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The Designated Hitter
By Glen Singer

Now, all this was a long time ago. I've been out of the game for more than ten years. But all those years in the big leagues, they shine clear in my mind, like hot summer days. I remember all the names, all the places. And I've always been a reader—ever since I was a kid. I always read the papers, sporting magazines, you know. Even in words and numbers, the game is alive as can be. And that's why I have all the pieces of this story about Levon Lawrence and his big bat, sorry glove, and nasty, nasty ways.

He came to us, down to spring training with the Pittsburgh club, in '59—straight from Double A, from Savannah, I believe—with a whopping batting mark: .367. I remember that, 'cause it was the same as Cobb's lifetime average, right to the decimal. We were big league, and as it turned out, Levon wasn't, even though his bat made other noises all the time we were down in Florida. All spring he whipped up a storm with that thin-looking stick of his. I recall the sun glancing off it, a blond, golden light against the black of his hide. I was playing second, and from there the damn shine was like a halo, almost a circle around his bat. At the plate he looked like a sure thing, with his hands held high, club cocked back—then, wham!—line drives sailing against the Dr. Pepper sign in right-center or the ball jetting straight out, like it was going to eat the sun. That was Florida, and he played. The errors didn't look so bad in the daylight with the droopy palms in the background and the old people hovering all about. Even if he dropped a couple, the St. Petersburg folks cheered anything so young as a frozen rope cutting down in the hot turf.

I didn't see it quite that way since he was after my job. But, then, that's a lie too. I knew that there was no way he was going to take it. He was listed as an infielder, but his reputation had run clear ahead from Georgia. The boy, slim and graceful as he looked, could field nothing at second—not a grounder, not a line drive, and he staggered around under pop-ups like some Chicago wino. His glove was oiled and creased, but, to be sure, not many balls had done that. I think he just spent hours greasing it and pounding his fist in the pocket, dreaming of the majors.

When we left camp, even with all that hitting—I imagine he must've hit .480 or something—Levon Lawrence was on his way back to the minors, to ride buses and eat greasy hamburgers. Me? I stayed on as a regular for six more years at Pittsburgh and then a couple more as a utility man in St. Louis. I had the big league life and enjoyed every one of the thirteen years I spent as a player: good hotels, good food, airplane rides—all of it, the whole bit.

Levon wasn't so lucky. I kept up on him in The Sporting News and the Baseball Guide. His glove sent him straight downhill, to places like Charleston, Spokane, San Antonio, Tidewater, and Toledo. He led some of those leagues in hitting, but managers and players started to calling him "The Gravedigger," 'cause they had to play him, and in the end managers, coaches, and whoever all lost their jobs. They were supposed to "develop him," make him playable, but they just couldn't do it. They tried to hide him. They moved him from second to outfield, but he ran the wrong way on everything. Never really hustled either. They put him on first, and it was the same damn thing. Believe this or not—it was at Tucson, I think—as a first baseman, Levon Lawrence made forty-four errors. Count Žem, forty-four.

Well, he stayed down in the bushes for about five years, passed on from organization to organization, each front office, I guess, thinking that something would happen, some miracle, but it never did. Then, Levon found new baseball life. He moved south of the border to Mexico City. If his hitting was good before, it was nothing compared to what it was down there. It must've been the high, light air, like in Arizona and in Denver. He whipped into the pitching and knocked the cover off the ball, year after year. And he got some power too. Here's the kind of stats he racked up: in '67: .372, 156 runs batted in, and 47 home runs. He never had that kind of muscle as a youngster. In '69, get this: .385, 171 RBI, and 52 homers. Unbelievable, man! Well at least it was then, back in the bad ol' days when the pitchers stood way up there on the mound, when they were the cocks of the walk.

He played first down there, and he probably dropped just as many balls as ever, but with that kind of production, I know he must've carried his team and made managers, for once, kind of happy. In all the eight years he was in Mexico, Levon Lawrence never hit less than .300 and never fell short of thirty-five homers a season. But, in the end, he got sick of being a hero in a foreign country and started waiting for a chance to come home and speak some good ol' English. Well, it came about in '72, when they adopted the designated hitter rule in the American Association. So, he came back to the States and got a job with the Topeka club, Triple A. At thirty-three, he hit .347 and knocked out forty-two taters. His run production wasn't so good, though, 'cause the Threshers were pretty bad and nobody else hit much.

Well, then, three big things happened—big, at least, as far as this story goes. First, our league expanded, and I got back in baseball as a coach with one of the new teams, the Kansas City Overlanders. That same year, the league took up the designated hitter rule, and a lot of creaky old ballplayers got a second life. One of them was Levon Lawrence. The Overlanders gave him a shot in the spring of '73, and I was there to watch if his bat still had the same magic, with maybe a few Mexican jumping beans thrown in.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Spring 2003 issue.



GLEN SINGER lives in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin, and works as a librarian in a maximum-security prison. He has been a Cardinals fan since the days of Ray Jablonski and Rip Repulski.

© 2003 Glen Singer


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