Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Old Slugger Remembered the Long Balls


Photos, Courtesy of Charles Reece

Top: (l to r); standing; James (Kaiser) Reece, Gar Agee, Gathel Franklin, Carl Smith, James (Towser) Hewitt; Squatting or sitting; Hugh McCall, Glen Ribinson, Draper (Spoodle) Sircy, Billy Armistead, Dow (Preacher) Smith, Bobby Hugh McCall, Albert Monroe (Uncle Bud) Witcher.

Bottom: Kaiser Reece at bat in Carthage, TN


You see them at funerals, elders of the community you hardly knew. When you were growing up they were older and you knew who they where but you never knew them in person. Your parents did, and through them to you the thread was spun.

My Aunt Lexie McCormick had died. I liked her very much. She’d worked hard her whole life without ever gaining much property. Her wealth was in the love she held for her children. She was a kind and patient woman. Long-suffering seems to run in the family. I think it yet finds expression in my endurance pursuits. I’d mailed her a copy of my first book, as a complete surprise for her. A voracious reader, she read the whole thing very quickly. The book was about endurance racing, an entire world that must have seemed strange to her. But that didn’t matter. Although she could barely hear well enough to have a conversation on the phone, she called me up to tell me how much she liked it and how surprised she was. No one could have given me a better review. A final gift, her wake led me to a story I would never have otherwise found.

I walked into the funeral chapel at Carthage where her family was receiving friends before the funeral. There sat Kaiser Reece in an armchair against the back wall next to the door. The funeral director greeted me, motioned at Kaiser and said, “Do you know this man?”

Kaiser lived in Smith County on Salt Lick Creek up creek from a community called Gladdice. I had grown up on Salt Lick Creek down creek from Gladdice, in the Smith Bend community of Jackson County. We’d been neighbors in that long ago time when I was a kid.

Kaiser stood medium height, stocky and as sturdy as a hickory stump. Although he was pushing 80, you would take him as a formidable man, and as much younger. We shook. His hand was thick and strong. It had swung a bat like a sickle. A life of farm work had added rough calluses.

I sat in an armchair at right angles to his and we talked. Being 14 years younger than he, when I was growing up I’d barely known Kaiser. But there was a question I wanted to ask him.

“I know you were a good baseball player when you were a young man,” I said. “I heard someone say—I don’t know who it was, I think it was when I was real young—that Kaiser Reece hit the longest home run they ever saw at Gladdice.”

“I hit one that went 16 corn rows.” He was talking about he corn rows beyond the outfield.

“Next time I came up I hit one that went 18 corn rows. Both times the bases were loaded.”

“Bases were loaded?”

“Yeah. They walked Carl and loaded the bases.”

He was referring to Carl Smith, a strong hitter who later played professional baseball. They’d been afraid to pitch to him. Kaiser continued.

“Jargo was playing center field. He said, ‘You’ve messed up now. He’s a good hitter.’”

Jargo Flatt was a loud-talking outfielder raised in Gladdice, but he played for the visitors. He knew Kaiser and knew he could hit the ball out. And Kaiser had, going 16 rows into the cornfield behind the outfield.

Next time Kaiser came up, the visitors, still ignoring their center fielder, pitched around Carl Smith again to bring up Kaiser. This time center fielder Jargo Flatt must have looked on with a mixture of outrage and disbelief. He’d tried to tell them. He could only watch as the ball flew over, heading back to the cornfield and going 18 rows deep.

“It was in the playoffs. We were playing Rock City.”

Rock City was a community west of Carthage, near Rome. Kaiser had hit two back-to-back grand slams against them. His dingers crushed the snakebit team.

“After that, they quit and went home,” Kaiser said.

Sitting there in the funeral chapel that day, I failed to ask Kaiser what the score was at that point, or even in what innings he had hit the homers. With two swings of the bat he alone had put up eight runs for Gladdice. Little wonder Rock City went home.

The incident happened during the late forties, I figure. My dad was a baseball player, too, a pitcher. I was born in 1940 and I can barely remember him playing. Daddy was around 11 years older than Kaiser, and so Kaiser’s peak playing years would have come correspondingly later.

In those years, neighboring communities like Difficult, Defeated, Gladdice and so on fielded baseball teams. Baseball playing was important to a young man, a way to prove his worth. Families turned out to watch the games on Sunday afternoons. That was their entertainment.

My question had started Kaiser remembering long balls. “They may have been talking about that one I hit up at Celina. It was long.” At Celina there had not been corn rows to count. Kaiser looked away to the front of the chapel as if still seeing the Celina ball sail away.

“That ball… That ball… Left there,” he said finally.

“They said I struck out 14,” Kaiser continued, revealing his position as pitcher. “I beat Don Cook three to two.”

“Don Cook!”

“He was pitching…”

“I know Don Cook! I still see him around Cookeville. He played basketball at Tennessee Tech. He played baseball, too?”

“He was the pitcher,” Kaiser said.

“His family, you know, came from Gladdice. Pete Cook, you know,” I said.

“Yeah, Pete Cook,” Kaiser said, nodding.

Then he drifted away from Don Cook and the Celina game, still pondering long homers.

“Billy Armistead hit the longest ball I ever saw at Monterey. He was playing for Baxter. You remember Billy Armistead?” he asked.

“Uh…yeah. They lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I answered.

That house in Smith Bend somehow engendered baseball spirit. Two outstanding players had lived there. It stands yet, a quarter-mile east of the Smith Bend Methodist Church and Margie Agee, a high school classmate of mine lives there.

“That’s right,” Kaiser said. “Billy hit the longest ball I ever saw hit there (Monterey). There was a light pole in centerfield. It hit two-thirds of the way up and bounced back in.”

“Yeah, they lived where Carl Smith used to live,” I mused. “Carl Smith was a pretty good baseball player too, wasn’t he?”

“Yeah, he played professional ball. He and [unknown] went up at the same time. [unknown] stayed, but Carl came back. They played in that league….”

Here, Kaiser couldn’t remember the name of the league but told me it had included Nashville, Atlanta and Chattanooga.

“I think it was called the Sally league,” I offered. I seemed to remember a league called the Southern-something that had had the nickname “Sally.” Undecided, we dropped the name quest. Kaiser continued.

“Carl was a good player, but he came back. He was such a hothead they couldn’t do anything with him.”

I remember him vaguely, a big, intimidating man, all the more fearsome because he was totally bald. Kaiser reflected on Carl’s hitting strength, the man Rock City had twice walked to get to Kaiser. He told me this about Carl Smith’s brief pro career:

“They said ever time you hit a home run you got a new pair of shoes. I heard that when Carl came back he had 14 pairs of new shoes.”

New shoes for a home run, a modest bonus—these were old times, old ways. Baseball was different then.

Don Cook, the pitcher Kaiser was so proud of defeating at Celina, was elected to the Tennessee Tech Hall of Fame. You can see his picture lined up with all the other honorees overhead in the concourse of Hooper-Eblen Center, hanging there today. He forever holds a basketball, poised to shoot.

In fact, you can see Don Cook himself. Go to a basketball game and check the first row behind the Tech bench. You’ll find him there still enjoying the game he played so well. We know now he also pitched baseball.

The mystery man, who played professional ball with Carl Smith? His name slipped by me that day when Kaiser told his story at Aunt Lexie’s wake. I’d planned to ask Kaiser who it was, but I didn’t bump into him again. Now it’s too late. Kaiser died a short while later, at the age of 81, in March, the season of spring training.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Crazy Zigzag Course

(A) Concrete canyon; (B) Flower garden in Riverside Park; (C) Spreading gravel on a dog run.


Sierra Cub members doing grunt work on New York's Riverside Park. For free. That's what it was. But one of them was a runner. He took off to Central Park.


They will scarcely notice if I go running. The 23 others are like strangers. I only met them Sunday night, which was the eve of Memorial Day, and now it is Thursday. Lee and Willard (I’ve changed names), two of my roommates at the hostel, know I’m going. They’ll hardly raise a panic if I don’t return, none of their worry.

“Screw it! He’s a grown man, he knew what he was doing,” they’ll say.

Willard is an educated bubba from Arkansas. He despises Republicans and defies anybody bossing him around. “Let me see your supervisor’s licenses,” he demands.

Lee is a Navy retiree is from Pensacola given to blurting out strangely irrelevant statements in a rapid-fire mumble nobody can understand. “I don’t know what the hell Lee’s talking about half the time,” Willard told me one day. “I think, ‘What was that Lee said! Man, I need to clean out my ears.’”

Brad, my other roomie, is from Utah. His hobby is dirt bike racing. He combines motorcycles with cardiology, his day job. He sports a shiny pate on top and a ponytail in the back.

He never talks. It’s hard to guess what he knows. Damned if I see how he finds his way around anyone’s heart—he barely finds his way down the sidewalk, always holding the group up one way or another: showing up late, forgetting his subway card, wandering off to nobody knows where.

“I’d leave his ass,” Willard says. He would too.

Presenting, then, the cast and setting: four misfits stuffed in a tiny room on New York’s Upper West Side, all, more or less, trying to be agreeable.

For now, the day’s work is done, and I’m going running. So I stuff my credit card, room key and four folded $100 bills in my key pocket and set out. Except for the key, I don’t need those things, but I can’t leave them in the hostel for roving thieves.

From Amsterdam at West 103rd Street I head east, through Frederick Douglass Houses, a high-rise project spanning two blocks. I hit Central Park West and duck into the park itself.

I run past the bench where I’d lunched Sunday, just after arriving in town. I didn’t have a room then, but I’d stowed my bags in one of the hostel’s lockers, two bucks for 24 hours. I’d walked over to the park, stopping at a bodega for a candy bar and a Gala apple, and picked up a hot dog from a street vendor.

I’d sat on the bench wielding my K-Bar folder, slicing wedges off the Gala, the only apple suitable for human consumption in my book. Woman from New Jersey walks up. “Where are the restrooms?” she asks. I swear. I hadn’t been there twenty minutes, and here comes a woman asking directions. Did I look like a bored New Yorker dawdling away his Sunday?

“I just got in town,” I said. “I don’t know where they are. If we were in Tennessee, I could point you to a tree.”

Restrooms? I couldn’t advise her. I’m a stranger here. I didn’t even know what I was going to do next.

Remembering, I run past that bench now and head on across the park, passing baseball fields. A rock outcropping rises up from the grass. Young woman with a laptop sits on top, practicing an expression of languid boredom. Pretty, young and alone, perched on a rock, like a bluebird on a stump.

It’s not a long jog across. The park is only half a mile wide. I hit Fifth Avenue and hesitate, wondering whether to exit the park, or stay on a path. After all, my secret is I know where I’m going: I plan to circle the park’s upper side. I can do that within or without the parapet wall. I decide to stay inside the park, on the paths.

Helen will notice if I’m not back for supper, I bet. “Where’s Dallas?” she’ll ask. Ours fates entwined strangely that first day, last Sunday.

Two dozen Sierra Club members arrived at the International Youth Hostel, planning to bunk there and do some work on Riverside Park. Our leader, Brooklyn native Jerry Balch, had made room assignments, four persons to each room. He hadn’t known me except through correspondence.

He thought I was a woman.

Something I’d said in e-mail. I noticed his reply had been quite friendly. I discovered his error Sunday when I asked him why I was assigned to a room with three women.

“I thought you were a woman,” he said.

Well, I’m not. My white beard helped convince him. But he didn’t know what to do about the room. He dreaded changing everything.

“Just make out tonight…” he told me, and then trailed off, suggesting he’d think about it later.

I lugged my bags up the stairs to room 425, dropped my key in the slot and let myself in. The surprised women in the room saw their new bunkmate and started laughing. They thought it was so very funny. I didn’t know how to take that.

We talked. They told me Helen’s sad story. Before my de jure sex change, Helen had been an extra female, and Jerry had assigned her to bunk with three men in 410. That suggested a swap. I skedaddled around to 410 and knocked on the door. There I found Willard and Helen unpacking their bags.

I made my proposal—that Helen and I swap rooms. A wide smile spread across her face. It was deliverance for her. She had already resigned herself to bunking with three men.

“You could tell Helen was nervous, but she was determined to suck it up and make the best of it,” Willard told me later.

That night at supper we put on name tags so we could learn who everyone was. On her tag, Helen had written: “Helen, ‘friend of Dallas.’”

If I fail to return from this run, Helen will notice.

Skirting along the upper park border at 110th Street now. Given that I started at 103rd Street this won’t be a long run. Three miles will be O.K., and it looks like that’s how it might work out once I return.

A lake on my left, two little kids squatting at the edge squinting at something on the ground. Maybe they caught a fish, or maybe it’s just a tadpole. Kids love messing around water.

There are fish here in the middle of Manhattan. My jog takes me past another small lake. I know bass live in there. I saw one on top a few days ago. Guy was pointing it out to a passerby. A few casts of my ultra light…

And I saw a bucket of bullfrogs at a fish market in Chinatown. There were a dozen or more sitting quietly in three inches of water at the bottom of their jail. They couldn’t remember how to croak. They sat silent, like church was going to start.

I finish my jog in time for a shower, supper and a ride downtown to catch the Emerson String Quartet.

Friday rolls around, and we quit Riverside Park early. Which fact causes me to once again find myself jogging across Central Park, this time intending to circle the lower park, a longer route than yesterday’s was.

I jog across the park like yesterday, hit the east side and head south. That is, I get close to the east side. As before, I decide to stay on the park paths, rather than stepping outside and running down Fifth Avenue. But I don’t find that easy. There are many paths and—the greenhorn stranger I am—I keep making choices that threaten to take me back toward the west.

Finally I work my way past the reservoir, and decide to take the direct route south: get out and run the sidewalk on Fifth.

But now time becomes my problem. Reluctantly, I decide I’m not going to the southern end of the Park. My crazy zigzag course has taken up too much time.

I have obligations. Helen, Willard and I are planning to catch a Mets game. It will be a seven-mile run by the time I circle back. Must keep my promise.

So I cut through the park at East 65th Street, six blocks short of my goal. That cutoff takes me close to the Tavern on the Green, near the NYC Marathon finish line. But I never see the line. I suspect the reason is the same one that’s dogged me on this whole run—jogging the wrong path.

On November 4th I will surely find that line. And I’m going to stomp on it hard, with all the fierce energy my 142 pounds can bring. That’s my pledge. I’m going to stomp that line.

And so…eventually I did. The NYC Marathon came on November 4th that year, 2007. I found that line after running for precisely 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 55 seconds, arriving ahead of anyone else in the M65-69 age group.