The Boys of Summer
"There wasn't any limit, no boundary at all, to the future. And it would be so a man wouldn't have room to store his happiness."
John Steinbeck, East of Eden.(1952).
"I see the boys of summer in their ruin"
On any given summer morning in the early 1950s, a resident of the small southeastern Minnesota community of Austin,(population 23,110) who stepped outside for a moment to breathe in the fresh heartland air perfumed with the familiar full pastoral aroma of acres of green lawns, hollyhocks and morning glories, wild flowers, clover and green apples, and neat rectangular patches of backyard berries and vegetables, was likely to witness an unusual and felicitous migration just getting under way. The hushed movement down the sidewalks and streets of the sleepy town was not one of any familiar migratory animals, but rather resembled something like an army -- an army of boys -- quietly breaking camp and slipping away in groups of two and three and four toward some unseen but familiar assembly area while leaving unmade beds, homes, parents and other adults behind. Nearly all of these boys were attired similarly and the loose and carefree way in which they carried themselves might make it appear they were unquestionably delighted with both the route and the goal they were pursuing early in the new day. White short sleeved tee shirts were their most common item of clothing. The trousers varied: some wore wide-wale corduroy, some denims, some nondescript cotton or gabardine of any of several hues – none of them bright or patterned in any noteworthy way except for streaks of grass stain on the knees. A few carried baseball bats slung over one shoulder. Some of them had strung baseball gloves on the bat. All wore black high-top sneakers. One in a dozen brought black spiked baseball shoes, tied together by the laces and slung over the other shoulder or around the handlebars of a bicycle. Half of the boys rode bikes and half of those carried another boy on the crossbar, handlebars or back wheel brace. The recognizable brands were Schwinn (the 24 inch Phantom was the Cadillac of bicycles at that time) , Shelby, Huffy Radio Bike, Monark, Gene Autry, Rollfast , Hopalong Cassidy, Raleigh, J.C. Higgins and Columbia. There were several local bicycle shops and a Sears outlet and a sporting goods store where these could be purchased. A rubber band around the right ankle of some of the riders held the wide leg of the trousers fast and prevented them from getting caught in the chain. Others merely rolled up the right leg of their trousers to mid calf. Some bikes had battery operated horns between the cross bars and large rear reflectors on the back fender. A few handle grips had long strips of plastic streamers that snapped in the breeze. And some had even added rear view mirrors to the handle bars. A half dozen of the boys used a clothes pin to attach a small piece of cardboard to the back wheel frame. The cardboard flapped against the turning spokes and made a sound vaguely like a two cylinder engine as they pedaled down the asphalt, tree lined streets.
One of those streets, Maple – where I lived --, and the streets just north of it, were canopied by the lush branches of large oak and maple trees. From above a viewer in an aircraft might only have seen the green leaves of the trees with no movement in the street beneath. But there was movement. The boys rode and walked as if through a gorgeous quiet and enchanted forest. All were headed in the same direction and toward the same objective. They were going to a huge grassy swatch of land six blocks long and two blocks wide known throughout the town as merely the Athletic Field.
Around the Athletic Field, ringing it and making it impossible for an automobile to drive out onto the lush grass, were hundreds of thick posts. The posts were sunk deep in the rich southern Minnesota loam. They were painted white up until about ten inches from the top where they had been painted a bright red. From the distance as well as close up they looked like a nearly endless row of matches embedded in the ground. They rose about four feet over the ground and were spaced about six fee apart, ringing the field.
On the southwest corner of the field, adjacent to two-lane Highway 16, which sliced through the town and provided the main route to nearby Albert Lea, were six fenced in tennis courts, usually entirely vacant on weekday mornings. The nets on the courts were thick wire, permanent fixtures just like the fencing enclosing the courts. And on the west side of the field, right smack in the middle of the north south access, lay the “football field.” On either side of the east and west length of the field was a white concrete bleachers, courtesy of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA). Beneath the east bleachers were large storage facilities with huge padlocked wooden doors. Inside were also the dressing rooms for the home team – the Austin Packers – and for visiting teams from the local athletic league – the Big 9 conference. On Friday nights in the fall the stadium came alive and was filled with local fans. In the spring the quarter mile cinder track surrounding the field was used by the high schools track team for practice and meets. The rest of the year nothing much happened in the stadium. And, this being Minnesota, for several months each year the field and the bleachers were blanketed in ice and snow. But in the autumn and the summer, boys climbed over the tall barbed-wire topped fence to play touch football on the pampered cushioned grassy surface of the football field and to dream of someday playing in real games on that turf in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, running up and down the field while the gray-clad band blasted out the Austin fight song and everyone cheered. But in the summer the stadium was silent. A few birds perched on the top of the covered press box at the top of the east bleachers, or searched through the grass on the field. Undisturbed.
The boys of summer gathered along the outside east wall of the stadium. A trickle soon became a sizable crowd of more than 100. Bikes were parked and leaned along the fence and the wall of the stadium. There were no locks on the bikes. Stealing a bike was not a concern or a worry or even a passing thought for these boys. The homes, people said, were never locked and people parked their cars on Main Street and surrounding streets in the towns downtown area, customarily leaving their keys in the ignition. This was not considered at all unusual.
At the southeast corner of the field, just across the street, was a small storefront soda fountain and cafe known as The Rush Inn. It was owned and operated by the Rush family – Barry Rush was one of the ball players. The store front had half a dozen red topped stools along a short counter. The specialty of the house was root beer and, best of all, root beer floats – a large glass of root beer with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. The Rush Inn gained its fame, among the boys of summer in Austin, because whenever any one of them hit a home run, he was given a hand written note to take to the Rush Inn. There he was rewarded for his accomplishment with a free tall icy glass of root beer.
The boys abandoned their bicycles along the fence and the white washed concrete wall of the field house and sat around or stood around talking or pacing back and forth. A few played catch. Others wrestled or pawed at each other in a pastime known as “horseplay.” They watched a car pass, now and then on the north-south running street bordering the east side of the athletic field. They knew exactly what they were looking for. Any car brought an apprehensive moment of silent. But when the first one spied the big four door two-two tan Oldsmobile roll slowly around a corner and head along the street beside the field, a shout went up. One or two voices at first and then, inevitably, a loud and enthusiastic chorus. “Ove! [Oh-Vee] Ove!” they chanted. A few broke from the others and ran toward the car as it slowed just on the other side of the white and red match stick border. “Ove! Ove! Continued. The automobile slowly rolled to a stop. The driver’s door opened and out stepped a very tall slim man, Ove Berven, the supervisor of the summer baseball program and the basketball coach of Austin High School. Ove stood somewhere around 6’5” – although to these boys, doubtless, they might have described his stature to others as about 10’ tall. He walked ramrod straight toward the field house in a slow and graceful gait. The boys whirled around him as he walked shouting his name. Some leaped into the air in enthusiasm, shouting again and again their one word hymn of praise. The others waiting by the field house stood and watched, as if some religious figure was approaching. Another individual, coming seemingly out of nowhere but probably from under the trees on the other side of the street, joined Ove. This man was also tall, perhaps as tall as Ove. But he walked with a very noticeably stoop so that his face was only a few inches above that of the boys. His eyes were open wide, his mouth hung open also. His arms hung loosely at his sides, palms back. His walk was more of a lope that was recognizable from the distance wherever he walked through the town. This man was known affectionately by Ove and by the boys as “Jerry.”
I don’t know where Jerry lived. None of us did. I knew nothing about his past. I never learned what had happened to him after I outgrew this pee wee league of baseball. Jerry Nelson was probably in his 30s. But his mind was always that of a 9 or 10 year old child. Ove treated him with the utmost deference and respect as we did in emulating Ove. Some of the boys began to shout “Jerry! Jerry!” When Ove and Jerry arrived at the field house in the midst of the tangled swirl of boys, Ove handed Jerry the keys to the big double doored storage facility in one section of the Stadium. The doors swung open wide. Inside were bats and bags of baseballs along with several sets of equipment for the catchers. The boys huddled outside the door and Ove and Jerry went inside and then handed out the equipment. In the darkness inside they could see where the tackling dummies from the approaching high school football season were stored along with several dozen red and white football helmets piled in a corner. Ove and Jerry also distributed several clip boards with official scoring sheets attached to them. A stubby yellow pencil went also with each board. Players were handed small plastic “clickers” that showed strikes, balls and outs. These were to be held by the umpire as a reminder in teach of the games that was played. As they boys scooped up their equipment many broke and began running for one of the 8 diamonds that had been laid out from one end of the athletic field to the other. Ove and Jerry also threw out bases – large padded sacks – to be used in each of the games.
At the start of the pee wee season these boys had been broken up into teams – picked partially by Ove and partially from among each other. The teams were supposed to be balanced by talent. Each was given the name of a major league team at the time. But there were no uniforms. Not even caps from the major leagues. And midway through the season all the teams were dissolved and then reorganized. There was to be no real season championship and no season-long triumph by one small group. These games were to be played day after day with one goal in mind – the love of the game itself. Not of winning or of losing. But merely of playing. Truly in this organization it did not matter if you won or lost but only that you played the game and had fun doing it. I cannot now remember how many games were won or lost by my own teams. What overwhelms me mostly after all these years is the sense of unfettered and unbounded joy of those mornings. Being with other boys, waiting for Ove, running for our selected diamond. Playing the game. What happiness! What utter delight! What boundless and unrestrained jubilation it produced.
Not all of the boys brought gloves. But that was no problem. Whenever one team left the field and another ran out, those in the field usually just dropped their gloves near where they were standing for someone else to use. A center fielder or first basemen might, then, use his own glove or use the one he found nearby. Whichever felt best. The important thing, it went without saying, was that everyone be given the chance to play his best and a fielder with a bad glove could skew things the wrong way. Every opportunity was given every player.
Umpires were chosen from the side at bat. One of your own team mates, in other words, stood behind the pitcher– nobody stood behind the catcher or the backstop when the Pee Wee league played, and called strikes and balls. Every effort was made to do it fairly. And if someone proved to be bad at making calls he was simply booed down and came to the sidelines while someone else took his place. As with the gloves, nobody wanted to win or lose a game from bad calls, so every effort was made to make the calls as accurately as possible. Often strikes and balls were protested and settled by an argument. The same was true of stolen bases. There were no threats, just groans and boos and cheers. When Ove, at some nearby diamond, heard a difference of opinion being expressed, he either hurried to the place where it was taking place or sent Jerry in his place. After listening for a few moment and trying to let the boys themselves decide the issue, he’d decide or Jerry would decide and the game continued. Jerry went from diamond to diamond and if he didn’t think the umpire was doing a good job he’d take the position for a few innings before tossing his clicker to someone else and moving on to another game.
Honesty was always unquestioned. That is what made the game fun. And Ove had another firm rule, besides the effort to be honest. Everyone had to play. No matter how many players on each team showed up everyone had to play and everyone had to bat in the proper rotation. So if a team had eight players they played with eight. Tough luck. But if a team had 15 players they played with all fifteen. To make this accommodation, Ove created new positions. Nobody disagreed with his wisdom on this matter.
Since most boys batted right hand, right field was the least desirable position and those who were lazy or who could not catch a fly or who needed more experience were usually consigned to far right field where they fended off utter boredom for a few hours. Most of their excitement came from throws to first base that went too high or too wide. Rarely were the boys in right field called upon to field an actual hit. But they were an important back up for every single throw to first base by other players.
The umpiring, although doubtlessly honest, was anything but consistent. The strike zone on any particular morning might be as large or as small as those playing the field and those crowding behind the tall wood and wire backstop might reasonably agree upon. It also was dependent upon the stature, record and needs of the batter. And upon the score. As one team fell further and further behind in score, the strike zone grew. Sometimes it was as big as a garage door. A pitch that went 12 inches over the head of a batter or that hit the plate in front of him might unashamedly be called a strike. A pitch three feet on the far side of the plate might be a strike or one that, in one case, went behind the batter. The explanation of such a call as that, “You coulda hit it. Easily.” Protests sometimes got the call reversed or in rare cases the umpire might plead that he wasn’t watching closely and the pitch would be done again one more time.
As a consequence of this unpredictability, scores tended not to become embarrassingly one-sided by the end of a game. If a pitcher were throwing a particularly good game, the strike zone narrowed and narrowed until finally it was only an inch square several inches from the hips of the batter. A pitcher had to stop concentrating on getting a batter out and working on merely catching a corner of the strike zone or upon calling for a new umpire.
My dear friend Ron Anhorn told me he remembered one morning retiring 21 batters in a row. At the end of the day Ove gave him the score card and he still has it some place tucked away in a corner of a closet in his home in Colorado. I cannot remember that accomplishment. I do however, remember one particular morning when a team using a series of pitchers walked 24 batters in a row and ran up a 0-21 deficit in the first inning. Jerry and Ove, hearing the shouts and howls of protest came to stand behind the backstop and watch the melodrama unfold. Several umpires were called and then dismissed. Even Jerry went out to stand behind the pitcher. The poor team seemed incapable of getting the ball anywhere near the plate until bases were loaded and the score was 21 to nothing. Ove seemed less concerned about the score than about the length of the game. Finally he allowed pitchers on the opposing team to stand two or three feet closer to the batter. They aimed their pitches like a man thrown darts at a board and sure enough soon got them in the vicinity of the strike zone and the batters started in their overconfidence to swing wildly and miss. I do not recall who the first batter was to strike out after his team scored 21 runs in a row. I hope it was not me. But it might well have been. On the other hand the fact that I cannot remember means that there was not much of a stigma attached to it. Everything was in fun. Absolute total and unrestrained fun. I recalled that morning as one batter after another advanced to first base falling down laughing along the third base line and tears of happiness and silliness streaming down my face. The scent of the rich new-mowed grass filling the air, huge cumulus clouds overhead and boys laughing and screaming and running around having what surely was the time of their lives.
Getting on base was not merely a function of calling strikes and balls. Pitchers in the Pee Wee league were notoriously wild in flinging the ball toward home plate. Each player could look forward each day to being beaned several times. In fact, when the game was in the late innings and a batter did not have a formidable record that morning he could certainly look forward to his team mates crying from behind the backstop, “Come on, get in there and get hit. Crowd the plate. Lean over it. Shut your eyes.”
I cannot remember how many times I was hit by a pitcher. I can only say with complete confidence that it was many many times. At least once a game. At least.
The batter stepped up to the plate several times each morning. Everyone tended to use the same bat even thought a few of the boys brought Louisville Sluggers from home with the handles carefully taped. The pitcher looked over the new hitter and took his windup. Despite all of the choreography of older players, everyone seemed to realized that the pitcher was concentrating on getting the ball roughly across the plate and into an area that the umpire might call a strike. I was hit in both knees, the arms, the hands, the foot, the chest, the gut and many many times in the head.
The pitcher’s wind up – even that of Ron Anhorn (come to think of it, especially that of Ron Anhorn) was as much a warning to the batter as a threat. Teammates begged and advised me not to step out of the batter’s box to avoid getting hit. Come on Engelmann, get in there and get hit, was a common bit of cheap advice. And it was not only given to me but to any batter in a critical part of a game. If one dodged a pitch or stepped out of the way it was usually met by a chorus of groans – the batter had just avoided a sure place on base.
I recalled a couple of times – in those pre helmet days – being struck in the temple, the neck, the cheek and the forehead. These left raised swellings usually the size of half a golf ball that disappeared in a day or two. Twice I turned away and was hit in the back of the head, the ball bounced over the backstop with the catcher madly scrambling after it. I have no idea what the rule is for a ball that bounces off a batters head and is caught in flight by the catcher. I remember a pitcher grimacing as I turned back to him after being struck and then limped my way to first base. I am still today amazed and impressed by the absence of tempers. Nobody lost his temper. Hitting a batter was accidental, always, and everyone knew it. The pitcher would far rather strike out a batter than strike him. Yet many times each of us was asked to “take one for the team” by standing stoically as we watched a fast ball bear down on us for the inevitable and stinging conclusion.
Because everyone had to play and to bat – that was the Ove rule – Ove created many new positions not heard of before or since that time in baseball. And I personally played some of those positions. If a team had say 15 players show up one morning, Ove usually began placing players at the short stop position. A team might have two or three or four short stops. These were labeled by the nearness to a base. Therefore, third short short, third short, short, second short, second short short. There were times when the infield, I recall, was pretty crowded with players, all eager to snatch the ball. He then moved to the outfield. Between left field and right field there might be three or four players – left left, left, left center, left center center, center and then moving to the right.
In at least a half dozen instances I remember two pitchers on the mount taking turns, one standing hands at side while the other tried to throw a strike. Of course the umpire was behind the Mound and sometimes Jerry was there with him. So also the mound was crowded.
But the crowds on the field, which meant a lot of fun for everyone and a virtual stampede between innings as players left or took the field, in no way guaranteed that getting a hit was rare or difficult.
Year’s after I had given up a nonpromising career in baseball I watched a genuine rarity in the major leagues on TV. Jose Canseco was standing in right field for the A’s when a fly ball hit him on the head and bounced into the stands for a home run.
This was shown again and again on television, right down to the present day, much to the consternation of Canseco who may have been thinking about his salary, his car, or his steroids at that time. It is still funny to watch.
But I had witnessed such scenes in Pee Week league a hundred times. Any time a ball was launched by a batter into the outfield, any number of things could happen and the least likely was that someone would catch it for an out. I remember the stunned silence on the field, indeed, even on nearby diamonds, when that familiar crack of hickory hitting horsehide bolted through the air. It was a rare occasion and everyone paused to watch. The ball rose into the sky. Players on the sidelines stood and shielded their eyes to watch. Cars passing up and down nearby highway 16 might slow to see what happened. There were a dozen shouts of “I’ve got it, I’ve got it” as players ran every which way in the infield and outfield. If someone snagged it in before it hit the ground there were loud groans and cries, shouts of utter astonishment, yells of praise. Ove or Jerry rushed over to congratulate the boy who caught the ball and to praise him lavishly.
But catching the ball was a rare event. I’ve seen and laughed at everything that happened in the outfield. Players ran into each other like the Three Stooges times three. They tripped each other up, fell down, got up, pointed, yelled, used their glove to block out the sun and try to find the elusive white ball. Players running in opposite directions collided and fell to the ground. Desperate players flung their gloves high into the air to try to stop the ball – I have no idea what the rule was or is on a glove without a player catching a ball 20 feet in the air. I think I saw it happen one time. The boy threw up his glove, the ball went into the webbing and fell back down, but he dropped the glove. It was a hit.
And I’ve seen the ball bounce off the shoulders or the head of an outfielder and continue on its way. In one game I remember the ball, as if it was inside a pinball machine, strike three different heads and bouncing up after each one, only in the end to be caught by a nearby fielder, amidst the cries and laughter of the both teams. The surprised fielder – dumbfounded really – finding the ball suddenly and almost magically in his glove, took it out and threw it 20 feet over the head of the third baseman and into an open nearby field. Runners tagged up and the bases emptied.
How glorious our games were in those days. How full of praise and admiration Ove and Jerry were for us all. How full of admiration and love we all were for each other. How much fun we had at the end of the morning, pulling up our bikes and heading home. How exhausted. And how utterly brimming with happiness. We knew we were the luckiest boys on the face of the Earth. We really were.
I cannot remember a serious injury in Pee Wee baseball. I do not even recall a bruised ego. Everyone was good. Everyone was bad on any given day. And we realized the teams would be dissolved and reorganized mid season and we’d start all over again so who cared if you were on a winless team half the summer or an undefeated one. We tasted equally victory and defeat and the lesson was sweet.
Today, the one thing that stands out from those days is not the lack of uniforms or spikes or gloves or balls or bats. It was the absence of parents or older boys. There were never any family members along the sidelines. There was never any pressure. Ove and Jerry were the only adults around. We were alone in our own world with each other and with Ove and Jerry.
Now when I pass an athletic field or park where boys or girls baseball is being played and I see the sidelines and bleachers crowded with parents, some with ice chests or elaborate folding chairs, cheering their children on, the children all in uniform, a uniformed umpire, uniformed coaches pacing up and down the baselines, I feel only sad for the boys. They will never know, I am sure, the joy, the pure unpressured joy, that my friends and team mates and compatriots and I felt as children playing a game for the fun of it all.
When the ball game was over at the athletic field, and a lucky few ran to the Rush Inn for their root beer, the rest of us returned home. My favorite lunch at that time – which we called “dinner” along with "supper" at night and breakfast in the morning, was peanut butter on home made bread.
About 1PM I usually got on my bicycle and pedaled to the “public swimming pool” at the north end of Main street, beside the Red Cedar River and a small structure called “the Clay House” where kids could work with clay with teachers during the afternoon if they wished.
“Free time” at the swimming pool was 1:30 to 3:15. Once an hour there was a “rest period” of ten minutes. AT that time children pulled themselves up on the side of the pool and lay on the hot concrete while the life guards circled the pool looking for any foreign objects -- pebbles or pieces of tar from the caulking used in the concrete around the pool -- in the bottom. There was a roped off area with two diving boards. The rest of the huge pool was marked off in lanes or areas for merely splashing around. Inside the dressing room, I remember, we got a basket to put our clothing in and then an identification pin we attached to our swimming suit. We had to run through a hallway that had a chemically treated water in pans on the floor and cold water showers that cleaned us off before we entered the pool. There was also a concession stand, managed by my grandmother, that sold paper cups of Coke and other drinks and paper bags of popcorn. Swimmers could only eat in the area beside the concession stand.
At 3:15 pm we had to exit the pool and 15 minutes later “pay time” began. There was a dinner break for the life guards and the pool then opened at night also for paying customers. The pay, if I remember, was 10 cents. But money was much more scarce in those days and as a boy I don’t remember every going to the pool during pay time.
In the evening in the summers of the early 1950s, there was a man with a large telescope who set up his own concession on the corner of Main Street just outside the Austin State Bank. We called him Elmer the Moon Man. Elmer called out as the light was fading, “See the Mountains and the Craters on the Moo hoon.” I think he charged two or three cents for a look through his telescope.
To this day I remember the time my dad paid Elmer and I looked in the end of his telescope. I was stunned. I straightened up to make sure he wasn’t putting a photograph over the end of it. The moon was brilliant and beautiful and was as close, suddenly, as the other end of main street. I’d seen so many science fiction thrillers at the Austin or State or Paramount Theaters, had seen the stage mockups of the moon and stars, but had never in my life seen anything like this. What a thrill! What dreams Elmer inspired. He was gone by October, 1957, when the Soviet put Sputnik 1 into orbit and the demystification of space began. Elmer was truly a guide at that time, to the future, to the stars. For 3 cents a boy or girl could glimpse the future.
Our activities were limited in the early 1950s – that of all boys and girls around the United States and the world, because of the epidemic of polio. Nobody knew what caused it. But everyone seemed to know it was contagious and often fatal. Between 1952 and 1954, when Pee Wee baseball was in it’s prime, well over 100,000 cases were reported each year. And this was a children’s disease usually, without regard to income or race or class, it struck down countless youngsters. As a result we avoided movie theaters, where the air was not as fresh and clean as it was in outdoor activities. But also usually in August we were restricted in our use of the swimming pool. The long period of fear came to an end in 1955 when Dr. Jonas Salk announced the discovery of a vaccine that could prevent the disease. The world, for my generation, was divided between 1955 and after, the years of fear and the years free from fear from that awful affliction.
But after the polio panic passed, every August we swam, went to the matinees at the theaters on Saturday afternoons to watch our favorite serials, and inevitably went “up north” fishing for a week with the entire family. My cousin, Bobby Doty, who lived next door to me, spent much of his time during the last month of every summer, sitting on the curb of Oakland Avenue, which turned into highway 16 at the west end of town, counting and calling out the states on the license plates of cars from faraway places as they passed through the town. New York, New Jersey, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah were particularly rare and valued sightings. Staring at the passengers of those automobiles -- especially at the children whose faces were pressed up against the side windows looking out at us -- was not unlike staring at the crew of some extra-terrestrial space ship that suddenly and inexplicably swooped down for just a moment near the rich dark earth of southern Minnesota to see how the earthlings lived. The children looked at us. We looked back at them. Our eyes met. And the moment passed. We almost expected one of them to fling a message in a bottle out the window or to hold up a sign asking for help. But that didn't happen. We remained strangers to each other, inhabitants of the same country but of vastly different worlds. If anyone had told me as I sat next to my cousin shouting out the names of distant states on license plates that Bobby Doty would, within a few years of graduating from Austin High School, join the US Air Force and fly missions over distant Vietnam, I would have told them that it was more likely that he would become the first man to set foot on Mars. I had never heard the word "Vietnam" and I surely had no idea that Vietnam might be closer than Mars. And neither did Bobby Doty or any of the other boys of summer. In the fullness of time, however, we all discovered that it was much much closer. Too close.
Sometimes, however, the passing strangers stopped. Nearly everyone who lived in Austin in the early 1950s can tell you about the day when William Boyd -- better known as Hopalong Cassidy -- drove into town and stopped long enough to enjoy a hamburger and a Coca Cola at a local fast-food cafe. Boyd, it was later said, was receiving medical treatment at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, and came through Austin on his return home to California. He was mobbed by local fans. Everyone in town -- adults and children alike, it seemed -- wanted to see him and touch him and shout, "Hi Hoppy!" and "How's Topper?" to him. It was a glorious moment in the town's history. But, as someone pointed out a few days after Boyd's visit, "Even with his boots on, he wasn't quite as tall as Ove Berven."
Downtown, if one waited long enough in the early 1950s, one might see the film star Leslie Caron, who had married Geordie Hormel and lived part of each year at the Hormel estate just outside town. Caron married Hormel in 1951 and divorced him in 1954, the year after she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Lili. Hormel went on to compose music for several television shows and to sing back up on a Frank Zappa album.
Bill “Moose” Skowron could be seen playing first base for the Austin Packers in those years before he was called up to the Yankees to become a legendary player, hitting 211 home runs in 14 major league seasons and playing in seven world series. Skowron was discovered by the Packers' manager who saw him playing football for Purdue University against the University of Minnesota, spoke to him, learned of his interest in baseball and studied his statistics, and offered him a contract to play in Austin. During the off season Skowron worked at the Hormel plant. Skowron, who was given the nickname Moose by his father who insisted he looked like Benito Mussolini, married a local girl, Virginia Hulquist.
The years raced by. Soon my time in Pee Wee League came to an end. I never went on to play American Legion baseball with the more gifted players. The problem, not merely for me but for most of the boys, was not lack of desire or effort but rather it was a common flaw we shared with Michael Jordan -- the inability to hit a curve ball. Once a few of the boys were big enough and strong enough to throw a good curve, Ove Berven did not need to tell us that despite our dreams, very few of us had a future in the major leagues [two of us, Daryl Richardson and Clayton Reed, however, actually did.] It was the voice of reason and of destiny I heard one morning after taking three very enthusiastic and unsuccessful swings at three successive curve balls and coming up with nothing but air. As I walked away from the plate I think I heard the catcher say to the pitcher, "that guy couldn't hit a curve ball with an ironing board." And he was right. I never even turned around to glare at him. It was no use and I knew it. It was the curve ball, primarily, that separated the boys from the young men. And the change up and the slider and the screwball merely made the separation wider and permanent. And so more and more I swam in the summers, and watched the younger boys playing as I rode my bicycle past the athletic field. One generation followed another. I cheered for Ove Berven’s basketball teams as they repeatedly won Big 9 and Region One titles and went to the state basketball tournament. All of the boys went their separate ways. Elmer the Moon Man suddenly stopped showing up in the late 1950s. I don’t know what happened to Jerry. He just wasn’t there any more one summer.
I can truly say I have never had as much carefree and guiltless fun as I did during those mornings playing baseball with the other boys of summer in Austin, Minnesota. We watched each other get older over the years, went on to live our lives, experienced just about all the good and the bad that life has to offer. I think only with the passage of years did we come to recognize what a time we’d had and how very special those summers had been. We had not yet experienced what the rest of the world might throw our way. We were blissfully unburdened with the weight and the weariness of the world. The world and its burdens, nonetheless, waited impatiently for us to grow older in order to test our ideals and illusions. But on those long summer mornings we were still all innocence and trust and hope and love. We were nearly pure possibility. We were not yet dreamers because we were still the dream. But we didn't know it. And because we didn't know it, we didn't know how to express it. As one of the boys asked me recently, "How can you ever begin to explain the taste of fresh blueberries to someone who has never tasted a blueberry?" How could any of us ever express our boyhood happiness to others who had never experienced such happiness? Never again would we be so free and happy merely to be ourselves and to be with each other and to laugh at our peculiar awkwardness and our little unimportant fumblings and shout encouragement to each other -- to tell those who fell to get up and keep running and to tell those who struck out one day to keep their eye on the ball and to try harder tomorrow-- and to cry only tears of pure delight.
Ron Anhorn probably spoke the truth for all of us when he summed up Ove Berven and those baseball summers. I told him I was going to write this piece when I talked to him a few weeks ago. He told me during our conversation, “You know, I really loved that man.” I was not surprised by his words. We all loved him. And I like to think that he knew that, too, in his heart, every morning as he pulled up on the eastern edge of the Athletic Field and heard the boys of summer start their happy chant, Ove! Ove! Ove!