My untold career patrolling center field for the Milwaukee Braves started innocently enough.
I don’t remember the exact year, but it can be measured in the knowledge that Babe Ruth was the all-time home run king, “Sliding” Billy Hamilton held the major league record for stolen bases that was likely to stand forever, and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were said to be the best players in baseball.
Even then the coasts were clueless, as we who grew up on Fremont Street already knew the best player in the game: Henry Aaron.
Three baseball themes shaped my formative years:
I owe my neighborhood pal, Dave Rau, the distinction of getting me hooked on baseball cards.
Truth be told, we may or may not have, depending on the statute of limitations, five-fingered our original inventory from his older brother who was away at college.
It was very early in my career that Dave and I and fellow Fremonter, Mike “Chico” McWilliams, discovered that our Huffy & Schwinn 3-speeds could rocket down the East Holmes Street hill to Woolworth’s to buy multiple packs of baseball cards for next to nothing.
We spent hours trading cards, reading the stats and answering the factoids and trivia questions on the back side.
We formed all the cards into the teams of the day by batting order, starting pitchers, relievers then reserves—rubber-banding each team, putting it the proper league and storing all into our shoebox.
The player cards came with a deck of cards that designated various baseball batting outcomes that you would shuffle and flip over when your team was up.
We had volumes of spiral binder note paper and kept score of every game, meticulously keeping track of the major league stats of the games we played. We would play a full season, innumerable games in a day until it culminated in a World Series.
When we weren’t playing against each other, we played the game solitaire. Then we started over. It seems we never left our front porch.
I remember praying to find that Nolan Ryan rookie card, not because we thought we were investing for some future monetary reward, but because he was going to start for the Mets that year and we each needed his card under that Mets rubber band.
I cannot tell you how many cards of Bob Uecker of the San Francisco Giants or the very capable Woody Woodward we endured before we got a prized player we needed. Woody, Bob and others died a horrible death in the spokes of our 3-speeds.
This is where we began to try the patience of Fremont St. adults in general and our parents in particular.
Rau Field was the preferred playing stadium, but it actually was least suited to our game. In retrospect, this started my early demise into baseball mediocrity. I batted lefty, thus hitting directly into the Rau house. Two big elms blocked lifting the ball, but skipping off the roof was just a double. Only by hitting that porthole between the trees and clearing the roof garnered me a home run.
My proudest achievement is that I only broke one Rau window in our playing history of maybe 3,000 games. Unfortunately, it was a rather disappointing weak ground ball into a basement window.
For righties, left field was Death Valley, having to clear the Rau peonies, the Carney tomato plants and the Russell picket fence for a home run. Plus, the Russell’s had this dog like “The Beast” in the movie Sandlot. One person would distract the mighty beast while the other brave soul—Dave—would jump the fence and retrieve the ball. Teamwork was learned at an early age.
Mrs. Carney was not real appreciative of us pruning her tomato plants, but we couldn’t really see what the big deal was. We never actually ever saw her picking tomatoes.
I will say that at first glance, you would not think so, but Mrs. Carney possessed a very respectable 40-yard dash and an underappreciated two-handed broom swing rivaling Dave Kingman. Fortunately she connected about as much as “King Kong” Kingman did in his days.
I would bounce line drives off Clarence Rau’s aluminum fishing boat, and it sounded like a cannon going off. Clarence would yell “David, cut that out!” while reading the daily Gazette on the front porch. He yelled several times a ball game.
In a lifetime of limited solid contact, I do remember the hardest ball I ever hit. A screamer up the middle that almost took Dave’s head off, curved around the big elm trunk, missing the Rau garage corner and hitting the wood frame of the Carney back bedroom window, shattering it.
I don’t mean broke, I mean shattered.
When I swung, there was Linda & Dave Rau, Jeff (Rascal) and Greg Russell, “Goat” Latham and my little bro, Jim, all on the field. When the window shattered, it was me and a yellow banana whiffle bat. So much for teamwork!
Rau Field was retired shortly thereafter.
We moved to Dulin Stadium, which was really best suited for whiffleball. We enjoyed a symmetrical field with a fence, no large trees, two spots to put home plate, a slit rail fence for a boundary and the brick back wall of a Conoco Station as a long lefty shot. Our only shortcoming was a lot of “Snow on the Mountain,” some dumb plant that ate up whiffle balls quicker than the Ivy at Wrigley in summer.
Unfortunately, my dad was an early “get off the lawn” kind of dad and didn’t appreciate five bare spots in his surgically trimmed back yard. That, and an aluminum sided house that weathered 40 years of hail storms without a single dent but couldn’t handle a couple foul balls.
McWilliams Field was another Fremont St. stadium not suited for lefties. Never broke a window there, but Chico had a football field for a side yard and a five- story house that was impossible to launch a ball over. At least that is how I remember it.
We never called it stoop ball. Some hotshot made that name up in the last few years.
We called it take your glove and a tennis ball and toss it as hard as you can against your front concrete steps ball. Nine-inning games and you played till your arm fell off. Which was never.
Hit the steps perfect and you could launch a ball on a fly into Fremont Street. Usually a lot of ground balls and tough hops.
This seems innocent enough, but picture yourself as a grownup, home from a hard day driving forklift at GM, just wanting to relax in the “dad chair” and read The Gazette before supper. All the sudden, one gets away from your kid, maybe a tad high and it hits the aluminum screen door at 100mph.
It’s my story, so go with it.
That sound—tennis ball vs. aluminum—made hitting Clarence Rau’s aluminum Mastercraft with a whiffle ball sound like a wind chime.
My old man’s Hamm’s long neck darn nearly knocked his front teeth out. My only saving grace was Dave across the street doing the exact same thing, to his dad who had the exact same day as my dad, with the same result—though I think Clarence was a Blatz guy.
I found out my dad was way faster than Mrs. Carney … and me.
Yup, I spent the better part of 10 years patrolling center field for the Milwaukee Braves growing up. I wouldn’t give up that career or my teammates for anything.
Gary Dulin is a Janesville resident who contributed this story to The Gazette as we look back on our fondest sports memories growing up. If you have a story or story idea to share, email email@example.com.