The Christmas when I was eleven I got a bat. My parents didn’t try to disguise it in a box. It’s hard to make a bat in a box look like like anything else except maybe a length of pipe or a dead snake, and I hadn’t asked for either of those. They just tied a ribbon around it and stuck it under the tree. That was okay. If I’d been in Florida or California, I’d have gone right out and hit a few flies and let the other presents sit. But that year we had the rotten luck to have a white Christmas in West Virginia.
Until I got mine, the only kid in my gang to own a bat was Chuckie, and we all used it in our games. But Chuckie’s bat was so old the wood had turned gray and the barrel end was starting to split. I blamed Chuckie’s bat for the hitting slump I’d been having since I was eight. My new Christmas bat was a rich chestnut and polished to a sheen. It looked filled with home runs.
Stamped on the barrel was the authentic signature of Gee Walker. I’d never heard of him -- I found out later he’d been long retired by the time I got his bat -- and it would have been nice if it had been stamped Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. But, having gone my whole life without owning any bat, I wasn’t going to complain about Gee Walker.
I did complain about the weather. After the Christmas snow melted, it snowed some more -- all through January. Of course, we could only play baseball, if we’d been able to play baseball, on the weekends because everybody but Billy had chores after school, and it got dark early. There was one nice Saturday in February, but the ballfield by the tracks was deep in mud and the schoolyard had a four-inch sheet of ice covering its bricks.
Billy had an idea. "I’ll bet we could break the ice off if we hit it with a bat."
I almost hit him
When it was too cold or rainy to play ball in March, I began to worry. Miss Pratt, our health teacher, told us one day that muscles that weren’t used got weaker and weaker.
Billy asked, "Do you mean like that muscle between Chuckie’s ears, Miss Pratt?"
Everybody laughed except Miss Pratt. She wrote "A TROPHY" on the blackboard, and then told us that once she broke her arm and had it in a cast for weeks and weeks. "When the doctor took off the cast," she said, holding a ruler up, "I could barely lift this ruler." Then she brought the ruler down very fast and hard on Billy’s fingers. Smack! "But, with excercise, I got my strength back," she said.
I was scared my Gee Walker bat would get a trophy! It was almost April and it hadn’t been able to hit a single ball. If we didn’t play ball soon, it might be permanently weakened!
The last Saturday in March was perfect for baseball. But Mickey owned the ball and his dumb grandmother died. He had to go to her dumb funeral and wouldn’t let us use his dumb ball. The next day it rained. Gee Walker was wasting away!
At last, we got a playable Saturday. The tracks field was still too muddy, but the ice was gone from the schoolyard. We all got there early and chose up sides -- three to a team. Billy chose Mickey and Jimmy the Fat Kid, which meant his team had speed, power, and good fielding. I had Chuckie, Ross, and me, which meant our team had Chuckie, Ross, and me.
At least, we batted first. I took a practice swing with Gee Walker and announced I’d bat first. Chuckie urged that he bat first instead. Chuckie was a half-foot taller than I and twenty pounds heavier, so his logic prevailed. "Okay," I said magnanimously, "but use your own bat."
Surprisingly, Chuckie hit the ball, but it flew out to the pitcher funny. Billy ducked, and that’s when I saw it wasn’t a ball whizzing by his head, but half of Chuckie’s bat.
"I’m up," I yelled. Me and Gee!
"Captain always bats last," Ross hollered. "I’m up."
I explained to him that this was a special case -- the first time I’d get to use my Christmas bat. He explained to me that if he didn’t get to bat he’d go home.
"Game over! We win!" Billy yelled.
"Can we tape Chuckie’s bat back together?" I asked.
Ross held out his hand. I gave him Gee. I didn’t cry.
The worst part was that every time Ross got a hit, he threw the bat. Poor Gee would be scraped raw on the schoolyard bricks before I ever got to use him.
"C’mon, Ross! Get a hit!" Chuckie yelled.
I yelled, "C’mon, Billy! Strike him out!"
When Billy twirled that third strike past Ross, I ran up and grabbed Gee out of his hands before he could throw it. "This bat’s no good," he told me. Ha!
As soon as my fingers closed around Gee’s handle, I knew he was not a trophied. After all these months, he was bursting to crack line drives. Everyone sensed that a new power was coming to bat. Mickey, the left-center-rightfielder, backed up almost to the fence. Jimmy the Fat Kid twisted the wrapper around his Zagnut bar and stuck it in his pocket. Somewhere a dog stopped barking.
I stood at the plate. I felt loose, powerful, and ready. I cocked Gee over my right shoulder. The schoolyard fence beckoned. I swear Billy cringed as he pitched the ball.
Coming in, the ball looked big as a grapefruit. I hate grapefruit. Gee hated grapefruit. I swung him with all my might.
The ball blasted back toward Billy. On its second bounce, it hit a loose brick and leaped over his head. Jimmy the Fat Kid couldn’t bend over fast enough as the ball flashed between his legs. Mickey raced in but misfigured and the ball rolled to the fence.
At full gallop, I was around first, around second, third. Mickey was just throwing the ball in when I reached the plate. Home run!
"You’re out," Billy said.
In our excitement, Gee and I hadn’t parted company. He was still in my hands. I had broken one of the cardinal rules and carried my bat onto the basepaths. I’m not sure why we had such a rule -- perhaps because a baserunner with a club in his hands might inhibit a fielder in a close play -- but it was certain that such a rule existed. Once Jimmy the Fat Kid had been called out when he couldn’t let go of the bat because of sticky fingers.
I didn’t try to argue with Billy. Gee and I had smashed a wonderful home run, but we were definitely out.
Billy’s team came in to bat. I suddenly realized that they would be using Gee -- Jimmy the Fat Kid with his sticky fingers and Mickey who threw the bat almost as bad as Ross!
"I’ve got to go home, " I announced. "It’s my grandmother’s funeral." Maybe by tomorrow Chuckie might have fixed his bat.