Chuck Wagon was 14 years old when he told his baseball coach he wanted to be a sportswriter. It was 1969. The Knights were sitting in last place with no wins and three losses. There was Chuck, in right field, a target with horn-rimmed glasses. Suddenly everyone was hitting the ball out there. Realizing his future in baseball looked bleak, he asked himself, “what do I like doing more than anything else?” He had 35 notebooks under his bed he had inked with stories. He had his answer.
He felt bad for his coach, and his team, for leaving them to pursue his dream. But they were more than understanding. Now they wouldn’t have to worry about Chuck coming to bat with the bases loaded, 2 outs, and their team trailing 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th anymore.
“We’ll make a deal with you,” said Coach Gardella. “If you quit right now and show up at tomorrow’s game with a pen and paper, we’ll forgive you for leaving us high and dry. We need some publicity around here, dammit!” Then he apologized for swearing, but gosh dang it someone had to!
Now you should know, when Chuck Wagon took on a writing assignment, he didn’t just stick his toe in and splash it around. He dove in headfirst and stayed for a while. He wasn’t just scores and statistics either. He was the whole story and the stories behind the story. Like Ray Manzo, who wasn’t hitting the ball because his bed at home had springs poking through making it hard to sleep. His parents couldn’t afford a new one, so he had taken to sleeping on the floor. Somehow Chuck was able to write a story that wasn’t embarrassing to Ray and his family. He just wrote an honest piece about some folks who had fallen on hard times. After it appeared in the South Newburg Weekly, people were so touched, a new mattress showed up on Ray’s porch a few days later. Ray paid everyone back by hitting a double and a triple the very next game!
Chuck also wrote a story on Coach Gardella who, before being a coach, had served in World War II. How he volunteered at a soup kitchen and worked at the Ford plant 40 miles away. How he’d been married to his high school sweetheart for 29 years and had 2 grown boys. But she had cancer and it was getting worse. He would have to cut back at the soup kitchen and probably give up coaching after the season. He wanted to quit Ford and take care of his Angie around the clock, but they needed the benefits.
Then there’s centerfielder Donald “Smiley” Pranger who had been tearing the cover off the ball because his brother, Bobby, was coming home from Vietnam in a month. He’s the one who got Donald into baseball in the first place. The glove he wore, the bat he hit with, and the position he played all used to belong to Bobby. Donald liked following in his brother’s footsteps, but he hoped Vietnam was over by the time he got old enough.
Chuck might not have been a good baseball player, but he lived in a home without disruptions. He wished he could say the same about the people he wrote about. Billy’s parents were getting a divorce. Tommy’s father had a mental illness that doctors didn’t have a name for. When things got too personal, Chuck stuck with what was happening on the field.
After the city spent a few weeks reading all his stories about the Knights, a lady named Mrs. Johnson wrote a letter to the editor accusing the paper of granting an editorial exclusive to the Knights. “It ain’t fair to read all them stories about all them Knights when there’s other teams that have problems, too!” Seeing an opportunity to interview more people, Chuck wrote to Mrs. Johnson and said he would reach out to more players in the future. He by no means was married to the Knights and the more stories he could write the merrier!
Even though he was young he was measuring the pulse of the city. When he wrote about players and coaches, he wrote about sons and fathers. He learned what neighbors thought about the war, race and the political issues that sometimes divided them, sometimes brought them together.
He listened as people talked about LBJ’s war on poverty, Nixon’s first 5 months in office and the Presidential Fitness Test that began under Eisenhower 14 years earlier. He saw a community of people who ranked national concerns right up there with baseball. They were just like everyone else, I imagine, in every other city in the U.S. Ordinary people who gathered around the TV that July to see Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon.
When Chuck wasn’t writing, he was reading. He spent hours at the library scouring old articles by Ring Lardner and Grantland Rice. He firmly believed that John Updike’s “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” a short story about Ted Williams’ last at bat at Fenway, was the most definitive work on baseball ever written.
The Knights won a game. Then another. Ray Manzo told the boys this is our time. Let’s do this for Coach. Let’s do it for Mrs. Gardella! Well, the boys must’ve really respected Ray, because they won the rest of their games and nearly won the championship!
In the fall, Chuck and the boys entered high school. They found even more things to worry about. That’s why their time on the field that summer was so important. No one knew what the future held. Some went on to play varsity ball, most didn’t. A few of them dropped out after sophomore year because they had to work.
Ten years later, Chuck’s living in New York. He’s a stockbroker. Or at least he was until the Crash last year. The boys are men now and scattered all over the country. But they can’t help but look back at 1969 when they were the Boys of Summer. To a time when they wore red jerseys and tried to hit balls out of the park. Coach’s final season. Dylan was right when he said the times were a-changin’. I’m glad Chuck Wagon was writing everything down.
Illustration by Audrey Sajovie