Those of us who are sufficiently long in tooth can remember when a pickup game of baseball played on a vacant lot was the common denominator for neighborhood kids. Talent was of little consequence and the games were played sans adult supervision long before formal teams were sponsored in some league by the local drug store or hardware. We did our own umpiring, thank you very much, and the tie did go to the runner and 99 foul balls and you were out (though no one ever came close to 99 foul balls).
Those games, played before television, video games and all the other distractions that now demand kids’ attention, ranked right up there with skinny dipping in a nearby creek as our pastime of choice during those lazy north Louisiana summers when we really were out of school for a full three months. The new school year never started until after Labor Day.
I was reminded of all this during a recent visit with an old friend I hadn’t seen since I attended Cook Baptist Church as a teenager back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Our visit, far too brief, gave me pause to reminisce about those wonderful days so long ago and to long for those endless, carefree days once more.
As I type this, a Cinderella team from Coastal Carolina has just defeated Florida, the number-one team in the nation, in the College World Series in Omaha by a razor-thin 2-1 score. LSU might have been the one playing Florida had the Tigers not had the misfortune of running smack into that same very fine, well-coached, and classy Coastal Carolina Chanticleer team (a chanticleer is a bad-ass rooster, we’re told).
I love baseball and I was thrilled to see my Louisiana Tech Bulldogs have a banner year after all the years of frustration and losing records. I was equally dismayed to see Alabama steal our coach but in reality, Tech has been a stepping stone in recent years for coaches on the way up, so it was probably a foregone conclusion that it was going happen. But it came so soon—after only the second year of Greg Goff’s tenure.
I can never watch baseball without thinking of my opportunity to make friends and win a few games with a sandlot team in Ruston. For a full decade, I owned and “managed” the Ruston Ramblers in the old North Central League. My “managing” basically consisted of filling out a lineup card, keeping the scorebook and convincing myself I was adequate at coaching third base. In reality, my players were veterans of high school American Legion or college baseball and knew a lot more about the game’s nuances than I but they tolerated my general ignorance of the game’s finer points and allowed me to continue under the delusion that I was actually contributing.
We won far more games than we lost but again, that point is attributable to the players, not me. Players like Rennie Howard, Curt, Cecil and Steve Barham, Jack Thigpen, Rodney Schaffer, Glenn Trammell, Stevie Blackstock, Wayne Baxter, Reg Cassibry, Gene Smith, Gene Colvin, Woody Cooper, Gary Crawford, Dean Dick, Bill Duncan, and Randall Fallin among others too numerous to name.
For my part, I own a league record that will never be broken because the league has long since disbanded. I recorded 28 consecutive strikeouts—as a hitter—before finally getting a hit that, believe it or not, drove in the winning run in a game against the first-place Arcadia Aces and Emmett Woodard, a constant thorn in our side in that the Aces beat us every year for the league championship. We won only one championship and that was against Bob Price’s Simsboro team in 1968—and I wasn’t even there for the event; I was on my honeymoon and Jack Thigpen coached the team to the win.
We had a lot of ups and down. Gene Smith once pitched a no-hitter into the 10th inning only to have me lose the game on two consecutive errors at Magnolia, Arkansas. On both occasions, I mishandled ground ball singles in centerfield that allowed the winning run to move up two bases and ultimately, to score for Magnolia’s 3-2 win.
Our first year of existence, we were a rag-tag bunch that, if memory serves, didn’t win a single game but we had fun. We had a catcher, Jug Martin, who caught while barefoot. We had another catcher a few years later, Butch Bryant, who batted with his shin guards on. He wasn’t very fast down the line anyway, so it probably didn’t matter.
We had a couple of pitchers that are worth remembering—not for their ability, God knows. One, we knew only as Early Wynn. It was not the Early Wynn who pitched for the Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox over a 23-year major league career but one who, after walking the third consecutive batter on just 12 pitches (that’s right, he didn’t throw a single strike) got the ball back from the catcher and tried to slam the ball into his glove in frustration—and missed, the ball bouncing on the infield grass.
Another pitcher, we knew only as Rusty Staub. Again, not the red-headed Houston Astros, New York Mets, Montreal Expos—known there as “Le Grand Orange”— player who hailed from New Orleans. Our Rusty Staub gained his name by virtue of his showing up one day wearing a Houston Astros cap. I knew he didn’t have much by way of talent but I put him in one game that we obviously weren’t going to win and he nearly killed outstanding catcher Wayne Baxter with one wild pitch after another. At one point, as he chased down yet another wile pitch, Baxter was heard to mutter, “I’m gonna kill Aswell.”
The best play ever was when Jack Thigpen pulled an unassisted triple play. I don’t remember the opponent, but they had runners on first and second with no outs when they put on the hit and run. With a left-handed hitter, shortstop Thigpen moved over to cover second on the steal and as luck would have it, the batter hit a line drive right over second. Jack went airborne, speared the ball for the first out, landed on second, doubling off the runner going from second to third and reached down and tagged the runner from first as he slid into second, apparently unaware of where the ball was.
Jack, a light-hitting player, hit two triples and drove in all three runs in another 3-2 win in an exhibition game against a far superior team comprised mostly of stellar Grambling College players the same year that Grambling went to the NAIA playoffs behind Ralph Garr who hit something like .582 his senior year. Thankfully, he had already signed with the Atlanta Braves before that game and didn’t participate.
Back to my game-winning hit. I came up in the top of the ninth at Arcadia and with a runner on third, lined an improbable single. The runner at third was so stunned he nearly forgot to run. In the bottom of the ninth, I promptly allowed a leadoff triple over my head in left field. Now the Aces had the tying run on third with no outs. Pitcher Bill Duncan, who could play any position and who once while catching, picked a runner off second without ever coming out of his crouch, called out the catcher and said, “Nothing but fast balls.”
Nine fast balls latter, the last of three consecutive batters struck out swinging and we had a rare win over Arcadia.
We also played a classic game against Arcadia in Ruston. With no score in the bottom of the seventh, Thigpen scored what was apparently the game’s first run but an appeal resulted in his being called out for missing third. So we went to the 11th and Arcadia scored two runs. We answered by scratching out two of our own in the bottom of the 11th and the game went to the 17th inning before Rennie Howard stole home for another of those 3-2 wins.
The Downsville team had a badly overweight left-handed first baseman but he could really hit. No, he could really crush the ball. Once, at Downsville, first baseman Howard and our right fielder conspired to take advantage of the player’s obvious lack of speed. Sure enough, he scorched an apparent single to right field that reached the right fielder on one hop. He fielded the ball and threw a perfect strike first to get the runner by a good 20 feet.
That same player, who had a volatile temper, by the way, came to bat in a key situation in a game at Ruston. The tying run was at second and the lead run at first late in the game when he came to bat with two out. He took a mighty swing and hit a puny pop-up to the infield. He uttered a loud profanity and heaved his bat over the first base dugout—right through the windshield of his own VW Beetle. No one in our dugout dared laugh.
Why am I writing all this? Because on Saturday (June 18), I had that aforementioned visit at the home of Billy Jack Price in Ruston. Price is 83 now and in the course of our visit, he said he had something he wanted me to read. It was his personal notes about his love for and memories of “cow pasture” baseball in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Antioch, a community just north of the Lincoln Parish town of Simsboro.
Told through the eyes of a child of seven or eight years old (his estimated age at the time), I found it fascinating and extremely accurate—and it reminded me of the reason baseball was invented in the first place.
Back then, there was no pressure to win, no endorsements, no high salaries, and no batting gloves to be adjusted by the batter after each pitch. At times, umpires were recruited from the stands. A “ringer” was a player who showed up in an actual uniform from a big city like Ruston. The objective was to win, of course, but to have fun in the process.
Billy Jack Price names actual participants and the name Price pops up on the list. The most prominent is that of Bruce Price, father of the aforementioned Bob Price who later coached that Simsboro team against whom we competed. (By the time I came along, Bob was in his 50s but when he batted, we could never seem to get him out. He choked up on the bat and just drove us crazy hitting his dinky line drive singles just over the second baseman’s head.)
Bob’s father was Bruce Price who, in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in Shreveport, once struck out Babe Ruth—not once, not twice, but three times, according to local legend. Ruth is said to have refused to bat against a fourth time, so Price was pulled and Ruth promptly hit a home run.
Billy Jack Price said his father and Bruce Price were not related but did marry sisters, which makes him a first cousin to the late Bob Price. Here then, is Billy Jack Price’s personal story of growing up with “cow pasture” baseball scheduled around milking and harvesting crops:
In compiling thoughts on the Dring family, it invariably turns to recreation. Memories of a person who was young and impressionable tend to remember those things that he loved best from our youth. Set hook fishing, trips to chinquapin trees (a blight came through a few decades ago and wiped out the tree, which bore a nut that resembled a hazelnut but which tasted far better), watermelon in the early morning all come to mind.
Nothing for the Dring family, however, was more embedded as the game of baseball. Beginning with the Drings from the early days at Antioch, came nearly 20 years of active participation in the game we came to know in the “cow pasture” field.
Kate Trussell’s pasture on the north side of the road between her store and the Dring home was more than adequate. Cows were run off, only to often return to view the sport and to add irregular “bases” around the outfield, but no one minded. We were, after all, farm boys.
Bordered by woods in the outfield, the road on the south and the Old Skinner Road on the east, the field roughly resembled the city slicker fields in Ruston, Simsboro and Dubach. The outfield was wide open and if an outfield caught the ball among the trees, you were out just as if it was caught in the clear area. Charlie Dring was well known for his ability to hit the ball over the trees and many other players could reach the trees with their blasts.
There was no artificial turf on the infield but if time permitted the cow droppings were removed and the infield smooth down as much as possible with yard rakes.
Four sweetgum saplings embedded into the ground had chicken wire stretched over them to form the backstop. Sometimes the wire held together as long as two years but usually it was replaced if the “collection” from passing the hat among the spectators yielded enough after the ball and bat were purchased.
Crocker sacks (horse feed sacks) half-filled with dirt created a usable base that would stay put. In fact, when a hard slide occurred, the bases didn’t yield so strong ankles were essential.
Practice balls were usually heavily-taped remains from a demolished baseball and only on game day did a new ball materialize. That was ball, as in singular—not the several dozen that are used in games today. Whoever went to Ruston during game week was charged with the responsibility of buying a game ball for the Saturday game. (To this day, I love the feel of a new baseball.) This ball was inserted into the big game—and all games were big. If fouled off, the game simply ground to a halt until the ball was found. By the end of the game, it was pretty well used. For one July 4th tournament, funds were found for three new balls. This unprecedented show of prosperity was unheard of.
I don’t think we had a “store-bought” bat that was not broken, nailed, taped and used until is literally broke completely into two pieces and sometimes, even the stub was used. The standby was the home-made bats that Grandpa carved from an ash log. I don’t know who he thought he was making them for, but they were very long (the best guess is 42 inches, much longer than the traditional bat of 33-34 inches in length) and very heavy. After a certain time, these bats had a tendency to warp rather badly. Bruce Price explained to me that the crooked bat was for hitting a curve ball—and I, of course, believed him. Those bats did not break and the theory was that not one play in a thousand playing today could even swing them.
There were none.
The typical team would be dressed in work overalls, khakis that were badly worn, shirts that were threadbare, perhaps a cap that was handed down through the years, and shoes of choice—brogans (work shoes), Sunday shoes that were badly worn or, in most cases, no shoes. Dick Dring always caught and he wore his work shoes behind the plate and removed them while batting and running the bases.
On occasion, a “hot shot” player would show up with a pair of baseball shoes with steel spikes. These spikes, usually filed to a knife’s edge, were the biggest origin of discord in a game. Sliding and spiking an opponent usually brought on strong words and, on rare occasions, blows until calmer heads prevailed. Few of these “hot shot” players returned to the Antioch field a second time.
Take three pieces of 2 X 8 about 20 inches in length and overlay with three more pieces of same size and nail thoroughly. Embed about two inches into the ground and you had home plate. Will it skin you when you slide? Yes. Will it give you stone bruises if you jump on it? Yes. Will the ball bounce sky-high when fouled onto it? Yes. After countless at-bats, a hole sometimes six inches in depth was created on either side of the plate. This forced the umpire to make allowances for short batters whose strike stones were drastically affected when they stood in the holes.
Pitcher’s Mound and Pitcher’s Rubber
Wheelbarrows loaded with dirt were utilized to raise the pitcher’s mound about nine inches above the playing field. This height, of course, could be adjusted to meet the requirements of the home team pitcher. The visiting pitcher never liked it.
The rubber, consisting of a section of 600 X 16 tire 24 inches long was held down by spikes driven into the ground. One of the saddest sights I can remember of the Trussell field was the rotting home plate and the pitcher’s rubber still in place with grass, weeds and bushes around both.
The foul lines were not chalked off but were determined solely by the umpire and half the players. This, of course, resulted in many arguments. An honest catcher was in the best position to make the determination and Dick Dring was considered honest and always called them fairly for both sides—unless the game was close.
If the ball was hit fairly and the runner rounded all the bases safely without stopping, it was considered a home run whether it was a long fly ball hit over the outfielders’ heads or a sharp grounder through the infield that no one could flag down. Even missed pop-ups could turn into a home run. Doc Skinner and Charlie Dring were long ball hitters but Snooks Dring and Bruce Price were likely to just keep running on a routine ball just to “make something happen.” A couple of errors, an unlikely encounter between the ball and a fresh cow chip or a little assistance from an umpire could produce a home run.
It takes money to run a club. The hat was usually passed around at games and on one occasion a spectator actually dropped a dollar bill in without asking for change. This would purchase a ball for the next game and if anything was left, perhaps a store-bought bat.
For the big games, there was always a concession stand consisting of several number-two wash tubs filled with iced-down Coca-Colas, big oranges and 7-Ups. Occasionally there would be a few Grapettes. Grapettes were the drink of choice for most who tried them but the bottle was so small that most would not spend their nickels for them when the larger drinks would last longer. Funds from the concessions went into the fund for purchasing equipment for the team.
Three or four Drings, a couple of Prices, some Skinners, and a fill-in or two usually made up the Antioch team. Strictly from memory, as I was quite young, here is the lineup for a big game:
Zane Skinner (shortstop)
Freddy Price (second base)
Snooks Dring (third base)
Charlie Dring (centerfield)
Towdy Dring (first base)
Doe Skinner (left field)
Dick Dring (catcher)
Whoever was available or some young ‘un like Bob Price (right field)
Bruce Price (pitcher)
The lineup changed often because it was never a certainty as to who would be finished plowing by game time and it was never really very clear who the coach/manager was. Milton Methvin, Bunk Price, Bud Smith, Alva Dring, Earl Turner and several others were always ready to offer lineup advice.
Some way, somehow, the team had managed to secure a mask and a chest protector for the catcher and a mitt also existed. How any catcher avoided being hurt with that antiquated equipment remains a mystery but my awe for Dick Dring led me to a 15-year career as a catcher in Little League, high school, American Legion, some college, the military and semi-pro.
Generally, the umpire was Dude Smith or Earl Turner and if both were present, both called the game. The balls and strikes umpire stood behind the pitcher and if necessary called both balls and strikes and the bases. The umpire was often the center of attention and Dude Smith could be very colorful with his duties. (Dude Smith was the father of Gene Smith, who played for Simsboro High School, American Legion, Louisiana Tech and the Ruston Ramblers.) While there were arguments a-plenty, most of it was in good, clean fun. Occasionally, some hothead would go too far but cooler heads quickly prevailed.
Homemade 2 X 12 benches or a log hauled from the woods served as the dugouts for the teams. It was a thrill for me, at seven or eight years old, to be allowed to sit on the bench with the players. Being allowed to take a dipper of water from the water bucket was a bonus
Ringers, Hot Dog Players and City Slickers
Anyone living in town was a city slicker and immediately branded as such when he appeared to play at Antioch Field. Ragging from players and fans alike was the price one paid for driving over from Ruston. If that player happened to show up in a uniform, the baiting was ramped up considerably. Bruce, Snooks and the others ragged a player from Ruston unmercifully and when the game was over, they thanked him for coming and invited him back.
Bruce Price Curveball
Yes, Bruce struck Babe Ruth out! Probably once but with each passing decade as the story was repeated, it became twice, then three times and sometimes even more. I can’t vouch for even one but I do know I’ve seen a lot of curve balls and was struck out by some of the best but I have never caught a pitcher who had a Bruce Price curve ball nor have I ever faced a pitcher who had such a devastating pitch as his curve.
July 4th Tournament
Three or four teams would gather at the Trussell Field on July 4th and several games would be played. Brush arbors were built for the fans to sit under. Food and drinks were available and it was a community holiday the likes of which we don’t see any more. Goose Creek, Ansley, Simsboro, Hico, and other local communities had teams and each had a certain following of fans, family, kids, so the tournament usually brought a pretty good crowd.
In the Dring family, the farming duties always—without exception—came ahead of ball playing. If the cotton needed plowing, it was plowed before there was any baseball. If a fence was down, it was mended.
But that was how it was played when I was a kid. The competition and the good fellowship the game provided dictated that the game was recreation, not win at all costs.
After plowing five days, a good baseball game was relaxing and served as a diversion from the toil and boredom of back-breaking work as we emerged from the Great Depression. Some aspects may seem rural and funny to the sophisticated baseball aficionado.
But this was a coming together of friends, communities and players for the sole purpose of visiting and sport.
It was fun.