The campfire hissed and crackled in indignation as a brown gob of tobacco and saliva landed in it. The spitter who had just moseyed up to the fire’s warmth was a hulking man, bare chested, clad in overalls with one strap down. He had a face full of red fur, yet his head was as smooth as a sparrow’s egg. Most whispered that he had to shave his skull, or his ever-present Tammany bowler derby simply wouldn’t fit. No one had mustered the nerve to ask Swede Berrigan if that truly was the case.
“What are you boys up to? Telling ghost stories?” No one had to look up to see the sneer that they knew accompanied his jibes.
“Nothing at all Swede. What you been doing?” Replied one of the miners that lay in various stages of exhaustion around the fire.
“Off taking care of a man’s business while you boys sit here gossiping like a bunch of east coast ladies!”
Silas Skinner ignored the big man’s insult and shot back, “A man’s business? Did you find yerself a sweet young sheep Mr. Berrigan?”
The reply was so unlikely, so uncharacteristic for the quiet unassuming cobbler from Philadelphia, that even the big man was stunned to a momentary silence. But only for a moment.
“What did you say you little broomstick? I’ll snap you in half for looking at me!” bellowed the red-haired giant as he started for Silas with murder in his eyes.
“Swede! Hold up now!” luckily for Silas Skinner the voice belonged to the only person that could keep Berrigan from killing the young man.
“Why?” Swede had stopped his advance but still held his murderous eyes on Skinner.
“Think about it Swede! Just imagine us tomorrow, on our home square, facing the loggers only eight men against their nine?” Cal Rooney rose slowly to his feet as he pleaded his case. Rooney was not only the camp boss of the eleven-claim cooperative, but he was team captain of the miner’s town ball team as well. “You know good well Porter and Grimes both pulled up their stakes and abandoned their claims. That means there’s only nine of us left Swede. Nine men to field a full team, right?”
The light of understanding flickered in the big man’s eyes, and the steam seemed to blow off, taking the madness in his eyes with it. “So, the little man from Philadelphia, who’s proven himself worthless at finding the gold that we are, indeed, here to find, possesses one redeeming quality. He’s the best damn ball giver that we’ve got.”
A general murmur of approval circled its way through the men around the fire. The young cobbler possessed a style of delivering the ball that left many a striker mystified at its late movement. With a sweeping underhand motion, he could make the soft lumpy ball move like a hummingbird eying a sweet flower.
“Mr. Cartwright said Silas was a better ball giver than any of his boys back in New York.” claimed Lank Cooper, a tall and speedy young man from St. Louis who played scout on the town ball team. His reference was to Alexander Cartwright, a New Yorker bound for the California gold rush on a wagon train out of Independence, Missouri. The nine miners left trying to squeeze a nugget from the bend in the creek that was their collective claim had all been a part of that journey. Along the way Mr. Cartwright had schooled all who were willing and able to participate in the new game of town ball. It was the rage in the big cities back east, and soon a staple of entertainment and physical activity for the men heading west to earn their fortunes.
“I still say that there’s not a ball that can be thrown that I won’t tick!” bragged Swede to turn the attention back to him. He glowered at Skinner. The quiet unassuming man had rankled Swede from the moment the trip started. The bookish shoemaker held none of the traits that Berrigan held in esteem, and as a bartender back in Boston, he was certainly used to a rougher type than Silas Skinner. Silas felt the big man’s gaze, so he kept his eyes downcast. He was as surprised as anyone that he had dared to insult Swede, but after the long journey west, and the four unproductive months that the men had worked their claim, his patience for the man’s bullying ways had worn thin.
Cal Rooney kept standing, and the men’s chatter died to a whisper when they sensed that the boss had something to say. The flames from the fire lit his face against the California night sky, and he made certain that he had everyone’s attention before he spoke.
“Men, it’s 1850. There’s a reason they call those other fellows forty-niners. Because they got here before 1849! Found most of the gold too. You and I both know that there’s not a speck of placer gold left in this bend of the creek.”
The men around the fire all took stock of the toll that the fool’s quest had taken on their bodies. Hands that were reddened with knuckles split by working the water day in and day out. Boots that had survived the prairie crossing were now literally falling off their feet. Trips to the mercantile upstream had dwindled along with their funds. Not one of them hadn’t poked a notch or two in their belts to keep their pants from falling off, but lately the meals had been too spare to satisfy even the slightest of them.
“The question comes,” continued the boss, “how are we supposed to keep up with the big boys and their hydraulic rigs? With our pans and rockers and toms? They are backed by money that we don’t have, using equipment that we could never afford. All the gold that’s left is up the riverbanks, and they’re proving it!”
Lank Cooper spoke up. “But at what cost boss? Have you seen what their water cannons do to a hillside? Strips it to the bare bones and leaves it dead to bleach in the sun!”
“I heard tales of the gold they’re pulling out too! I could hire on as labor and make more doing the same thing I’m doing here!” shouted a man who was motivated enough to raise up on one elbow from his prone position.
“You go ahead Bob. Just make sure you’re here tomorrow to play behind with Skinner the ball giver.”
“That I wouldn’t miss Boss. The game’s grown on me. Playing a game on Sunday gets me through the other six. But after that, Monday I’m gone off to find a paying job. No disrespect, it’s just that I don’t think this old creek ever heard of gold before, let alone has any.”
The fire burned down lower than the spirits of the nine miners, as their minds settled on what had been left behind. Many of them had family back east, and to return empty-handed from their literal abandonment was a heart wrenching thought to carry. One by one the men retreated to their tents and the solace of their bedrolls. A knot popped in the dying fire, scattering sparks. No one was left to admire its display.
Silas Skinner lit his kerosene lamp, then pulled a box from beneath his cot. Unmarried at twenty-three he had been bitten by the bug of excitement that was generated by the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. He was a frugal man of modest means, but even then, he made sacrifices so that he could save the fare needed for passage out west. After a year he had saved enough to strike out. He left Philadelphia for Independence, Missouri with the clothes on his back and the wooden box he now lifted reverently from its spot. Silas opened the hinged lid and began to extract the contents with the utmost of care. Just opening the box transported him to his previous existence. Silas had always been a quiet dreamer, too shy to share his grandiose ideas. His latest dream already had transported him beyond this meager existence. Sparked by the leisure lessons of Mr. Cartwright on the trek west, Silas saw how men were taken by the game of town ball. He knew that back in Philadelphia the game was still gaining in popularity. In his dream he saw thousands gathered to cheer on the sport, and he would play a part in it. Tonight, he was going to complete his dream, and the cheers in his head would become real. He set to task with the tools of his trade to complete his vision, working long into the night.
The day was bright as the miners prepared themselves for the game with grim determination. The conclusion from last night’s campfire conference was that the dream was over. Most of the men had no idea of their path forward, so they faced the day as more than a game. They faced the day as one more opportunity to hold their heads up, to call themselves winners. A team of eleven loggers had arrived early and were in various stages of preparation. The ball being tossed was a loose interpretation of the “lemon peel” ball that Mr. Cartwright had introduced on the prairie. Soft and squishy, it prevented the striker from ticking it with any significant force. It was difficult to throw accurately but soft enough to prevent any serious injuries when a runner was soaked. Anywhere the runner was struck on his body would make him be out, so a throw to the head was perfectly acceptable. The four stakes marking the square were rightly placed and clearly visible to all. After a time there was a call for both team captains to meet at the home base, which was situated halfway between the first and the fourth bases. Several men from both sides gathered at the base, but it was Swede Berrigan that spoke for the miners.
“You boys can clearly see that our field is free from all obstructions, and the river is an unattainable distance from the square. We defy the new rules changes being adopted in the east and insist that there is no foul territory. Any ball ticked can be played by the defense and advanced by the offense. Clear?”
“No problem with that at all Swede.” answered Jacque Ferrar, the captain of the loggers. “Want to use this lemon peel? It’s in pretty good shape.”
Before Swede could reply, Silas knew that he had to interrupt, or his moment might be lost.
“Wait!” he cried out as he raced to home base. He went directly to Jacque Ferrar, ignoring the sputtering protests of his own captain. He pressed his creation into the bearded logger’s hand. “Would you consider using a new ball I made? I call it a base ball.”
The big man held the ball up in the sun, rolling it in his fingers. Silas watched a startled look of scorn melt into a curious examination.
“Why the fancy sewing? he asked Silas.
“With my design the outside of the ball is created by stitching together two identical pieces of leather. Much more durable than what we’re used to.”
“Let me see that!” Swede rudely swiped the sphere from the logger’s hand and hefted it in his. “This ball’s not only harder but it’s a bit heavier than the usual.” He tossed it up in the air and caught it. “Ridiculous. I’m a base tender. The first time I have to soak a runner for an out I’m liable to murder him!” He tossed the ball back to Silas.
“But…” Silas flipped the ball to Jacque, “I figure a man,” not taking his eyes from Swede’s, “might tick that ball twice as far as he ever did before. Say a man, prone to powerful hitting?” He brazenly blinked at the big barkeep.
“I suppose he might.” Swede said with a nod. “You boys okay to try this ball out?”
The men of the mining camp played the game like their tails were on fire, but all agreed that the new ball had an influence on the game’s outcome. Ball givers were generally getting bashed, and the scouts out in the field were running after balls all day. The base tenders hands were certainly tender, but they persevered stoically to a 14-14 tie. Silas started the loggers last at bat by getting Jacque to tick the ball foul in the air, where Jake McGinnis playing the fourth base made a diving one-handed grab. The next batter made the ball roll meekly towards Silas who scooped it up and soaked the runner well short of the first base. The miners held their breath as a booming hit was lofted deep out of the field. Running at full tilt Lank Cooper scooped the ball from the air for the out.
The miners started their last at bat with two quick outs. Then the loggers were suddenly stricken by the “drops”. No fault of Skinner’s ball at all, two of the logger tenders made drops after the miners first striker reached the first base safely. A sharply hit ball bounced off the ball giver’s hands, loading all four bases. Still stinging from the deflection, the ball giver looked with dread at who approached the plate. Swede Berrigan, dusty bowler perched on his head, approached the home base with a veritable tree limb. Swede had fashioned his “war club” from a Hickory limb with a hatchet.
Everyone on the field followed the ball’s arc from the pitcher’s hand to the plate. His underhand lob seemed to pause in the bright blue California sky, before it dove towards the behind, who reached out to grab the ball that never arrived. Most there that day froze at the mere sound of the bat hitting the ball. Later a spectator present said it sounded like the “crack of thunder”. The ball rose high and far, freer than the spirit of the Gold Rush. The runners finally woke from their stupor and raced to the next base. Their haste was unnecessary, as the ball cleared the nearest scout, bounding towards the creek. With one last hop the ball jumped into the cold running water.
The logger’s heads dropped in defeat as the roar of the miners filled their camp. The tired men jumped up and down like the boys that they were still. Only one scream rose above the others, not in exultation but in horror.
“My ball!” Silas sprinted across the square and out of the field towards the creek. There were no thoughts of victory now as all that he had worked so hard to create was gone. All attention had turned to Silas and his frenzied flight. With the adrenaline still pumping and Silas’ scarecrow gait it became too much for his teammates. First one let slip a guffaw, which led to a chuckle, and soon the whole team was laughing loudly at their teammate’s antics.
Silas skidded to a stop at the bank of the creek, wondering if his ball would have traveled downstream with the current at all, and if so, how far it might have gone. He scanned the water frantically, like he’d dropped a newborn baby in the water. Suddenly he froze, oblivious to the laughing crowd approaching. His mind told him that it was a minnow flashing by underwater, sparkling back the sun. He squinted but couldn’t make out the bottom’s details, so he stepped carefully into the icy water, bending at the waist. As the silt settled, he could make out the curve of an object.
“My ball!” He plunged his hand into the water and fished out his leather treasure. Just as he was lifting it from the water he saw the flash again, but this time thought. “A gold minnow”? This time when he reached in, he pulled out a rock nearly the size of his ball. He stared at it numbly. The California sun glinted off the nugget’s golden surface.
“Skinner, did you find your ball? That thing is going to be a gold mine!”
“Eureka, I have found it!” Skinner raised one hand to the sky, revealing the lost ball. A cheer went up from the crowd. “And my new ball…IS a gold mine!”
He slowly raised his other hand to hold the massive nugget aloft. Its sparkle caught the eye of all, and it hypnotized them, coaxing a collective “Ohhhhh” from the crowd.
If you visit The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, you will find no display immortalizing the impact on the game that Skinner’s ball had. No plaque to immortalize his vision or perseverance. No evidence whatsoever that he played a part in the evolution of America’s pastime. However, if you attend The Hall on a sunny Sunday afternoon and can find a quiet space to be alone for a moment, you might hear a faint cry in the distance.
“Eureka, I have found it!”