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The Golden Era of Baseball, Part 1

It was the fall of 1946 that I became a lifelong fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. Before then I was just a fan of baseball, the game itself and the local players I had seen play it: "Wheeze" Farmer, Ralph and Hack Prater. Stars of the league in which my small hometown team played, known by everyone within the 40-mile radius of the league in which they played.

I was 12 years old and already a veteran of back alley baseball. If you are not familiar with back alley baseball, it was kids baseball before the little leagues, a tougher brand, managed strickly by the participants and often interupted or ended by a fistfight and a bloody nose. Everybody in my little village played like Eddie Stanky or Ty Cobb. But before continuing...

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Let me pause at this time and explain why I am going to include a lot of personal detail into a baseball blog post in 2013 about my life as a kid that goes as far back as some 70 years ago. It is not that I think that the story of my childhood is so glorious and entertaining that it will keep the reader entranced and filled with anticipation of what the next paragraph may reveal but more to give the those that have an interest in the history of baseball a clear view of how the game of baseball and the people of this country were so entwined up through and 40's and into the late 50's in most parts of America, and how baseball at that time was truly the national pastime and give a clearer view of an era that came to be known as the Golden Age of Baseball.

Up through late 50's, North Carolina led all states in the production of Major League ball players, with my state, South Carolina, and other southern states providing a further substantial amount. Although I never posessed the talent to become a professional player it was from the same and similar environments as mine that the Johnny Mizes, the Country Slaughters, the Walker Coopers, the Dixie Walkers, the Dizzy Deans, and even the Ty Cobbs, to mention only a few, had come from.

Today, you have a different breed of ballplayer, trained and coddled and supported from childhood to participate and excel in all sports from Little League baseball to to Pee Wee football and soccer. Today, I am not sure, but I would guess that California probably leads the states in the production of Major Leaguers. Do you have a superior product? I don't know, that is for the reader to decide. I am not inclined to argue and besides this was and is supposed to be a narrative of my passion for ML baseball and my love for the late-40's Cardinals. Hopefully I can get back to that at some point but for now back to my story.

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The following paragraphs are edited excerpts from something I had written recently for another purpose. But after considerable thought I decided that to completely tell the story of how baseball was so much a fabric of America in an era known only to the few left of a declining population, this personal point of view should be included. Stick with me if you will through this segment and hopefully you will understand in the next part why I chose to include it.

The first eight years of my life were spent on a farm. My father was a workaholic; he worked as a maintenance mechanic in a textile mill on a four to twelve shift five days a week and was up and out to work the farm from eight AM to about three, when he would quit and hurredly prepare for his next evening shift at work. I was the youngest of four children and about my only experience with baseball was playing catch with my older brother, using thread-wound baseballs that my father would make for me at work at the mill. My brother would throw them high into the air, almost straight up, and I would try to get under them and catch them. I worked hard at it and after a time, I could.

Another thing we spent a lot of time doing was, he would get on one side of the house and throw the ball up on the roof with enough force to roll over and down the other side of the roof and I would try to locate it and catch it off the roof. It took some time for me to be able throw the ball back over to him, but I finally mastered that too. When my brother got tired of playing with me and I had to go it alone, I could spend hours throwing the ball low against a brick chimney and feilding the grownd balls that bounced back and simulating a throw to an imaginary first baseman. Such was the simple life of a kid in the South before Tv, video games and internet.

Then came The War. I remember it well, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed, my mother was crying, my sister was crying and neighbors from down the road came by and that lady was crying too. I couldn't figure out what was going on, nobody I knew was dead or hurt and the sun was shining brightly and I was grateful to have the neighbor's kids to play with. The day turned out to be a holiday for me. It was a lonely life, being a country boy.

The war brought new and exciting adventures to my life, though. My father (who was a veteran of WW1 and beyond draft age for WW2) had been born and reared on a cotton farm and was always a farmer at heart. He only worked to pay for the small farm that we owned, and with the mill operating at full swing turning out military khaki and canvas for the war, he deciced to sell the farm and and move into a house in the village, with the object being to work all the overtime offered, save all the money he could, and at the end of the war buy a bigger farm that could provide a better profit to sustain a livelihood for his family. Anyway, suddenly my life was transformed from being a country bumpkin into being a latch-key village kid left to fend for himself. (My mother also went to work during the war years to aid my father in his effort and I was pretty much left to do as I pleased.)

During the war years, everything was rationed. You were issued stamps to purchase all the basic needs: milk, meats, canned vegetables, candies, flour, gas, kerosene... everything that went to the war effort. There were no bicycles made, no cars made... nothing, no baseballs, bats, gloves to be had. Shoe-shops repaired old gloves and wound and sold thread baseballs. That is what we played with in the back alleys from morning to night. After the baseballs were wound, the end of the thread would be secured by "tacking" with a needle and thread sewn into the winding to secure the end.

After a couple of innings the tacking would come loose when some kid laced a line drive to the outfield and you would have to stop the game and tack the ball after pulling off the loose thread. (The main necessity for these back alley games was that somebody bring a needle and thread). At the end of the day you usually had a ball about the size of a tennis ball, but that didn't matter, it just took more skill to hit the sucker was the way we looked at it. In case you didn't know it, that is how a wicked line drive through the endfield became to often be refered to as a frozen rope. Nothing is more beautiful than a tightly wound threadball hit so hard that it is knocked warp-sided and leaves a frozen string from the batters box to the shortstop. I am proud to say I hit a few.

We had double-headers, a morning game and an afternoon game. You ventured out into the alleys about ten o'clock and a couple of "big kid" self-appointed captains chose sides. If you were small or fat and not chosen, you just drifted several blocks up to where another game was going on. Sooner or later you would find some team short-handed.

The first year I was the small "Country Kid" rookie and if chosen it was always for right field. The "Take right field" command, when issued by the team bully, was an insulting order and the recipient was considered to be the lowest of low and he had better catch or at least chase down and hurredly return anything hit his way or the center fielder would come over and slap him around. Also the big fat first baseman might get in a few licks too, if he happened to have wandered out that way when the ball was hit.

I didn't get knocked around much as word soon got around that I had a big brother that loved to kick butt. My older brother was indeed a quiet, but bad ass and feared no one. He would collar any kid that messed with me, but he seemed to relish the situation even more when some kid picked on me that had a brother closer to his age; he just kicked the older brother's ass instead and the message was delivered. Thank the Lord for my older brother, he has been dead for some years now but I still miss him. Such was the simple life in the 40's in the South.

IN 1946, everything changed. The war was over and the whole town around me became alive. I lived near the end of the longest street in the village: Magnolia Street, named for the sweet smelling magnolia trees that lined both sides of it. One block down, the street ended in a cul de sac upon which sat the local grade school. Behind the school, several hundred yards down a gentle slope into a valley below sat a baseball field. It had a wooden, covered grandstand that extended from just beyond first base on the right field side around to third base on the left field side.

For the three years I had lived in the village, this park had become sort of a mystery to me. The gates to the park were always closed and had been locked for most of the war years some said, but at least two or three days a week if you ventured down that way you would see maintance trucks there and if you tried to wander in you would be scolded and run out.

I was persistent though and managed to get a good look occassionally and what I saw was a perfectly maintained ballpark with grass infield and outfield. The outfield wall and the lower fenceing down the sidelines were painted dark green. It was pretty little ballpark that would probably seat at least 1500 people. But nobody was allowed to use it. It seemed to be sacred or something. This puzzled me but...

Now, the ballpark had become a center of activity. The old single pole lighting system was torn down and replaced with four H fixtures with double banks of lights. One each on the first and third base side and the othertwo outside the left and right field walls. Concerte bleachers were added down the left field line.

In mid-March, the park was open every night and the flare of the lights lit the sky over the little town. Late every day, long, before dusk, I headed for the park. There would already be a dozen or more men there, taking batting practice, playing pepper games, stretching, exercising. Strange men, local men and men from the countryside returning from the war. Some I knew and and was shocked to see that they played Baseball. I had never seen grown men play baseball; this was amazing. Kids were welcome; we shagged flies, played catch, and swelled with pride when one of the players pointed at you and yelled, "Hey kid, grab a baseball and warm me up."

To better understand baseball and its impact upon the South in the 40's, you first have to understand life in the South at that time. It was still the cotton and textile center of the country and the largest exporter of textile goods in the world. In the village that I grew up in, everything was owned and maintained by the the company. The houses, the stores, the schools, the recreation facilities, everything, even the cemetary. They were called Mill Villages and there were a number of them spotted all throughout the South. They were unincorperated villages, meaning they had no elected officials, mayor, town councel, police, fire. Everything was provided by the company.

Not all mills in the South were as described but they were numerous. Most towns in the south of any size had at least one mill with a village (housing) to go with it. Larger cities had multiple mills and villages within them. Mill workers were not of the "upper crust" of southern society at the time and the pay was not the best and with little retirement benefits, but the better companies looked out for their employees with adequate though modest housing, utilities, yard maintenance etc. I've always looked back with fond memories on the six years of childhood I spent living in this environment but in the winter of 1947, my father had accomplished his goal of saving enough money to buy his bigger farm and we moved on.

Though working conditions and benefits may have varied among the textile companies in the South, there was one thing that did not and that was the support for baseball. The village I lived in had a nice atheletic field in a park locacated near the mill and behind the company stores, which included clothing, hardware, food, restaurant, ice cream parlor-magazine stand, pool room and barbershop. Everything you need, right... but we younger kids didn't benefit much from this nice facility. That was reserved for the older high school boys of the village and the older boys from the town four miles down the road where the high school was located. So were the few good bats and balls that were in short supply due to the war.

My age group played in the back alleys with homemade or glued together broken bats and a few old baseballs that when the stitching came loose, we just tore off the cover tacked the thread and kept on going. We didn't mind that, we were just as competitive and the alleys were mowed clean and low... But in that glorious year of '46 all that had changed, suddenly we had everything we needed and I got my first decent glove, a Rawlings Marty Marion model. Really it wasn't mine, it was my brother's and he let me use it to break it in. He had an old Wilson Bobby Doerr model which he still preferred and he never really got it back.

Although the mill company was generous in making sure that the youth of the community had what was needed for recreational activities, their real passion was for sponsoring semi-pro baseball. Baseball activities, along with a lot of other activities had been pretty much suspended during the long four and a half year war, except for the kids that kept it going.

Without going into any other than minor detail about any of the games that were played the two seasons that I continued to live in the area, I'll just try to give a general discription of what the southern textile leagues were all about. Our team was a member of an eight team league called the South Carolina Mid State Textile Baseball League. There was a rival league made up of mill teams in the upper region of S.C. (The Greenville, Spartanburg area.) There were also other leagues in the state but these two were the two dominant leagues of the state and played what was described as "fast" brand of baseball, comparable many said to minor league AA ball.

There were three games a week, Tues. Fri. and Sat. night games. I never missed a home game and always at the ballpark around four in the afternoon waiting to warm up the players that would soon be drifting in and shagging flies during batting practice or retrieving foul balls till ordered of the field as game time approached. I also attended road games when my mother would let me and I could hitch a ride with some adult my mother trusted. Life was great.

I learned early in the season that the rival league (Carolina Upper State Textile League) had dominated our league before the war and there was an all out effort to end that domination. There was only about a twenty five mile separation between areas of the two leagues and a lot of people from the Mid State area actually had chose to follow the upper state league in the past.

These leagues were as all textile leagues were: "pay for play" leagues. No actual contracts, but handshake agreements of a certain amount per game; if you show up and play, we pay kind of deals. The players were from a wide variety of backgrounds, young phenoms from area high schools and colleges, ex-minor league and aging major leaguers who had been released and a certain amount of local players who could play well but were overlooked somehow, or for some reason had never chosen to play pro ball.

Our team had two players of this description: two brothers, Ralph and Hack Prater, both big 6 ft. 5 and 6 ft. 6 giants that hit them out with regularity. There was nothing like watching big Ralph hit one high and deep way out beyond the lights and fade into the dark of the night. The stands would go crazy. He was my hero, there was nobody in the world better than big Ralph Prater. he was a local hero.

As I mentioned earlier, there was a campaign to make our league more competitive and the team made an agreement with two young lefthander pitchers that were in the Army and stationed at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. some 38 miles away. Both were from New York and the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system and had been drafted by the Army. Their names were Tony Lazzari and Tommy Lasorda, Yes the same little fat potbellied Tommy Lasorda that you have seen so often run out on the field and argue with umpires as the Dodgers manager.

They always pitched the Friday and Saturday night games. Lasorda always pitched whichever was the most important game. Lasorda was an instant hit with the team and league. Anytime he pitched the parks were filled. He was what was then indentified as being one of those sneaky little southpaws that threw a big overhand "Wainwright" curve which we called a "drop" and a lively some kind of fastball that sank. I watched him in awe when he pitched, and thought we were so fortunate to have what must be the Brooklyn Dodgers' best pitcher pitching for us thanks to the Army. I did not know that he was only an up and coming prospect that the Dodgers had assigned to Ft. Worth of the Texas league.

Lasorda was good for at least 9 or 10 K's a game and nearly pitched the team to a championship win, losing to the top team of the league in the final playoff game. I'll never forget how heartbroken I felt that night when people stared to drifting back home with the news that Lasorda had lost 2 to 1 to the team from Ware Shoals, S.C.

The Next year Lasorda was gobbled up by a team in the more powerful upper state league and soon just became a fond memory in our little town. He met and married his wife while pitching for a mill team in Spartanburg, S.C. and I heard him say a few years ago in an interview at Shannons after a Dodger-Cardinal game that the Greenville-Spartanburg area of S.C. was his favorite part of the country and he had many friends there and had always strived to spend as much time there as possible.

I think he now lives in Spartanburg since his retirement but don't know for sure. I know he has always maintained a residence there. Lasorda never really made it in the majors (only for a cup of coffee in parts of three seasons.) I have heard it said that "threw away his arm" pitching in the Carolina Textile leagues, but the Dodgers for good reason held him in high regard. Lazzari never made it as far as I know but he later pitched for the old Montreal Royals, the Dodgers AAA affiliate in the International league.

I have always looked back with the fondest of memories on the six years I spent in this small mill town, Goldville, South Carolina, who tried to compete with the bigger boys and almost made it. Without Lasorda and an ailing Ralph Prater it still pushed to the play off finals before losing once again to the dreaded Ware Shoals team in 1947. It was hard to except for a community that loved it's baseball but I had already found a new love to ease the pain, the Stl. Cardinals, reining 1946 champions of the world and still not yet dethroned.

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As I stated at the beginning of this article, my intentions were to write a story about Major League Baseball and more specifically the Cardinals and what I could remember (my impressions of the players, their minor league systems etc.) In a post I did last winter about Bob Gibson and the '64 Cards, I mentioned that I had been a Cardinal fan since 1946, and several people (Continental, for one that I remember) asked if I would do a post about the Cardinals in the 40's and 50's. I said I would but after the season when conversations drifted more to things other than interest in the present season.

In searching my documents for some things I had saved to aid in this endeavor, I ran across a remark that that someone had made in a post during the season. I do not remember who posted it (or does it matter) but I had saved it with the intentions of answering it and making some points that I thought might be missing by anyone not living in that era.

I did start and write much of what is written above in this article, but abandoned it, because it got lenghty and who would have an interest in this anyway but on review when starting this post, I decided that it was a story worth telling.. if you wanted to really describe what baseball was like in the years after The War with the strength and depth of semi-pro baseball and the impact that it had on both the majors and minors at that time.

In Part 2, I will reprint that remark I mentioned and endeavor to make a case that purports that in the days of Musial, Mays and Mantle, the players were indeed equal to the players of today and try to make for a more interesting article by describing the vast minor league systems of that day and how the ML teams, with much less revenues and smaller budgets, (but with the aid of a nationwide organisation), produced such a quality product at the major league level.

Thanks to those that have hung around to complete this tedious read and I promise to make the next part more interesting and enticing for discussion and with more about my memories of the Cardinal players of that day.

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