About a third of the way through the twentieth century, baseball was the number one sport in towns large and small across the United States. Villages in the hills of north Arkansas were known for their baseball teams. As soon as the crops were in, friends gathered on quilts or the hoods of their cars in a make-do field, open and clean, sometimes only sporting a backstop, for a match-up with a community nearby. Baseball was quite competitive, even on the local level, and it was into this environment that Frank Shell was born.
Frank grew up with athletics. His father, Harry Shell, though primarily a baseball player, was invited to play high school football for Augusta, Arkansas. Harry was also recruited to play college football. He joined a pro baseball team in Northeast Arkansas, and in three weeks was batting .700. Unfortunately, an arm injury sidelined him. He continued to play baseball on several amateur teams around Zion and Melbourne in Izard County. Harry was a friend and quail hunting buddy of Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe. Frank’s uncles on both sides of the family also took to the diamond, excelling at hitting. One of Harry’s brothers, Theo, was known for the astounding “crack” the bat made in contact with the ball. Spectators called his hits “King Cracking” because he could find that central “sweet spot” of the bat so well.
In Frank’s earliest memories of the sport, his father took a ball and an old wooden bat beside the house, and pitched to Frank and his older brother, Hoyt. Harry threw hard enough to raise concern in the boys’ mother, Myrtle, who was by no means fainthearted. But Harry expected his boys to move along, learning baseball, and learn they did.
In the early 40s, Little League or Babe Ruth baseball had yet to arrive in Izard County. But by age ten or so, at recess, after school, or during the summer, Frank, Hoyt, and their friends maintained a pick-up game. They would make bases and lay out their rules, sometimes using a ball made out of an old sock wrapped tight or perhaps taped. In one version, an “out” occurred when the batter failed to hit the ball out of the infield. As long as the batter’s hit cleared the infield, he could continue batting. The boys intermingled the line-ups, scurried in at the fork of lightning or when they were called home for supper, but ultimately participated in one long game, drawn out through the seasons and years as they completed fifth and sixth grades, and on.
Sometimes the boys would play in the Shell’s yard. Their mother, Myrtle, took pride in gardening, nurturing petunias, zinnias, four o’clocks, and marigolds, many of the old-fashioned flowers. Often the players would chase a ball into the flowers and break a stem. The offender would pick up the flower and lean it against its counterparts, as if nothing had happened. Frank heard his mother once complaining to a neighbor, “I don’t know what it is about my flowers. They just all of a sudden die.” The boys never revealed the mysterious reason Myrtle’s pretty blooms didn’t survive.
An amusing incident off-field occurred when Shell was about twelve. Continue reading I Played that Town: the Frank Shell Baseball Story