holds the too-big glove on his hand, outstretched, while the parent tosses the ball underhand toward the glove. Missed. Again, underhand to the glove, hitting the webbing and out onto the soft green grass... Methodically, this parental attempt at the small success of the first catch can go on for hours, days, weeks. Sooner or later the ball softly thrown lands in the glove and the too small free hand clamps down over it, trapping forever in leather and love the sweet, satisfying moment of a child's first catch.

''This is work, often tedious and unrewarding. Most parenting is. Yet it is every bit as necessary as the difficult work done by a builder when he digs deep into the ground to lay a foundation. Once completed, the foundation is never seen again. It is buried under sand and dirt, covered with layer after layer of heavy block, designed to support the whole base. It will only be noticed again if its defective.

''As we look for answers, for solutions to the mysteries of raising children, we need to recognize the familiar as a way to build a foundation that will support our children throughout the epic shifts they will inevitably face in their lives. With baseball, the simple, purely American game of baseball, parents are afforded an opportunity to play with their children and, at the same time, teach them the rudimentary and the subtly discovered lessons of life.'' "Rules of the Game" - Hohenstein

In 1965 I was the youngest (not quite thirteen) player in Carteret County's Babe Ruth League (we still called it the "Pony League.) Wilson was my coach. I began as an infielder, but soon he convinced me that playing infield was for "Sissies." Real men, like him, always played the same position; they were catchers. ("Back catchers," who wore equipment that was called "the tools of ignorance.")

Our very first game was played on the field behind the old Beaufort High School. In my first at bat, Wilson prepared me with this advice. He, the fifteen year old pitcher for the Beaufort VFW, was so much bigger than me that he would try to over-power me. I could assume that his first pitch would be a fast ball down the middle. That would be my pitch to hit.

I took his advice and swung. I was a little late, but just a little, and I hit a rocket down the first base line and past the first baseman. Soon I had rounded first and was heading for second. In this situation I had been taught that now I should look to the third base coach and let him tell me what to do next. As I looked in his direction I could see Wilson with both hands high in the air, telling me to hold at second. Once there I looked behind me and saw that the right fielder still had not gotten to the ball. ( There was no outfield fence at the Beaufort field. The ball just kept rolling until it stopped.) Seeing that, I headed for third. Again, Wilson held up his hands and stopped me once more. This time as I looked back I could see the ball just now making it back to the infield.

"Why did you hold me up?" I asked. ''I could have had a home run.'' It was then I learned that in the heat and humidity of the summer's evening, Wilson had decided to clean his "coke bottle thick" glasses as I went to bat. Everything happened so fast that his glasses were still in his hand as I began my trip around the bases.

Explaining that to me he added, "With my glasses off I can't even see who's pitching, must less follow a three inch ball. I kinda felt like as little as you are, you ought to be satisfied with a double!" He made it a point to never hold me up again without a good reason.

As earlier mentioned, I was but one of many boys and men, and through them, our wives and children, whom Wilson touched. I am relatively sure, that he never received so much as a penny in compensation, but it was obvious then, and to the very end, that money was not what he was looking for. Oh, it was fun to him, maybe even more fun than coon hunting, but it was more than fun; it was a way of life.

After her stopped coaching Pony League, he worked and played with the Eastern Blues and several other teams, made up mostly of men like him, who still enjoyed playing a boy's game. In retrospect, maybe that was what we loved the most. Once inside the lines of a baseball field, we were all boys again, if only for a couple of hours; if only for nine innings! It helped him to keep everything else in life in a proper perspective.

Case in point. Many years later, on one of his frequent trips to West Virginia, where he kept some race horses that he owned, he had a heart attack - not just a scare but a full blown attack. When finally he returned after a lengthy convalescence, I asked, almost jokingly, "How was your trip?" He began to outline his trip as follows, "I had a heart attack,” and then he hesitated for a moment, before blurting out, “But I won a stakes race. So I guess, all in all, I had a good trip!"

The same could be said for the life he live so well, "All in all, he had a good trip!"

As I look back on his life, and the game that he loved, and that he helped me to love, I am reminded of George Carlin's classic monologue about the differences between baseball and football.

"... The objectives of the two games are completely different: In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line... until he reaches the end zone.

In baseball the object is much simpler. It is to be safe! And to go home! - I hope I'll be safe at home!

Only slightly more sublime is the following observation made by Ken Burns & Geoffrey Ward in the preface to their book and documentary on the history of the national pastime.

"At the games's heart lie mythic contradictions: a pastoral game, born in crowded cities; an exhilarating democratic sport that tolerates cheating; a profoundly conservative game that sometimes manages to be years ahead of its time. It is an American odyssey that links sons and daughters to father and grandfathers...It is a haunted game, where each player is measured by the ghosts of those who have gone before. Most of all, it is about time and timelessness, speed and grace, failure and loss, imperishable hope, and coming home.

It’s now been more than eight years since Wilson Davis  rounded third for the last time and crossed the plate. I trust that he was safe at home!

Harmon Killebrew, a Hall of Famer from a generation ago, tells this brief story,

My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard.  Mother would come out and say, "You're tearing up the grass."  "We're not raising grass," Dad would reply.  "We're raising boys."

I’m lucky and glad that I was one of those boys. This tribute is my thanks to him for having helped to raise me and a hundred other boys just like me. And when I take my sons and grandsons to see his tombstone, I always  tell them, without reservation,"Here lies a man who hit .300!"

Like their father, my boys play baseball. They know exactly what I mean!

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