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  1. #1
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    Tales of a Little League Washout, Part I

    Tales of a Little League Washout, Part I: Pirate Pedigree
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    By Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*

    One of my previous articles several months ago touched on the effect that the 1994 Major League Baseball Strike had on youth baseball, and it led to me thinking back to my playing days, short though they were. I never got as far in baseball as plenty of members here did. I’m sure we have a few who may have briefly played pro ball (the autograph groups I run on Facebook actually have Mason McReaken-- who pitched for the 2018 Danville Braves and has a 2019 Topps Pro Debut card-- as a very active member, along with former Major Leaguers Billy Sample, Fritz Peterson, and Shawn Hare watching from the periphery). Some of you probably played in college, or at least into high school. I was done by age twelve.

    But every ballplayer has a story somewhere in them, even just memories of Little League, sandlots, backyards, or pickup games where everyone plays every position with ghost-runners to fill in for a lack of players; where third base is that tree stump over there, a ball hit into the wood pile is a ground rule double, and guys I can't stress this enough, the ladder against the garage is IN PLAY, KYLE.

    Besides, it’s my column, I’ll write whatever I want.

    * * * * *

    My earliest baseball memories come from the age of five or so. A plastic bat, a plastic ball, and either a tee or my dad tossing underhand to me in my mismatched Detroit Tigers jacket and Cleveland Indians Cory Snyder signature hat: this is what happens when you grow up in Ohio to Michigan-native parents and grandparents. Summers were spent with a week in Upper Michigan in my grandparents’ backyard, as my 87-year old grandfather watched my dad toss pitches to me and I’d whack them toward his raspberry patch.

    Grandpa Pelto was the family’s first ballplayer. He was born in Finland, a country that eventually developed their own version of the sport, pesapallo (literally “nest ball;” look it up sometime, it’s weird and fascinating and I don’t pretend to even remotely understand it), but the early 1900s had nothing. They wouldn’t even have a league for their top sport of hockey until the 1920s. When he was six years old, July 4, 1909, Grandpa arrived in America with his mother, two older sisters, and a younger brother. His father had been here for four years at that point, working as a copper miner and farmer and saving to eventually bring the family over, buy a house, and have some farm animals of his own. Even during the Great Depression, Grandpa had a car and a record player, both of which helped win my Grandmother over, herself a daughter of Finnish immigrant miners and farmers. They even were the rare family to have fresh butter daily in those years, thanks to owning and tending to a couple of cows.

    Almost as soon as his feet hit the ground in America, Grandpa was playing baseball. Back then, every town had its own amateur adult team, represented in places like the Wisconsin-Michigan League, with names like the Marquette Undertakers, the Calumet Aristocrats, and the Hancock Patriots. Grandpa teamed up with the neighborhood boys in Boston Location, Michigan, calling themselves the Boston Pirates. That name stuck once youth teams were organized and lasted several decades. My grandmother’s brother, Edsel Walitalo, was one of their top high school age players as a pitcher and first baseman, even getting an invite to a camp run by Bob Feller and Joe DiMaggio after their return from World War II.

    I don’t know much about Grandpa’s time playing, but it didn’t last long. By the time he was 15, the first World War broke out and he found himself leaving school and working full time in the copper mines: first as an errand boy, then as a trammer, then as a timberman and assistant carpenter. He remained a fan for life though, catching the Milwaukee Braves and Brewers, Detroit Tigers, Chicago Cubs, and Toronto Blue Jays any time he could when they could be picked up on the radio or later the TV. He was on the long end of 81 when I was born and died just shy of 89. But I remember him watching in that summer of 1989, and in his aged, weary, Finnish-accented voice telling this five-year-old how “Dere was dis little kirl down ta road, she play Little League, she hit tat pall way out to da trees dere. You konna let da kirls peat you?” before I’d go up and try to crush a plastic ball over his flowers, past the neat rows of raspberry plants, and into the precisely-planted jack pine trees. And a year after his death, as I watched a 1992 Blue Jays-Rangers game on a black and white TV, rabbit ear antennas pointed north toward CKPR in Thunder Bay, Grandma reminisced about how Grandpa always watched the Jays any time he could, since they had the clearest signal in the Copper Country.

    In 1987, a Finnish magazine interviewed him on the life of Finnish immigrants in America. He told the interviewer how one day when he was approaching retirement in his early sixties, several younger miners were trying to toss rocks over the top of a 100-foot high building near one of the mines-- probably a rockhouse or one that encased the steam hoists. None had come close to clearing it. Grandpa said he saw them, walked over, picked up a rock, and threw, clearing it on his first try. The ballplayer in him always lived on.

    I have his old mitt, a Smoky Burgess catcher’s model that he used to catch my dad in once he was playing. My dad played organized Little League ball in the 1950s and 60s, and as luck would have it, played on the Pirates as well. The problem, though, was two-fold: my dad is left-handed, and as an adult got to about 5’8”. Throughout high school he was known as “pikku,” Finnish for “little.” That didn’t matter to the coaches though: he often ended up at second base and shortstop, and also pitched a lot. He made a few area all-star teams up north and got a photo in the paper with his next-door neighbor, Major League journeyman and fellow lefty hurler George Brunet.

    Clearly his playing career didn’t last long either, thanks to those genetic restrictions of shortness and left-handedness. He was pretty well limited to adult league softball teams from college onward. When playing softball while finishing his Masters’ at Michigan State, he and his team were looking forward to getting to play against a team from the prison down in Jackson, as reports said the Tigers might sign a guy doing time who had shown some adeptness for the game. Unfortunately, the game was rained out, and by the time it was rescheduled, Ron LeFlore had been paroled, signed, and sent to the Clinton Pilots. But just the same, he was a fan for life. My dad’s favorite player was Milwaukee Braves’ Hall of Fame lefty Warren Spahn, and so it made for a fun coincidence that I shared Spahn’s April 23 birthday.

    Dad was typically a Tigers fan when my parents lived in lower Michigan and Iowa, gradually making the transition to being an Indians fan after moving to Ohio. Anytime he had to travel for work, he would try to catch a game, getting to see Steve Carlton pitch for the Phillies at Wrigley, the original fountains when Kauffmann was still called Royals Stadium, and plenty of Cedar Rapids Reds games before Eric Davis, Paul O’Neill, and Chris Sabo became household names on the 1990 World Champion Cincinnati Reds.

    So thirty years later, as a right-hander it would seem all I’d have to do is not suck to have my family’s longest baseball career. It turned out that was easier said than done.

    To be continued…

    Last edited by *censored*; 03-02-2020 at 06:49 PM.

  2. #2
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    Nice write up being from Michigan myself there are a lot of old ghost mines up there as there is no more copper coming out of them as there is no need (pennies). Look forward to the next write up.

    DON
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  3. #3
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    There's been some talk of reopening some of the mines on a small basis, or at least there was a mild push for it last time I was up there in 2016. Copper is always in demand (look at how many abandoned buildings have it stripped out by thieves), but the labor costs and environmental costs tend to outweigh the benefits when it comes to mining new vs. recycling old.

    Looking at posting Part II on 3/13, with Part III to finish it off on 3/25, the day before Opening Day.

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