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A Tribute to Jim Shafer Died November 14, 2009
This story is dedicated to Sam Shafer, Jim’s 12 year old son.
I hadn’t met Sam until today, his father’s funeral, but I’ve heard a lot about him from his aunts and uncles with whom I shared time when I paid a visit to Jim in the hospital a couple of weeks ago. They described you as smart, humorous, sensitive, a good student and a caring young man. It sounds about what most would say of your father. The following story is real and represents perhaps the best summer of our lives growing up; Jim and me. When I recently met with him, I asked what his favorite summer past time was growing up to which he instantly replied, “playing baseball.” I next asked him the most memorable thing he and I shared when we were kids and he instantly said, making our baseball field and starting the team.
You see, Jim and I started a baseball team and built the field of our dreams between our farms. Not exactly a major league franchise, but a major league effort for us. This is the story of the best summer of our childhood.
He was 11 and I was 12 that summer of 1957. We had walked to and from school since the age of 7 but this was the summer we got restless and bored. We both loved baseball and were dedicated Milwaukee Braves fans. Every summer we’d both listen to the games at night and meet on our bikes the next day to analyze the game and share the joy of winning or the frustration of losing. We couldn’t call each other as he was on the Ellsworth exchange and me on Spring Valley and the price was beyond what our parents were willing to spend on just a couple of pre- teenage boys. We’d reconstruct the game in our heads and marvel at the plays that had been made by Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron or shortstop Johnny Logan. But this summer was going to be different. We were going to play some serious baseball ourselves.
By early June we’d been out of school for a couple of weeks and boredom was setting in. Adding to the aggravation was the fact that boys living in town were about to start their summer baseball season. Kids from the country weren’t included in those activities at the time. Town kids only! It didn’t take long for us to take matters into our own hands. We decided we’d build a baseball field and start our own “farm boys” baseball team. I don’t even remember if we had a name for the team but it was a blast.
We approached an old farmer named Johnson who owned the land between Jim’s farm and my family farm. The acreage was in “soil bank” back then, which was about the same as our current “crop reduction program,” where farmers are paid a modest fee to leave the land fallow. He consented to our plan to use a couple of acres for our baseball field on top of the hill between our two farms which is now owned by Mike and Darcie Webster. Now the fun was about to begin.
We each showed up at the appointed time with tractors; one with a mower attached and the other with a hay rake. We mowed and raked the hay off our valuable real estate and mapped the layout of the field. Straight away center pointed towards Uncle Gerald’s farm and looking down the first base line, one could see my farm less than a mile away.
We needed a backstop! The franchise wasn’t exactly rolling in money so we decided to build our own. It was off to Johnson’s nearby woods to cut 4 trees for the backstop. (We never did tell Johnson about the trees). We both scrounged around home and found enough chicken wire to cover the standing poles (trees) we had dug into the ground. By this time it was time to mow our field again; this time with a couple of 16 inch lawn mowers. I think our parents ended up replacing them a couple of times that first summer.
The field was very rough. ‘Why not make it like a professional field; like the Brave’s field in Milwaukee?” We peeled off the sod all around the base paths. Great idea, and Jim had the technology that provided the solution. We went back in his woods where we hooked onto an old converted horse drawn grader with about a 4-6 foot blade. After much beating, a lot of juvenile cussing and about a gallon of oil, we got it working and peeled the sod, revealing an amazingly nice infield.
As we were completing the homerun fence we initiated a rather important discussion; who would play on our baseball team? Who was good enough to recruit? We had to be able to beat Spring Valley and maybe even Ellsworth so we needed some solid players, but then there weren’t that many to choose from. Now most adults would have recruited the players first, thinking if a team could be recruited, then build the field. Logical yes but we knew what we were doing! I don’t know whether it was our “dim witted” pre-adolescent brains or just plain confidence, but we knew we were going to field a team.
We called on Rich and Brian O’Connell, Jim Sheleign, the Sukowatey boys, Huebel boys and others. Even my younger south paw brother played. In about a
week we had recruited our summer talent but had no manager. We needed a manager! Where do we find a manager? I mentioned to Jim that Bernard O’Connell had been to a few Brave’s games in Milwaukee, what about asking him to manage the team? And so it went. Bernard O’Connell contacted several of the surrounding towns and over two summers we played approximately 25 games of baseball against those “town kids.”
Throwing hay bales and pitching manure allows one to develop a pretty strong arm. Such was the case with Jim and me. For any infraction or unacceptable behavior at home, our fathers must have collaborated determining the consequences as we were usually punished by having to clean calf pens every Saturday morning. Little did we know the payoff would be a very good fast ball and an arching curve ball. Good and fast compared to the wimpy “town kids."
We played about 12 games that first summer and won all but 2. Both of us pitched a no-hitter and we each batted over 600. Wimpy “town kids” just couldn’t throw a fast ball nor could they hit one.
The second and final summer of our baseball dreams had similar results. We played some 15 games and won all but one in Plum City. When I was with Jim a couple of weeks ago, I asked him if he could remember any particular game and he instantly said, “Plum City.” “I thought my damn arm was going to fall off or I wished it would,” he said. Then he went onto tell of the family reunion that was held at his uncle Gerald Shafer’s farm the day before. There were probably 100 or more Shafer’s running around. They were rather prolific. About 1:30 in the afternoon, we started a baseball game with about 30 on each side. Jim pitched for one team and me the other. He continued the story by saying, “we both threw as hard as we could and struck out most of the batters over about a 4 hour game.” Where was coach O’Connell to tell us we were going to throw our arms out?
Just then Jim’s eyes lit up! He recalled pitching to his father the first time he came up to bat. “I hit the sun-of-gun! I hit him in the back and I don’t remember why,” he said. I don’t think he sent me to the calf pens the day before, but I hit him with my fast ball.” We both laughed recognizing it was probably just a wild pitch.Right!
So the next evening after the Sunday reunion, was the now infamous, broken armed/limp armed game in Plum City. Jim started the game and lasted two innings until he dragged his arm off the mound in anguishing pain. I relieved him and was knocked out of the park for two innings until I walked off, arm hanging low in
pain. Jim had to come in and relieve me despite his aching arm. This tag team operation continued till games end with the score favoring Plum City. We had lost our only game of the season. After throwing about a thousand pitches the day before, we could hardly raise our arms to shake hands with the victors. The experience sobered us a bit and was a rather bitter end to our budding careers as baseball players and franchisers. This was one of our final games. But the over arching experience of the two summers with Jim, has been shared by us both with many people over the years. We had a very special connection that continued until his death.
Despite the many years gone by and our paths crossing infrequently, it was another special connection when we met again a couple of weeks ago. As a couple of “has been” baseball fanatics we were once again able to share a few special moments reminiscing about a very unique friendship in our lives.
So Sam, this is one of thousands of great stories of your father’s life. I want you to know that one of them is very special to me and always will be. I am very happy for it and thanks to your father I have a life long memory.
Barry Golden First Cousin