Dad played with me a great deal, as dads should do, and our chief sport was baseball. He bought me a hardball when I was three years old, and he used to sit in a rocker on the front porch while I sat on the grass in the yard, and we’d play catch by the hour.
Baseball has seen some pretty awesome nicknames over the years: George “Babe” Ruth; Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra; Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown; Jim “Catfish” Hunter; Leon Allen “Goose” Goslin; Leroy “Satchel” Paige; among others. When I was playing softball through my high school years, I also had a nickname. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to imply that I belong in the same company as these baseball greats. It’s just that, on those rare occasions when I stop to reminisce about it, I can’t help but think that it’s pretty cool to be able to say that I once had a ballplayer nickname.
The summer in between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I was playing ball on a team with the local parks and rec girls’ softball league. In the later half of the season, the coach for one of the other teams in the league approached me and said that he had signed his team up to participate in a tournament outside of the league, and would I be interested in joining their roster for the tournament? It’s one heckuva compliment to have another coach be impressed with you enough to invite you for that kind of thing, so naturally, I was all over it.
I was loaned a uniform, number 16, and my dad came out with me to cheer us on. I don’t recall the exact location of the tournament, only that it was seemingly in the middle of nowhere on the outskirts of the metropolitan Kansas City area. Nor do I recall how we as a team finished in the tournament, but thinking about it doesn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth, so surely it couldn’t have been awful.
I also don’t recall the exact details of how this one particular play unfolded, only that at one point in the tournament, I found myself rounding third, heading home at full speed in what promised to be a close play at the plate. I reached home at virtually the same moment as the softball. As the catcher was still scrambling to get control of the ball, she was blocking my path to the plate, leaving me no choice but to plow through her to get where I was going.
I slapped home plate, and there was a pause as the umpire tried to locate the ball. The catcher didn’t have it. “Safe!”
There was cheering. There was congratulations. Then eventually, that half-inning came to an end.
Playing shortstop for the team in this tournament was Lauren, who was a couple years older than me, and who also happened to be the shortstop for our high school varsity team. I had spent my freshman season on the JV team, but my goal for my sophomore year was to make varsity, so naturally I admired the girls on the varsity squad. So it was quite an ego boost when Lauren expressed her approval at my base running.
“You know what?” she said as we ran back out onto the field to take our defensive positions. “You’re too tough to be called Precious. From now on, I’m calling you Duke.”
There was a ripple of agreement throughout the field and in the dugout. And the name stuck. For the rest of the summer, whenever I was playing softball, my on-field name was Duke. Then, when the school season began, Lauren ensured the name continued. Even after Lauren graduated, no matter what team I played on, whether it was with the school or on a summer team somewhere, there always seemed to be a parent or a coach or a teammate from a previous team to perpetuate the nickname.
A couple summers after the nickname was bestowed upon me, I was playing ball with a summer competitive team, and we had a tournament up in the Twin Cities area. My parents decided to turn it into a family road trip for that weekend. As we loaded up the SUV with our bags, I discovered that my dad had purchased a glass marker and wrote “DUKE” in big, orange letters across the rear windshield. I have to admit, I was a bit embarrassed by it. But it was also really, really cool.
The summer after high school graduation was my last season of organized ball. Nobody has called me “Duke” since then (and, please, don’t start now). While I don’t necessarily miss being referred to or cheered on as “Duke,” I sometimes do miss just the concept of the whole thing. For four years, I was a ballplayer with a pretty cool nickname, and seemingly everybody knew what it was.
Today marks the five year anniversary of my first post on this blog. While I started this project as a way to stay in touch with the game and to encourage my own continual learning about it, when I reach milestones like this one, I find that it’s kinda fun to share something a bit more personal. A high school softball nickname isn’t something that comes up in everyday conversation, but it does make for a fun story in appropriate circles.
Thank you, my readers, for following along on my blogging journey. That it’s been five full years seems a bit unreal to me, but all the posts are there as proof, even to my own eyes. I look forward to the next five years and hope you’ll continue to hang out with me here as well!
Gushing with patriotism, the Second Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns begins with proclamations of the game of baseball being America’s “safety valve” and a montage of old baseball photos being scrolled to the sound of the national anthem and a spoken list of various American accomplishments during the early twentieth century.
Not all was perfect in the country, however, as Burns also points to an increase in racism across America, the growth of tenements, and a decline in baseball’s popularity. As it always does, however, baseball managed to recover. It was a time when small ball dominated the style of play, and pitchers like Christy Mathewson, “Three Finger” Brown, and Walter Johnson became legends on the mound.
Major league baseball entered the twentieth century in trouble, beset by declining attendance, rowdyism, unhappy players, and feuding, greedy club owners, but then divided itself in two, cleaned itself up, and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The World Series began, and season after season more than five million fans filled stadiums to see their heroes play, and countless millions more, who had never been lucky enough to watch them in person, followed their every move in the sports pages.
In part two of this documentary series, we see the rise of players like Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb, two of the most diametrically different players as the game has ever seen. We meet player-manager John McGraw, who approached the game with a furious kind of passion recognized throughout baseball. The “Christian Gentleman,” Christy Mathewson, also appeared on the scene playing for McGraw, and his precise pitching captured the attention of teams and fans across America. Together, Mathewson and McGraw’s Giants dominated the sport.
We also see the rise of Ban Johnson and the American League. The National Agreement brought peace between the new AL and the older National League, though the reserve clause remained intact, leaving ballplayers themselves with no voice in the administrative side of the game. And to no one’s surprise, I’m sure, overpriced concessions have been a staple of ballparks since the game became a business. This time period saw the introduction of hot dogs, served to fans in buns to allow them to hold them while watching baseball.
Once again, we see descriptions of racism in baseball followed closely by an update on the life of Branch Rickey. Burns hints at the impact of seeing discrimination on Rickey’s views. Later in this disc, there is a more in-depth discussion of black baseball, including the creation of the Negro Leagues led by Rube Foster. The documentary also introduces (though it really doesn’t dive much into) the concept of “bloomer girls,” women playing baseball during this time period.
Some of the most recognizable pieces in baseball pop culture also came into existence in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Franklin Pierce Adams’s poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon,” also known as “Tinker to Evers to Chance,” was written in 1910, Ernest Thayer’s iconic poem “Casey At the Bat” (1888) was recited frequently by performers, and Jack Norworth’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” became the game’s anthem.
The Second Inning ends at the conclusion of the 1909 season, following a discussion of Fred Merkle’s 1908 boner and a more direct rivalry between Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner in the 1909 World Series. It’s hard to tell if Burns is particularly fascinated by Cobb, or if there are just too many good stories there to ignore, but Cobb does garner a fair amount of attention in this inning. Not that I’m complaining — I wouldn’t have wanted to play against him (and probably not even with him), but Cobb does add some color to the game’s history.
Approximately two week’s after Merkle’s Boner took place, the Cubs faced off once again against the New York Giants on October 8, 1908. The two teams had finished the season tied in the race, so the tie game that resulted from Fred Merkle’s base-running blunder was replayed in order to determine a National League pennant winner. In the makeup game, Christy Mathewson was out-pitched by Three Finger Brown as the Cubs defeated the Giants, 4-2.