BOX SEATS & HESITATION PITCHES

BY NORMAN M. COVERT

FREDERICK, Md. — I confess it has been a long hiatus from watching minor league baseball. All it takes, though, is the grandson’s cajoling to spring for box seat tickets at our Harry Grove Stadium – and a home team tee-shirt – near the visitor’s bullpen and third base.

Grove Stadium is as modern as it appears.

The decision included buying sunflower seeds, popcorn, water and draft beer: “Eat, spit, be happy.”

Grove Stadium, home of the Baltimore Orioles’ Class A affiliate Keys, is nearly 20 years old. It is among the modern ball parks in the Carolina League, which for many years struggled with World War II-era and earlier stadiums. Grove has all the amenities and has attracted such luminaries as former President George H. W. Bush (twice) when he was either at or on his way to the nearby Camp David Presidential Retreat.

The cost of three tickets and amenities was amortized by the round of signatures on the Little League glove and several Carolina League baseballs. The hometown Keys were at a distance as we chatted with the visiting Salem Red Sox and Lynchburg Hillcats’ (Atlanta Braves) farmhands on successive weekends. The players thrilled grandson with their attention and remarked on the pinstriped No. 2 Derek Jeter jersey he was wearing.

“You never, know,” I retorted, “which uniform you’ll be wearing when I see you one day in Yankee Stadium?”

He grinned, grabbed his bats and glove and walked off with a wave, his cleats crunching in the gravel.

We saw good baseball, managed to avoid several foul balls, grabbed one, and bantered with the visiting players and coaches. Talk about Americana!

Staging of the non-baseball events in the stadium was some of the best I’ve seen. It was: “Shake your keys!” Music; television cameras; the cutest kid; happy birthdays/anniversaries; dirtiest car; remote controlled car on the bases; cheeseburger race; running the bases; and fireworks. Could you ask for more?

In the old days promotions meant the Clown Prince of Baseball, the late Max Patkin, with his goofball antics. There were no free baseballs. You were asked to return foul balls for a general admission ticket next game. Game balls often had logos other than the Carolina League.

In the press box sports writers checked out the crowd and found a worthy young lady to have the lucky number prize. Someone had to sneak behind and read the number on her program. Yep, it was a sophomoric way to do business, but there weren’t that many fans in the stands.

Ray Banks shows framed team portrait at museum, which houses mostly his own collection. (NLBMM photo)

WHO IS RAY BANKS?

One of the privileges was meeting Ray Banks, a founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland, Inc. (NLBMM). It is located in the lower level of the Lochearn Presbyterian Church, at 3800 Patterson Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21207.

He was trying to arrange foot high wooden photographic cutouts of former Negro League baseball stars on the display he had brought from Baltimore. I kidded him about the correct order and stepped aside as his wife gently reached in and rearranged them.

It was an eclectic display of memorabilia from the barnstorming days of the so-called Negro Leagues, set up on the stadium’s main concourse as the Keys remembered those “other” stars. Players wore ‘throw-back” uniforms honoring the teams and players of that by-gone era.

Much of the memorabilia at the museum and in his display, Mr. Banks said, was in his basement when his wife ordered him to do something with it – that is, get it out of the house! He had been collecting many years as a hobby, his love of baseball and a tribute to the players.

He has loaned many treasured items and currently displays artifacts on loan from other collectors at the museum for pre-arranged tours. The Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY, has a smattering of memorabilia of these ball players compared to Mr. Banks’ cache.

Officially he is director of collections and exhibits at the museum with Audrey L. Simmons, executive director. The late Hubert “Bert” Simmons is credited as being the museum’s founder.

Part of museum interor showing variety of displays available for private tours only. See information below. (NLBMM photo)

The museum, however, depended on Mr. Banks’ gold mine of memorabilia. It includes photographs, signed items, bats, hats, uniforms, balls, commemorative patches, letters and souvenirs oriented toward the Negro League fans and their children. It is an amazing collection and a must see for any baseball fan.

With apologies for poor quality, a phone camera shot of Mr. Banks and his wife at Grove Stadium. Note standup figures on table in foreground.

Mr. Banks showed my grandson an aged toy baseball game designed like electronic pinball machines. Fans ogled the display as grandson followed Mr. Banks’ coaching, shooting marble size baseballs around the wooden diamond.

My attention was captured by a photograph of the late Leroy “Satchel” Paige wearing a New York “Black Yankees” uniform, still the unmistakable pinstripes. Satchel Paige was famous for at least a couple things I remember, including his notorious “Hesitation Pitch” and quipping, “Don’t look back, the devil may be catching up!”

One of the framed Satchell Paige photos in Ray Banks' display.

He was born in Mobile, Ala., one date recorded as July 7, 1906. My dad, who was born in 1908, said he had seen Satchel Paige pitch “and he was old then.”

I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Paige in 1965 at War Memorial Stadium in Newport News, VA., when the Carolina League Peninsula Grays were owned by the Cincinnati Reds. The park had 400-foot fences left to right and the team boasted the likes of then 18-year-old Johnny Bench, future hall-of-famer Lou Piniella and storied Bernie Carbo.

The ageless right-handed fireballer was in his twilight years. He was barnstorming again signing one-day contracts as a fan draw in the Carolina and Sally Leagues. That same year he pitched three shutout innings for the Kansas City Athletics and, in 1971, was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

At War Memorial Stadium, he signed autographs, bantered with old and young, kidded with the ladies who still flocked to his presence, and offered his wisdom and a good quote to willing scribes.

Still full of energy and confidence, he pitched one inning, giving up one hit, an infield ground out and two strikeouts. The last third strike brought the crowd to its feet. He started with a demonstrative roundhouse windup, high leg kick and his arm flew forward, the ball seeming to float in an arc, befuddling the batter, who swung and missed. It was certainly a “hesitation” pitch.

Satchel Paige was worth the price of admission. Too bad he and his baseball brothers were locked out of the majors.

Satchel Paige died June 8, 1982 in Kansas City, MO.–©2011Norman M. Covert

(Editor’s Note: The above article was published in its original form at www.thetentacle.com June 15, 2011 and is used with permission of The Octopus, LLC  and the author.)

For more information or to schedule a visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum of Maryland, Inc., call 410-597-9797 or visit www.nlbmminc.org.

Contact Norman Covert at nmcovert@thecovertletter.com