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Batting And Spitting

Growing up, I had two significant disabilities: I couldn’t hit a baseball and I couldn’t spit worth a darn. In the Charleston world of the 40’s, both of those skills were important for a young male.

At recess the boys of my class would often play baseball. This is how it happened. Someone would suggest a game and boys would begin shouting the position – first batter, second batter, third batter, pitcher, etc. – they wanted to play. When a batter was called “out”, all positions rotated. Third baseman moved to short stop, short stop moved to second base, etc.

When class leaders, such as Don Moore, were calling, “first batter”, “second batter,” etc. I would call out second base. I knew, from experience, that the game would not last long enough for the second baseman to rotate to the batter position. Thus, by choosing to begin at second base I could avoid having to bat. Other boys were trying their best to get to bat and I was trying my best to avoid it.

In spite of my batting disability I played organized baseball briefly when I was in upper elementary school. The local mortician, Dugan Rainwater, coached the team. His son, Art, played and was an excellent athlete. I enjoyed fielding the ball and throwing it. I just couldn’t hit it.

My most vivid memory was of a game we played at night “under the lights.” When it was my turn to bat for the first time I was terrified. There was an actual collection of people there to watch us; my parents were there. I knew that I had no chance of hitting the ball so that, when I went to the plate, I decided to swing at the first three pitches just to get my humiliation over as soon as possible. I did exactly that. Three pitches, three swings, an overwhelming feeling of shame and down I sat.

I not only couldn’t hit a baseball, I couldn’t hit a softball. One day when we football players were walking from the dressing room - now the library - out to the practice field, someone commented on my “can’t hit a baseball,” disability. I can’t imagine how this happened but Coach Don Floyd had a softball and a softball bat with him. He gave me the bat and challenged me to hit the softball. He tossed the ball toward me in a slow high arc, like you might do for a six year old. I was embarrassed to be watched by the rest of my teammates. They were all amused as I repeatedly swung at the softball and missed it every time.

Note: Classmates Jerry Barton, Billy Cook, Lewis Griffith and Johnny Donberger, among others, were outstanding baseball players. They could HIT THE BALL.

In olden times baseball and spitting went together. Most professional players chewed tobacco and thus, of necessity, developed the skill of spitting. They would routinely spit a brown gob of saliva a considerable distance, and try to do it in such a way as to avoid having any of it dribble down their chins. But they often failed and so swiped off their mouths with the backs of their hands. It was inevitable that the spitting part of baseball would not translate well into the living rooms of TV viewers. I occasionally attend games of the local semi-pro team here in Roanoke, Virginia, and none of them ever spits. Times change.

I blame my father for not teaching me to spit properly – like the big boys. My dad was a lifelong smoker and, for many years, he rolled his own cigarettes. When he put one of his roll-your-own cigarettes in his mouth, occasionally he would find a flake of tobacco stuck on his lip. He would lean forward in his easy chair, point himself toward his ashtray, and “spit” the tobacco flake off of his lip. It was a burst of air with no saliva.

Watching him do that, I concluded that was how one spits. I would try it with saliva and the result was that it dribbled down my chin every time. I never figured out how big boys achieved distance. Today I can spit toothpaste into a sink, but that’s about it. I remain a failure as a spitter.

I did have one spitting disaster. In the seventh grade my girlfriend was a cute brunette from Bloomer named Sandra Turman. For a while, boys in my class decided that a great prank was the following: Collect a giant wad of spit on your lips, point yourself at a friend, and then suck the spit inward making a spitting sound. We thought that was great fun.

One day in study hall I was sitting next to Sandra and I – budding Romeo - decided to try the spitting stunt on her. I collected a giant wad of spit, put it on my lips and faced my girlfriend. Then things went woefully wrong. Instead of sucking the saliva in, I actually spit directly at her. The saliva turned into a cloud of spittle that covered her entire face. I was thunder-struck. How could this have happened? Sandra must have been the greatest sport of all times. Seeing my chagrin and hearing my heart-felt apology, she laughed and pretended that nothing special had happened.

Lucky for me, my career as a college professor did not require hitting a baseball or skillful spitting. I got by in spite of my disabilities.

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