FROM CHARLIE VINSON'S window you can faintly hear the sounds of nightly stickball games on 46th Street SE. The games always begin at dusk when the heat of day subsides in Benning Heights, luring Sweetcakes and Bo and other children out from the brick housing projects to a concrete parking lot where they play One-Hop, Work-Up and Indian Ball.
The shouts and cheers are like echoes from the past, for stickball has become a rare game in the city. In this section of Benning Heights where neighborhood basketball hoops have either been stolen or slam-dunked to death, the children -- still daring to dream of stardom -- have turned to the parking lot and stickball out of necessity.
In Charlie Vinson's day this old game was never so rare in Washington, but the dreams were pretty much the same. Years ago, back in the '50s and early '60s, when it seemed every kid to town played stickball -- when basketball was still set-shots, crew-cuts and black high-tops -- Vinson played One-Hop, Work-Up and Indian Ball and dreamed of becoming a star like Sweetcakes and Bo do now.
Insteak of Reggie Jackson or Dr. J, though, Vinson thought only of Ernie Banks, the smooth, nonchalant and charming Chicago shortstop known as Mr. Cub. He chewed bubble gum, collected baseball cards, followed Banks' career in the box scores and watched the Senators play at night. By day he went to recreation centers and worked and sweated, and hit and ran, thinking "easy, easy, like Ernie." And eventually he became so adept at the art, and so quick and strong, that by the time he graduated from Phelps Vocational High School in 1962, when be batted a startling .520, he was spotted by a major league scout and offered a contract to play in the Los Angeles Angels farm system.
While his high school classmates went on to become bus drivers and cops, clerks and janitors, and soldiers in Vietnam, Vinson was heading for paradise, still clinging to those stickball dreams. He was then a tall and powerful southpaw, a first baseman in whom the Angels invested great hopes. He was the perfect answer to the team's long ball hitting needs, The Washington Post reported at the time Vinson signed, a native son on the road to baseball glory from the summer sandlots of the city.
Vinson, the first son of a liquor store clerk, traveled many roads during the next 11 years -- through El Paso, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Fresno, Seattle and other waysides in the backwoods of professional baseball -- but made only one brief stay in the majors, at the tail end of the 1966 season, when he batted .183 in 20 games with the Angels.
He chased the rainbow as far as he could, but the pursuit came to a humbling end in 1973 when the Angels sold his contract to the Juarez Indians of the Mexican League, resigning themselves to the realization that Vinson was merely another phenom who'd fizzled. In midseason that year in Mexico, Vinson himself quit. "What the hell as I doing here?", he said, and quietly returned home to Washington.
He got a job with Giant Foods as a warehouse clerk and got an apartment off Benning Road SE. He put away his gloves and bats, gently placed all the photographs, the baseball cards bearing his likeness and the minor league awards of his previous ambition in the back of dresser drawers and closets with the rest of his boyhood, and left the dreams and the games to children like Sweetcakes and Bo on 46th Street SE whose shouts and cheers he can faintly hear when dusk rolls around.
He works 8 to 5 now at a warehouse in Jessup, Md., using his muscles to lift crates of vegetables instead of Louisville Sluggers, and he hasn't even touched a baseball in eight years. But deep inside there is something he holds onto from his boyhood, his travels and search for glory -- the memories of those moments years ago, in a placd far away from here, when he was a hero and a star on a championship team.
It only cost 50 cents to see the Seattle Angels play back in 1966, and the fans were a rowdy bunch including Suquamish Indians who ferried over Puget Sound from Bainbridge Island and old Chinese men who sauntered down from Beacon Hill bearing whistles and metal gongs.
The stadium the Angels played in was a fine old structure of cement and wood surrounded by tall cedar trees. It boasted a deep-green centerfield that was overlooked on sunny days by Mount Rainier, grandstands and bleachers that rocked and swayed whenever the crowd stomped its feet, and fantastic outfield billboards that advertised everything from "Bar S Hot Dogs" in left field to the "Dog House Restaurant" in right.
The finest moments of Chuck Vinson's baseball career, which began in the streets of Washington and ended in Juarex, occurred that year. And it was there, through a knothole in the outfield fence, that I first saw him play.
The Pacific Coast League, of which Seattle was part, was one small notch below the majors. Each PCL team, such as the Oklahoma City 89'ers, the Denver Bears, the Vancouver Mounties and the Hawaii Islanders, were affiliated with a major league parent club, and each PCL player struggled and scuffled to make a grand enough impression to be called up.
That year, 1966, Seattle defeated the Tulsa Oilers in a championship series for its first PCL pennant since 1954. Though Seattle was not a major league city in those days, the town celebrated the pennant as if it were the American League's. The team was led by Vinson, who was a 22-year-old power hitter at the time, a young man who struggled and scuffled better than most. If only for one brief season in a disheartening baseball career, Vinson was a hero.
He socked 20 homers that year, and drove in 84 runs, and was a particular hero of the young souls outside the right field wall. Whenever it was his turn at bat, shourts of "Vinson's Up!" would spread, and we would scatter, praying for a homer in hopes of retrieving a free baseball. Vinson, with an awesome swing, frequently missed the ball, but when he did make contact, we on the other side of the fence were usually quite satisfied, chasing the ball as it bounced across the lot, bounded up a bushy knoll, rolled across McClellan Street to the bar and diner across the way.
The stadium, the whistles, the gongs and the cedar trees are all gone in Seattle now, razed and replaced by an electronics factory in the heart of Rainier Valley. Today the city has major league baseball, Astroturf and a domed stadium in which the only vision of Mount Rainier comes in the form of a Rainier Beer ad.
As this season's baseball players strike began, I started thinking about the stadium knothole through which I used to watch Vinson and the Angels. I knew the knothole had disappeared forever, but I still wondered about Vinson and whatever became of him. I called the only Charles Vinson listed in the Washington telephone book, and it was the very same man who once played for the Angels who answered the phone.
It was, he said, after a pause of surprise, the first time in years anyone had asked him about Seattle and his playing days. He is 37 now, and looks remarkably like the young and powerful first baseman he once was, a tall man with thick arms and short cropped hair.
The Washington he came back to after his dreams were done, he said, was not the same town he left.
"Nowadays," he said, "kids don't play baseball in the city or dream as much as when I was growing up. When I was a kid, that was all we did in the city, get out the bats and balls and play. Today, they're either out on the streets doing nothing and getting into trouble, or playing basketball, which is fine, except baseball is more like an art, you know? It gives you time to imagine."
Only rarely does Vinson watch baseball on television, and he never listens to games on the radio. Occasionally he will scan the box scores to see how his friends are doing, like Mickey Rivers, Steve Carleton and Rudy May and a few others he used to play with in the minor leagues. But for the most part, he said, baseball is best left to the past.
His friends are now on strike, of course, and he said that, with luck, he might have been able to gut it out a while longer and make it to the majors again, and earn as much money as his friends are making. But there comes a time, he said, "when grown men have to stop playing games," and "figure out what they want to do with life if they can't hack it, you know."
"I'd given baseball most of my life and things just weren't working out," he said, in his apartment overlooking a long-abandoned grocery store on Benning Road, the shouts and cheers of the distant stickball game filtering through a balcony window. "A lot of guys can't quit. They keep on going thinking there's nothing else they can do. Then, when they have to quit, they don't go home because they're afraid of being looked at as failures.
"Well," he said, "I came home. I don't consider myself a failure. I gave it my best shot."
Some players couldn't handle failure. Vinson said he had seen a number of men, cut from minor league squads, who broke down and cried. But, Vinson, who had always modeled himself after Banks, tried to stay cool and easygoing, on and off the diamond. "Don't misunderstand," he said. "I'm not a tragedy. I just survive like everyone else."
His brothers and parents welcomed him back home, congratulated him on going as far as he did, and helped him get settled in the city.
Vinson got the warehouse job in Jessup from a man named Ollie Johnson, a former Washington athlete who played college basketball at the University of San Francisco. Johnson, a personnel supervisor for Giant Foods, has gotten jobs for other D.C. athletes who, like Vinson, struggled to make it in professional sports and returned home when their dreams died.
Vinson, who has turned down dozens of offers to play softball on Washington teams, has two sons and is recently divorced from a woman who remained his wife through all the years he was scuffling in the minors, from Salt Lake to Juarez.
In his apartment he was presented a scorecard from a 1966 game in which he played for Seattle against Steve Carleton and Mike Torrez and the rest of the Tulsa Oilers in that PCL championship series. His face broke into a smile. For a moment, two sets of reminiscences, one from the knothole and the other from home plate in an old stadium far away, intersected there off Benning Road.
"Jeez, I haven't seen those guys in years," he said, going over the scorecard. "Andy Messersmith, Bubba Morton. The whole infield was black, remember? Me at first, Julio Gotay at second, Hector Torres at short and Felix Torres at third.
"Yeah, Bob Lemon was the manager. Really tried his hardest to get me into the majors that year . . . Problem was my eyesight was getting bad. Couldn't hit at night. Then, all the hitting coaches kept telling me I should pull the ball . . . They figured since I was black, and a big first baseman, I should be able to pull it like Stargell or McCovey. That ruined me more than anything," he said, "because I was always best as a spray hitter."
Outside the ball park he had troubles, too. Vinson said he and his wife couldn't buy a home in the suburbs because they were black. He said they would call about a place, show up to inspect it, and then be told that the house had already been rented.
"It was different in the rookie league," he said, "when I played in places in Kentucky and Tennessee. Folks down there came right out and told you 'we don't want your kind eating here.' In Seattle, the racism was more subtle, but pretty much the same thing."
Vinson said he forgets the bad times, though, and hangs onto the memories that he considers most important. The highlight of his playing career outside of Washington was that championship season in 1966. Though he batted only .238 that year, he was brilliant in the field and as a clutch hitter, slugging homers that decided many one-run ball games, and leaving quite a few admirers among the people who saw him play.
"We beat Tulsa 4 to 3 in that series, remember?" he asked, smiling. "I hit one, no, two homers. Never had so much champagne in my life, man!
"God," he said, "what a helluva year."
A couple of hours later, when the laughling and remembering was done, he thanked me for bringing over the dogeared scorecard and I thanked him for the honor of meeting him. Outside, on the other side of the boarded-up grocery, in the parking lot behind the projects on 46th Street, the stickball game and the cheers went on and on.