Six days a week Chicken Coop and I played baseball in every spare moment. Even on the Sabbath, if we got home from church and Sunday dinner in time, I would toss a ball at an old tire my father had hung on a backyard shed. My little dog fetched the ball and its enthusiastic barking soon alerted the other neighborhood kids. Chicken Coop came first for a game of catch. Garnet Harrison’s son Frank usually came out next and we would start a round robin. Though two years our senior, Frank had a rivalry with Chicken Coop and would have given his agate collection to best him. Others drifted in; Billy Johnson from a tiny apartment over the neighborhood grocery, Gus and Willy from Chicken Coop’s side of the fence, Larry Stapleton and Charles Luttrell from across the street until there were enough for ‘sides’.
Before the war the Harrisons’ had kept milk cows on the field where we played. After the war and the city council banned livestock in town, Mr. Harrison turned the lot over to our games. The field sloped away from home plate, giving us an empowering sense of strength. Past the center field fence the walls of shanties bounced the crack of a bat back to home in about a second. That meant a hit had to travel over 500 feet for a home run. Only Chicken Coop and Frank managed the feat with any regularity.
In those days, adults referred to the collection of shacks that haphazardly occupied the space between the working class whites of Wright Street and the railroad tracks ‘nigger town’. The President’s train passed right by them. Years later when I learned that President Truman had integrated the Armed Forces, I wondered what went through his mind. He could have almost reached out and touched the run-down houses along the tracks. When school integration threw our town into turmoil, I traced the categorical imperatives of justice and fairness that burned within me back to what Frank’s father did that day.
Not all our parents encouraged our passion for baseball. Mine had the hardscrabble sharecroppers’ suspicion of dreaming too high, but Mr. Harrison pushed Frank. Garnet Harrison was a large, muscular man with narrow-slit eyes who had played in the minors and desperately wanted his son to make it in baseball. He saw to it that Frank had the best equipment and he kept up the sandlot. He even brought in dirt for a pitcher’s mound and would talk to us about how to hold the bat, to catch the ball, to slide, or steal a base. None of us were ready to trade our father for Mr. Harrison, but we felt a touch of envy at his knowledge and his support of Frank.