As the Catamounts prepare to defend their regular season title, a former bat boy takes a stroll down baseball’s memory lane
As a sports-minded youngster who had the unique honor of growing up, literally, on the campus of Western Carolina University (College, back then), I had the opportunity to participate in the Catamount baseball program since about the fourth grade.
In the early 1960s, I was a student at Cullowhee School, which at that time was located in McKee Building. The college played its baseball games right behind our school, roughly where the A.K. Hinds University Center is now situated. The weekday baseball games started at 3 p.m., but we didn’t get out of school until about 3:10 p.m. or so. For those of us who were interested, we performed a quiet but ritualistic countdown ceremony, then dashed out of the back of McKee just as soon as we could, heading for the baseball field.
We were on our way to volunteer our services to the Cats. The first kid who got there earned the privilege of being Western’s batboy, while the second served in the same position for the opposing school. The rest of us were destined to chase foul balls.
We went about our business with great pride, taking it all in with the seriousness of a Major League bat boy retrieving lumber for Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Henry Aaron. What a rare combination of for-love-of-the-game and just plain old “havin’ fun.”
When we took care of the bats, we had the best seats at the ballpark – on the top steps of the dugouts waiting for our call to service. Likewise, while chasing foul balls might have sounded mundane, even boring, nothing could be further from the truth. It was our duty, our privilege, to chase down the balls whether they landed in the bank behind the field or somewhere within the long line of pine trees that ran down the third base line.
The memories will live on for the rest of my days, whether they’re of handing out bats or taking baseballs to the home plate umpire. The memories also drift to the nonphysical realm, including smells such as the combination of dirt, sweat, tobacco juice, rosin, bubble gum and the occasional incoming rain storms that are always a part of this outdoor game.
Regardless of which position we fulfilled, batboy or foul ball-chaser, we took our tasks seriously. After all, there were rewards for us after the game. When the final out was made, win or lose, our gang of helpers would gather around the equipment door at the end of the WCC dugout down the first-base line. Either the coach or one of his designees would thank us for our hard work, slowly open the door that covered up baseball-related treasures, then judiciously hand out our pay – splintered wooden bats held together with small tacks and adhesive tape and water-logged baseballs that had seen better days.
While these things were cast off by the college, they were worth their weight in gold to us. At the height of my “job” as an equipment specialist, I probably owned eight or nine Louisville Slugger bats made by the Hillerich & Bradsby company and more than a dozen scuffed-up, dirty and ripped baseballs.
Cast-offs, indeed! These were highly precious mementos of the game we loved, of the Cats we adored as our local heroes and of the college we admired.
The bats I still own to this very day have the endorsement signatures of such baseball greats as Ted Williams, Harmon Killebrew and Ralph Kiner. Along with those names is the wood-burned message that these pieces of sports equipment have been “powerized” by the manufacturer back in Louisville, Kentucky.
It was from the well-worn balls, some lacking a complete cover, that I learned the anatomy of a baseball. A million miles of string surrounding a small rubber ball. What a scientific discovery. Top that, Thomas Edison!
To this day, I still cherish my Western Carolina baseball remembrances. The baseballs are now gone, probably spread throughout the old sandlots in and around Cullowhee. But the several bats I possess even now display the burned-in-wood name of my school: “WCC” and “Western Carolina.” I keep these sticks locked up in the storage shed behind the house, still resting in my dad’s old World War II duffle bag, waiting to be swung one more time for old time’s sake.
One of the bats, the Ralph Kiner model, I’ve had placed in a golden cedar shadowbox frame with, appropriately enough, a regal-looking purple cloth background. What better way to honor a piece of sports memorabilia that contains so many good memories from my childhood? What better way to build up a lifetime of memories than to be a bat boy/foul ball chaser?
Danny Hirt ’73 comes from a long lineage of WCU supporters. Mother Lillian Hirt ’66 served as Western’s public information officer until the early 1970s and father Julian Hirt ’53 taught physics and science education here. Brother David Hirt attended WCU in the late 1960s and early 1970s.