Second in a series of occasional posts wherein a geezer looks back at a time when he (and Bangor) were far younger.
By Dave Riley
FOR AT LEAST PART of one summer, Owen Inforati was the most popular guy in our neighborhood. If he or any of his heirs are reading this, don’t take it wrong. Owen was always a friendly, extremely well-liked fellow. But this one summer in particular he was number one — he was, in today’s parlance, the man.
That’s because Owen owned the baseball.
When I say “the baseball,” I mean the only one in the neighborhood for much of that summer. When Owen came to play, we had a game. When he didn’t, we dispatched someone to his house just off the far end of Poplar Street to borrow the ball.
I’m not sure why we didn’t have more baseballs. We weren’t rich but we certainly weren’t poor, or if we were our parents had failed to inform us of our poverty.
We did have a ball field however, albeit with a most eccentric topography. It was a square mostly vacant lot that sat right in the middle of our neighborhood. Except for Mr. Canty’s house, a slope-roofed Hansel-and-Gretel structure which sat at the very edge of right field, it was all ours. I could walk out my front door and across Warwick Street to the left field foul pole — a sturdy wooden electrical stanchion thoughtfully put up by the Bangor Hydro-Electric Company. The Hayes brothers lived up the hill to the right, at the corner of Warwick Street and Earl Avenue, on the first base side of home plate. The Carrs’ big yellow house sat just beyond centerfield, one house down from the corner of Field and Princeton. It faced another open lot, a much smaller, rectangular field that we used for football.
IF SOME LATTER DAY Thornton Wilder wanted to do a play about life in Bangor in the mid- ’40s, he could do a lot worse than make the ballfield the focal point of his set. Our house looked out on it, and had a wonderful old porch that dad screened in every June. It was a sort of de facto luxury box where mom could darn socks or shuck peas on the screen-door days of a New England summer and watch us kids play. We not only saw the ballfield, we saw our neighbors and their comings and goings, some of which was the subject of gossip at the evening meal.
The field did have one drawback — it wasn’t flat. Home plate in front of Gerry’s house was the highest point and centerfield — the corner of Field Street and Princeton Avenue — the lowest. After the snowmelt in the spring, center field was a swamp populated by tadpoles and frogs, but by mid-June it was always dried out. I don’t recall that we ever minded the field’s deformities.
When there were enough people around – four or five a side would do – we played a game. When there weren’t, we took turns hitting flies and grounders to each other. The first one to catch three flies or five grounders got to take over the bat. When some fielder got close to either, the batter would do his best to hit away from him.
Baseballs weren’t the only thing we shared. The Carr brothers had the two most used baseball gloves in Penobscot County. I don’t remember Joe’s that well, but Ralph’s was a big soft burgundy-colored fielder’s mitt that everybody loved. It had the factory-stamped autograph of Dave (Boo) Ferris, a righthander who won 46 games for the Red Sox in 1945 and ’46, and who wore out opposing pitchers with his bat. Other than Ferris’s signature, I have no idea why we liked the glove. It had a tiny pocket, and more fly balls bounced out of it than stayed in.
The end of left field — the fence, so to speak — was defined by Field Street, surely one of the shortest streets in Bangor. Across Field Street was Mr. Hall’s house, a big two-story structure with a large open porch that faced the ball field. A big Buick, owned I believe by Mr. R., the Hall’s son-in-law, was frequently parked out front.
Joe Carr was older than the rest of us — I don’t know how much, but maybe four or five years. One day Joe, a tall, strong, slim fellow, uncorked what was for us a tremendous shot to left. I was on his team, and watched from behind the first baseline and the ball arced its way towards the Buick owned by Mr. R. Down it came with a huge metallic sound as it bounced off the Buick’s front passenger door. Mr. R. and Mr. Hall came out, understandably quite upset.
You can’t play ball there anymore. A half-dozen houses now sit where Gerry Hayes and I would run out to play catch and one of us would yell, “You be Johnny Pesky and I’ll be Bobby Doerr!” But the builders weren’t the villains. We simply outgrew the place. There came a time when any one of us could hit a ball as far as Field Street and through one of Mr. Hall’s windows for that matter. So we moved our games away from the front porches, and down to the field behind Mary Snow School or the baseball diamond at Broadway Park a mile or so away.
THIS WAS A TIME when baseball began to change for kids. It was becoming a lot more formalized and a lot less like the pickup games we played on our neighborhood field. Little League, which had been born a few years earlier in Pennsylvania, was branching out to other states. Down the road about 300 miles in Middletown, Connecticut, a fellow my age was terrorizing his teenage opponents with a blazing fastball. His name was Joey Jay, and he is an icon of sorts, because several years later, at age 17, he made history. He pocketed a $20,000 signing bonus from the Braves and became the first Little League alum to make it to the bigs.
Around 1948, I started playing organized ball with some boys from St. John’s Grammar School. Bangor didn’t have Little League yet, but for several years we were all on a CYO team in a league sponsored by the Rotary Club. During that time, we never lacked for baseballs. One of my teammates was Norby Dowd, a fellow who became a good friend. His uncle, Tom Dowd, was the traveling secretary for the Boston Red Sox. I didn’t actually know what a traveling secretary did for work, but I do know what he did for our team. One season he gathered several dozen used baseballs from the bullpen or wherever at Fenway Park, put them in a box and shipped them off to Norby in Bangor.
That was a golden era for the Sox. We were playing with baseballs that had been touched by gods — Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, Mel Parnell, Boo Ferris, Ellis Kinder. Today it would be like someone giving me a dozen golf balls that Jordan Spieth had used in the Masters or the U.S. Open.
These days, as most locals know, Bangor has one of the best youth fields anywhere in the country, Sean T. Mansfield Stadium. I had read about it and about a dozen years ago, during a week that Mrs. R. and I were staying in a cabin near Lucerne, we made a pilgrimage there. It was built with funds donated by Stephen and Tabitha King.
According to its web site, Mansfield Stadium was named after Shawn Trevor Mansfield, “who had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair his whole life, and passed away at the age of 14. At the entrance of the stadium, there is a plaque dedicating the stadium to Shawn, and all the other boys who never got a chance to play baseball.”
On a sunny day, the vibrant green expanse of Mansfield is beautiful. The stadium seats 1,500, has a complete concession stand, night lights, an electronic scoreboard and a sophisticated drainage system to cope with the spring snow melt and the inevitable April rains. Everything is a cut above — the dugouts, the stands, everything. And let me tell you, the kids who play there don’t have to borrow Owen’s baseball or Ralph Carr’s glove.