Get Adobe Flash player

Boys Of Summer Played In Vega, Texas — Old Home Week

June 23rd, 2019 · Tags:Sports

You might be from Vega, Texas if … you remember the good old days when the Little League baseball teams consisted of boys from the age of eight competing on teams with boys up to the ages of 12 & 13 … all mixed in one league. 

These days, I think it is great that Vega has t-ball for the young children, and has mixed softball to include the girls too … but there was something really special about small town Little League. Doing whatever it took to put a few teams of guys together, most of the players “fresh off the tractor” for practices and games.

 

Way back when, we had three Vega teams and we also competed against Adrian, Texas, and Wildorado, Texas a time or two (a Palo Duro Baptist team).  But most of the time it was the yellow-and-white Eagles, the blue-and-white Dodgers, the red-and-white Giants and the Adrian guys in Matador maroon.

Funny that Vega and Adrian are so close in proximity, but that the old rivalry began for me at age eight back then.  Today, I have many friends from Adrian, but back in the day, my older brothers taught me to “spray imaginary germ repellent” all over myself in the car on the way to games in the Western part of Oldham County — just before we crossed into the city limits — to avoid contracting any imaginary harmful germs from that tiny, rival town.

Ha … I have a standing joke to this day with a good friend from Adrian, who played on their teams …  Here’s the deal. Adrian is like a smaller version of Vega — it has its merchants, and gas station attendants and working people — but it also has highly successful, affluent farmers and ranchers too … so “Why in the world didn’t the Adrian team have better baseball equipment!?!”  My buddy and I have an ongoing dialogue about the old, crumbling, decaying, curled up, faded maroon base-runners helmets the Adrian kids used to pry open to wrap around their heads, to protect their brains from errant throws.  If you haven’t seen one, the baserunner helmets were plastic, but looked a bit like a collegiate wrestler’s helmet.  But the Adrian helmets … brittle …  ha, maybe made of the very first plastic on the planet.  I swear, they should have had “the jaws of life” to crack those things open and uncurl them, so the coaches could squeeze them on to the players’ noggins.  I digress …

In addition to farming, Vega and Adrian had much in common … however, I had never seen a Mohawk hairdo in Vega back then.  My first Mohawk sightings weren’t until the ones I saw on two young brothers at an Adrian game … Probably about 1967 or ’68 … One of the brothers was playing in the stands, and his older brother was playing catcher behind the plate for Adrian.  I thought his mohawk strip, which was seemingly “cut in half” by the straps of his catcher’s mask were just incredibly strange … yet pretty interesting.

Vega had a Little League fence back then, but not as nice as the one at the baseball park now.  Ha … not to pick on Adrian again, but their outfield was not fenced in.  I saw many a ball roll to the church yard across the street during Adrian games (some of them hit by Adrian’s behemoth Dennis Brown).  I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything.  Back then at Adrian games and Vega games, cars and pickup trucks would encircle the foul lines and the outfield and honk like crazy when a team scored.  I think it was Tammy Sides, Linda Robinson, my sister Cindy Rea and some other girls who came up with the cool idea to stuff grass in the chainlink fence of the outfield, connecting the dots, to spell out spirited encouragement for the home team (although that may have been a Pony League game, featuring older players at Vega’s only ballpark back then). Ha … nowadays schools use special colored, plastic cups to accomplish the same thing — a mosaic message in the fence.

 

Mask, National Baseball Hall of Fame

Back then, the pre-game ritual was not as raucous as what you see these days, with players jumping up and down and chest bumping.  Usually we warmed up in the infield, had a pep talk, and then the coaches would send the teammates off to relieve themselves of pre-game jitters and excess water.  Ha … at Vega’s field, we circled around the back of an old dilapidated, wooden outhouse, usually swarming with wasps … a faded wooden structure that I think later found its way to rest briefly on the top of a homecoming bonfire — after the ball park or the county barn next door offered indoor plumbing. Thirteen miles west, at the Adrian field, the pre-game ritual was pretty much the same, except that rather than huddling around a dysfunctional old outhouse, we gathered across the street, just east of the ball park, hiding behind an old, partially caved-in grain silo.  IF memory serves, there was some kind of rabbit pen back there too … and domesticated rabbits would pop in and out of underground dens within a fenced-in area. I always thought that unusual … and now so nostalgic.

I can’t remember all of the umpires who volunteered their time and judgement at the Adrian park, but there was one kind, older gentleman whom everyone called “Sunshine.”  I never knew his name.  It seems that there was one game where one of the normal umpires didn’t show up, and I think David Whitten was invited to leave his pickup, after a long day farming, and was pressed into service, calling the game at first base.

Vega games were different in that respect too — at least from the perspective of the Eagles, Dodgers and Giants.  We all knew the various calls the umpires would sound out, from behind their black umpire mask, protected by a huge pillow-like chest protector.  Ralph Slutz was probably our favorite … most known for his loud, long call of “Steeeeeeeeeee-rike!” when an 11- or 12-year old pitcher rung up another strike out against a  trembling eight-year-old batter.  Lord how I respected that sound, and hated it too … and the walk of shame back to the dugout after a swing and a miss. Geral(d) Ray Sides was equally legendary behind the plate, calling games.  I think Marv Slutz spent time behind the plate and umping the base baths as well, with a quick thumb up to signal an out.

 

Coke, National Baseball Hall of Fame

To complement the sounds of home run honking and “Steeeeeeeeeee-rike!” or the less-impressive “Foul ball!” was the smell of the ballpark — an all dirt infield with native buffalo grass in the outfield, with a combination of chainlink fence and chicken wire fence protecting the fans from foul balls, as well as the players in the dugouts.  OH the smell of hotdogs!  If you were catching behind the plate at Vega’s diamond, the tiny, tin-covered concession stand was just on the other side of the chicken wire, about fifteen feet behind and to the right of home plate.  While hot pitches were hitting your catcher’s mitt, you could almost tell every time someone had just ordered a hotdog too.  The spicy smell of hotdog chili, fresh onions and mustard drifting directly into and over the field of play.  Those were the best hotdogs I ever tasted, and I think somehow that was partly due to the almost ancient sauce pans used year after year in the tiny concession stand — and the moms who took turns volunteering during the season — cooking the hotdogs inside the tiny metal box of a structure … and handing out free cups of iced Coca-Cola, provided by our coach when we won a game.  For whatever reason, I was just recently telling my friend Ronnie Fangman that I always think of his dear mom (Elsie) working in that hot concession stand — maybe she poured on the most chili for the hotdogs or filled the Coke cups the fullest … or maybe it was just the sight of her leaning out the window to watch her boys play (two who played with my older brothers, and a younger son who played against my team … Eagles, I think …) I can still see her blonde hair and her intense look, leaning out the “drawbridge” window of the concession stand … popping the most impressive bubble gum bubbles, if memory serves.

My second year, when I was nine, my team The Giants won it all.  Then two years of hard times — provided mainly by The Eagles — followed that initial success.  (We tied the first year, and then lost a playoff game … to the Evils … er … The Eagles.)  My last year, my Giants prevailed again.  So fun!  Jason Cook and Larry Richardson were the stars of that first season … Jimbo Wetsel and Larry Joe Kirkland too, Mark Miller, the Cassetty boys, then the Cannons and others followed in the Giants lore.  The first two seasons,  I was happy to get to play in the outfield — that place where few balls landed.  … Oh, back to the mix of several age groups … I was never of age to play with Jason Cook again in any other sport. But Larry, Jimbo, Larry Joe, Mark and I were teammates in other sports later in life, being closer in age.  When I finally advanced from the outfield, in a few games … I got to catch a time or two.  But also, I take great pride in having caught the pitching of Larry Richardson at least once — probably the best athlete, pound for pound — that ever lettered, anywhere in The Texas Panhandle … Mark Miller had an excellent, extreme-overhand, fast and accurate delivery too.  Larry Joe or “Pojey” as we called him, also carried the team during the hard years … I digress …

Another special thing happened during my Vega Little League years.  We got uniforms! — jerseys,  three-striped leggings, baggy, knee-length pants with a red and blue stripe up the side and team caps, of course.  (Our moms ironed on the G, E, or D letters on our baseball caps.) In old family photos, I have seen my brother Steve batting at the plate in blue jeans and a shirt.  The previous players might have had jerseys too, with jeans … not sure … But I am pretty sure we were the first bunch to “look like a baseball team.”

 

Steve Pingel

Most of all, I remember the coaches … the guys who taught us everything we knew of the game, and bought us Cokes after a win.  Not just my coaches, but I remember those throughout our league, because we all knew each other so well.  My first coaches were almost fresh out of high school, already volunteering their time in the community and sharing knowledge of the game to further this old Vega tradition.  Chris Hodges and Jackie Richardson (assisted by Jerry Hodges) were the first coaches of my career — in any sport.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the equally imported role that Evelyn Richardson played in our baseball careers — keeping the score book in our dugout, making sure The Eagles didn’t try to bat out of order, and offering her two-cents worth as well … say like when a grounder got between my ankles at shortstop when I was 10.  “I never thought I’d see the day when Kent Pingel was afraid of a baseball,” she once added … encouraging me to do better in her special way.  Again, if memory serves, I think Hazel Adair (Evelyn’s sister) may have kept the books on the opposite side of the diamond when we played The Eagles.

Terry Adair helped to coach The Eagles I think, but the most vocal and perhaps most knowledgeable sporting type in town was the Eagles’ head coach — Leon Yell — the owner/editor of The Vega Enterprise back then.  Coach Yell and his pitching-ace son Mike Yell were the nemesis of my team during many a game.  But, man, how we all enjoyed Leon’s animated outbursts over calls that didn’t go his way … or his protests when a storm threatened to end play in late innings — a potential cancellation that would have worked against his team …  Of course Mike and his star catcher Jeff Fergerson would later become teammates of mine in other sports, but in Little League years, we were not friends … much.  Priceless: Leon Yell and his Eagles were losing a close game one time, to my Giants in the older league and I was on the mound.  For their final at bat, Coach Yell inserted into his batting order every 8-year-old, 9-year-old or other small player on the team — trying anything to get someone on base.  The little guys were given specific instructions.  “Do NOT swing!”  In addition, he had these small guys crouching over in their batting stances, to “shrink” the strike zone.  Pretty sure one tiny batter took a swing and a miss … and the screaming could be heard around town, I bet.  So … I had to end the game pitching against kids who had about a five-inch strike zone.  We won that one, over an excellent Eagles team … Some of the Eagles, over the years: Jimmy Adair, David Doshier, John Fergerson, Jim Thompson, Kyle Montgomery, Rick and Kevin Brainerd … Trace and Brett Richardson, etc.

After initial successes with the Giants, and then several years of drought, so to speak, the Vega Giants had new coaches at the helm.  In stepped Jerry O’Conner, Harold Ray Sides (yes the son of the umpire and older brother of my teammate and friend Gary Sides)  Larry Wayne Wetsel helped out too, as I recall.  Baseball got real that year.  Coach O’Conner had played high school ball for Vega … back before the football program quashed the baseball program at VHS.  He was quite knowledgeable, was a great, encouraging coach, and he could “wear” a major-league chaw of tobacco in his cheek as well as any big leaguer back when that was acceptable.  We had a great year, and won it all.  I just might have gotten to pitch quite a bit that year, if I don’t say so myself.  But it was also the year of one of the most frightening things I ever saw in sports.  Coach O’Conner threw lots of batting practice to us when we worked out.  And he also had the other coaches take the other players aside, and they hit to us “flies and skinners” to work on our fielding skills.  One day, as one player was getting batting practice, and the rest were lined up, kind of looking into the sun, catching fly balls … one of my teammates lost sight of the ball in the sun.  I won’t mention his name, but he was our first baseman that year … and one of the toughest, best kids I ever knew, throughout his sports career.  But that day, after he lost the ball, it came down and hit him on the head … hard!  He kind of lost it for a second, and yelled “Mama!” and took off running, erratic, aimlessly … obviously dazed … or “had his bell rung” as we used to describe sports concussions.  It totally freaked me out that something like that could happen to the toughest kid in the school.  I think we all kept a “closer eye” on the ball after that.

The Dodgers — the guys in baggie, throwback baseball pants, blue and white leggings and blue and white three-quarter sleeve baseball jerseys were coached by the likes of Lawrence Jones — his 8- or 9-year-old son Rick, the youngest I ever saw start at shortstop among the older guys — along with “Lefty” Pernell, Robert Galbraith, T.J. Carter and others coaching the blue.  The Dodgers had some great hitters … Randy Roark, Kevin Deason, Randall Galbraith, Tony Pernell.  Roark and Deason could throw the heat too.  Early in our baseball careers, the Dodgers also had a couple of imports from Wildorado — Jim Davis and Monty Pratt — one,  scary for his wild, fast pitches and one just looked mean with a tobacco chaw of his own on the mound as he prepared to enter the seventh grade.

I think most of The Dodgers were from the south end of town.  The Eagles were kind of thought of as the Vega city kids (with a farmer or two) … and my Giants were farm kids, several from the nearby Ford farming community out south of the country club (with a city kid or two). I lived about a quarter of a mile from the Adrian school district division line … important real estate, those few acres that kept me from wearing an Adrian baserunner helmet … But like I said, many of our stars were from the Ford area … Ha … the final year of my career, when I was on top of the mound, Mark Brorman was catching me.  Ronnie Brorman was playing shortstop.  Steve Brorman was playing third base … and Tom Brorman was the backup catcher, I think.  Four Brormans from three different family farms.  Great players and teammates.

 

Ping Coaches Ping, Fort Worth, circa 1996

All of these coaches — these volunteers and friends and brothers — didn’t teach me everything about baseball, but I  knew enough to coach my own sons … and to put together a baseball book that is now in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY., … I digress …

 

National Baseball Hall of Fame

 

But Vega Little League also had a “developmental league.”  For one game each week, the eight- and nine-year-olds would get a break from being beaned by 12-year-old wild pitchers, and play a game against their same-age peers only.  In these “rookie games” we would leave our “bench-warmer,” or “little-action outfield positions” to assume the roles of pitchers, catchers, infielders … moving from the number-nine holes in the batting order, to be lead-off hitters and clean-up batters for one game a week.  Half of The Eagles were mixed with half of the Giants and whoever was left over was mixed in with the Dodgers’ “eight and nines” to make the rookie teams.  That was when I truly got to know Coach Yell, when he coached my 8/9 team.  I think he was the first coach to see some real potential in me.  During a regular game at the first of the season (against the 12-year-olds, etc.) — against Coach Yell’s team — I was a skinny little kid out in right field — placed there because that field saw little action — when an older player hit a drive out to my area.  I ran up and slid on my knees and caught it at grass level for the out … probably robbing a double … no one was more surprised than me. Ha … get this … the older, bigger kid, Mark Harwell later hit it to me again … same thing.  Somehow I robbed him of a couple of doubles.  The opposing coach, Coach Yell, did not like the catches’ impact on the game, but he took note.  The following week, as he coached my 8&9 team, he remembered the catches and put me on the glove-intensive position of first base.  No … I had never played first base before, nor did I have any idea how to do so … but soon I could hold my own at the position … at least versus the other munchkins.  I will never forget his unwarranted confidence in me and his encouragement … and Leon’s being a very strong supporter of mine throughout my high school sports career … ha … yelling “Pingelly!” loudly in the basketball gym when I scored …

And it wasn’t long after Coach Yell tried me at first base in the 8/9 games, I started to get a few innings on the mound from my regular coaches … as a 10-year-old pitcher in our rotation.

Another side note: I felt so honored when Mike Yell and I represented Vega as the local winners in the Pitch, Hit  and Throw competition, advancing to competition in Amarillo … We got to compete in the old 

Amarillo Giants’ ballpark … I thought that would be the pinnacle of sports for me … I digress …

 

MLB Integration

The other annual break from the eight-year-old vs. 12-year-old baseball routine was the annual All-Star Game at the end of the season.  One all-star team was comprised of the best players from the #1 team, mixed with the best players from the last-place team.  The second all-star squad was made from players on the 2nd- and 3rd-place teams from the regular season.  I think I made the squad my last three years, but really got the most playing time after the Giants won it all.  So I was the pitcher on a team made up of Giants all-stars and Adrian all-stars.  (Pretty sure we used Vega baserunner helmets …)  I can’t forget that the Adrian all-stars had something one year that seemed way more unique than a Mohawk hairdo or a crumpled batting helmet.  Adrian had a Black kid that year, an all-star named Wayne “something” … I remember that because that was my Dad’s name — Wayne, not “something.”  Wayne was the first Black player whom I ever had been teammates with, or played against that year.  That seems strange now … but that’s just the way it was back then.  We didn’t really care … just wanted him to field the ball.  (Of course most Vega friends know that we finally had a Black friend and student at Vega in the early  ’70s — Benny … a guy who everyone loved in class, on the field and on the school bus that we both rode … despite what some might think of that little historical footnote.)

I met another guy when I was teamed with the Adrian all-stars.  Prior to playing together, we faced each other many times … and were also basketball foes later in high school years.  I knew him only as the grandson of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Holder.  I always thought Bill Gruhlkey has kind of like “a ringer.”  He stayed in Adrian each summer and greatly enhanced their baseball team, although he lived in nearby Canyon, Texas or Amarillo, Texas back then.

This, part of the story, I think I have mentioned to Mr. Gruhlkey, too on occasion.  In Little League that year, I had been the ace of the first place Giants and was on the mound in the All-Star game, and he — “the ringer” — from Adrian was catching for me behind the plate.  He knew more about big time baseball than I did … everyone did!  I just knew how to throw hard and throw strikes.  Ha … I will never forget Bill calling time out and approaching me on the mound for a meeting, him in his catcher’s gear. And, he might have been wearing the ultra cool eye black too!  Despite numerous strikeouts — and no one touching “my heater” — he was convinced it was time to mix it up with the pitches, a little bit.  Bill told me to throw a changeup.  “What’s a change up?” I asked … not really caring.  So, the catcher explained that I should throw “a fastball, slow” … or was it “a slowball, fast?”  It didn’t matter … I think I slowed my windup slightly and just kept pounding his mitt for strikes.  I digress … 

I think “The Brormans” … er … The Giants also won the league the year after I left baseball forever — the coming of age in Vega, when you hang up your baseball glove and concentrate on football, basketball, track, golf and tennis.  You might say we were a dynasty, just as The Eagles had been in my early years.

Pity.  I know that all of my older brothers were good players.  And I heard lots of talk of really talented Vega pitchers playing some college ball back in the day … before the high school team was disbanded.  Andy Artho comes to mind, as well as my first coach, Chris Hodges … Mike Cook and some other talented throwers.  David Wheeler, a tall lanky first baseman on some great teams, “Jerry O” catching, etc.

Naturally  — because of our closeness in age — I can remember my brother Keith and his antics, more clearly than my other brothers.  Before I was old enough to play in Little League, Keith used to practice his pitching on and at  me, with me batting behind the old farm house … wearing a construction hard hat for some protection … unfortunately, beaning me pretty regularly.  Ha … I guess I was a wuss … and I never got over the self-preservation instinct to back out of the batter’s box from that initial target practice or batting practice … or whatever.  But Keith and Steve also taught me to catch just about anything and to throw to hit any spot where they held their gloves.   Later, I remember both brothers Steve and Keith — or my dad — taking off of the farm tractor and warming me up out on the farm, before we drove to Vega or Adrian when I was due to pitch.

 

I don’t think anyone was more embarrassed by my inability to bat than brother Keith.  He even tried to incentivize me … bribing me with the reward of one of those delicious ball park hotdogs … IF I ever hit a home run.

In five years of baseball, I earned two hotdogs off of Keith.  Both were against The Eagles, and both came off of probably the best pitcher in the league, and the biggest kid at the time — Mike Yell of The Eagles.  The glory ends there.  Both of my homers were complete flukes.  I swung late and got lucky and the pitch hit my bat.  The force of Mike’s fast pitch did most of the work, and somehow I hit a hot line drive in the gap between center and right field.  In the case of a good, intentional right-handed batter, these days, that would be called “hitting to the opposite field.”  In my case, it was totally that I swung the bat way too late, and got lucky.  They were ugly hits, but I rounded the bases and scored anyway … I think I was 10.  At the time, I thought there was no way either of those solo homers were hotdog worthy, and I never expected Keith to make good on his promise .. But lo and behold … after both of those games, he was waiting for me just outside the chicken wire dugout with my greasy-delicious, oniony, chili-drenched prize.

Keith and I both knew I couldn’t bat ‘for squat.’   But he shelled out 25 cents on two occasions, making good on his word — regardless of the homers being so ugly.  Many of the people who may read this probably know Keith, and I think everyone might agree that Keith was skilled at many sports … and was tough and ornery … and that he is not really one to throw out compliments readily.  These may be the only two compliments I ever heard from him — although he taught me much and I am grateful … During my first success pitching in the older league, he positioned himself behind home plate in the stands — at an Adrian game — and he raved that my pitches had some natural curve to them.  I knew little of the physics, aerodynamics and wind resistance that cause a baseball to curve … but I knew this was a good thing, and it meant lots to me, coming from him.  Then after my last year, he said the most surprising thing.  He suggested I should transfer to a school that had high school baseball, to keep on pitching.  Of course I would have never considered leaving Vega, even if it were feasible … But that compliment has stuck with me all these years.

I guess I am reminded of all of this because of my recent trip home to Vega … hearing the chatter about the t-ball games and softball games that still remain one of the bigger summer social events for the parents of players and other townspeople.

You can see the ball park lights for miles and miles.

I can still hear the “hey, batter batter batter … SWING!” from the glory years, when the Giants, Eagles and Dodgers did their best to win it all.

 

Omaha Haboob

 

And of course, my other alma mater — Texas Tech — recently was in the hunt for the College World Series championship in Omaha … So, all of this has me reliving memories of my “sandlot” days and also my sons and daughter playing Little League in the big city … and my boys both pitching in a great high school baseball program in Fort Worth.  Twenty years passed between my baseball career and my sons’ turns on the mound.  But it was like magic how their baseball careers could rekindle my old love of the game … a game I hadn’t thought about in years.

Both of my boys pitched for Arlington Heights — a respected baseball power in Fort Worth and both recorded their own “no hitters” on the mound … the oldest just missing a perfect game by one questionable call during the first at bat he faced in his “no-no” win … HA … and me … when I pitched, I didn’t even know what a no hitter was.  My coach told me to throw strikes … and that is what I did.

Now … just thinking of and jotting down some notes from the timeless memories of The Boys of Summer … relishing the great moments … wondering what might have been.

Know what I sayin?