by Tom Batell
From the time he was fourteen, the year he began pitching for the Springview American Legion baseball team, everyone knew Lefty VanPeltt would turn pro. He was that good.
Now in the final weeks of his senior year at tiny Williamsburg High School, he stood six foot five and weighed two hundred ten. Conditioned by daily farm chores throughout his childhood, he was ready. All that stood between him and the glory of a shot at a professional baseball career was the month of May.
Williamsburg High School, like the town of Williamsburg, was pure rural Midwestern. Adjacent to the campus was a cornfield. In fact, the town itself was a mere oasis in a sea of fields stretching for miles in all directions, a vista broken only by roadways, wood lots, fences, and farmsteads.
Two churches, one white wood frame with a towering pointed spire, the other stone and brick, stood sentry at opposite corners of the village.
A post office, an implement dealer connected to a feed store, a grocery with a general merchandise annex, an electric co-op and a gas station lined what people thought of as Main Street. Out by the main highway, a combination tavern/restaurant beckoned travelers to stop by for a beverage and a sandwich. Several dozen houses (no new ones built within the last three years) sheltered 383 souls according to the 1950 census.
This was the uncomplicated but apparently nurturing environment in which Lefty VanPeltt grew to maturity.
The legend says he discovered his throwing prowess while waiting for the morning school bus. He threw rocks at fence posts, road signs, and perched birds. Soon he noticed that he had a throwing accuracy and power beyond that of other boys his age. He accepted that as normal because he was taller and stronger than most. This contributed to a cool self-confidence when he took the mound in later years against opposing batters. This natural poise also spilled over into all other areas of his life.
What kept him routinely throwing rocks, baseballs, and whatever else lent itself to becoming a projectile was that the act of throwing itself was enjoyable. It was that reflexive enjoyment a carpenter receives when hammering nails. In the heat of a game, it was like the high, the second wind a runner acquires as endorphins in massive quantities are released into the bloodstream of a body under stress.
Just like a kid might shoot baskets for hours on end in response to a feeling of sheer liberation that physical exertion brings, Lefty never tired of aiming and throwing, aiming and throwing.
In the spring of his eighth-grade year, even though this had never been done before, the high school arranged for him to pitch for the varsity baseball team. High school baseball seasons in this part of the country were brief. Games were played in April and May...if it didn't rain or snow.
Lefty was immediately victorious, pitching shutouts and striking out 15 or more batters in a seven-inning game. And word soon got around.
In June following his ninth-grade year, people from the larger city of Springview recruited him to pitch for their American Legion team. Now American Legion Baseball has always been pretty good baseball. American Legion teams are selective because they usually draw their starting nine from a geographic area that includes several high school districts. Teams often compete statewide and across state lines. The players represent a region's all stars, and their play shows it.
So for four or five years Lefty VanPeltt became increasingly well-known among sports fans in this part of the state. After he went pro following high school graduation, no one from Williamsburg before or after was more famous.
But this is not a story about Lefty VanPeltt's success or failure as a professional baseball player. Rather it is a story about a single play in a long forgotten high school baseball game decades ago.
It is the smallest grain in the sands of time.
It was a cold Tuesday afternoon that May. Crunching the gravel beneath it, a yellow school bus bearing 13 ball players from District 212 slowly rolled to a stop. The players and the coach disembarked, and the bus searched for a place to park from which the driver could remain aboard sheltered from the stinging wind and watch the game, or maybe doze, far more comfortably than those few braving the bleachers.
The Williamsburg players were taking some quick batting practice, about five swings each. Their coach trotted off the field to shake hands with the Oakdale coach and exchange pleasantries and sports gossip.
And there he was, Lefty VanPeltt, standing tall and shagging flies out in left field, yelling and joking with teammates. He was relaxed and among friends he had known all of his 18 years.
He would pitch this game. His team was 17 wins and 1 loss; but his pitching record in this his senior year was a perfect 15 and 0.
The Oakdale record wasn't bad either: 11 and 3.
So there you have it. Two small high schools playing baseball on a diamond adjacent to a newly-plowed cornfield on a chilly windy day in May.
It would be a seven-inning game, weather and light permitting. Both pitchers were in top form...or so it seemed. The difference was that while Lefty VanPeltt struck out most of his opposition batters with barely visible fastballs and absolutely unswattable knuckleballs, the Oakdale pitcher relied more on luck. That is, he was able to get batters out because on this day the Williamsburg players simply hit the ball directly at someone, three bounces to the second baseman, or a lazy fly ball to the center fielder.
Neither team threatened to score until the bottom of the sixth, when with one out, Lefty VanPeltt himself doubled to right field and then went to third when the second baseman fumbled and then kicked the cutoff throw from the outfielder.
The Oakdale coach was agitated. The unnecessary error made him angry, but he also had something else in mind. He walked back and forth in front of his dugout which was only a bench. He yelled and clapped loudly.
"Heads up. OK, this is it. Let's go. You know what you're supposed to do."
The Oakdale pitcher did know because they had practiced it the afternoon before.
In order to get VanPeltt to go as far down the third base line as possible, the Oakdale pitcher threw from a windup rather than a stretch.
VanPeltt did indeed break for home. And, yes, the squeeze play was on. The right-handed Williamsburg batter turned to bunt. He faced the pitcher, both hands gripping his bat out in front, making it part of his body. His clenched teeth demonstrated determination to get a piece of the ball, to tap it perfectly so that it would roll slowly down the third base line thereby allowing VanPeltt to score easily.
The Oakdale third baseman broke for his bag. The pitch was wild, shoulder high and three feet behind the batter, impossible to bunt. The batter had no choice but to hit the deck and roll out of the way as VanPeltt would surely score on a wild pitch.
But the Oakdale catcher knew the play. He sprang up, stretched far to his left, and caught the ball.
"Gotcha!" said the Oakdale pitcher under his breath.
Indeed, VanPeltt was caught halfway between home and third.
After the third baseman tagged him out, VanPeltt exhibited a painful look of disbelief and frustration.
He groaned "Awww shi..."
He whined and pleaded with the umpire, "That's not fair."
But the umpire ignored him and bent over to dust off home plate.
The squeeze play had been foiled. The Williamsburg batter who fell down to get out of the way struck out. The game went into the top of the seventh inning with the score 0 to 0.