A Diamond on a Hilltop
A Diamond on a Hilltop
The ancient Somerset market town of Crewkerne, like many such places, lies in a bowl, its main roads rising from its centre to the approximate points of the compass. There is a particularly abrupt elevation to the east at the top of which, overlooking the town, is a majestic line of venerable trees known as the Bincombe Beeches. If one walks east on Bincombe Hill for several hundred yards the woodland opens on a space of several acres comprising the playing fields of Wadham Community School. Up until about ten years ago if one were moving across this expanse toward the school buildings one would encounter a seemingly incongruous hump in the ground. A few had taken it to be some vestige of an Iron Age tumulus or barrow. It was, in fact, the remnant of a pitchers’ mound.
When I moved to Crewkerne in 1990 my son was eight-years-old and among the many things and people he reluctantly left behind in London was the HyPisco Sunday morning softball game in Hyde Park. For a future Great Britain middle-infielder and professional baseball coach a substitute was needed. In time I became acquainted with the landlord of a local hostelry, The Swan. His name was Joe Morano, and he hailed originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Joe was sports-minded, having been a champion Golden Gloves boxer and high school and college gridiron football player. During his time in the U.S. Air Force he had been stationed in East Anglia where he married a local woman whose family were in the licensed trade, and after leaving the Service he became a publican. We, naturally, talked a bit of baseball and while watching Game Six of the 1992 World Series on satellite television – a thriller won by the Toronto Blue Jays in 11 innings to take the Series – several of the local lads became engrossed. Soon it was suggested that we might take some bats, balls and gloves – of which I had a good basic collection – up to the Wadham School fields on Sunday mornings and play a bit of ball to fill in the hour or two before opening time. We played at first from one corner of a RedGra field hockey pitch and within a month or so a bunch of Swan regulars, usually around ten or a dozen, would show up. We practiced and played rotation – a game in which each player gets three outs at bat and then moves around the field playing each position in turn by box score number. Some of the gang had played a bit of cricket while others had never touched a ball or bat in their lives. Most had a hard time adjusting to fielding with baseball gloves. They also had to get used the ideas that there are very few occasions – apart from pitching in softball – where one throws the ball underhand, and that the use of the foot to stop ground balls is not only unorthodox but forbidden by the rules. Eventually we had the nucleus of a softball team and began looking around for someone to play against. There wasn’t anyone. The nearest we got was a team of GB junior champion rounders players who were scheduled to go to Ireland and play against teams there. Their manager asked us to give them a game as they had been told that Irish (or base) rounders was not unlike softball. Despite having lived in Dublin for most of ten years, this was my first conscious exposure to the Irish version of the game that, curiously enough, is recognized by the Gaelic Athletic Association, along with hurling, Gaelic football and handball, as an authentically Gaelic game. It differs from rounders as played in England, using bases rather than posts and most markedly in the pitching, which is underarm fast-pitch from 30 feet with a run up. Not sedate and much more demanding than English rounders.
With no softball opponents handy we began to consider playing baseball, as I knew that there were some clubs spread around the region. I first made contact with a fairly well established team that was then based in Wedmore and would later move to Street and finally to Cheddar. They played in a loose league with clubs ranging from Plymouth, up along the south coast to Exeter and then more or less straddling the M5 corridor as far north as Bristol. We organized a few friendlies against some of these, still playing when at home on the RedGra hockey pitch. A winter meeting of club representatives was convened at a motorway services area near Taunton and it was agreed that a new league would form for the 1994 season.
In its first incarnation Baseball South West consisted of teams based variously in Bristol, Crewkerne, Exeter, Norton Radstock, Plymouth, Teignmouth and Torbay. Over the three years of the league’s existence several of these teams moved, dropped out, changed names or were otherwise fairly fluid.
Throughout its existence our team was called the Crewkerne Cutters – a name reflecting both the cutter class of maritime craft, and the town’s historical connection with various textile industries. For reasons of geographical distance and the costs of registration, it had been agreed that, for the time-being at least, Baseball South West would not affiliate with the British Baseball Federation; thus, in the eyes of the BBF, we were an outlaw league. However, since the governing body (which included several people with whom I was on friendly terms), had, apart from excluding us from various national competitions, no effective sanctions to impose, and could scarcely stop us from playing, we carried on with impunity. The league featured in the regional press and scores and standings were carried each week on Teletext.
Between BSW’s first and second seasons it became urgently apparent to the team and to me especially that we needed a proper diamond. In pursuit of this wish, I opened negotiations with Rusty Jackson, a wonderfully able and estimable woman who was Community Liaison Officer for Wadham School. She was also a sports-minded individual, married to a noted local Rugby Union player. Rusty not only readily allocated a section of the playing fields to us but also seconded to our service the school groundskeeper. He was a grizzled and laconic countryman to whom I outlined the measurements and general layout of a full-sized baseball diamond. Working from the corner of the fields nearest the town, I pegged out the 4 x 90’ diamond and the 60’6” distance to the pitching rubber. It was not possible to completely level the field, which had a slight slope toward left-center, nor was it feasible to cut an entire skin infield, so we resorted to the cookie-cutter design for the base areas. These shapes, along with the regulation circles around home plate and pitchers’ mound, were cut and cleared by the groundskeeper using a hedger and an angled turf-lifting spade. It was he who suggested that some of the lifted turves be piled in the centre of the diamond as a base for the mound. The areas denuded of grass were then covered with several inches of RedGra. This material, for those unacquainted with it, is a mixture of sand and fine gravel. The nearest thing I could locate to proper clay was pulverized brick dust, which was quoted to me at over £1,000 per tonne. RedGra was good enough, although one needed to be pretty Pete Rose-style gung-ho to slide on it. The next requirement was a backstop. Attacking this problem I enlisted the aid of Singleton & Co. a local metal fabricating firm. They soon produced five 20’ poles – rather like scaffold poles but heavier and with a larger bore – each cantilevered at one end with pulley wheels soldered to the top and anchor bolts five feet from the base. With the aid of a good friend of mine, D.K. “Bill” Browne, who was a time-served stonemason and general builder, we dug a semi-circle of five three-foot deep holes and lined them with cement. With the aid of a combination of netting (acquired from Gundry’s, a long-established company based in Bridport) and cord, two people could plant the poles in their footings and raise the netting to the top. Voila. The backstop worked pretty well although high pop fouls did sometimes disappear into the trees, bracken and scrubland behind home plate. I expect there are still some lost balls in the thickets, unless the rabbits have eaten them. We were also allowed use of the school’s line-marking machine and grounds-keeping gear, along with storage space for backstop poles and bases. Our original bases were manufactured by my wife, using squares of dense foam rubber encased in heavy-duty canvas.
All in all, when the whole kaboosh was ready for a game with lines freshly limed, dirt areas smoothed, pristine bases, home plate and pitchers’ rubber in place and backstop raised, it was, without doubt, the premier baseball facility in the South West. All the other teams in the league looked forward to playing there and it was the first choice venue for games requiring a neutral field.
Certainly the high point of Cutters’ Diamond history was the Manny Rubin Cup tournament that took place on 25th September 1995. The cup was named for an American gentlemen who had been based in Plymouth while serving in the U.S. Forces during World War II. He had been a witness to the infamous Slapton Sands debacle and after the War he returned to live in England, where he married a Devon woman. He became a successful manufacturer of sportswear and a director of Plymouth Argyle Football Club. He also bankrolled the development of baseball in the city. He died in 1994 and there was unanimous agreement among the clubs with the Plymouth Pirates suggestion that the BSW cup should be named in his honour. On the day, which was a fine one, the top four teams in the league’s final standings came to Crewkerne with their supporters. There were to be four games played: two semi-finals, a final and a consolation game. The crowd was augmented by a good complement of local people attracted by some publicity, a bit of curiosity, the barbeque stand and a general carnival atmosphere.
When batting practice was finished and the first game – which I was to umpire – about to commence, I looked out over the geometry and colour of the freshly-mown and manicured diamond and beyond the outfield where a whole sweeping vista of countryside was visible, rolling away below the hilltop across the Hamstone country toward the Somerset Levels and the Mendip Hills. I looked at the 50 or so suited-up ballplayers and the 200-plus crowd of spectators and I thought to myself: “Mother of Mercy, Patrick, what have you done!?”
And who were the Crewkerne Cutters who played their home games on this diamond on a hill? Like the clubs in the Baseball South West league, our personnel came and went with some fluidity. Among those who were regulars throughout the club’s existence were Alan Padgett, and the Webb brothers. Alan was a chunky second baseman who, starting more or less from scratch, became a solid performer for the level at which we played. Geoff Webb developed into a dependable outfielder and goodish hitter. He did have a penchant for hitting pop-ups so high that you could brew a pot of tea before they came down. His older brother, Keith, was our regular starting pitcher. He was universally known as Skelly – short for ‘skeleton’ – he having been quite skinny as a child, although he’d filled out considerably with maturity. Skelly, technically speaking, couldn’t throw a ball properly, but he was surprisingly effective as a pitcher. His fastball had a little pop and he threw a zen slider that occasionally broke three feet. He had been cashiered from the Coldstream Guards for having beaten up one of his officers and was literally covered in tattoos. I once asked him what his body art had cost him over the years. “About £10,000, give or take a K,” he replied. What Skelly had was the pitcher’s temperament. Most pitchers – like cricket bowlers – not only want to get the batter out, they want to humiliate him. Skelly had that mean streak. I studied him closely as I was his catcher. The reason I caught was that, at the outset at least, I was the only one who knew what the game was supposed to look like, or had any idea of what the fielders should do in a given situation. Catching took its toll, although anyone who catches at baseball into their mid-50s deserves everything they get. Taking up the squat 150-200 times a game (our pitchers ran to long counts) has left me with an arthritic left hip (since replaced) and a permanently wonky right knee (also recently replaced). The overall level of play in our league can be gauged by the fact that during three seasons as an over-50 player/manager of very modest ability I hit .422.
For personal and family reasons I had to give up active participation in baseball after the 1996 season and, as no one was prepared to carry on running it, the club collapsed. Sometime later I moved with my family away from Crewkerne to Bristol. For several years afterwards, during my occasional passing visits to the town, I avoided climbing Bincombe Hill to the site of the old diamond. By the time I did nerve myself up to do so the field was complete grown over. I couldn’t even find the backstop stanchion footing-holes. The only ghost was that seemingly anomalous hillock that was once a pitchers’ mound.
Note: The above reminiscence originally appeared in an edition of the SABR/UK Examiner published in September 2010.
Further Note: My younger son, Liam, referred to in the above is presently Head Coach of the Great Britain baseball programme.