John D. Pierce

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"Jesus in the Outfield"




Grant City in Ft. Oglethorpe, Ga., was a K-Mart-like store with a restaurant that specialized in all the fried fish, French fries and coleslaw you could eat on Friday nights. For the Pierce family such overindulgence was a treat beyond the usual.

Anticipating a visit to Grant City involved more than working up a good appetite, however. I always tried to scrape up a dime — which usually meant skipping an ice cream or other snack during the week.

For a dime I could buy another pack of baseball cards — five cards, one stick of pink bubble gum. There is no more heavenly smell than a freshly opened pack of baseball cards. And the possibility that a favorite player’s face might appear among the five was exhilarating.

The right way to collect baseball cards is five at a time. No huge packs or boxes were available. One could order the entire Topps set for the year from the back of a magazine for $13. But who had that kind of money except for Roger Harris?

Later in high school, he kept his complete sets of Topps cards in the trunk of his car. Once a spare battery spilled acid and ruined many of them. I had no sympathy because the guy didn’t collect cards the right way.

My brother Rob and I built our teams one rare pack at a time. The first to acquire a particular card had the rights to that player for the whole season. So if Rob got Carl Yastrzemski’s card before me, then I’d trade my Yaz to Duane Mills or Victor Pacheco at school for Al Kaline and Clete Boyer.

Collecting and trading was at its peak as the baseball season began in the spring. By summer Rob and I had our teams completed and our line-ups in place.

We would stack the cards in batting order — face up — and pretend we were the hitters one after another. In our front yard, I would pitch to Rob and then he would pitch to me.

There was never an argument over balls and strikes or outs. We enjoyed the competition too much to have it stalled by conflict.  Rob didn’t even complain when my famous screwball would leave a red mark on his belly or leg.

We played with plastic balls and bats, waterlogged baseballs and cracked wooden bats and, on one occasion, a wad of aluminum foil and a scrap of lumber. We just wanted to play every day of the summer.

We adjusted Abner Doubleday’s rules to our setting and limitations. A cleanly fielded grounder was an out. A ground ball past the pitcher was a single. A bouncer into the ditch was a double — or a triple if it reached the hickory tree in the air. A fly ball into the ditch or beyond was a home run.

To hit a dinger to the ditch required more than distance — you had to get it past the big hickory tree in centerfield. Willie Mays had it easy compared to us. The balls hit to him came straight down. We had to catch balls that were deflected by the massive limbs.

The baseball cards that formed our imagined lineups showed wear from the sun, rain and grimy hands that treasured them. Putting them in acrylic cases and seeking their market value as collectibles were not imagined.

We cherished the cards like close friends, however. The statistics on the back were consumed like the bubble gum. For example, we knew that Wally Moon hit a home run in his first major league at-bat as though that mattered.

Occasionally there was a rare surprise — like the time I discovered a third Alou brother. Felipe Alou played centerfield for my beloved Braves alongside Hank Aaron. His brother Matty (or Mateo) was in the outfield for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But I well remember the day I opened a fresh pack of cards and discovered that another brother— Jesus Alou — had joined the San Francisco Giants. Unaware that the name was common south of our border — or that it was pronounced “Hey-seus,” I ran with the card in hand to see my mother.

“Momma, I have a baseball card of Jesus,” I said.

The good Sunday school teachers at Boynton Baptist Church had taught me Bible stories for years. I’d learned about David and the Giant, but it was big news to me that Jesus played outfield for the Giants.

[An unpublished essay © John D. Pierce]