“Hot fun in the summertime. That’s when I had most of my fun.”
For me, the summer of ’76 stands out. I was 12.
It was the bicentennial, my family went to the Montreal Olympics, and everyone cheered for Detroit pitcher Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, the happiest ballplayer I’ve ever seen.
It was also the summer of Whiffle Ball. That’s the backyard version of baseball played with only a flimsy white plastic ball and a wispy yellow wand of a baseball bat.
We only played up north, at Torch Lake, which is now lined by million-dollar castles whose owners never seem to be there.
But back then, the east side was populated with simple summer cabins and the west side wasn’t populated at all. At night, I couldn’t see a single cottage light across the lake but when I looked up, I saw nothing but stars.
The Johnsons had a homemade aluminum boat with a ten-horse motor, and the Zinns had an even smaller boat with a six-horse. Because neither was strong enough to pull water-skiers, we spent our time playing Whiffle Ball.
We played on three fields we set up on the Johnson’s lot, including the “Astro-Grove,” a patch of grass covered by a roof of leaves. Each field had its own ground rules. If you hit it to the left of the laundry line pole, it’s a foul ball. If you hit it in the big spruce tree or the crab apple tree, it’s a ground-rule double – but if a fielder caught it on the way down, you’re out. And if you knocked it over the “rock monster” wall, you hit a home run.
Since we never had more than a half-dozen players, we didn’t have enough fielders. So if you could hit the runner with the ball, he was out.
And when anyone yelled, “LAKE!” we’d literally drop the ball, and race down to the Kitzmiller’s dock the longest on our row and run full-speed into the lake. I’ll never forget how refreshing the cold, clear water was.
We played every summer until we discovered boats, beer, and girls, but the summer of ’76 stands out for me.
Why? Because that was the glorious season I hit a record 61 home runs.
Impressive? Sure, but perhaps it’s worth noting we could play a dozen games a day, including one-on-one contests. On a good day you could hit ten homers before dusk.
But I don’t care. I’m claiming every one of those home runs, and I’m claiming the damn record, too. Even with a new generation of neighbors taking over who actually sing the national anthem, ask Grandpa Johnson to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and keep their stats on the back of a paper plate, right down to their batting averages, no one has touched my home run record.
And if anyone does, I’ll publicly accuse him of taking steroid so my record is looking pretty safe.
It makes me feel good to see these young bucks show such reverence for all the customs we created, and make memories that will last decades. But I can’t help but be envious, too. Even when they let us old-timers pinch-hit, it’s not quite the same, and I think I know why.
At the end of the classic movie, Stand By Me, the narrator says, “I never had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve.”
And I’ve never had any summers like that, either.
John U. Bacon is the author of nine books. His latest is The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.