I only remember one occasion that I felt ashamed of my father. I was nine years old and it involved baseball, my consuming passion at the time.
Wallace had tried to discourage me from “trying out” for Little League. He was afraid I wouldn’t “make the team,” but I was insistent. He mentioned something about one of my sisters crying after not making some team -- school basketball, I guess. I shouldn’t come crying to him when it happened, he said, but I was insistent and he relented.
Some of my classmates had already played a year before I could start, because I was the youngest person in my grade, so I knew it wasn’t possible to not “make the team” of which there were twelve. I also knew something else my father didn’t, which was that I could play some ball.
I knew I could play some ball from competition at recess and after school, where I could stay as long as I wanted because I walked to and from it on a trail through Mr. Barrett’s woods. There were other “walkers” to play ball with at Holly Springs Elementary, and some of the best players had no choice but to stay after school because they rode the “Sixes” bus which couldn’t board until a bus had completed its forty-five minute “Toonigh” run and returned for them.
I had also virtually memorized the “Baseball” entry in my World Book Encyclopedia, and read every book remotely involving baseball in the little school’s library. I dazzled my elders in the Temple of Baseball Lore. They could name a good player from their childhood and I could tell them definitively whether that player was in the Hall of Fame. The “Black Sox Scandal” and “The House that Ruth Built” were things I relived with shame and pride even though they’d occurred a generation or two before my birth. I sifted through the box scores of every game in the paper. Then there was “The Game of the Week” from which I gathered tidbits from Pee-Wee and Old Diz. I could tell you how many stitches are on a baseball (“a hunerd and eight, podner”) and sing the Falstaff Beer jingle.
My father, I was to learn, knew next to nothing about baseball.
At one of the first practices with the Bears, my first team, I was playing second base when somebody fouled a ball into the stands behind third where my father sat watching. He retrieved the ball and threw it back in -- there’s no other way to say this that could capture my horror at the time -- like a girl.
I don’t know how long I stood there stunned before my face flushed. I’m fairly certain that if the next pitch had been hit my way, it could have smacked me in the side of the head before I moved.
If you don’t know what throwing like a girl means, it’s a fairly sure bet that you yourself throw like a girl, and more likely than not are, or were, a girl, or maybe an Eskimo. This is far less true now that stereotypes and sports opportunities for females have changed, but in 1960 there was only one girl in my school who didn’t throw like a girl, and she was a born athlete.
My father threw like a girl, I realized after I had digested this information, because he’d never played baseball. It’s entirely possible he was an adult before he ever saw anyone -- child or adult -- play the game of baseball.
I can assure you there were no baseball fields on Jack’s River. The game of baseball before Babe Ruth in the 1910’s, when my father was the age I was when I learned the game, was far from the national obsession it was to become, and then, before radio, Jack’s River was largely sequestered from what went on in flatland America.
More importantly, baseball is not a game well suited to mountainous forest land. A very small percentage of major league players traditionally have come from Appalachia; they came disproportionately from flat farm and pasture lands where summers and days were long.
Prior to that day when he threw the foul ball back, I had thought that my father, Preacher Millsaps, in spite of being fifteen or twenty years older than my friend’s parents, could do anything as well or better than any of them. None of my teammates mentioned it, surprising considering how cruel boys are to each other at that age, maybe for the same reason Wallace and I never discussed it -- it was just too embarrassing. It would have been like making fun of someone for having only one leg. Throwing a baseball well was that central to our notion of respectable male identity.
There would of course come a time when I looked back and was ashamed of my nine-year-old self for being ashamed of my father for not being able to do what he’d never needed to learn, but long before that, from the day it happened onward, there was a chink in his armor, and for all I knew there could be others.