Challenging Grzyb boys to fight or play baseball meant it was an all-day job

October 27, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

The boys Henry and Adolph were doing the usual family chores, which included chopping wood, and the former said to the latter, "Go ahead, put your finger out there, I'll chop it off." Chicken, 1930s style.

With most of the index finger on his right hand gone -- Adolph showed a world of guts, if not good sense -- he had to make the switch to pitching lefty. But before that, they picked up the finger and rushed to a doctor so he could re-attach it. The doc refused for some reason, so it was back home, where Pop sewed it back on with a simple needle and black thread.

No big deal, the digit re-attached fine, although the first and second knuckles haven't bent since. Besides, the team had the pitcher it needed and now it was time to fill in the rest of the lineup card.

Webber was the first baseman, Piok played second, Lulu was the shortstop and Smokey took care of the hot corner. Boobie, Hash and Sam were the outfielders, Hot Dog was the catcher with Ada on the mound. Not one of these names is the one that the players were christened with to go along with the surname Grzyb. But that's how things go in a Massachusetts family large enough to field a team with a couple of sisters left over to lead the cheers.

And this was no lark either. All the brothers could play, as the quality of some of the opposition attests: Barnstormers like the New York Colored Giants, the gang from the House of David and some well known major-leaguer with a decent supporting cast.

Ada remembers a player for the Colored Giants, particularly. Ada, who was called that because the name Adolph wasn't very popular around here from the late '30s on, recalls, "I was pretty good. This guy comes up in the first inning and hits the ball over the trees in center field about a mile away.

" 'He was lucky,' I said to myself, 'I'll get him next time.' Next time, he comes up and kneels down in the batter's box. I refused to throw the ball, but the umpire said he'd kick me out if I didn't pitch. I was steaming and damned if I was going to let a guy kneeling down get a hit off me. The ump said he'd call the regular armpits to knees strike zone. I let the ball go as hard as I could. The guy hit a pitch over his head over almost the exact same spot."

"And that was with a dead ball," said Lulu, the shortstop and probably the team's best player after getting a chance to play against the best while being one of the six brothers serving in World War II.

"A lot of the mill towns had town leagues that played weekends," he continued, "and, during the week, there were games from different rooms in a mill." Webster, a town in central Massachusetts, for instance, had four shoe factories, two woolen mills, the world's third largest linen mill and a print works.

"The stands were always packed and, on weekends, they stood two or three deep all around the field," said the shortstop. Labor Day didn't see them putting away the bats and balls either.

"Some mill owner would put up a challenge and really go out and get them, guys coming back to the area after the season was over, [pitcher] Al Javery, [catcher] Gene Desautels and players from the high minors. There was a fellow who played here, Mark Dejan, who looked like he was going to have quite a career in Cincinnati after hitting over .300 at the end of the 1940 season who got a big hunk of shrapnel in the arm and was finished.

"After the war, there were Army vs. Navy games, the barnstormers coming through and town challenges all over the place. The first night game ever played in New England involved a couple of town teams, [Douglas mill owner] Win Schuster hiring an outfit from New York to come up and set up the lights in Blacktone [Mass.]

"Hash, Smokey and me were on the team and Hash was in center field. He had a little trouble with the lights. Right off, a guy hit a ball out there and I was hollering for him to 'go back, go back.' He said, 'shuddup, I got it.' It landed about eight feet in back of him. Hash hated being reminded of it [over the next 45 years or so], which immediately meant none of the brothers ever let him forget it."

The stories were flowing freely now and recall was nearly total. Ken Burns, in his recent PBS special "Baseball" devoted some of the 18 1/2 hours to the game at the grass-roots level, but nowhere near enough. Just listening to the old "Townies" and some of the spectators talk about it left no doubt where so much of the deep and abiding love of baseball got started and remains.

"The Grzyb Boys always more than held their own until those barnstormers came to town," said Lulu. "They'd usually beat us something like 24-2."

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