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Columns / Short Stories
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August 1960

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The Hero of the Mudhens



There was this little figure standing in the bulrushes, looking at Casmir and me with two beady eyes, with two great big tears running down his feathery cheeks. It's the first time I ever saw a mud hen. I was scared to death. I said : "Let's get out of here." Casmir said: "Whataya mean? It's only a bird." I think the mud hen understood him. "Awrk, awrk," he cried. Then off he goes, trailing mud and tears behind him. Ever since, I've always had this funny feeling about mud hens. I felt Casmir had hurt that mud hen's feelings deeply: It's only a bird. And so, fourteen eons later, I'm watching the Toledo Mud Hens. This team was the mud hen of the baseball world. In fact, this was its last season before folding its wings forever. It was a night game. They were always playing night games with maybe 275 people scattered around in the stands. This was deep in the minors, $0 deep that they used only four or five 60-watt Mazda bulbs hanging out there, strung on a wire - you know, the way it's done in used-car lots. The Mud Hens were playing it out in that dark, Stygian, fantastic heat of Toledo, and I'm watching, trying to be excited. The minors are going out of business, you know. Today most ballplayers come right out of high school or college. That's why you see such ridiculous ball. It's becoming show biz. Eventually all scores will be published in Variety and the players will collect reviews instead of averages. There used to be two kinds of minor league players. First, the guy who was coming up, all full of this: "I'm gonna be on the Yankees next year. Gonna be on the Yankees!!" And then this guy who had played 17 seasons on 12 different teams and out and is on his way down, down, who is now quietly playing the string down, never to come back. It was beautiful to see these guys. In ordinary life you can never tell when a man is over the hill; there are many top executives who have been over the hill for 22 years and have been cashiered for 22 years and don't know it because they are allowed to sit at a desk every day. But not so in baseball. One day you pick up the paper in late January and it says: "Charlie Wadanabee has been sold to Moline." Then you know. So one night I'm out there and it's hot. It's about 10 o'clock and the game has been dragging on. T he Mud Hens are playing Fort Wayne, and they're about 40 games out of everything. Can you imagine being in the cellar of a miserable Class X league? There was an ex-major leaguer in center field. He had played with lots of big ball clubs. And for years, even as a kid, I had heard his name. For the purposes of discussion, we'll call him Johnny Dickshot. Dickshot is standing out in center so far from home plate you can hardly see him in the shifting haze of the mid-western heat. It's a funny thing when heat comes down on you in the Mid-Western heat. It's a funny thing sitting out there at night and the mazdas are hanging low, you can just see the outfield shifting and shimmering in the heat. Waves of steam rise off the outfield grass. There's no infield grass: it was burned off about 18 seasons ago. The infield was hard as a rock from that fantastic sun. Old Dickshot is standing out there. There's a way old outfielders stand because they can't run much any more and they have to play ball for all they're worth. They stand sort of half-cocked, already running. Dickshot knows that the four steps he was ahead when he was 19, he's now behind. So he'd better start four steps quicker than he ever did to even get there. Old Dickshot is standing there with his hands on his knees, with about nine or ten clowns, the idiotic rubes, the ridiculous cabbages among the beautiful Iris patch of Man, hollering: "Aw, ya big-leaguer, hey, ya big-leaguer, how come you're not in the big leagues, Dickshot ?" Johnny never says anything. He's in his last, last dying days. In the 8th inning, he comes to the plate with two men on. Dickshot stands up there, loose and easy. He has seen them come and he has seen them go. He's swung at the likes of all of them. And here's this kid pitcher out on the mound, bending in the fast ones. This kid is aiming hard, sure and fast from St. Louis. He is going to be playing on the Cardinals next season; he's sharp as a Gillette razor blade. He's just standing out there on the mound, getting his sign. This big clown back of third base is hollering: "Aw, ya big-leaguer! Take this bum out, for crying out loud! Ya has-been, Dickshot ! Hey, has-been!" You hear every whisper in a minor league park. You hear guys getting into arguments down in the men's room all the way out in the centerfield bleachers. Because there ain't nobody there. It's like being alone in the middle of a cave. Old Dickshot is just standing at the dish, hitching up his pants. Once in a while he taps his spikes, knocks a little dirt out. Then this young pitcher throws in his low hard screwball. Old Dickshot golfs it. I'll never forget that moment: KLOK!! - just like that. You knew it was going, going, going, going, gone! The ball sailed up through that haze and smoke, clean over the left-field wall. It was still rising when last seen, clearing 12th Street and going right on past the laundry building, into the darkness. Old Dickshot just jogged around the bases. Tagged first, tagged second, and there was not a sound. Tagged third and crossed home in absolute silence. That made the score 12 to 3 in favor of Fort Wayne. Old Dickshot went back and sat down in the dugout. It was a magnificent moment.


Copyright: 1960 Metronome Magazine