Small-Town Baseball in Iowa

Summertime for a kid growing up in Iowa meant corn, soybeans, humidity, and baseball.  My home town of Gilbert, Iowa, population 830, was like a lot of other small towns in central Iowa.  It had a grain elevator, water tower, main street, post office, two churches, two bars, and a school, and out beyond the school’s parking lot was the baseball field.

Back then, there weren’t Club teams.  We played for Gilbert, and we played teams from other towns around the area like Stanhope, Colo, Blairsburg, Wellman, Collins, Maxwell, and Zearing.  Each town had the standard features, but with their own little twist.  Zearing’s school had a fire escape that was an awesome tube slide from the upper floor to the ground.

My greatest game ever was at Maxwell when I was in sixth grade.  That day, I wore a modern-looking, red uniform while the rest of my team wore the traditional, worn and faded white jerseys with red trim. That’s because I had lost my uniform in the June 13, 1976 F5 tornado that destroyed our home, so my dad had bought me a new one.  It’s funny what details you remember about your childhood.  This day is vividly painted in my head.  I struck out my first time up, but then hit a grand slam home run and a bases-loaded triple.  Later, a kid from the other team gestured to my flashy uniform and asked me if I usually played for the Junior High team.  That felt pretty good.

My older brother was an awesome baseball player in high school.  His curve ball was famous.  It had a high arc and a wide radius that could make batters drop to the ground cringing in fear, and then slide quickly into the strike zone.

After my brother, there was a steep drop-off in talent.  Baseball just wasn’t my passion.  But I played anyway, because that’s what you do in Iowa during the summer.

In small-town Iowa baseball, the coach is typically one of the faculty doing double-duty to pay the bills.  My high school coach was also my History teacher.  He wasn’t very good at either.  For some reason, he kept sticking me in the lineup and putting me in the infield.  Truth be told, I was scared to death of being hit by a pitch, or having a rogue ground ball pop up and break my nose.  We were 3-27, and very possibly the worst baseball team ever.  It was a long summer.  That was the end of my baseball career.

My wife Michele played fast-pitch softball in high school, but unlike me, she was good.  She was a pitcher.  She is left handed, but she learned to pitch with her right because the only glove available on her childhood farm was for the left hand.  Michele practiced her pitching by throwing through an old tractor tire hung at the side of a barn.  Her mom used to catch for her, but stopped after a stray pitch shattered her nose.

Michele got a scholarship to pitch at a small college, but elected to go to Iowa State instead.  Good thing, because that’s where we met.  Michele and I got married, moved to Cedar Rapids, and had kids. One of our summer rituals in those early years was Hiawatha Kids League baseball and softball.

Our oldest daughter Jessica played the most, starting with 5-6 year old T-ball, all the way through 6th grade kid-pitch softball.  I started assistant coaching in Jessica’s later years.

When Grant was in sixth grade, he got on a team with the sons of Cal Eldred, former Milwaukee Brewer and St. Louis Cardinal and native of Urbana, Iowa.  That was a lot of fun, but even that team suffered our share of humiliations, like the hot, dusty July day when played the best team in the league.  The dangerous thing about baseball is that there is no time limit.  If you’re team is fielding or pitching poorly and can’t get outs, the suffering just keeps going.  The Hiawatha Kids League has a “mercy” rule that a team can only score up to 5 runs per inning normally.  But in the last inning, there is no limit.  We gave up countless walks to that other team, and their runs kept piling up.  I think we’d still be there if the umpire hadn’t called it off on a count of the heat and insurmountable lead by the other team.  It probably is a good thing to experience a humiliating game like that at least once.  People in Iowa say it “builds character”.  

Joel played Hiawatha Kids League for a couple of years.  True to his form, he was good without even trying.  He’s a natural athlete, and a very positive-minded thinker.  There is no reason he can’t do anything.  He had never really pitched before, but somehow got his coach to let him pitch.  Turned out, he was pretty good at it.

I coached Sarah’s team with a guy named Bob.  Bob was the epitome of a kids league coach.  He had turned his backyard into a training camp, with stations for each individual skill as well as a miniature diamond.  It was protected from Iowa’s strong winds by a line of trees.  Sarah played three years.  Her favorite position was catcher.  I’m not sure what possessed her to do that–it’s bad enough playing in Iowa’s withering summer humidity, but to do that wearing 50 pounds of protective gear is inhumane.

Now only Gina is eligible for kids league softball, but like her older sister, Joanna, softball is not her thing.  So this year, we’re finding ourselves free of any baseball commitments.  No weekend tournaments, no sitting on the bleachers for countless hours, no languishing in the Iowa heat.  I kinda miss that.

I found this sketch of Field #2 in Guthridge Park in Hiawatha, Iowa.  I drew it while sitting through one of those games.  The field is empty because I didn’t want to take the time to sketch each player.  In a way, it’s representative of the empty feeling I have now that we’re done with summertime baseball for awhile.

Here’s to small-town Iowa baseball, and all those teams, coaches, and hot July days.  Here’s to all the moms with broken noses, sun-burned faces, and sore bottoms, who faithfully watched from the bleachers.  Here’s to all the dads who volunteered to coach their kids’ teams, secretly reliving their glory days.  I kinda miss all of you.


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