By Phineas J. Stone
There was a time in Boston for men, young and old, when St. Patrick’s Day typically meant digging out the mitt, cleats and softball gear from the basement.
The older one got, the more necessary it was to consider prepping the arm for the upcoming season, which is why St. Patty’s Day was a key moment for starting the season.
Few remember, but softball was king in Boston. Politicians would even campaign at games, if that means anything today.
Everybody played – even the guys who were into serious Park League or Yawkey League hardball would pick up a softball league to mess around in during their off days.
You could see it all over playgrounds and on playing fields in the Boston neighborhoods, at the Fens, over in Southie, against the brick walls in the playgrounds of the South End. Men warming up their arms for late April, when the season started.
The Leagues were all over the City.
Hundreds of men gathered in dugouts after work two or three times a week, and on the weekends. Lights were added by the City once the popularity hit its zenith. They played at M Street, down the Esplanade on Sundays, at Dorchester’s many fields, and in the Fens (known as Cobe Field). As far as anyone could tell, the Southie guys on M Street started the craze in the 1970s, boosted by former Mayor Ray Flynn, in an effort to re-acclimate Vietnam Vets – or so goes the lore of a time only few now remember.
Most teams had a sponsor, and it could be anything from a local hospital to a friendly bar or liquor store. The sponsor paid for the uniforms and typically got naming rights to the team.
There were all types of Leagues: co-ed, recreational, slow pitch, modified and even fast pitch.
I played modified, and like a lot of guys in the Fenway or South End, I played up on Mission Hill. It was a friendly league, but intensely competitive.
Guys came from all over Boston to play there – a field with such a short right field that a monstrous chain link fence had to be erected in the 1980s to prevent left handed batters from hitting a home run about every time. It became a critical need when teams started recruiting lefties to come join their ranks.
The key to any softball team was the pitcher, and many of the pitchers were old fellows – weathered and worn from decades of springs and summers spent bouncing from league to league four months a year.
There was a fellow from Arlington – a school teacher – that I recall who was an ace on the mound. Known only as ‘Geno’ to his teammates, he pitched a smart game, rather than a powerful one. That was the great equalizer for the older guys who played alongside the younger guys. They knew slowness and strategy, and there was always an older retired guy on the team, a player-manager type who usually had been a hard-scrabble union laborer, that could help the younger players understand. Softball was a different game, and a home run in the first inning was no more valuable than a 15-pitch walk that turned into a run in the fifth.
One night as I arrived at the field, the team was huddled up in the dugout. The men wore serious faces. A guy from the Gas Fitter’s Union who played third base was talking some pretty serious talk to our player-manager, a successful mortgage broker who had grown up in the neighborhood and was trying to calm everyone. Others joined in, some trying to be calm, others flailing their arms in anger.
“There’s going to be trouble,” said one of the older men to me.
It seems an old neighborhood feud had been reignited by the leader of the opposing team. That fellow was respected and reviled at the same time. His team had been struggling in year’s past until he went to the hardball Dominican League in Jamaica Plain and brought in a handful of ringers to stock the team. They were tremendously talented. That guy had been bragging around the coffee shops, knocking our team’s lack of natural talent – something we made up for with scrappiness and strategy.
The fellas on our team didn’t like what was being said. Later that night, words were exchanged. Two guys faced off at first base.
A crowd began to gather around them.
Not everybody was interested in fighting, and I was one of them, but everyone had to come out and be ready for anything. Despite being adults who carried important jobs during the daytime – whether it be mortgage company executives, construction site foremen, tenured professors, union laborers, mail carriers or middle school math teachers – you had to back up your teammates in a scuffle, even if it only meant standing around the edges with a menacing facial expression. Three or four guys did mix it up that night; a lot of other guys exchanged shoves. It was a testosterone convention. No sort of social refinement or educational attainment seemed to exclude anyone – heated competition having moved one step forward to aggression. But guess what?
It was necessary. Both teams were all smiles after the game and no one held any grudges afterward. The game went on, everyone wanted to win even more than usual, and at the end we all shook hands. One begins to realize that we men needed to blow off steam with one another just as much as we needed to throw around the ball, laugh with friends and run the bases like we were kids again. It touched on an additional something that men needed outside their working lives and personal lives and, in large part, don’t have any longer. Softball leagues aren’t near what they were; and some would say they’re a dead tradition in Boston compared to what they were – having started on the decline in the 1990s. I often cruise by the fields we used to play on for four or five months a year in my travels. I don’t see anyone out there. Most of the fields in Boston now are unused – perhaps even a waste of space, which is hard to believe given the difficulty one used to have in finding a field to schedule games. Similarly, virtually no one is going to be digging softball equipment out of the attic this weekend. To me, the empty fields mean a lot of men walking around with no outlet to blow off steam or share the necessary experiences of competition and battle – no matter how high and mighty we are in our work lives. Makes me wonder where all that built up steam is going if it’s not being let out on the softball fields any longer.