Baseball in Melrose, as it was in the '50s

... former third-base, now from New Hampshire, delights in great memories

By Dave Powers

One of your contributors and longtime friend of mine, Steve Johnson, now of Arizona,
urged me to do some writing; so here goes.

My first recollection is becoming a Tiger, one of Melrose first Little League teams
around 1943 or 44. Bob Wells and Mr. Smith were the coaches. The pride and joy of
receiving our uniforms (T-shirts with iron on letters) was beyond words. Thus began my
love for throwing, catching, and hitting a baseball which lasted pretty much until I
enlisted in the Army (promised Europe but ended in Korea for thirteen months (1958-59).
However did receive two complimentary Pacific Ocean cruises via troop ship!

Memories from Lincoln School playground baseball remain strong almost seven decades
later. Memories such as eagerly waiting to be picked to play by one of the "big kids" in
the string of sandlot games which seemed endless. I clearly recall all of the big kids as
being good guys. No bullying, name calling, or foul language; just play hard and have
fun. Some of the big kids' names recalled were the Crowther brothers, Tom Leary, Syl
Thompson, Fran Traill, Bill Kelly, Ira Leedham, Mike McDonough, and Jackie Rebelais.
Rebelais regularly hit tremendous shots near the tennis courts far out to left or onto
Lincoln's roof in deep center. Apologies for any misspelled or omitted names.

My first awareness of Steve Johnson was in Little League at about age 8 or 9 when he had
already reached his full height of about five feet eight or so and seemed gigantic to the
rest of us his age.

Steve had already attained his "fifteen minutes of fame" by smacking many homers over
Lincoln's right field fence (kind of like Ted Williams in Detroit's old Briggs Field) and
was then invited to appear on that new magic-television (Bump Hadley  Show) as I recall.

Oh yes! Lincoln field, summer sun, being picked to play, a newly white taped baseball,
and all was right with the world. A few memorable contemporaries at Lincoln were: Johnnie
Turner whose glove had the world's best pocket; Bob Pinkney who always seemed wise beyond
his years; George Eustace, so fleet afoot as to remind one of Boston's Jim Piersall; Al
Lucci who could play any position; Rich Traill, and many others who  have faded into the
"cornfield" of my memory as in the "Field of Dreams" movie. What I took away from the
many pick-up games was that most people fall into the "good guys" category.

As the years passed and baseball became more competitive, the Tigers somehow became the
Red  Sox, and a great guy named Doug Dalton became the manager and I think provided full
uniforms and hats for us on his own. Baseball remained my passion and two lifelong
friendships developed in our junior high years culminating in Steve, Jimmy Buchert, and
me becoming teammates for four years at Melrose High. Jim, of course, became a highly
respected baseball coach at Melrose High, but sadly, left us all way too soon.

Our senior year much was expected of our team as there really were some very talented
players on the squad. However, by mid season of 1955 we had pretty much become a .500
team struggling for each win.

Steve, our ever baseball serious first baseman, proved to be an irrestisable foil for one
of my unique skills with a baseball back in those days. I was able to throw an extremely
active knuckleball with great velocity! Our catcher, Art Anderson, wouldn't let me throw
it when pitching as it was so difficult to catch. However, my sense of humor dictated
that I test Steve's agility at first base. Hence, in a league game, while playing third,
I fielded a grounder cleanly and fired a great knuckler to Steve at first. As it danced
side to side and/or up and down on its journey to first, Steve's glove mirrored the
ball's very erratic movement and he was looking like he'd never  caught a ball before.
Luckily Steve snagged it followed immediately by coach Jack Walsh bellowing something
like, "Johnson! You've got to look more confident on those throws!" Coach had no idea
that Steve had handled a knuckler tossed by a temporary screwball!

Steve once more became the foil for Jim and me when we managed to distract him between
innings long enough to hang a foot long metal base spike to a belt loop on his backside
as he was due to coach at third next inning. Once again Coach Walsh called out,"Johnson!
Cut the clowning and get that spike off!" A bit silly but very funny at the time.

Our season ended with a grand flourish as we defeated league champ Reading 7 to 3 in a
game which lasted twenty full innings. I somehow managed to pitch all 20 innings. I
recall Doug Dalton and Bill Tryder's father watching the whole game. Somewhere in a box
down cellar, I have a ball signed by the whole team.

After high school, Steve joined the Air Force while Jim and I played a couple of summers
for a Melrose team in the City League (Malden, Everett,and others).

One evening I happened to have a terrific fielding game at third plus a couple of solid
hits against Ralph Wheeler's Malden team at Pine Banks. Wheeler had NY Yankee ties and
told our coach he'd watch me closely next game. I played horribly when next we met, thus
abruptly ending a boyhood dream of baseball fame and fortune and beginning my journey
into the real world.

Sent from my iPad.

February 1, 2013

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