Jul/Aug 2002 Salon

Concentrating the Mind: Cancer and Donkey Softball

by Paul Sampson

In one of his more breathtaking assumptions of omniscience, Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Well, maybe. I hope I never get to test his proposition literally, and so far my sins have been timid enough to pass beneath the hangman's notice. But I have now been told for the third time that I have a disease that will kill me (unless I submit to certain medical penances, which may or may not save me). So far, this knowledge has scattered, not concentrated, my mind.

I was first told I had cancer about two and a half years ago, when I inquired about a "swollen gland" in my neck. This led to massive surgery involving the loss of my voice box, followed by weeks of radiation that left me scorched and strengthless.

But in due time I recovered, and it seems that the knife and ray gun have killed the throat cancer. I even got back a sort of voice. I had other problems, like being downsized out of a very nice job at an age that apparently makes me unfit for further employment. (Well, not quite, of course. I see many men my age at work in their nice red jackets. They greet me as I enter their workplace: "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" They offer me a cart to carry my purchases in. I could do that!)

Anyway, that was the first time I was told I had cancer. The next came just two years afterward. This time it was in my lung, and once again I shopped around for an experienced surgeon, and once again I donated some tissue to the Pathology lab, which once again confirmed that it was, indeed, cancer. But it was out, gone, history, a bad memory. I didn't have cancer any more, again.

For six months. Now it's back, or rather a new one has been found in the same lung. "But it's very small," the doctor assures me, "and there's only one. No sign of any more anyplace else." Oh, goody.

So in the next couple of weeks, I will see surgeons, radiation oncologists, and God knows whom else, and we will decide on a course of treatment. At this point, it looks like more surgery, and maybe more radiation. This is mildly good news, in that I would like to be spared chemotherapy. A good friend who went through chemo described how he felt: "Like hammered dogshit."

Besides, the oncologist made it sound like chemotherapy for this particular kind of cancer isn't of much use. That's good to know; there is a tendency to grab every weapon in a fight like this, and some of them are harder on you than on the adversary. In this case, the doctors said, surgery is the most promising tool, although radiation is also a possibility. The trouble with surgery is that it can only be done a few times, and then you are out of lung to have cancer in; this is not a good trade-off. Still, you can have more than one go at treatment before you run out of ammo.

It's amazing what can qualify as good news. Hearing that your cancer may very well recur is modified by hearing that your treatment could be repeated. Hot dog! And, of course, science marches on, and promising new treatments are being tested even as we speak. All I have to do is live long enough to get one of the next generation of therapies. Believe me, I'll do my best.

But enough of the clinical news. I started out by entertaining some skepticism about Dr. Johnson's famous observation about concentrating the mind. According to him, my mind should be whittled down like the point of a pencil. I'm sorry, but all this morbid news has the opposite effect on me. I have certainly had to give mortality a lot of thought, and even some practical attention like making a "living will" and so on.

But concentrated thought? Not so far. Maybe you have to get down to a court-determined fortnight, like Johnson's gallows-bound wretch. Even he, I will guess, found his mind fluttering like a bat in a bedroom, trying every which way to get out, to think of anything but the one thing.

So off I flutter, and one of the things I think of on this hot summer day is baseball, and one form of baseball I think of is softball, and that (of course) leads me to a donkey named Sweetpea. Hang on. This will take a little while, but we'll get there.

It began with some flippant remarks about fat athletes. Unwisely, a football fan called baseball a haven for out of shape athletes, and I had to point out that nobody in professional baseball, with the exception of managers and coaches, was shaped anything like the lardbuckets who serve as interior linemen in the National Football League.

But active baseball players with really remarkable bellies? Naah. Well, I'll grant you a few exceptions, aging beneficiaries of the Designated Hitter heresy. But when I watch a ball game, especially in person rather than TV, I notice that the players generally are shaped like I was until something strange happened to my metabolism in my late 30s.

But now that I think of it, some of the most remarkable softball players I ever saw were absolute whales. In Chicago, we played a version of softball with a 16-inch ball, the size of a cannonball. You don't use gloves in this game, by the way. The ball is hard as a stone in the early innings but if it doesn't kill anybody by about the fourth or fifth everyone is safe, as the ball gets pounded into a pillow. Bases are only 60 feet apart. Pitches are (by rule) very slow—the pitch has to arc at least six feet high or it's called a ball. Thus the premium is on hitting. It's a slugger's game. A big guy can get hold of one of these fat, slow pitches and murder it.

The oversized ball is of course a poor ballistic object, but a big fellow can drive it over 300 feet. That's further than anyone can throw the damn thing, so even slow runners can score home runs if they can hit the ball far enough (outfield fences are virtually unknown in Chicago public park ball fields, so balls that get past an outfielder roll forever).

Teams in 16-inch softball are sponsored mainly by saloons, which stoke up their heroes on whatever is on tap at the home pub. This is Chicago, so the local potion is probably Pabst Blue Ribbon or Schlitz or Hamm's or Heilemann's Old Style. (Some of these may have died out—I haven't lived in Chicago since 1978 and quit drinking in 1985, so my info on beer brands is dated.) Players have been known to arrive well fueled and to continue being medicated during games. Many are large men with the kind of front porch that gave "beer belly" its name.

In spite of the size of the ball and slow speed of the pitches, it's surprisingly hard to get a clean hit in 16-inch softball (possibly having to do with the beer intake). So infield play is important, and the smaller, faster players often shine at shortstop and second base, and at an extra position that is featured in this version of baseball: short-center fielder, an extra infielder who plays up the middle. Foot speed and throwing ability is prized in outfielders too, but less than sheer hitting power, which brings us back to the beer-swilling fatso as star athlete. Until you have seen some tubbo lay into a 16-inch softball and launch it over the head of the center fielder to land in the middle of someone else's ball game at the other end of the park, please reserve judgement about the place of the circumferentially well-endowed in competitive sport.

Now: on to donkey ball. Donkey baseball is a perverse entertainment that used to flourish in the South and Midwest when I was a little lad in the years after World War II. (It is still available, but now rare; I'll stick to my memories rather than try to report on the current state of the art.) The promoter traveled with a string of trained donkeys, which performed at slow-pitch softball games between local teams. These games drew reasonably good crowds, by the way, and the crowds paid actual money to see the games.

Here's how it worked: The promoter, who doubled as field announcer, introduced the teams, and bellowed "Up on your asses, men!" (This was about the limit of permissible vulgarity in those days.) Each defensive player except pitcher and catcher was mounted on (or at least stood next to) a donkey. Other specialized donkeys were assigned to base runners. When a ball was hit, the batter had to jump aboard his donkey and try to propel it toward first base. The fielder who retrieved the ball had to mount his donkey to throw it to attempt to put the batter out. You may imagine the efficiency of this operation, and perhaps you think the batter might have an advantage.

But no. The base-running donkeys were fiendishly perverse and would do things like gallop frantically up to a base and then stop, refusing to tag up and make the runner safe. Or they would pull special tricks, like one beast (named Sweetpea, by the way; he bit me once) who would hold his head back until the rider shortened up on the reins, then jerk his head forward, pulling the rider over his head to the ground. If this failed, he would simply sit down, dumping the rider to the rear. Either way, a trip aboard Sweetpea was apt to be short.

I was too young to play, but I (like most of my friends) was hired to pass out handbills in the neighborhood to drum up crowds. "Paid" is a loose term. The wage was a dollar at most, plus a pass to the game and—best of all—the additional privilege of leading the donkeys from their corral onto the field at the start of the game (That's when Sweetpea nailed me).

The handbills we distributed (or did not; my brother reminds me that some of us urchins dumped them down a drain as soon as we were out of adult view) were real folk art, and I would love to have one now. They featured pictures of the game, pretty well drawn in the style of sports cartoons of the time. One vignette showed an infielder who had tumbled off his donkey next to a lumpy pile of... something. His speech balloon read: "Now where did this mud come from? It ain't rained for days!!!" Again, this tested the limits of free speech at the time.

The game itself was an American version of the old Italian commedia del'arte. Like the Old World art, donkey ball was played for easy laughs at stereotyped pratfalls. But hey, how much subtlety do you expect from a bunch of donkeys? Or from 17th Century Italian street actors, for that matter?

One regular skit within the game involved substituting a cantaloupe for the ball. (The cantaloupe was locally called a mushmelon, by the way. This folk name is actually closer to the correct name of the fruit, muskmelon, than the fancy name.) This skullduggery was mimed elaborately, making it obvious to all but the stone blind. The batter was supposed not to notice, of course. He was required to look surprised when the melon exploded in his face when he hit it. A sure-fire laugh.

All in all, a great American experience, and if you missed it, too bad, because it gets harder to find each year. The kind of micro-impresario who was willing to run such an enterprise is being phased out by his MBA children, and the Animal Rights police, not celebrated for their sense of humor, have their beady eyes fixed on this harmless pastime. But for now, you have your choice of two donkey-ball outfits. Try the Buckeye Donkey Ball Co. of Marengo, OH, or Circle A Donkeys of Henry, TN. Ask them if they ever played Shewbridge Field in Chicago around 1949, and tell them I didn't stuff their handbills in the storm drain. I have a pretty good idea who did, though.


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