Once again, we’re hoping to bring some cheer to Tom Lawrence—founder of Front Porch Press, LLC, our parent company—as he experiences this difficult time in his life. This is one of his charming stories (mostly true) that gives some insight into his childhood in the Mississippi Delta.
Divine Little League
By Tom Lawrence
It was full daylight when I woke up, and the attic fan still pulled the cool morning air across my bed. The artificial breeze brought with it the faint smell of yesterday’s newly mown grass, mixed with the rich aroma of Confederate Jasmine and Sweet Olive. There was a hint of cotton poison and a touch of last night’s DDT truck blending into the overall effect. Summer in the Mississippi Delta.
As much as I wanted to lie there soaking up the fresh fragrances’ of the morning, I had to get up and get going. Today was Saturday, and there was baseball to be played.
No one else was awake, so, after quickly dressing, I grabbed my Peewee Reese fielder’s glove, my Ted Williams Louisville Slugger, and tiptoed into the kitchen. I opened the refrigerator, grabbed a bottle of milk, and took several big swigs of the ice-cold milk, straight from the bottle. (This violated one of my Mother’s hard and fast rules, but, what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her, or more importantly, couldn’t hurt me.)
I grabbed a banana and slipped out the kitchen door, where I found my bike propped on the side of the open carport. I stuck the bat and glove in my basket, peeled back my banana, and headed toward the ballpark.
I stopped by Benny’s house on my way to the park, where I found him sitting in his driveway, drinking his usual nutritious breakfast—a bottle of Coke. He mounted his bike, and we rode the five blocks to the Cumberland City Park, the site of today’s baseball game.
Our version of Little League baseball was divided into two distinct groups. The A league, in which the older guys, say from 15 to 18, played and the B league for the rest of us. Both groups played at City Park, and both games were all day affairs, starting about 8:00 am on Saturday morning and lasting till it was too dark to see.
Both leagues organized the Saturday games the same way. The players gathered early in the morning, two captains were voted on, and the captains took turns choosing their players from the available talent pool. The players not selected in the first round stayed on the sidelines until one of the starters got hurt, had to go home, or just wanted a break. Then, the team captain would pick a replacement from the sideline pool. In the course of the day, everyone would, sooner or later, get a chance to play. The only way you could advance from the B league to the A was being invited. Talent ruled the day, and good friends might be in different leagues.
Benny and I were regular starters in the B league, and we didn’t want to be late for the choosing. That could mean sitting on the sidelines for several hours, waiting for an opening. In addition to leaving the game for voluntary reasons, you were automatically benched if you made an error or pulled some stupid stunt like a balk or a base-running mistake. The system was brutal, and there was no appeal. If you wanted to play, you had best learn the game. There was none of that “every kid gets to play” Kumbaya that Dads, whose sons couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time, invented.
There were about a dozen guys hanging around the B-ball field, and we knew them all. Some were regular starters, and others were wannabes. A couple of kids were as young as nine or ten. We parked our bikes and trotted over to the crowd. Things would be getting started soon. Benny was usually elected as one of the captains. He played a mean shortstop and was a consistent hitter.
I, on the other hand, was all hit, no field. I had learned to be a switch hitter by playing on a small lot when I visited my Pensacola grandparents, where you had to bat opposite your natural swing, in order to keep the ball out of Palafox Highway. I was probably the best hitter in the B league, which would all change the first time I saw a high school curve ball, but for now, I was the Sultan of Swat.
The fact that I was a little iffy in the fielding department and could barely throw the ball back to the infield from my permanent perch in right field kept me from being a really hot property. I would never be elected one of the captains, but I would always get picked in the first bunch. Benny would pick me up if I lasted for four or five rounds, but only after he got his pitcher and infielders. Benny loved defense, and I wasn’t much of a defensive asset. He just stuck me in right field and hoped no one hit anything my way. I rarely made an error, but anything hit deep to the right, was going for extra bases.
We were just about to start the election of captains when a battered pickup truck pulled all up on the grass and headed our way. Stan Rushing, the youth director of the First Baptist Church, stepped out and signaled for us to gather around him.
“Hi guys,” he started. “I’m Stan Rushing, Youth Minister at First Baptist. I have an announcement and some flyers to pass around,” and he began handing out mimeographed sheets.
“First Baptist is forming the Royal Ambassador’s youth baseball team that will compete in the Delta Baptist Convention League. There’ll be twelve teams in the league, representing most of the towns in the Delta. I’ll be coach of the team, and I’ll be holding tryouts Sunday afternoon. You have to be at least eleven years old, as of June 1, and no more than fourteen. I‘ll pick a traveling squad of twenty-five—two guys at each position, four pitchers, and three managers. Any questions?
“I do,” I said. “I’m an Episcopalian. Will I be able to try out?”
“Absolutely. Your denomination won’t matter, just your baseball skills. The only requirement is that you’ll have to join our Chapter of the Royal Ambassadors. There’s one other little catch. To be in the Royal Ambassadors, you’ll have to attend Sunday school and church with us. Other than that, anyone’s welcome.”
All there is to it, huh? I’ll have to work hard to finesse this by the goalie at home.
Rushing fielded a few more questions, got back in his truck, and returned to work in the local vineyard of sinners.
“Whatta you think?” I asked Benny.
“Might be a good deal. Rushing played baseball at Mississippi College, so he probably knows what he’s doing.”
“Yeah, but if we do it, we’ll have to clean up our language.”
“Oh, what the hell. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Alright. I’ll run it up the flagpole at home to see if anybody salutes it, but I may run into some resistance,” I said. “It’ll depend on Mom’s current religious affiliations. Who knows? Maybe I can catch her between conversions.”
Dad was sitting in his chair watching the end of a Yankee-Red Sox game when I got home and walked into the living room.
“How’d you play today?”
“About usual. I got a bunch of hits and didn’t embarrass myself in the field. I need to talk to you about something.”
“Am I going to like it?”
“I hope so,” I said, handing him the flyer about the new league.
He read it over and said, “Looks like a good idea to me. Think you can make the team?”
“Probably, but I might need your help getting it by you-know-who. The religious overtones will mean she’ll be all over it.”
“Whoa, Bubba! You’re not going to drag me into that swamp!
“I’ll handle the negotiations; just back me up when she comes to you for the tie-breaking vote. By the way, do you know the brand she’s currently into?”
“Last I heard she was a Christian Scientist, but, that was a couple of months ago. Today, who knows?”
He turned back to the ballgame, signaling the end of our little moment of quality time together and I began to formulate my strategy concerning my mother. She was a kind, caring person, but when it came to religion, she was a complete nut case. She’d been raised as a Southern Baptist, but married my Dad, who had been raised a Catholic and had attended Jesuit schools. As soon as he left home, he vowed that he would never darken the doors of another church—of any ilk.
My grandmother on my Dad’s side had me christened in the Episcopal Church before she converted to the Church of Rome when she married. During World War II, I lived with my maternal grandmother, who was a Christian Scientist, but I attended Sunday school at the First Baptist Church because my grandmother’s best friend was the pastor’s wife.
When the war ended in 1945, my parents returned to Mississippi, and I was pretty much stuck with whatever my mother was into. We had brief encounters with most of the mainstream Protestant sects and some of the less extreme evangelical groups. There was a brief meeting with the Greek Orthodox Church when mother bought a cookbook, and she spent a couple of years as a Roman Catholic, during which she did her best to convert my agnostic father back to the true church.
I was always forced to go along with the faith de jour, and I had managed to avoid any formal rites of conversion in all but the Catholic Church. She’d had me baptized before she decided to move on.
When I reached the age of reason—in this case, at the age of ten—I put my foot down and announced that, henceforth, I would be attending the Episcopal Church. The young priest at Cumberland’s Church of The Holy Trinity listened to my story, checked it out with my Dad (Mother would not talk to him), and at last, my spiritual journey was at an end—or, so I thought.
Tonight, in order to play baseball, I would have to appear before mother’s ecclesiastical court and plead my case for a brief detour from my Anglican path. I did not expect her to be sympathetic to my plan. She didn’t want me to be an Episcopalian, but if I insisted on it, she would expect me to be faithful to my creed. Attendance at First Baptist wouldn’t please her.
Flyer in hand, I walked into the kitchen.
“Mom, do you have a minute? I want to share something with you.”
She turned and looked at me with suspicion.
“What are you up to now?” she asked.
“Do I have to be up to something?”
“You may not be aware of it, but the only time you ever initiate a conversation with me is when you want something.”
Hmm, she might have a point. My basic policy is to have as little direct contact with authority as possible, thus reducing the opportunity for advice and instructions, but, I might have to adjust this to include an occasional casual conversation without a motive.
“Well, this time it’s something that I think you can relate to. I’ve decided to broaden my spiritual horizons and spend the summer examining other religions. I don’t intend to abandon the Episcopal Church, but, I think I should learn about other faiths.”
“I’ll have to admit that you’ve surprised me, but I’m certainly pleased that you’re open minded enough to examine other beliefs. What do you have in mind?”
“I thought that I’d first have a conversation with Father Mullen at Holy Trinity to enlist his guidance and support, then I might start my quest at First Baptist.”
“You know how I feel about that, but I suppose you need to make up your own mind. I can’t see any real harm in giving it a try.”
Actually, I had no idea how she felt about First Baptist or Shintoism for that matter, but I recognized all of the “buy signals” and decided to close the sale before I talked her out of it.”
“I’m glad you approve. You know I respect your views on religion. I’ll get everything cleared with Father Mullen next week and start to visit First Baptist next Sunday.”
“I want you to keep me up to date as you move along your pilgrimage, I might have some suggestions on where you should go next. There’s an interesting new pastor at the Church of God in Boyle. You might want to check them out.” “Yes, ma’am. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Who knows? The Church of God could have a Lacrosse team.
Later, I overheard my mother relating our conversation to my father, who, to his credit, grunted in the right places and didn’t blow my cover. He came into my room before he went to bed and said, “Skillfully done.”
“Will you sign the parental permission form?”
“Sure. Give it to me.”
I was on my way to tomorrow’s tryouts!
I was scheduled to be the acolyte at the early Morning Prayer service on Sunday, and I found Father Mullen in his office before the service began. I stuck my head in.
“Good morning, Father. You have a moment?”
He set aside his cup of coffee and invited me to have a seat.
“What can I do for you, Tommy?’
I explained my strategy in detail and asked for his permission to carry it out.
“I really can’t see any real harm in your plan. I realize that the quest for spiritual information is a ruse to get it by your mother, but, knowing your mother, I think it’s the only chance you had to get her to buy into the deal. I’d rather debate Satan himself than to have a conversation on comparative religions with Kathleen Larch.”
“I figure I could make the seven o’clock Morning Prayer service and still have time to be at First Baptist at nine for Sunday school and church. I don’t think I’ll be required to attend the Sunday night service, so I can still make it to EYC.”
“That’s a lot of religion just to play baseball. I hope you can pull it off.”
“Have faith, Father.”
Sunday afternoon I headed to the ballpark for tryouts. I biked to Benny’s house, and when I knocked on the back door, he came out with his permission slip in hand. “I got him to sign it before he left to play golf. He didn’t even read it. You get yours signed?”
“Yeah. It took some doing, but I have it. Now, let’s see if we can make the team.”
When we got to the park, there were about twenty guys standing around, and soon, the old battered pickup rolled up. Coach Rushing dismounted and motioned for everyone to gather around him.
“’I’m glad to see ya’ll. Now, let’s move right along and choose our team. Does everybody have their permission forms signed?” which was met with a chorus of, “Yeah, Coach.”
“Good. Pass them up to Benny; he’s going to be my assistant this afternoon.”
This was a positive start. I doubted that Rushing would make Benny his assistant if he didn’t plan to pick him for the team.
“Here’s how we’re gonna do this thing. First, we’ll check out everyone’s speed and quickness, so line up on the first base line and sprint to the fence in left field and back.”
Let me say right away, speed and quickness were not my long suits. I just needed to finish in the top twenty or so. It’s like the two hikers being chased by a grizzly bear; you don’t have to outrun the bear, just your fellow hiker.
Following the sprints, we went through the usual fielding drills, with Rushing hitting fungoes to each of the guys. Benny and I were pretty good fielders, and we passed this test with ease. Fortunately, Rushing didn’t ask us to demonstrate our long throwing ability, so I slid by unnoticed. When the tryouts ended, Coach Rushing said that the final roster would be announced at the next meeting of the Royal Ambassadors after school on Wednesday.
The new baseball team was the hot topic the next week at school. Everyone who had tried out showed signs of anticipation and anxiety. I was sure Benny had made the team, and I thought that I had, but you never knew when adults were in charge. But, finally Wednesday afternoon rolled around, and Benny and I rode our bikes straight to First Baptist for the Royal Ambassador’s meeting.
We parked at a bike rack just outside the door to a building with a sign proclaiming “Fellowship Hall,” and were trying to figure our next move when we saw Coach Rushing walking across the parking lot. He waved and said, “Hi guys. We’re going to meet in one of the large Sunday school classrooms. Give me a minute to drop by my office, and I’ll let ya’ll in.”
“Thanks, Coach,” we replied, as we noticed several other guys looking just as confused as we were.
“Hey, ya’ll come over here! Coach has gone to get the keys to our meeting room, and he’ll be right back.”
By the time Rushing returned, nearly the whole contingent of hopeful players was on hand, plus some guys who must have been no ball playing members of the Royal Ambassadors. He led us into the Fellowship Hall and opened the door to what appeared to be your standard school class room. There were religious posters all over the place, most depicting scenes from the Bible and some showing missionaries at work in pagan lands, such as Mexico and Canada. Coach asked everyone to find a seat and turned the meeting over to Larry Bemis, the current president of the club. Larry stood up and said,
“Let’s all bow our heads and open our meeting with a moment of silence, followed by the Lord’s Prayer.”
Once the prayer was out of the way, there were some opening ceremonies to be observed, and the meeting was called to order. We then sang a ragged rendition of Onward Christian Soldiers and someone read the Royal Ambassador’s Creed. Larry then read a Bible verse dealing with the parable of the Good Samaritan and we were all invited to comment on what we thought the parable meant. After a lengthy discussion, with no real consensus, Larry announced that next week’s Bible reading would be about the wedding in Cana. So far, no mention of baseball.
Finally, Larry suggested that we move on to the business portion of our meeting and asked for a report on the RA Project. Another kid that I didn’t know said that the RA mothers’ cake sale had netted $23.89 and that amount had been sent to the Chapter’s mission church in Kenya. Still no baseball.
At long last, Larry said that Reverand Rushing had an announcement concerning the RA baseball team.
Coach Rushing stood.
“I’ve posted the final roster for our new baseball team on the bulletin board in the hall. I suggest that each of you who tried out for the team consult the list as soon as the meeting ends. For those of you who have been selected, our first practice will be at the Volunteer Fire Department’s main field at 3:00 pm tomorrow. Now, Larry, you may close the meeting in the usual manner.”
Two prayers and one hymn later, having found our names on the roster, we were back in the parking lot getting our bikes.
The team had a couple of weeks to practice before the season started, and by the time we played our first game, we’d put together a pretty good ball club. Coach Rushing knew the game and he coached with a light, but firm hand. Our games were after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which left us time for our regular Saturday pickup games at the park.
By the time school ended in early June, we were about half-way through our schedule, with a record of eight wins and four losses. Not the best in the league, but far from the worst. If we could keep it up, we’d make the playoffs for sure. The winner of the Delta League would go to Nashville to play in the Royal Ambassadors World Series. We were in the hunt. Benny and I faithfully attended the RA meetings, Sunday school, and Church. Everything was going along just fine.
The last Sunday in June, I got up early and did my acolyte duty at Holy Trinity and then steered my bike toward First Baptist. The full heat of the Delta summer wouldn’t come until the end of July or the first of August, but today was probably the warmest so far. I had plenty of time to ride the six or so blocks between churches, so I tried to stay on the shady side of the street and take my time.
Sunday morning is a quiet time in most of rural America, and this was a nearly perfect early summer day. The blue sky was accented by a few pure white clouds, and the warm air smelled of morning glories and honeysuckle. The leafy residential streets of Cumberland were ruffled by a light breeze that felt good as I rode slowly along.
I parked my bike in the rack, went into the First Baptist fellowship hall, and found our Sunday school classroom. Benny and John Tong, the catcher on our RA baseball team, were sitting, waiting for class to begin.
“Hi, guys,” I said. “What’s up?”
“Nothin much,” John said. “How ‘bout you?”
“Just plowing through my Sunday morning obligations. I’ve done the Episcopal thing, and now it’s Baptist time.”
After Sunday school there was a break before Church started and Benny, John, and I decided to skip the punch and cookies and take a walk. We strolled around the block and managed to kill the thirty minutes before the main service started. The three of us dutifully filed into the main sanctuary and scored the last three aisle seats in a pew, about half way to the front.
The service started with the choir singing The Old Rugged Cross. There was an opening prayer that was all encompassing and called God’s attention to most everything and everybody. The church was filled almost to capacity, and with no air conditioning, became warm and stuffy. Soon, the ushers were moving down both sides of the sanctuary, opening the large windows and letting in the light summer breeze. Immediately, the level of comfort improved, considerably. The Pastor was reading the Old Testament Scripture for the day and, as he finished, the congregation broke into a spirited rendition of Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken which was followed by Wonderful, Merciful Savior.
I have to admit, I enjoyed the old traditional hymns sung at First Baptist, and to this day, I recall that part of my Baptist Summer with affection. When the last strains of the hymns died down, the Pastor read the New Testament Scripture, and the combination of beautiful music and the summer breeze had a soothing effect on the soul and body. When my soul and body were soothed, I tended to nap.
Following a rousing version of Rock of Ages, The Pastor launched into his sermon for the day, and the three of us were attempting to look as attentive as possible as he assailed sin in all of its many forms. The gist of the message seemed to be that Satan would test each of us in many ways before we could enter God’s glory. At about this point, the soothing overtook the potential sinning, and I lost touch with the here and now. The droning of the Pastor’s voice, coupled with the warm, sweet, scented air lulled me into my own thoughts, and I became disconnected from my surroundings. I wasn’t asleep, but darn close.
Suddenly, the organ blasted away with the first bars of How Great is Our God and everyone in the congregation stood. John tapped me on the shoulder and whispered,
I assumed that the service was over and John wanted to get a head start on our exit. The three of us, led by John, began moving out of our pew, but, rather than turning left and heading toward the door, John hung a right and started down the aisle toward the front of the Church. Like lemmings, Benny and I followed behind him, and the three of us strolled toward the Pastor, who was standing at the pulpit with his eyes closed and his arms outstretched.
At this point, my head began to clear a bit, and I realized two horrifying facts. Church was not over; we were at the point known as The Invitation. It was now, that anyone who wished to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior was invited to come on down. The second fact was that John Tong was in a state of spiritual rapture and heading for salvation. Benny and I had been scooped up in the net of John’s newly found fervor.
I desperately looked for an escape route, but, there was none. We were caught up in events beyond our control, with no choice but to go with the flow. Now it became a matter of making the most out of a bad situation and saving face. When we reached the Pastor, he opened his eyes, and a huge smile split his typically stern visage.
“Praise the Lord!” he shouted. “These three young men have been moved by the Spirit to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. Praise the Lord!”
Two of the deacons came up and led us to the side door in the sanctuary and into a hall that led directly behind the pulpit. We entered a small, dimly lit room that smelled just like the dressing rooms at the swimming pool, where we came out of our church clothes and stripped to our skivvies. One of the attending deacons handed us a white jumper that looked like a nightshirt, and we were led to a room that held a large tank of water with steps leading into it. The Pastor, who had changed clothes and now wore a set of black and white robes, greeted us.
He descended the steps into the water, which came up about to his chest, and motioned for John to join him in the tank. The water came up almost to John’s neck, and the jumper kept floating, revealing his skivvies. At that point, the thick red curtain that stood behind the pulpit began to open, and we were facing the entire congregation of the First Baptist Church of Cumberland. The front of the tank was made of glass, and everyone had an aquarium view of John Tong’s shorts.
The Pastor put his thumb and forefinger on John’s nose and dipped him backward into the tank until his head was underwater, and said,
“John, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Welcome into Christ’s Church, John!”
Beaming with spiritual sanctification, John ascended the stairs to dry land, and I was invited to descend into the tank. After my baptism, Benny followed, and soon, we were all back in our church clothes and rejoining the congregation.
The service concluded with all six verses of A Closer Walk with Thee, after which, we were the center of congratulations and attention for another twenty minutes. When the crowd began to drift away and head home for fried chicken or pot roast, we three new workers in the vineyards of righteousness found ourselves alone in the parking lot.
“Exactly how in the hell did that happen?” Benny asked, with some amount of irritation in his voice.
“Don’t ask me,” I said. “I was following Tong.”
John, who seemed to be coming out of his advanced state of grace, looked a little puzzled and said,
“I’m not sure what happened. One minute I was perfectly sane, but before I knew it, I was swept away in the moment. All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“I guess it’ll be all over town within the hour,” Benny mused. “I better get home and prepare them before my aunt has a chance to call.” He grabbed his bike and quickly pedaled out of sight.
“Yeah, this poses a couple of possible problems for me too, not the least of which is that this was my third baptism. I hope that the three of them don’t cancel each other out or something.”
John had not said another word, but was standing there with a stricken look on his face.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve got to go explain this to my Buddhist parents. This will probably disturb the karma of some seventy generations of my ancestors.”
In the end, John decided that it would be best if he didn’t mention his conversion to his parents. He rationalized that, since they didn’t speak excellent English, it would only confuse them. This also assured that he would be able to continue playing on the RA team.
Benny’s parents didn’t seem particularly interested in his newly found faith and pretty much left it with an “Isn’t that nice?” comment. His aunt never mentioned it.
I checked the whole thing out with Father Mullen, and he allowed that it wouldn’t affect my status in the Episcopal Church, and, what the heck, it couldn’t hurt my spiritual condition. My mother wanted to know all about it and seemed fascinated. I was afraid she’d show up at First Baptist some Sunday morning, ready to take a dip. Dad just rolled his eyes and muttered something about religious fanatics.
Things returned to normal, and we made the playoffs, but got beat before we got to Nashville. Coach Rushing declared the season a huge success and said that he looked forward to next year. Before we knew it, football season was underway, and my adventure in the Royal Ambassadors drew to a close.
Little League baseball images are licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to Wikimedia Commons and Pixaby
Holy Spirit graphic is licensed under CC By 4.0 — linked to from Pixaby.com