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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Baseball, Family and History

At a ball field carved out of the coal-filled mountains of Pennsylvania, Johnny Pitts stepped to the plate.  It was the summer of 1898 in Locustdale, PA ... a town that exists solely because of the anthracite veins that run beneath the ground.  Pitts was a small but wiry man.  He spent his weekdays toiling in the mines -- a job he started as a breaker boy at the age of eight.  It was a dark and dangerous existence.  But on this day, the world was bright.
anthracite coal region
Breaker boys in Schuylkill County, PA

In February, Johnny had married the love of his life, Stella Horbach.  And on this day, Johnny was playing the game that would grow to become America's pastime.  As Johnny Pitts dug in at the plate, his world was bright.  But, in an instant, it turned dark.

Pitts was unable to avoid a fastball that was high and inside.  A sickening thud echoed through the valley as the baseball struck Pitts in the head.  He dropped motionless to the ground.  Although the severity of the injury was not yet known, Pitts' teammates, men who also earned their daily bread in the mines, were enraged by what they considered to be a violent and intentional act by the opposing pitcher.  The anger of the Locustdale squad was not the fake bravado of today's players who wander onto the field to exchange pleasantries in what passes for a brawl in the 21st century.  Pitts' teammates attempted to lynch the pitcher who had rendered their teammate and co-worker unconscious.  It was actually the newlywed Stella who intervened to save the pitcher while her husband's life still hung in the balance on the field.

Johnny Pitts remained in a coma for many days ... possibly weeks.  Medical records from the coal region in 1898 are hazy, at best.  Perhaps more dangerous than the pitch that struck his head or any day in the mine was the surgery the doctors performed to save Pitts' life.  A steel plate was installed in his head.  Miraculously, Pitts recovered completely.  He resumed work in the mines and lived to the age of 77.

Anthracite Coal Region
Baseball that beaned Johnny Pitts in 1898
Is Johnny Pitts the only man who ever suffered a life threatening injury playing sports?  No.  Is he the only man who sought refuge from strenuous labor in the joy of baseball?  Certainly not.  So, why do I share this story?  Because Johnny Pitts is my great great grandfather.  And just recently, my grandmother gave me the ball that nearly ended his life before the rest of my family line could be born.

Johnny Pitts died nearly a half century before I was born, yet looking at that ball, I feel connected not just to the history of my family but to the history of the great game of baseball.  I grew up in the same coal fields where Johnny Pitts lived and worked and played.  My grandfather, a local baseball legend in his own right, took me to the old ball field in Locustdale.  And, he let me hit a baseball there, although it was overgrown with weeds and peppered with rocks at the time.  That was probably 25 years ago.  I've since moved away and started my own life.  But, when I watch baseball to this day, the experience is about more than just the one game on my TV screen.  It's about staying connected the sports roots that run deep in our country and in my family.  And, it's about being connected to all of you who are nodding in agreement as you read this paragraph.


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