August 28, 2009

Baseball in Amish Country (Guest Blog)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:21 pm


Since this is my birthday week and I needed a long overdue break,
I’ve asked my good friend John Schmid to fill in for me this week.

—The Editor

Note from John: It is an honor to be asked by Ira to be a guest writer. No way can I match Ira’s ability to keep you glued to what ever subject he writes about, but in keeping with Ira’s heritage, let me tell you one aspect of Amish culture here in Holmes County, Ohio.

I pulled into the driveway of Bishop David Kline between Fredericksburg and Mt. Hope several years ago because he was hosting an exchange student from Texas and I knew the family, so I thought I’d stop by and see how she was doing in her “cross-cultural” stay with an Amish family. I’m sure that Amish country and the panhandle of Texas have some similarities, but I can’t think of a one right now.

As I rolled to a stop in front of the Kline house I saw David coming out of one of the sheds in the barnyard. He came over to my car to say hello. I was just turning down the radio which was tuned to the Cleveland Indians game.

“Hello, John,” he said.

Hello David.”

“You like the Cleveland Indians?” he asked. Obviously he’d heard what I was listening to.

“Oh, sort of,” I understated.

He grinned and then he went on to tell me a story that I have retold many times since. (I can’t remember if I ever checked on the exchange student or not. Her name was… I can’t remember…)

It seems that growing up David had a friend in the same church district as him who loved the Cleveland Indians. I don’t know his name, but I’ll call him “Levi.” Levi always knew the score, the batting averages, who got traded, which pitcher was doing well, his E.R.A., how many strikeouts, how many games out of first place they were… he knew everything. He was a fan. Anybody who had any questions about the Cleveland Indians just asked Levi. Anybody who thought the Indians had no chance at the pennant got more promises than a politician could give (well, maybe not that many) as to why this was the Indian’s year (usually until July. When reality set in).

One summer, when Levi was 18 or 19 years old, he joined the church. In a perfect Amish world this means he would no longer be interested in such worldly competitive endeavors such as sports, and especially professional sports, especially Major League Baseball which plays on Sundays and advertises beer and they wear uniforms and such. But, as you know, since the Amish live in the same fallen world as the rest of us, Levi continued to be a walking encyclopedia on Cleveland Indians trivia.

Then Levi got chosen by lot to be a preacher.

Then he moved to Ashland, Ohio (read: strict).

Dum da dum dum… RIP Cleveland Indians.

About ten years ago, in the late nineties, right after the Indian’s great run at two world series (oh, man, that was close!) and great players and future hall of famers such as Manny Rameriz, Jim Thome, and Omar Vizquel, Levi came to Holmes County to visit his old childhood friend, David Kline. In the course of the evening, at a lull in the conversation, one of David’s boys asked him, “Do you still follow the Cleveland Indians?”

Levi’s response was quick, definite, abrupt and final: “No!” as if to say, “Of course not. You know better than that! What a dumb question!”

The young Kline boy said, “Well, it’s just as well that you don’t. They’ve lost nine games in a row.”

Levi stared at the boy over his wire rim glasses and pointed his finger at him in a gesture that was a cross between judgment and triumph and with raised eyebrows and in a victorious and confident voice said, “Yeah, but they won last night!!”

I told this story to my good friends, Marvin and Erma Hershberger who live just south of Charm. Erma told me that a couple of years ago she was tying her horse to the hitching rail at the Charm store just as an older Amish man right beside her was getting off of his buggy. This man was not untypical in that he had a reputation similar to David Kline’s friend, Levi. He followed the Indians as best as one can without TV or radio. The next best thing is the Wooster Daily Record.

Erma said she watched him hustle over to the newspaper box and cram a couple of coins in the slot and rip open the door and grab a paper and quickly open it up to the sports section. He was reading intently as he walked past her buggy on the way to the front door of the store when suddenly his face turned sour and he balled the paper up and threw it into his buggy and stomped into the store to buy his groceries. True Indians fans know exactly what he read. And how he felt. Ever since 1948.

In Holmes County, the Amish love baseball. I have often wondered what the local high school, Hiland, would be like if the Amish attended. Hiland has won several Division IV (the smallest division) state championships in basketball, both boys and girls, and gone to the state finals in baseball a couple of times. And they did that with close to half of the potential athletes in the district not going to high school.

When I played fast pitch softball, the best teams were always made up of Amish boys who had quit school after eighth grade and hadn’t joined the church yet. Several of those teams won the State and then the USA National Softball Title in their respective divisions! At the annual Ft. Wayne softball tournament the last few years, the girls champions have been local Amish girls whose uniform is their everyday dresses. The local Amish businesses will sponsor them but only if they dress appropriately. It sort of tickled me to see a team of girls from Florida who had expensive flashy spandex uniforms and who looked like a mixture of professional athletes and Hollywood movie stars get beat by our local Amish girls wearing dresses and head scarves.

Which brings me to my favorite Holmes County Amish Baseball True Story (the others are also true, but this one is so unbelievable that I thought I’d better mention the word “true”).

Leroy Kuhns lives about two miles from me, between the little crossroads of Fryburg and the village of Mt. Hope. He wrote this story for the September 2003 issue of The Connection , an Amish publication from Indiana. Leroy grew up in the Fryburg Amish Church district. The district just to the East of them, between Fryburg and Mt. Hope, is called Elm Grove. The Elm Grove boys were a little older than the Fryburg boys and for several years the two groups used to play ball every Wednesday night from July through early September. Abe Troyer, one of the Elm Grove all-stars, called them the “Fryburg Windsplitters” even though Leroy claims that Fryburg won every game (at least he has a hard time remembering that they ever lost).

So, here is my favorite story and I’m just going to quote Leroy from his 2003 article:
Of all the games, the one I remember best was one night while Pete Merv was pitching. I was catching and it was bottom of the last inning. We (Fryburg) were ahead by several runs. It was too dark to be playing, already at the beginning of this inning, but I knew that Elm Grove would never acknowledge defeat unless we got the last three outs. Merv quickly put the first two batters down, but by now the clouded western horizon was bringing on total darkness. Players from both teams aggressively objected for us to pitch to another batter. It was just too dark. Somebody’s going to get hurt.

But we only needed one more out and I was determined to get it. Every player seemed to be saying, “It’s no way safe anymore!”

Rising from behind home plate, I raised my hand in protest. “O.K.” I said, “Only one more batter. We’ll be real careful and I can practically guarantee that nobody will get hurt.”

It was now so dark that I, being the catcher, had to call the balls and strikes myself. Our ump lacked the proper equipment for playing in the dark.

I ran out to the mound and said to Merv, “Okay, Merv, here’s the plan. You go through your full wind up and motion, and so will I, but don’t you dare throw the ball! We’ll try to strike the batter out without throwing the ball.”

“O key dokee,” said Merv with a mischievous grin.

Back behind home plate now, I checked who was the batter. Jerry Miller, a soft spoken, left handed hitter, stepped into the batter’s box. Once Jerry was all set, Merv “rocked and fired.” I held off for a second, then smacked my fist into my mitt. “S-t-r-i-k-e one!” I heard a few soft grumbles from the Elm Grove bench. “They’re using the dirty ball on purpose, so it’s hard to see!”

I now noticed several of their players taking position behind the home plate backstop, apparently to check on my honesty in calling balls and strikes. Jerry’s face showed nothing but confusion as he lowered his “stick.” But then as I rose up and went through the motion of throwing the ball back out to the mound, Jerry again got set and ready in the batter’s box. Again Merv “rocked and fired” and upon the “smack” of my mitt I called out, “S-r-i-k-e two!”

“NO!” came from behind the backstop. “That was way outside!”

“Oh, but it wasn’t!” I replied. “It was right down the pipe!”

Now they really started to get on Jerry’s case for just watching the ball go by.

“Don’t just stand there! Three called strikes is as bad as three swings and misses. You might as well at least try!”

Jerry now showed a renewed determination to get his bat on the ball. Giving his bat a couple of short quick swings, he stepped back in the batter’s box, dug in, put his elbows up a notch and totally concentrated on the pitcher. Merv again reared back for the third empty delivery. With smooth motion he followed through with his arm down the front of the mound. Just as I was ready to smack my catcher’s mitt again, I sensed a rush of air as Jerry put all of his weight into a hefty swing that split the cool night air across home plate.

“S-w-i-n-g… and a miss! Strike three! Game over! Fryburg wins!”

And that’s Leroy’s story. I found out later that it was a couple of months before the Elm Grove boys realized that they had been schnookered! Several years ago I was singing at a benefit auction at Mt. Hope when someone in the crowd yelled, “Tell that baseball story!” About one minute into the story I saw some of the Elm Grove boys, now in their 50’s & 60’s, casually stroll out of the tent.

August 21, 2009


Category: News — Ira @ 6:47 pm


A house is never still in darkness to those who listen intently;
there is a whispering in distant chambers, an unearthly hand
presses the snib of the window, the latch rises….

—J.M. Barrie

For decades, the story has resided in the Wagler clan’s chronicles of lore and legend, to be trotted out and re-examined from time to time, when the fire burns low and the murmered talk turns to certain mysteries of the distant past. It was solemnly recited to each of the children in turn as they were considered old enough, it was passed down, whispered in hushed tones to those of us who weren’t even born when it happened. I first heard it when I was probably three or four years old, when one of my older brothers (Stephen or Titus, I can’t remember which), took me up the stairs and showed me the spot in the old section of the house where it all went down. I absorbed the tale with wide wondering eyes and tried to comprehend the fact that such a fright-ful thing had happened in the sanctuary that was my home.

It happened around fifty years ago, in the mid 1950s. A few years before I was born. And a few years after my parents had moved up to Aylmer. This was before my father added a sizable addition to the ramshackle house that was on the farm when they arrived. The original house was small, consisting of a few rooms on the ground floor, and three bedrooms upstairs.

It was a dark and stormy night. Oops, that’s Snoopy’s infamous line. Actually, it was a still and bitterly cold winter night. No one remembers the exact date or month. A thick layer of frozen crusted snow covered the ground. A full moon glowed in the clear night skies, casting eerie shadows onto the earth below.

It was a normal evening. Nothing out of the ordinary. After the barnyard chores were finished by lantern light, the family gathered round the supper table. Maybe Mom had concocted one of her delicious milk-based soups of beans and bacon and other magical flavorings. Everyone sat around the kitchen table and ate from pale green hard plastic soup plates. Maybe the children fussed for the last scraps of cherry pie. After supper, the boys lounged around and read; the girls helped Mom wash and put away the dishes. Soon it was time for bed. The family gathered round. Knelt while Dad’s rhythmic mellow voice rolled in lulling waves as he recited the traditional High German evening prayer. Asked the Lord to watch over them as they slept that night. The lulling flow wound down and stopped. The prayer was finished. The children rose to their feet and trundled off upstairs.

As was his habit, Dad stayed up late, after the family went to bed. Perhaps writing some notes for a future book, or perhaps penning his weekly Budget news letter. Eventually, between ten and eleven o’clock, he retired. He turned off the hissing mantel lamp; its bright glow flickered and died. The house went dark and quiet. The fire in the wood stove diminished to cooling embers. The bitter cold crept in. All the family slept.

Upstairs, the northeast room was used for storage and assorted junk. Even years later we called it the “trash shtoop” or trash room. Beside that room was a smaller bedroom used for company. A purple curtain covered its doorway. And on the west side of the top of the stairs was a larger bedroom that my older brothers and sisters shared.

My two oldest sisters, Rosemary and Magdalena, around twelve and ten years old repectively, shared a bed by the north wall of the large room. Their younger brothers Joseph and Jesse slept on a bed over on the south side of the room. Maybe they had an invisible line on the floor to separate the boys’ side from the girls’. I don’t know, but somehow it worked, at least short term.

On this particular night, my sisters slept on their bed on their side of the room, snuggled against the cold under the warm thick goose down blankets my mother had made. Across the room, the boys slumbered under their own heavy blankets.

The frigid winter air crept in through the old pane-glass windows. From the west, the full moon cast white light on the floor and shadows in the room. The night hours passed. All was still, as it always was.

Suddenly, Magdalena awoke. What time was it? There was no clock. But she heard something, some unfamiliar noise, somewhere in the house. A nervous energetic girl, she always slept lightly, easily awakened by the slightest sound. She lay there, under the thick goose down blanket and listened intently, every instinct honed, all her senses focused.

And then she heard the creaking. On the stairs leading up to the second floor, to their room. Footsteps, slowly, softly, steadily. Creak, creak. Up and up. Creak, creak.

She shivered. Covered her head with the heavy blanket. It could be Dad. Why would he be coming upstairs at this late hour? She lay there, silent, unmoving. Rosemary, at her side, slept on.

The deliberate incessant creaking reached the top of the stairs. Soft treading footsteps then, approaching their bedroom door. Almost petrified, Magdalena froze there on the bed. Covered her face, all but a spot where she could peep out.

The doorknob squeaked softly and turned. Slowly, their bedroom door swung open, the hinges squealing mildly in soft protest. Magdalena stared. The figure of a man materialized in the shadows. He stood there a moment, unmoving. And then he stepped into the moonlit room. A complete stranger. Medium build. White hair. White beard. And, Magdalena always insisted, he was wearing white clothes. Although that could have been an illusion caused by the glistening moonlight.

She froze in helpless horror and watched as he padded softly into the room. He paused, stood there briefly, and surveyed the room. Then he approached the bed on which her brothers slumbered unaware. He reached the bed, then strangely, knelt down and looked under it. Reached in with his hand and felt about the floor. For only a moment. He rose to his feet and turned toward the girls’ side of the room. And then he shambled straight toward them.

Petrified with terror, Magdalena could only watch as he approached. He reached their bed. Stopped, then bent down to look under their bed as well.

As he was stooping down, Rosemary suddenly stirred and moved her foot. Briefly. At that slight movement, the man froze. Then he rose quickly to his feet and padded softly from the room. The door closed behind him.

“Rosemary,” Magdalena whispered frantically. “Did you see him?”

“Yes,” Rosemary whispered back. “I saw him the whole time.” She had not been asleep after all.

“Shhh,” they whispered in unison. They listened intently for footsteps treading down the stairs again. There were none. All was silent. Their brothers slumbered on.

The silence could mean only one thing. The man was still upstairs with them, perhaps in the rooms across the hall. Maybe he would return. They lay there quietly, side by side, tense with terror, wide awake. And waited. And waited. All was deathly still. The hours crept by, minute by painful minute. And still no sound.

And then, after what seemed like an eternity, they heard stirrings of life below, the welcome sounds of Dad clattering about downstairs, the thump and bang as he filled the woodstove and lit the fire. Moments later he called up. “Girls, time to get up and do the chores. Get up.”

They made no sound and did not move. Dad called up again. And again. Irate, he finally hollered up. “If you won’t get up, I’ll have to come up there and fetch you.” Still they made no sound, did not move.

Thoroughly irritated now, he finally clumped up the stairs and walked into the bed-room. “Why won’t you get up?” he demanded. And for the first time in hours, they stirred. The words flowed from them in torrents. There was a strange man up here. He came into the room. He’s still up here somewhere.

Dad reacted with a chuckle, utterly disbelieving. Surely they had just imagined it.

“Ah, it’s probably just Melvin Keim,” he said. Melvin Keim was a young man from another community who came around from time to time to work as a hired hand. Dad’s first thought was that he might have arrived late and just walked in. He was probably sleeping over in the guest room, Dad said.

The girls were adamant. It was not Melvin Keim, they protested. It was a strange man, with white hair and white beard. And white clothes. Dad realized at last that his daughters were not delusional, that they had seen something or someone, or at least thought they had.

He walked through the guest room. No Melvin Keim or anyone else. Then he opened the rickety old blue door to the trash room on the northeast corner of the house. A blast of cold air greeted him. He walked in and looked across the room. The east window was half open. Dad waded through the clutter of junk furniture and boxes of books and old magazines. Over to the window. He leaned out and looked down. On the ground directly below the window, a full story down, a fresh set of footprints led away from the house and out to the road.

Faced with such irrefutable evidence, Dad had no choice but to believe the girls. He did take them aside separately and questioned them closely on what they had seen. Their stories meshed. Every detail. Shaken, Dad admitted that he had forgotten to lock the doors that night. A rare oversight, one that probably never happened again.

My sisters have never wavered from their original version of events. Magdalena in particular recalls in vivid detail every second of the ordeal.

After fifty years, the mystery remains, as puzzling today as it was back then. And as creepy. Who was the stranger who wandered into our home on that moonlit winter night? A tramp? Or someone more sinister? What did he want? Why did he go upstairs and into the room where my siblings slept? What did he want under the beds? Did he know the place? Why did he slip out a second story window to escape? How did he do that without injuring himself? And where did he go?

We’ve rehashed those questions for fifty years, for longer than I’ve been around. And we’ll never know the answers.

Perhaps my father’s recited evening prayer that night was honored in ways he could never have imagined.