Sometimes we just need a break.
This is the time of year, of course, when all the stores pipe in seasonal music in an effort to subliminally force the Christmas spirit on us in the hopes that like a guilt trip, it will motivate us to spend lots and lots of cash on cards and gifts for everyone from the landscape contractor to kids and grandkids.
Nothing like a little not-so-subtle advertising to put us in the mood, right? I mean, who wouldn’t be stirred down to our very souls by such a deeply moving Christmas carol like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer? (by the way, I make it a personal objective every year to make it through the Christmas season without being subjected to that awful song.)
And of course, there are the mind-numbing TV Christmas specials, paid for by an endless array of commercials hawking everything from cars to diamonds to toys and appliances.
And that is precisely why I am offering a little respite from the routine, the routine of writing about politics and the routine of being ground down by an annual Christmas season that long ago stopped being about Christmas, co-opted by a mindset of commercialism bordering on outright profiteering.
The way I cope with this is by reading. If I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. (Yeah, I know, that doesn’t speak much to my neglect of cardiovascular exercise. I’m starting to get those Aretha Franklin upper arms and my stomach makes a handy table for my laptop.)
But reading is my passion and I want to tell you about a delightful book I just read.
Anyone who loves baseball (and who doesn’t, after that thrilling seventh game of this year’s World Series?), will thoroughly enjoy Uncle Drew and the Bat Dodger by Thomas Cochran.
It’s not about politics, there are no spies, no murders and no sex. Just baseball. And better yet, it’s set in Claiborne Parish, up in north Louisiana where I traipsed around as a much younger man, in the fictional town of Oil Camp.
It mentions such exotic getaways as Minden in Webster Parish and Arcadia in Bienville, where my old sandlot team, the Ruston Ramblers played some hard-fought games against Emmett Woodard’s Arcadia Aces.
We finished as runner-up to Arcadia several years in a row but never beat them for the title. They even beat us in the championship game one year with only seven players. They were that good. (It was against Arcadia, however, that I got my one and only run batted in—the game-winning RBI, no less—in my 10 years as the Ramblers manager and occasional player. That I ever got to play at all is attributable solely to the fact that I owned the team. But I still hold to the opinion that I could have been a good baseball player except for the unfortunate inability to hit, run, catch or throw.)
But back to our story. It’s listed as juvenile fiction by the book’s publisher, Pelican Publishing of Gretna, but I would recommend it for youngsters of all ages. I’m 73 and I loved it. I’m not sure where author Cochran is from, but I’d bet my old glove he’s from north Louisiana.
The story is told through the voice of nine-year-old (soon to be 10) Teddy Caldwell who meets his elderly neighbor, Drew Weems, by hitting a baseball through the old man’s window. A friendship quickly forms between the two. When Teddy mentions that Derek Jeter is his favorite player, Drew, Uncle Drew, snorts in derision. He confides that his all-time favorite is Cantrell “Bopeep” Shines, hands-down.
Uncle Drew, it turns out as the story unfolds, was a 14-year-old farm boy when a bus broke down in Claiborne Parish near the pond where he was fishing. The passengers were members of an all-black barnstorming baseball team of the old Negro Leagues which existed before Jackie Robinson broke the major league’s color barrier.
Shines, the team’s star pitcher, was fed up of not being paid and walks away on foot, trailed by the curious Drew. Eventually they hook up and Drew fries the fish he has caught for Shines who confides in the white boy his plans to make “real money.”
Drew decides to throw in with Shines and the two strike out on their own barnstorming tour across the South and even into Texas where Shines, with Drew serving as his catcher and bookkeeper, takes on all comers in one-on-one encounters, challenging would-be hitters to bat against him. The bets range from a few cents all the way up to an eye-popping $500 bet with, of all people, retired Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb, owner of the all-time high major league career batting average.
I won’t tell you how that face-off ended, but along the way, Shines picks up the name Bat Dodger. (He called himself Bopeep because he herded hitters “like sheeps.” He used banter with hitters to his advantage by getting into their heads much like we imagine Satchel Paige might have done in his prime.
Drew decides to mentor the underachieving right fielder Teddy and teaches him to use the same windup employed by Shines. Of course, when he goes out for the team, the coach automatically assigns him to right field, the position generally played by the last player chosen, though in real baseball, from college on up to the majors, the strong arm of the right fielder is an important commodity.
But Teddy and Drew have other ideas. Teddy asks to try out for pitcher.
To learn what happens to Drew, Shines and Teddy’s tryout for pitcher, you’ll just have order the book from PELICAN.