Grandma was married to a left-hander, and she knew what being left-handed in a right-handed world could mean. Grandpa Watts was a steam-fitter for the Burlington, so he dealt with the problem daily. He was also that rarity in baseball --a left-handed catcher --and he had the gnarled, broken fingers that went with the position.
When I showed signs of favoring my left hand, Grandma came down hard on Mom about it and Dad went along with the idea of training me to ''go right.''
I was hardly aware of any pressure. The most I ever really got was when I reached for something with my south paw. ''Other hand,'' I'd be told. Since I could grab with either hand, it didn't seem like such a big deal. When I got my first baseball glove, it went on my left hand, so I just threw with my right.
Dad worked long hours six days a week at his various grocery stores, so we didn't play much catch. Through third grade, a brick wall in an alley off North Cherry Street was my partner. I would play catch by myself with a rubber ball for hours. The alley was right across from our store at #34 and we lived in an apartment on the second floor -- so both Mom and Dad could keep an eye on me out the window.
When we moved to Blaine Avenue, however, there were neighborhood boys to play with. I had to learn the rules of baseball under their instruction; and sometimes it was painful. I could catch and throw, but I'd never batted or played on dirt -- so my fielding and hitting were often pathetic. In fourth and fifth grades at Farnham School, when I got chosen to play, it was in right field and batting ninth.
In sixth grade, I blossomed. I began to hit and field well; and I became an all-star in the Custer Park Youth Softball League. At other sports, I was still something of a klutz. Basketball was difficult because so much depended on being a successful shot. We Blaine Avenue Bulldogs played a lot of backyard basketball, but I usually stayed close to the basket where my unsteady dribbling and off-kilter shooting didn't matter so much. At football, I never did learn to throw the ball very well but I could catch anything I could reach with either hand. I should've been a split end, but Coach Fritsch at Lombard ran mostly a tight T formation and I was too light to block anybody bigger than the waterboy. He kept sticking me at quarterback because of my good hands; but my knuckleball passes kept me third-string and the butt of my teammates' jokes.
So -- at GHS and Knox -- I was a baseball player. I also played on the Butler Manufacturing and East Main Street Congregational softball teams as an outfielder. An ankle injury in gym class kept me from lettering at GHS; but at Knox, I won my numeral as a freshman and was utility man on the varsity as a sophomore. As a junior, I had to give up sports to work, but I played city league softball when the Navy sent me to Los Angeles for duty.
I was in my early 30s when an optometrist told me my eyes were set up for a left-hander. (My dominant eye was my left.) When I called Mom about it, she confessed what had happened. Well, by then, I was married with three kids --so what could I do?
Ironically, soon after, I broke my right shoulder in a city league basketball game. Since I was then teaching English at a junior high, I needed to write on the blackboard. I tried it with my left hand -- and wonder of wonders -- I could print well enough so that students could read it. As my shoulder healed, my writing improved; and I dialed phones, brushed my teeth, and ate my food with my left hand.
When softball season rolled around, my shoulder was still too sore to throw or bat right-handed -- but my church team was desperate. They had only eight players, so I agreed to play right field and bat ninth as a lefty.
But this wasn't the fourth grade at Farnham. I became the toughest out in the league -- which was fast-pitch -- and I was soon batting first. The league average was below .300 -- but I batted over .600 and easily won the hitting title. I even ruined two no-hitters.
If only I'd learned about my eyes when I was still in grade school! Maybe as a left-hander, I might've gone more heavily toward sports as a career -- and then?
As it was, I stuck to writing about sports (and other things) and played only recreationally. But my lefty ways weren't totally abandoned. I continued to hit left-handed in softball and even played golf for two years lefty. Now, I'm mostly a righty -- although I occasionally putt left-handed.
I didn't try to ''train'' my own kids; and all three of them played soccer (no dominant hands there!) and were good with their left feet. On a dare, my son Dave once bowled a 165 game left-handed when he was a teenager. They all stayed righties, but I guess some of my southpaw DNA got into them.
Maybe nothing would've been different, but sometimes, like on a long winter evening, I find myself musing what my life would've been like if Grandma Watts had not been so insistent.