About a dozen days ago, lightning struck the big beech tree in Central Park that was ideally located between the big baseball diamond and the former softball diamond that is now a soccer field.
If our tree could talk, what stories he would tell.
The beech tree was one of the oldest in the park, if not the oldest, but today it’s nothing more than a stump, a memory of better days. It has stood longer than the park itself, probably touching 200 years old and certainly had a life of its own.
It was our own Green Monster in softball, for both fast-pitch and slow-pitch, standing tall in left field and swatting down long fly balls with its giant limbs.
If you hit one into the lower branches or into the tip top, it was a ground-rule double. That was the rule you had to live with. The outcome of many games was decided by the towering obstacle in left field.
A fence was placed around the field but because of the placement of this particular tree, other rules had to be put into place. Otherwise you would have had a home run launching pad.
It’s a wonder when that tree split wide open there weren’t hundreds of softballs popping out of it like a giant pinata. There may have been a few baseballs lodged up there as well. They say the branches grew around a couple of balls that had become lodged.
On the baseball side, it offered some refreshing shade as only a big tree can do, tucked several feet behind the third-base dugout. Many times fans would drag one of those park benches over next to it on a particularly steamy day.
If our tree could only talk ...
Well, since this is my column, the tree can talk and here’s how an interview with “Woody” might have gone during his older years before the lightning strike that finally took him out.
What are your early recollections of softball and baseball here?
“I was so excited when the finally started building some baseball fields in the park. Besides a few kids playing around me — and those darned dogs — there wasn’t much action when I was a twig growing up. it was probably good, though, because those little boys would have trampled me.”
Describe what it was like in the park in those early days?
“Oh my, when they started organizing games here it was so much fun. We had softball in front of me and baseball for as far as my branches could see. They played from sunup until sundown, even when there wasn’t something going on. They would lean up against me and slurp those snow-cones down. I loved it when they spilled them and they soaked down into my roots. The blue ones were my favorites.”
You had a lot of fly balls and foul balls crash into your branches. Did that ever hurt?
“No, it tickled a little, that’s all. I always got a kick out of those power hitters in softball who would get so mad when a ball went sailing and glanced off a leaf. That was only a double, you know. They wanted that home run. I laughed my bark off at them sometimes.”
Who do you remember watching?
“I loved the fast-pitch guys in softball. Bill Selbee was the best I ever saw. You couldn’t even see it when he cut loose. I saw some great games, too. Some of those Ben Williamson teams were some of my favorites. But that state tournament here in 1963 was something else. McClure’s beat Ben Williamson twice, 6-4 and 6-1, to win it all. They even beat Selbee in the second game. A guy named C.I. Burks was nearly unhittable. Those games were so close I lost a few leaves worrying about what would happen. Softball was big in this town you know. Even when they stopped playing fast-pitch, guys like Joe Dillow, Corky Salyers and Steve Crum would whistle balls through my branches. I tell you what, they had some power!”
What about baseball? You had a pretty good vantage point of that too?
“It was so much fun watching those guys grow up from the third-base side of the field. I saw them playing there as little boys, even caught a few glimpses of the Little League field on the corner of 22nd Street, although I wasn’t as tall back 50 years ago as I am today. And, you know, they played grade school baseball on the softball field, too. I loved those guys from the 1950s and 1960s especially and, man, let me tell you, they were good. Those Lynch boys must have grown up with a ball in their hand. Billy Lynch threw the fastest pitches I ever saw and I saw them all, even that (Don) Gullett boy. I’d say him and Bill Lynch were about even. They would make my leaves curl. I don’t think Bill’s brother Bobby ever lost a game on that field, maybe one. I tell you, he was untouchable. Timmy Huff, Johnny Mullins, Bo Carter, Mike Smith ... all those guys were such good players on those Ashland teams. People would lean back on my roots and marvel at how well those guys played. I heard a lot of the scouts talking, especially when Bill Lynch was pitching. But, you know, some guys before them were good, too. I remember Jim Host and that big pearly white smile on the mound. That guy owned the plate! Larry Conley, Gary Wright and even a kid named David Carter, who played right over there, they were all good. I’m telling you, I saw some good ones.”
What about later? Any other memories?
“Drew Hall was one of those guys I won’t forget. He was kind of wild but that kid could bring it. He was warming up over here before one game and some pitches got away from him. He nicked a couple of pieces of bark and it hurt a lot worse than any of those softball home runs.
“And don’t forget about Joe Magrane, a kid who came in here from Morehead. Left-hander. Could really bring it, too. I think he made it to the bigs. Brandon Webb was always one of my favorites, too. You knew he was going to make it. So graceful on the mound. Cy Young Award, huh? I’d given one of my left branches to watch him pitch in the big leagues.
“You know, it’s funny. They say Babe Ruth played here one time but, I’m here to tell you, he didn’t. And trust me, I’d know. I’ve been here.”
When they converted the field from softball to soccer what did you think?
“Well, to be honest, I didn’t like it one bit. I grew up from a seedling watching softball. But you know, after watching these little fellas kick a soccer ball around, it was kind of nice in my advanced age to be able to relax and smell the cedar. My branches weren’t as strong as they once were so it was good to sit back and watch.
Any final thoughts on your time in the park?
“I’m kind of like these players who came back for that CP-1 Reunion a few weeks back. It was so good seeing them all again, how they’d grown into fine young men. I remember them when they were like twigs. I hope they noticed me while they were here, too. I sure noticed them. I’ll never forget how much they meant to my time in Central Park. There were guys from all eras here and that was good to see. Some of those young guys chased girls around me or played with their little trucks around my roots. I remember them and I always wanted to protect them. Sometimes when it rained they all huddled around me. I’ve enjoyed this vantage point longer than I deserved. It was a good, long ride.”
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.