By RENE TORRES
Special to the Parade
“If only I could hit the ball, it would be a cinch,” said the little boy. He was known to swing at will and often stared at his bat with much disgust. I’m talking about “Little Johnny Strikeout,” who dissolved in tears every time his teammates mocked him when he swung like a rusty gate. But soon things changed.
One day, after practice, as he sat crying at a park bench he heard a distant voice telling him not to give up. The mysterious voice offered the following advice, “Keep your eye on the ball and swing level at all times.”
Little Johnny heard that same voice again as he stepped up to the plate with two outs and the game on the line. “Hit’ em where they ain’t,” he said. Johnny followed with a mighty swing clearing the fence with room to spare.
After the game, a stranger approached him to offer congratulations; it was that same familiar voice. “Just a minute mister,” Johnny countered, “Who are you? The man responded, ‘I’m Joe DiMaggio.’”
By 1936, many kids wanted to be like Joe D. and in order to create more heroes like him; the Brownsville playground league made some rules changes.
Depression Era Diamond Heroes
Being that the city playground league had too many “Little Johnny’s,” it was time to change the rules of pitching. According to playground baseball officials, the game was for kids to have fun. No more deceiving the batter with illegal pitching deliveries. Playground baseball in Brownsville in 1933 would see a major change on how the game was played.
The local committee that monitored the league said, “The game was designed as a hit-and run affair.” The new rule would compel hurlers to keep their shoulders parallel to the front of the plate during the delivery of the ball.
League officials insisted that fans wanted to see more hitting and less strikeouts. The hurler would now take aim at the bat and toss the ball rather than throwing it – curbing “strikeout pitching.” Infraction of this rule would be to call the pitch a ball, providing the batter didn’t swing at it.
Along with pitching changes, the fans would see more hitting, faster fielding and better playing conditions. And how was the lighting you ask? According to the main characters, the kids, they responded, “not as good as it should be.”
After the floodlights were improved, this also led to better playing. With additional lighting — they could now see beyond their feet inducing a whirl of spectacular plays and while also curbing drought fly balls. Gloves were optional, as these were trying times. Some kids showed up with no gloves, others had homemade ones and the fortunate few, used a genuine cowhide/horsehide glove.
As part of the improvement plan – new bleachers adorned the field at West Brownsville. With this addition, the league could now charge five cents admission for adults. Beyond the bleachers, better parking arrangements were provided for fans that preferred to watch the games from their cars.
With all the intangibles in place, the league progressed without a hitch. Although the boys did not make the sports newsreels of the day, they did contribute to the much needed entertainment of the period.
Maury Allen, biographer, when writing about baseball of the 1930s said, “Baseball then was the unifying force in American life.” It was played in every lot, every farm and every city. And within this region, it was also played by kids that lived at the Farm Security Administration Camp in Weslaco.