In Birmingham, Alabama, in my childhood years (the 1940s), there were two professional baseball teams–the Birmingham Barons (all white) and the Black Barons (all black). These two teams alternated performing at Rickwood Field and I went to games fairly regularly. Years after that, I’d learn that the Black Barons were one of the best teams in the Negro League, playing active baseball from 1920 until 1960 when the Major League integrated. I begged to be taken to see the White Barons, as I called them without realizing what I was saying, because I played “pitch” with Kenny from across the street. I also played with myself for extended periods of time, throwing the hard ball against a wall of our house and catching it on the rebound. As a “lefty,” I felt an increasingly familiar sense of not belonging as I watched the grown-up guys throwing and catching right-handedly. One season, however, this experience changed dramatically because the Barons signed on a tall, beefy fellow named Walter “Moose” Dropo. Rather than his being called his listed nickname of Moose, however, he referred to himself as “Walt.” So that’s what I called him as I gradually turned him into my first hero.
Dropo’s parents were immigrants from Yugoslavia (later called Bosnia-Herzegovina) who wound up in Moosup, CT, where Walter was born and reared. He and his two brothers played sand-lot baseball until he went to the University of Connecticut where he starred in baseball, football and basketball (he was 6’5″). Eventually he focused on baseball and wound up playing for many years for the Boston Red Sox. But his career began and developed in Alabama with the Barons. All this is important data, surely, but not what made him so central to my thinking. What stood out for me was the simple but key fact that Walt Dropo was left-handed. His position was as first baseman and anyone who follows the game knows that that gives a player a huge advantage over right-handed first basemen. You can pivot your foot to the base while you way lean out to catch fly balls that come down the right side of the field. Many’s the game in which the Barons won because Dropo’s long, extended left arm allowed him to snag those line-drive foul balls and help retire the opposition for that particular inning. Sports writers of the time often commented on this unique advantage caused by Walt’s not being the “norm” in handedness as being central to his elevation to the majors when the Red Sox called him up from the minors. His most spectacular year with that team was in 1950 when he tied his teammate Vern Stephens for an RBI score of 144–phenomenal in any year or for any team. That year, Walt also won the crown for total bases (326) while achieving a noteworthy batting average of .322. He also managed to hit 34 home runs. As I followed these stats as they accumulated, I also missed not being able to watch him play at Legion Field on a hot Saturday afternoon as I cracked open my shelled and salted peanuts and drank too many Coca-colas.
At Christmas in 1951, my parents made me supremely happy by giving me a first baseman’s mitt signed by Walt Dropo. I hung on to that mitt long after I’d stopped playing pitch with Kenny or myself, even as I lamented and resented the fact that girls were forbidden to play active sports once we hit puberty. Superstition had it that such activity would somehow endanger our chances to be successful mothers, so we had to be content with dodge ball, surely a stupid substitute. During my teenage years, I’d take the mitt out and oil it–just in case–as I realized with an increasing resignation that the older I got as a female person in the South, the more confined became my “field” of activity. But, to this day, I thank Walt Dropo for a major gift he gave without ever knowing it: his being a superb player in spite of being left-handed let me feel for the very first time in my life PROUD of one of my defining characteristics deemed “weird” by many around me.