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A Nutty Beginning
By Staff Writer

Walnuts are green. You might not know that if the closest you've come to the genus Juglans is aisle seven at Kroger. I'm talking about walnuts as they grow on the tree: green, round, hard balls that fall off the limb and practically invite a kid to throw them. That's how I got started.

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me, "How did you get started?" Well . . . a few people. I mean, maybe four or five over time. . . . Okay, if we're going to get technical—thirty years ago a chubby man inquired about getting into the upholstery business. He wanted to know if Naugahyde had changed the industry. But I guessed what he was really thinking, what he really wanted to know, was: "Why is this guy's shop called The Portsider? Does that have any relationship to fine furniture coverings? And why does this man have a picture of Gus Zernial on his wall? Perhaps what I'm really interested in knowing, Mr. Portsider, is how did your incredibly long and interesting career in minor league baseball—with a cup and saucer of coffee in ėThe Show'—get started?" Then, if he had actually asked the question instead of kept it to his inside voice, I'd have looked him in the eye (although the truth is you can't actually look someone in the eye unless he only has one of them, and as this was not a one-eyed inquirer, I'd have chosen the right eye to peer into) and said: "Walnuts."

And then my chubby two-eyed inquirer would have said, "Walnuts, eh? That's a pretty interesting and open-ended answer to my quite specific question. Perhaps there's a story in that." And I'd have said, "There's a story in everything. Especially walnuts."

They fell all over Wilson Avenue, the street I grew up on in Rocheport, Missouri. Rocheport sits on the banks of the Missouri River, mid-state, and there were walnut trees on every block. Now, of course, there were only four blocks, but each block had one. They'd fall off during the summer, like bright green tennis balls, only hard as a stone and I'd heave them at the next tree over.

Bob Feller built up his arm throwing rocks at a barn; I built up mine throwing walnuts. Maybe I should have thrown rocks, could have added a foot to my fastball, but you work with the tools God provides. He gave me a good left arm and powerful buttocks. That's what a pitcher really needs. It's the gluteus maximus that generates a fastball. If Jennifer Lopez ever pitched . . . look out, Fernando!

I grew up a lonely and forlorn child. Rocheport was a tiny town. Still is. I don't know why my father thought he could make a living re-upholstering furniture in a community of 128, most of whom owned only pine chairs. He might have made a go out of making straight back chairs, but that wasn't his passion. He loved the feel of a rich brocade running through his fingers and the little upholsters hammer was just right for his truncated grip. He was a stubborn man, he had his World War I disability money coming in, and he'd stick to re-upholstery, thank you.

He had lost the top part of his index finger in Bordeaux. The wine that is. Got his finger stuck in a bottle celebrating the Armistice, smashed the bottle, lost the tip of the finger, and became the last American casualty of the Great War.

He came back to Rocheport, his hometown, and wedded his childhood sweetheart, Eldeena Whitlow. She was a saintly woman, a character trait that makes for a very tedious marriage. So he spent a lot of time fishing and urging his neighbors to buy ottomans.

I grew up pretty much alone, chucking walnuts at trees and gathering a big bag of them to throw into the Missouri. I've heard of kids who treasured their one baseball and taped it over and held onto it for dear life, and all I can say is they should have lived around walnut trees. It was like having a big shopping cart full of balls at your disposal.

Back then there was no Little League, no Pony League, no leagues for kids at all. For me, there weren't even other kids to play ball with. Oh, sure, there was Rodney Fudge, but he spent most of his time working out elaborate practical jokes. He improved on the burning-bag-of-poop-on-the-doorstep by providing something to put it out with—a big bucket of horse urine. Mom discouraged me from playing with him. There was Edgar Ruppell, enormously large and slow. Unsuited to baseball, or any sport requiring rapid movement, he anchored the Rocheport Youth Bowlers For Christ.

And then there was Clark Crawley. He was a bookish type who built himself a crystal set and locked himself in his bedroom all day trying to bring in KMOX from St. Louis. He failed to do so and only later realized that it was because KMOX wouldn't start up business for another two years. At that point he realized he was a seer, a psychic. He issued pronouncements from his bedroom every now and then. He'd just shout out the window like an Old Testament prophet, but without the beard: "Hail is coming, next Tuesday!" We were in central Missouri, and with that accent everyone thought he was saying, "Hell is coming next Tuesday," and they ignored him even when it hailed on Tuesday. Unfortunately, they also ignored him when he yelled out, "Buy Ford Motor stock!"

One day, as I walked past, I heard Clark bellow from his window, "Baseball!" I turned. "What about it, Clark?" "You're going to play baseball." "Well, since I've got a glove on my right hand that's not too impressive a prognostication, Clark." "No, I mean in years to come. For many years—decades, almost half a century—you'll play ball. You will wander across the country; your left arm a sail luffing you across America. You will float from team to team, year after year of throwing a baseball."

"Am I throwing strikes?"

"Just enough to get the next job."

It wasn't the kind of fortune telling that lifted one's spirits, but the thought caught hold. Because there were no kids to play with, I started showing up for the one game around—the Saturday afternoon town ball contest. Rocheport was pitted against powerhouses like Booneville, Auxvasse, and Fulton. We lost most of the time, which was good psychological training for the rest of my career. Of course, at first I didn't play much. Rocheport was bad, but I was still the youngest guy on the team. But I'd always take a big bag of walnuts and if I wasn't on the field, I'd chuck them against a tree. Coach Rudy Balzer took note and soon I found myself pitching relief against tough left-handed batters like Noah Webster Smith, the Dictionary of Mid-Missouri Hitting. His parents named him after the author of one of the two books they owned. I guess they thought Rand McNally Smith just sounded too strange.

Noah knew every trick in the batter's book. He would foul off pitches until the cows came home. He claimed, in fact, that he had never struck out. He could handle the bat that effectively. And maybe it was true. We were playing Booneville, I was called in to pitch, and Noah fouled off my first twenty-three deliveries. This slowed the game down considerably, because we only had two balls. It was pitch one, wait for the speedy little Van der Schans kid to retrieve the other. It was no problem until little Chris Van der S. had to take a leak. While he was relieving himself, Noah fouled off the two balls we had and they both landed on the neighboring K-T railroad tracks. Before we could figure out what was going on, we heard the chug-chug of the train, the whistle like a cow lowing and, bingo—our two balls were flattened like an old-fashioned map of the world, spread out over the rails.

We were in a pickle. The guys were desperate to finish the game.

"I've got something."

I ran to the bench and pulled out a big green walnut. The ump, a retired barber named Polo, looked it over. "Play ball! Or as close as we can come to it." Now I felt truly confident. This was a spheroid I knew how to deliver. I gripped it across the stem hole, reared back and fired the nut. Put some spin on a walnut and it behaves like a good drop pitch. It dropped, Noah swung, and we both had our first career strikeout.

My dad was there to watch that day. He was so proud, he made me a bat. Typical. He was always just wide of home plate. If he'd known anything about baseball he might have made me a ball. But he noticed I had to borrow a bat. So the next Saturday he showed up with a beautiful, dark, walnut bat. It was deep brown and streaked with honey. Finished and lacquered and virtually indestructible. I still have it, my Wonder Boy. The only trouble is, it was like trying to hit with a chest of drawers. The sucker weighed a ton.

That's okay. I didn't play the game like Noah Webster Smith. I knew what I had to do. I carried that old walnut stick through just about every baseball league in this country, and it served me well enough.

That green kid with a big bat has aged through the years, the decades, as my left arm luffed me across America. I've lost my husk and time has weathered me down to what I am today: An old nut. A pitcher. A southpaw. A portsider. —EFQ

Although STAFF WRITER is more ancient than some old growth forests, he is not a nut. But now in his twentieth year of churning out this column, he is becoming a bit loopy.

© 2001 Elysian Fields Quarterly


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