His voice was gravelly, not particularly low in pitch, and strident. You could hear him clearly from his stance behind the catcher at home plate to the top row of the filled large grandstand and beyond, to the parking lot. This resounding voice was one that I emulated.
I don’t even know the name of my childhood hero. My dad knew his name, though. I went to the American Legion baseball games downtown on summer evenings with my dad and younger brother. My older siblings probably were busy with their friends, and my mother didn’t go to the games, either. She was always interested in sports; in fact, she particularly loved basketball. But I suspect she was happy to have a little peace and quiet after a busy day with the four of us “monsters,” as my dad referred to us kids. “Hi, Carl,” a friend of my dad might say. “Are these two your youngest?” “Yea!” my dad would affirm. “I have four monsters.” We weren’t really monsters. I liked it when Dad called us that, though. The way he said it, it sounded like he was serious and funny at the same time. On the nights when our home team played out of town, my dad, two brothers and I would toss around a baseball in the backyard. Sometimes Dad or my older brother would pitch a wiffle ball to us for a little batting practice, but usually, we just grabbed our mitts and threw a hardball.
My dad always would sit in the same section of the grandstand with other men he knew; down the middle aisle a few rows, and then to the right. I don’t recall other kids sitting in the group, but there may have been. These were special times. I knew my way around the park, but I rarely left my spot on the bleachers. Baseball was serious business. I knew all the players by sight and by uniform number. I knew which positions they played. I knew if they were right- or left-handed batters and pitchers. I knew if they were good hitters. I knew which players were most likely to hit foul tips, pitch after pitch after pitch. I remember when the team started hitting with aluminum bats, with that high-pitched dink echoing in the park, and thinking that I much preferred the crack of a wooden bat. I frequently pondered why I had never seen a ball sail over the center field fence, and one time when I mentioned it to my dad, he told me that the center field was so deep, I probably would never see a home run hit there.
During this time, I remember going to Yankee Stadium with my dad and uncle and cousin and younger brother. It was a thrill, but the playing field actually disappointed me. My hometown ballpark’s outfield was at least as big, bigger, actually. But one thing we didn’t have at home was this crew of guys in uniform unrolling and then later rolling tarps over the infield. It was like watching a precision drill team. In seconds they were done. And unlike my hometown’s park, this stadium held thousands of fans, and we sat in real seats, not bleachers. The usher showing you to your seat dusted it off with this big mitt he wore on his hand. It was a very hot day, and my dad and uncle bought us sodas to drink. Cokes. What a treat. Carrying large trays of soda cans, these guys would run through the stadium, going up and down the stairs, yelling with a strong New York accent, “Soda Here! Get your iced-cold soda here!” Then, dad or my uncle would call the guy over, and pay a dollar for each soda they bought. That was a lot of money. The guy positioned a metal opener with his thumb on top of it and punched a circular row of triangular cuts through the top of the can. He was fast! Punch. Turn. Punch. Turn. Punch. Turn. Then he would drain the entire can at once, upside down, into a large paper cup, hand it to you, and repeat the process, rapidly filling cups until the order was complete. Throughout the game there was so much to see. People held signs. “Yankees eat Tiger meat!” was one I’ll never forget. The baseball was great, the crowd was loud, we clapped to the stadium’s organ music, cheered for double plays and stood and yelled for home runs. What a day!
This was major league baseball. I couldn’t believe how many different baseballs the umpire had handed to the catchers. We saw some famous players on the field that day. These were people I had read about in the sports pages and watched on TV. But I just couldn’t get over a couple of things. I didn’t want to complain to my dad and uncle; I had been taught that you just don’t do that. Yet this feeling, this thing, gnawed at me. For starters, how come our hometown field was larger than the professional field? That just seemed wrong. Weren’t the major league fields huge? And in the eyes of this little kid, something was off with the umpire. He called the strikes with a quick punch of his right fist and yelled “Strike” loudly and briskly. He did a fine job calling the game. I don’t remember any plays that angered the crowd. We never saw players brawl, and no one was tossed out of the game. Yet, we had driven all this way and this was supposed to be professional. What was it?
And sitting in the back seat of the long drive home, something in me crystallized. I decided then and there that someday, when I grew up, I was going to be the first American League woman umpire. I had never seen a woman umpire at any of the high school games or American Legion games we watched. I had not seen women umps at Little League games in town. And I certainly had never seen one on televised games. But why not? I knew I could do this. I loved baseball. I went to games. I studied the pitches as they came over the plate, and though I was always on the first base line at the local ballpark, the calls that I made in my head were usually good. I compared them with what the umpire called, and also with how my dad and his friends described them. I watched baseball on television; there the camera angle was great and it was fun calling the game with my dad and brothers. I figured I had what it takes. I read, watched, listened, and practiced. I practiced hard.
Back in town, every time the hometown umpire called a strike, I reiterated the call in the stands, just as loud, and with as much gusto, complete with arm movements. He’d yell, “Stir-RIIIKE,” in two syllables, accent on the second, elongated syllable. I yelled, “Stir- RIIIKE!” He would pump his fist and right arm, swinging back to front at the elbow and back again, many times, while yelling “Stir- RIIIKE.” I pumped my right fisted arm back to front many times. He put a lot of energy in his fist and arm pumps. I put a lot of energy in mine. I practiced his call for “balls”, but this wasn’t as dramatic as the strikes call, so that wasn’t my main focus. This umpire was the best! And someday, I would be just like him. This was the thing that bothered me ever since going to Yankee Stadium; that umpire had fallen short in my eyes. He was not as good, as compelling as my idol behind the plate at the American Legion games.
One Saturday afternoon I heard my mother and father talking at home. I was breezing through the house on my way outside to play. I heard my dad say the word “baseball.” I had to listen; they were talking about the most important thing in the world. Dad told my mother how I would sit in the stands and emulate the umpire’s calls. Every single one! I think I even heard the word “embarrassing” once when he described my behavior at the park. But I never heard another word about it. I actually forgot about it for a long time. My dad didn’t mention it to me. My mom never pulled me aside to ask me to stop practicing at the park, or at least not to yell so loudly. They never said, “Stop screaming ‘Stir-RIIIKE’ all the time!” At some point that summer I told Dad my plans to be the first American League woman umpire. He never laughed. He just kept playing catch with us after dinner, and taking us to the games.
I see now I had two heroes.