“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”
— Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby (1896-1963)

My 1967 Williams High School teammates who’d gathered around Albert Fernald thought he was dead.

The freshman first baseman had circled wildly under a towering pop-up. But instead of landing in his mitt, the ball struck Fernald squarely on the head with such force he collapsed like he’d been shot. Revived with smelling salts, he was raced to Waterville’s Thayer Hospital in a teammate’s Pontiac GTO and diagnosed with a severe concussion.

The team’s first outdoor practice of the season in Oakland began with joy and abruptly ended in horror.

Dr. Joseph Marshall, the attending emergency room physician, attributed Fernald’s misjudgment of the ball and slow reflexes to “spatial disorientation.” Lingering spring snowpack had forced our team to practice three weeks indoors on our high school’s basketball court. Acclimating to outdoor baseball, Marshall opined, would take several days. The explanation made sense, as did Fernald’s penchant for capitalizing on the mishap by showing teachers and classmates the baseball seams’ indentations on his swollen black and blue forehead. To avoid a second concussion, the doctor required Albert to wear a baseball helmet during all “baseball-related activities” for the remainder of the season.

The 1967 Williams High School baseball team is shown on a poster. The team had one baseball uniform made of wool that was heavy and itchy. Albert Fernald, back row and fourth from left, is wearing a baseball helmet, a requirement of Dr. Joseph Marshall, the attending ER doctor who had diagnosed Fernald’s severe concussion after being hit by a ball. Morning Sentinel file

Delayed weeks by spring snow squalls and cold rains, the high school baseball season finally began in mid-May and lasted a total of nine games. We had just one baseball uniform that was made of wool. It was heavy and itchy.


In the home opener, with one out in the top of the third inning, play had to be paused when a moose and her newborn calf — munching on dandelions — loitered in soggy left field. Shedding her winter coat, the momma moose resembled an Appaloosa. Alarmed by her size, elevated nape hairs and pinned-back ears, I sprinted in my L.L.Bean boots from left field to the bench. Irritated by the 10-minute delay, Mr. Bickford — the home plate umpire — ordered players and teenage fans to charge the moose and scream, “Get off the field!”

The frontal assault succeeded. Both moose fled to the nearest woods beyond left field.

With the outfield reclaimed, Mr. Bickford held his black Wilson mask in one hand, adjusted his dark blue chest protector with the other and again shouted, “Play ball!” After each half-inning, he urged players from both teams to pick up the pace.

“Let’s go!” he yelled. “Hustle in, hustle out! You can’t beat a hustling ball club.”

Mr. Bickford moved games along quickly because his shift as night watchman at the town’s Diamond Match Co. factory began after the final out.

In the 1960s, Maine’s rural baseball fields lacked fences, batting cages, lights and dugouts. Several ballfields doubled as town pastures, grazed and fertilized by cows, sheep and other quadrupeds. On our high school field, a mother fox frequently stole baseballs being retrieved by outfielders, resulting in ground-rule doubles. Once, when a visiting team’s clean-up hitter drilled a ball between the left and center fielders, the fox prevented a home run by running off with the bouncing ball.


After our team won by a single run, senior second baseman Mike Plourde tossed a game ball to the fox, which drew the coach’s ire. Plourde defended himself by saying, “Coach, she was the game’s MVP.” (About 14 months after his final high school baseball game, Plourde, a 101st Airborne Division specialist, was killed in the Vietnam War.) Bored outfielders mesmerized by wrestling fox pups, though, got an earful from exasperated coaches, who said, “Keep watching foxes and losing track of outs and you’ll be riding the bench.”

In 1970, when a thunderstorm dumped half an inch of rain on rival Livermore High School’s baseball field, the seven-inning game wasn’t postponed. Instead, it was played on the higher and drier grounds of a cow pasture. During the coach’s pregame pep talk, he reminded outfielders to “keep the ball in front of you.” With a forbidding, 1-ton Hereford bull grazing in deep center field, his message didn’t require repeating.

In the bottom of the third inning, I missed a shoestring catch in center field. The sinking line drive ricocheted off a slab of exposed bedrock and landed in a fresh cow patty. With teammates yelling at me to throw the ball to the infield, I froze. Like a chameleon with independently mobile eyes, I aimed one eye on the bull and the other on the half-buried ball, before grabbing and tossing it. Lopsided with manure, the brown and white ball wobbled through the air like a Hoyt Wilhelm knuckler. My brother, Don, playing shortstop, relayed the ball to home plate to prevent a homer. A half-inning later, I stepped into the batter’s box to settle a grievance. Tapping a bat on my cleated shoes deposited cow manure on home plate. It was an act of civil disobedience aimed at the hometown umpire, whose strike zone expanded for Livermore’s pitcher but shrank to the size of a wooden matchbox when Johnny Sawyer, our ace pitcher, took the mound.

Sawyer was a self-assured, talkative, lanky Belgrade freshman with a slow, unorthodox delivery. Once, when I was Sawyer’s catcher, a cocky hitter stepped into the batter’s box, turned to me, and asked, “Is your pitcher Ichabod Crane’s grandson?” His observation wasn’t totally off base. Sawyer was, more aptly, baseball’s equivalent of the cunning talkative spider in Mary Howitt’s famous poem “The Spider and the Fly,” with its memorable line: “Will you walk into my parlor?” Johnny’s parlor was the batter’s box, and “into his dismal den” stepped overconfident hitters, most of whom fell prey to the southpaw’s deadly slider and Major League-quality curve ball.

A news clipping from The Lewiston Daily Sun published June 15, 1976. Newspapers.com clipping

He led our team in strikeouts and laughs. His colorful, homespun Maine humor forced stone-faced umpires to crack smiles.

“Work a walk,” he’d holler in a strong Down East accent. “Their pitcher can’t hit the broadside of a barn with a pitchfork.”


During one tense game with the score knotted in the last inning, our coach called on me to pinch-hit.

“Joseph,” he pleaded, “please put the damn ball in play. And for heaven’s sake, don’t strike out.”

Seeing that I was jittery in the on-deck circle, Johnny swaggered up to me. Wrapping his golden left arm around my shoulders, he whispered, “Take him deep and make him weep.” I don’t remember that at-bat, other than stepping into the batter’s box laughing.

Sawyer blossomed into a standout pitcher for the legendary University of Maine baseball coach John Winkin. In 1976, after Maine’s two thrilling College World Series wins against Auburn and Washington State in Omaha, Nebraska, Sawyer pitched in the national semifinals.

Facing Arizona State University, he dueled future Chicago White Sox star pitcher Floyd Bannister and eleven of Bannister’s teammates who would later play Major League baseball. Johnny Sawyer twice struck out Bob Horner, who in 1978 was named National League Rookie of the Year as the Atlanta Braves’ third baseman. That Maine lost the game was a minor disappointment to Johnny’s former high school teammates.

Our best player and beloved friend had pitched on college baseball’s biggest stage, proving that dreams are achievable, even ones born on rural Maine baseball fields frequented by moose, foxes and livestock.

Ron Joseph of Sidney is author of “Bald Eagles, Bear Cubs, and Hermit Bill: Memories of a Maine Wildlife Biologist.” His column appears monthly. 

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