The game was in the bottom of the sixth inning. Junior was at the plate for the Little Indians. It was the biggest game of his young life. He was eleven years old and playing for the "Little World Series" championship in League Park, the same place where Babe Ruth belted his five hundredth home run, Joe DiMaggio hit safely in his record fifty-sixth straight game, and Junior's hero Bob Feller was pitching his way to Cooperstown.
Junior was younger and smaller than most of his teammates, but he was a good second baseman. He had a strong throwing arm, and he was fast. So far in the game, he'd made an out and a couple of assists, but he didn't have a hit in two at-bats and he wanted one. Badly.
The count was 1 and 2. With just one inning to go, this would likely be his last chance to get on base. He looked at Little Cardinals pitcher Fronek winding up. The pitch looked high, the type of pitch that always gave him trouble. It whizzed by. The umpire called, "Strike three." Junior looked up at him quizzically, certain the ball came in outside the strike zone, but, for once, he didn't challenge the call. He said nothing. The inning was over.
Disappointed, he walked slowly toward the dugout, his forehead crinkled into a frown, his head down.
Mrs. Morhard didn't flinch as he passed by on the way to the field with his teammates. She was proud of the way he handled himself. A few years earlier, his temper would have taken over and he would have acted very differently in a situation like this.
She checked her scorecard. A couple of the boys on the Little Indians hadn't played yet, and she had a league rule that every boy needed a chance to play, so she juggled the Little Indians lineup to make sure all the players on the team would get in. Then, she bolted from the dugout, blew her whistle, and marched across the field to the Little Cardinals dugout. She told the Little Cardinals' manager he needed to get all his players in the game too. The Cards manager objected, his hands flying in the air, his head bobbing up and down as he talked. His best players were on the field. They needed to stay in if they were to win the game! Mrs. Morhard insisted. That was the rule. Every boy on both teams needed a chance to play.
Her unconventional approach to boys' baseball had its roots in her own unconventional life. She was one of seventeen children of an immigrant farmer who kept having children so he'd have enough help on the farm. She left home when she was still a child, fighting her way through the black holes of poverty, misogyny, sexual assault, and thievery that often devoured young girls on their own. She married outwardly successful men and hobnobbed with celebrities only to watch her husbands throw away their good fortune on liquor and women. She was a twice-divorced mother of two in a time when that was a rarity and women like her were often stigmatized. She struggled to run a meat market and raise her two children on her own through the Great Depression. Her life was a microcosm of the extraordinary times in which she lived.
In her leagues, women as well as men managed baseball teams (and sometimes scoured the local bars for their wayward husbands). There were rules every player had to abide by, and sportsmanship, respect, and fairness were mandated on the field and off. To her, baseball was more than a game. It was a way to help her son recover from a childhood marred by his father's drunken, violent eruptions. It was a way to help all her young boys avoid the perils she'd encountered, and teach them fundamental values to help them grow up to become good men. Winning wasn't all that mattered. Baseball was a way to help the boys grow up right.
Mrs. Morhard headed back across the field to the home team dugout for the seventh and last inning. She knew the Little Cardinals' manager was angry with her, but both teams had the same rules, and she was making sure the Little Indians complied too.
As she looked around the vast ballpark, she was proud—and happy. She was making a difference in these boys' lives, especially Junior's. He was eleven, going on twelve, almost the same age she was when she walked away from her home and family. She was giving him the childhood she never had.
It was an unseasonably warm 84 degrees at the ballpark. The score remained 42 in favor of the Little Cardinals. There was one inning to play.