For those of us who grew up in Cleveland Heights and University Heights, Ohio, the intertwined “T” and “S” logo of the Tris Speaker Baseball League is a powerful icon. Everyone who played wore the same red and black wool cap.
Here, my Adam’s apple jutting prominently and skinny belt sagging, I’m wearing my first uniform in 1968. I played for the Red Sox in the Junior American division, and we were one of the top teams. The league in the 1960s manifest the first stirrings of the “don’t hurt the kids’ self-esteem” fad that was to flourish two or three decades later. No official standings or statistics were kept (although I recorded every victory, loss, at bat and error in a small spiral-bound diary). The league’s idea was not to let the players get too big a head for winning or be wounded too much for losing. The season was rife with rumors that top players from the best teams would be traded to the lesser teams to balance things out, although no one was traded to or from our team.
I suspect the caps were uniform throughout the league to save money, but they were nice hats with a partial leather sweat band in front and elastic in the back to accommodate all head sizes. We had to raise money to pay for the uniforms, and for many years a springtime ritual in Cleveland was for players in uniform to go knocking door to door and ask for donations into a canister emblazoned with the Tris Speaker logo. If you contributed, you’d receive a TS decal to affix in a door window so other players would know not to come begging.
There wasn’t a game when I didn’t dirty my uniform by sliding or sprawling in the dirt. My mother complained about always having to wash it, but I suspect doing so was a labor of love for her, knowing how much I loved to play.
I can’t swear that I thought so at the time, but I’ve long realized the significance of playing on the Red Sox in suburban Cleveland in a league named for the Hall of Fame outfielder who split his best years between the BoSox and Indians. Alas, the CH-UH recreational baseball league appears no longer to be named for the Gray Eagle. I can find no trace of the name on the Cleveland Heights municipal Web site.
I played one year in the junior divison as an infielder and pitcher, and made the all-star team. The next spring at tryouts, I made a spectacular diving catch at shortstop and knew right then that I’d clinched a spot in the senior division. I didn’t realize I was in for two straight years of misery, getting put on a team where the manager’s son played my position, shortstop. The first year I mostly sat the bench and played the late innings, much of it in the outfield. The second year wasn’t any different.
Forty years later, I still think back how much hinged on spearing that one line drive. If that ball were hit to me again today, I’d still go after it. That’s the only way to play the game.