Mel Mendenhall was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia. He lives in Atlanta and is the CEO CLVL Solutions, LLC.
The following essay was composed in 2011, when Gary Levi announced that he had an inoperable brain tumor. Gary Levi passed away in November 2012.
All of us have known someone who was a particularly good storyteller. For me, that person was my Dad. I guess growing up, as my dad did, in the country during the 1920s and early 1930s lent itself to that sort of entertainment: there was no TV, or even radio, back then. It seemed all of his siblings inherited the storytelling trait, and as children my brothers, sisters, and I enjoyed listening to dad’s siblings’ stories about life on the farm, life in the military (eight brothers and one brother-in-law served in WWII), and life in general.
My Dad coached my first baseball team, the Eagles. The Eagles I can easily recall are Sim Thomas, Rob Varner, Mac Turner, Johnny Jackson, Gary Levi, Jimmy Monfort, and Johnny Cooper. In the history of eight-year-old baseball teams, our team, I’m certain, was the cream of the crop – the eight-year-old equivalent to the 1927 Yankees. What follows is a quick biography of the players at age eight:
Sim Thomas – The star of the team; he did it all. A true five star player: runs, throws, fields, hits, and hits for power. He also was our most dominating pitcher, but susceptible to getting frustrated when the umpire’s vision was impaired and strikes were called balls, or so it seemed. Pitched and played 1st base.
Rob Varner – a solid all around ball player who was reliable in all facets of eight-year-old baseball. Rob and Sim were both upper classman, 3rd graders, whereas the rest of us were in the second grade. Rob played third base and catcher.
Mac Turner – A solid second baseman and, like me, a coach’s son. Mac was from a prominent family that, though wealthy, was very down-to-earth and inclusive. Mac was always smiling and having a good time on the field and in the dugout.
Johnny Jackson – a really good athlete, muscular fireplug. He could do it all. He started out the season as a catcher, but moved to 3rd base after his mom felt – we all felt — that Johnny’s privates were getting a little too beat-up over the course of the season (Casey Stengel didn’t have these parental issues at the MLB level).
Gary Levi – Played left field and was easily our most outwardly enthusiastic player. Gary woke up fired up and stoked those fires all day long until game time. He had a distinctive way of wearing his hat sideways on his head, with the bill facing left or right, but never straight. He continuously pounded his glove with his fist while standing in his usual left field spot and giving himself a vehement pep-talk, or, depending on your perspective, “talking to.”
Jimmy Monfort – a very smooth shortstop for an eight-year-old. He threw right-handed, but batted left-handed, a fact that I thought would look pretty cool on the back of a baseball card. Jimmy was a sweet swinger who hadn’t yet mastered actual contact, but who looked very good swinging the bat. There was no question but that he was a ballplayer in the making.
Johnny Cooper – “Cooper” is what we called him. Did you ever know a kid who always smiled? It didn’t matter what the circumstance, Cooper was smiling. Unfortunately, Cooper’s five-year-old athleticism was captured inside an eight-year-old body that quite frankly had not caught up with his fellow 1927 Yankee eight-year-old teammates. He stood in right field (one couldn’t claim he actually played right field).
The season began, and from the start it was apparent that the Eagles were a team of destiny. Reporters from all around Columbus, and eventually the entire New York media, or so it seemed to us, followed the team as it plundered through the league beating the Foxes, the Bears, the Cubs, the Lions, and other collective critters. Simply put, our pitching was dominant and our hitting and fielding were equally good. Some among us, me included, had to learn to deal with periodic failures where insult was the occasional strike out, which was followed by immediate temper tantrums and tears. One waiting to bat, or one sitting in the “open air” dugout, needed to stay alert because all of us, without fail, were prone to hurling our bat backwards, towards the dugout, whenever the ump ended our “at bat” with a strike three call. All of us, of course, except “Cooper,” who always struck out with a smile on his face, and believe me, Cooper always struck out, were given to emotional instability when we ran out of strikes.
As the season went along, we continued to get better and better, and the kids playing on the other teams did as well. Each team seemed to have a star player or two. I recall being fascinated with each team’s colors: the Foxes wore red jerseys, the Bears green, the Cubs blue, the Lions a lighter shade of blue. All teams’ jerseys and caps matched red for red, green for green, blue for blue – you get the picture. The Eagles, on the other hand, wore the colors of a winner: navy blue with orange letters (like my beloved Auburn). Would you believe me if I told you I can still smell in my mind’s nose what those jerseys smelled like—I can!—just as I can still smell the freshly mowed grass, or in the outfield, the stubble of weeds.
One highlight of the season was a no-hitter that Sim and I pitched versus the Cubs. With the support of our teammate’s good fielding, we each pitched three innings of hitless ball, and our team won the game 1-0. This was unusually good baseball for eight-year-olds, as ordinarily, at this age, kids don’t have much control. Impressively, our opponent pitched a one-hitter against us. We won the game when lefty Greg Fields gave up a bases loaded walk in the bottom of the sixth and final inning. Greg, frustrated, threw the ball at his own dugout, accidentally hitting the scorekeeper, his mom, who, needless to say, was not amused. Any one of us players would have reacted the same way. And to think: the New York press was going to have a field day with that shortcoming after Greg had pitched such a great game. I remember later that evening, we all went to the local Coca Cola bottling plant to watch the replay of the 1964 World Series, drink bottled 6OZ Coke, and eat hamburgers and hot dogs. While we may have been being indoctrinated with sugar water, none of us knew it at the time. Further, not one of us signed with the Coca –Cola Company.
As the season wound down, it was apparent that the two best teams in the league were the steadily improving Bears, and, of course, us: the 1927 Yankees posing as the 1965 Eagles. Our team, the only undefeated team, ended up being paired against the Bears in what was to be a one-game World Series.
It was a warm weekday afternoon like most any other in May. The World Series would indeed be played versus the Bears, and we took the field confident we would win yet another game. Before taking his position in left field, my Dad had a long talk with Levi about the importance of not just being fired up for the game, but actually paying attention should someone hit a ball to left field. My Dad, you see, throughout the rest of his life, would tell the story of his favorite player “Levi,” who would pace back and forth in left field, like an expectant father, pounding his glove and generally working himself into a fanatic frenzy, getting ready, by God, to “play ball.” Meanwhile, every now and then, a hitter would punch one out to left field and past the “fired up” Levi, who hardly seemed to notice. Only when my Dad would yell at the top of his lungs, “LEVI!,” would Gary turn to run for the ball.
And run he did. Once he had the mark, “LEVI” gave it his all to return that ball to the infield. My Dad loved this at the time, and he loved talking about it until the day he died on September 9, 1998.
Back to the game. The first batter hit a looping fly ball to right field. Cooper smiled while I ran backwards from first base making an over-the-shoulder catch. The next batter grounded back to Sim at pitcher. Sim cleanly fielded the ball, and as was our custom, held the ball while the runner ran with all his might for first base. Only at the last possible second would Sim throw the ball to first, just nipping the runner. You see, this is what we thought we saw major league pitchers do on TV when they would take their time to throw to 1B. We exaggerated the MLB pitcher’s patience to the point that our screaming parents must have nearly had a heart attack every time we fielded a ball at pitcher, but we knew what we were doing. Never did a runner make it safely.
The third hitter stepped to the plate, Mark Adams, my next door neighbor, best friend and constant companion. He walked. And that started it. Sim knew the ump had it wrong and responded by throwing even harder, and with each pitch gradually wilder. Sim began to cry in frustration – what is wrong with the ump? Eight runs later it was our turn to bat – did I mention that Danny Foster hit a grand slam during the merry-go-round? The mighty Eagles had not had to deal with much adversity during the season, but we responded like the Champions we were.
We walked and walked, and every now and then someone blistered a hit and we clawed our way back to a tie game going to the top of the 3rd inning. It was 8-8. Sim took the mound. He had had an uneventful 2nd inning and all seemed right. Up stepped the lead-off hitter. He walked. Uh oh, Sim didn’t agree. The walks continued, the inevitable tears came, and then the slightly heavy and powerful Danny Foster hit his second homerun. To make matters worse, Danny grandstanded on his trip around the bases, which further infuriated the obviously frustrated, and done, Sim. Although I haven’t said so, there was no outfield fence, so when Foster laid into one, our outfielders had to chase the ball until they caught up with it, and then they had to somehow get it back to the infield. Sim, all of us really, could get really frustrated watching our outfielder chase a ball to the next county—especially because we were also watching a grinning dancing Bear, like Foster, trot, celebratory, between second and third and on to home plate. You see, there was a point in a runner’s mind when he knew not even the pony express could return a ball in time to make an out, so the homerun trot could get a little obnoxious, even for an eight-year-old.
My dad had an epiphany at this point: that I had enough eligibility to pitch the remaining part of the game. Somehow, it had not occurred to him that I had enough innings remaining to get us through the end of the game, but now he knew. He made the pitching change, and we held steady to the last inning, the one that mattered most to little leaguers: the bottom of the 6th. We were down 12-8. We began the last half inning with dread. It seemed we could not make up four runs. However, we began to hit, and when Johnny Jackson doubled to score Rob Varner it pulled us to within one run and it seemed we would in fact pull this thing off. We had two outs, but now everything was a whirl and going our way. The Bears were deflated, and with near certainty we all knew we were about to win and become “World Champions.” We deserved it—we were undefeated—we would get it done—destiny was before us—glory was on our doorstep. As I gazed out at second base, I saw Johnny Jackson sit down on the base and start to cry. What? Just moments earlier he was flexing his muscles, so proud of his run scoring double. I looked to my right, our dugout being the one down the 3B line, and I saw the problem. There were two outs and strolling to the plate was a smiling “Cooper.” I, too, began to cry gut-wrenching tears. Life was over. Cooper was coming to the plate. The entire bench began to sob. No, sob wasn’t the word for it—this was out and out bad funeral full-belly crying.
Could anything be done? I remember Sim and I suggesting, no begging, if we could pinch hit for Cooper. But we were in the game; the coaches couldn’t just change the order. My Dad looked ashen. So, too, did Mac’s. Cooper stepped up to plate. Three wild pitches later the count should have been 3-0, but Cooper, Cooper never saw a pitch that he didn’t both smile at and swing at. It was over, all except the crying – I’m tearing up now as I write this at age 54, nearly 55. Oh, the frustration of it all.
It’s funny though, as the years went by and other challenges arose and were or weren’t conquered, what my Dad and I remembered most: the special time that it was in 1965. We were young boys and competitive enough to want to win so badly that we cried unashamedly. LEVI would always come up in the conversation as we recollected that wonderful season. Dad would always end his story with “you know what, Mel, in the Championship game, when Cooper came back to the dugout, it was only Levi that got up and told Cooper nice try! Only LEVI.”
God bless my Dad, may he rest in peace. God bless Mac’s Dad, too, and my teammates – Johnny Cooper too – and God, please bless Gary Levi, a wonderful winning spirit and a good soul that taught us all a great lesson on the final day of our 1965 season.