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Wally Johnson was a very good baseball player. You've probably never heard of him, though, since he never made it to the major leagues, or even to the high minors. But I remember. I can see him still, see him as he was on a hot summer evening in Marysville, California, back in 1951 when I learned the truth about the glamorous profession of baseball that I, a 17-year-old infielder just about to graduate from high school in San Francisco, had spent most of my days preparing for.

Wally Johnson, tall, slim, deeply-tanned, is moving so fast his dark shadow is a blur. He takes the throw from the second baseman and glides over the base so quickly you'd swear he hadn't even touched it. In the same motion, he flips the ball as if along a rope, smack into the first baseman's mitt 90 feet away.

A runner slides into second base, ferociously kicking his right leg in the air. But Wally isn't there. He's trotting toward the clubhouse, drenched in sweat. A ripple of applause hangs briefly in the still air as about 300 people descend lazily from the steep wooden grandstand and cross the field to an uneven plot of dusty ground where cars wait in the dark.

God, how my friend Murray and I envy Wally his uniform with "Braves" swirled across the shirtfront in bold red script just above a big red tomahawk.Sure, it's a loose-fitting hand-me-down from the parent team in Boston, much too worn and faded now for the major leaguer it had been tailored for, and sure, the red No. 10 on the back is flapping loose. But so what?

It's true, too, that Wally's pay is only $280 a month, less than we made the past two summers playing for semi-professional teams in the small lumber mill towns of Northern California. But that's not important, either.If you're going to get to the big leagues, that's usually how you have to start, at pay like that on a farm club like the Marysville Braves of the Class C California League.

By the time Murray and I get to the clubhouse, Wally is bent over a dented washing machine in a corner, a towel around his middle, running a woolen sweatshirt through the ringer.

In another corner, players making the loud sounds of victory jump around under the spray from four shower heads. The concrete floor in the shower is stained with thin bleeding lines of rust. Picnic benches heaped with uniforms and equipment are pushed against the apple green concrete walls. The ventilation, such as it is, comes through three narrow dust-covered windows propped open high on the walls. Two bare light bulbs shine from the ceiling.

"Yeah, that's right ... course we do our own washing," says Wally. He slides aside a pair of long, thin white stockings hanging on a rope strung above him to make room for the damp sweatshirt. "Jocks, uniforms, everything. At least one a week whether they need it or not .... Hey, meet a great second baseman. Lee -- couple of ballplayer friends of mine from school."

Lee's been with the Marysville Braves five seasons, a short, well-muscled infielder who looks like Jeff next to the rookie Johnson, a six-foot-two Mutt. Lee's not just the second baseman. He also coaches at first base and drives the team's 10-year-old bus to and from the games Marysville plays all over Northern and Central California -- six or seven a week, five, sometimes six of them at night, the only time most people are free to watch baseball games.

The crowds at the games seldom are larger than tonight. People don't identify with the teams and the players, nor do the teams and the players identify closely with the towns as in semi-pro leagues, where the teams usually are locally owned. Lower-level minor league teams like the Marysville Braves are operated strictly for the benefit of their far-away major league owners, and people know it.

Most of the players are like Wally Johnson, shuffled from team to team within the parent club's farm chain so rapidly they rarely get to know the people in the towns where they play. They don't work in local enterprises during the day as most semi-pro players do. They don't drink in the bars at night, or even have time to attend the local movie theaters.

Nor is the quality of the young professionals' play noticeably better than that of the semi-pros. Like most young ballplayers -- and the absentee team owners -- they are concerned with individual rather than team performance, and are wildly erratic, good one night, terrible the next, good on one play or in one inning, terrible on the next play or in the next inning. Two innings before he completed that game-ending double play, Wally dropped two ground balls hit straight at him. The Braves' pitcher that night struck out nine batters -- but he walked eight.

That's what concerns Murray and me -- playing, not how many fans are watching. Fans don't decide who's good enough to be elevated to the big leagues. Murray wonders how well he'd be able to play under those dim lights. Night baseball is hard enough even with good lighting, seeing only the top half of the ball most of the time and having to look up into whole banks of sun-like lights.

"You think these lights are bad," says Lee. "Check 'em out in Visalia. Can't hardly see to begin with, then the damn bugs -- millions of 'em -- start swarmin' round up there like at all the parks, all over them lights on them skinny phone poles, and ... well, all you can do is hope some hotshot pitcher don't wing you one."

But if the playing conditions aren't the best, certainly the living conditions must be good. The players, after all, belong to a major league team. They're the property of the Boston Braves!

Lee says, however, that the players rarely even see a hotel, good or bad. "We're mostly on the road -- sleep on the bus a lot."

"But they feed you good, don't they?" Murray asks.

"Yeah, team says order anything you want --long as it don't come to more than two-and-a-half bucks a day."

Lee knew he was destined to remain a journeyman minor leaguer for the rest of his baseball career -- five more years, maybe 10 at most. But it beat working all year round at construction work, as Lee said.

One of Marysville's catchers was like that, too, and an outfielder and the utility infielder. But most of the players, the young ones just out of high school, lived on the hope of eventually playing for the parent Braves. he hope was with them every time they came to bat under those dim lights, every time they went after a ball on one of those bumpy fields, every time they threw a pitch, every time they curled up to sleep on a lumpy bus seat, every time they bit into a greasy hamburger.

There were more than 7,000 young men playing on their hopes on teams like the Marysville Braves, in leagues like the California League, all over the country. The Tobacco State League, Pony League, Evangeline League, Long Horn League, Kitty League, Sally League, Sunset League, Pioneer League, Lone Star League -- 59 of them, not a mere 11 as now, from Class D to AAA. Each league had eight teams, each team had 15 to 20 players, most of them scrambling to make it to the major leagues, where there were 400 spots. An 18-to-1 shot at best.

All had much the same fantasies: A major league scout bounding down from the stands after they had hit one, then two, maybe even three home runs, or made an impossibly spectacular fielding play, or pitched a non-hitter; a beaming manager rising from behind the desk in his cubbyhole office in the clubhouse to pound them on the back.

"Pack your gear, kid," they could hear the manager say, "we're sending you up to the big club!"

But there were too many good players among them for most to beat the odds, too many bad players, too much luck involved. A relative few like Lee stayed on even after the hope was gone. Some climbed the ladder to as high as olne of the three an AAA leagues. But most dropped out of the race after a few years.

"Look at that build," says Lee as we leave the clubhouse, pointing to Wally Johnson, who is surrounded by a half-dozen kids. "A natural shortstop. Like Marty Marion -- and great wrists, You see that throw on the DP, and those two hits? Shouldn't of made those two boots, sure ... but, what the hell. all the natural talent in the world. Couple of years, he could be right up there, that buddy of yours. Just you wait."

The kids are waving scorecards for Wally to autograph. They apparently don't even remember the two errors, only the double play that had transformed Wally from goat to hero.

"Great play, Wally!" says an eight-year-old in a sweatshirt and dirty corduroy pants."Geez, you were great tonight!"

The kids don't seem to recognize Lee as we walk by. Wally Johnson catches up as we reach the team bus in the parking lot.

"Kids are great, huh, Lee," says Wally as he boards.

"Yeah," says Lee, settling into the driver's seat. "Great."

Copyright Dick Meister