The Park Bench
By F. Donald Collins
Growing up in Baltimore I played a lot of baseball. I played high school ball
as well as sandlot and American Legion. In my late teens and early 20’s in the
summer a group of us would gather on a park bench on the edge of Patterson Park.
Usually every early evening 7, 8 sometimes as many as 15 of us would congregate
on or around “The Bench”. We swapped opinions and comments about the Orioles,
the Colts’ chances for the upcoming season and stories, some about girls but
still mostly about baseball. Patterson’s Diamond #1 was located probably no more
than 50 yards away, where many of our scheduled games were played. Many fine
ballplayers played on that field over the years.
Even though Al Kaline wasn’t part of our bench group he played lots of games
there. I was fortunate to play on the same team with Al as a 16 year old and
against him in high school and American Legion. For those of you who know
anything about baseball, you know that after high school he signed to play
professionally and went directly to the Detroit Tigers, never playing in the
minor leagues. After his career was over, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall
of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Arguably Al was the 2nd best baseball
player to ever come out of Baltimore. Of course the best without a doubt was
There were quite a few real characters among us. One of the older guys who
would join us once in a while was usually dressed to the nines when he stopped
by and he would regal us with his view on things. He was very impressive and
referred to himself as a sanitary engineer. We found out later he was a street
cleaner with the city.
One guy, John Varholy was a real piece of work. We called him Arky because
his favorite baseball player was Arky Vaughan, a fine Major League shortstop
from the 30’s and early 40’s. Our Arky wasn’t much of a ball player but he liked
to hang around us and he only lived a block from the park. I’ll never forget the
Orioles first game back to the Major Leagues in 1954. My father and I along with
2 of my pals, Rich and Norb, were there opening day sitting in the upper deck. I
had my binoculars out prior to the start of the game and spied some guy on the
White Sox bench pounding their catcher’s Sherm Lollar’s mitt. I watched as
Lollar took it from the guy and chassed him out of the dugout. We couldn’t
believe it, it was our pal Arky.
When most of us were in our early 20’s we would sometimes arrange with
military bases around Baltimore to play their baseball team. One time we were to
play a night game with Ft. Meade and we needed a player, so we got Arky to fill
in. Late in the game I was coaching 3rd base and Arky drew a walk.
The next batter singled to center field and Arky decided he could make it to 3rd.
I hollered to him to slide and he sure did. The only thing he was still 20 feet
from the bag when he slid. The third baseman went to tag him but he wasn’t
there, he had to run out to tag him. He liked basketball too and one night I was
at a Baltimore Bullet game and during a timeout the Bullets’ coach Claire Bee
had the players gathered around him and lo and behold guess who was right in the
middle? Yep, it was Arky and Security was called to escort him away. We often
liked to tease the guy because he really was fun to be around. When he went off
the deep end every once in a while, his parents would have him put away for
evaluation and treatment. The last time I remember seeing him before I married
and moved away, he had climbed up into a tree close to the bench and was trying
to scare people walking by.
One fellow who came by the bench from time to time was George “Otts” Kram. He
was writing about high school sports at that time for the Baltimore Sun
newspaper. One evening he announced that he was changing his name to Mark and
told everyone that is what we should call him. When we asked why since we always
called him Otts, he told us that it had dawned on him that Kram spelled
backwards was Mark. We laughed at him and ripped him up pretty good then but he
did go on to become a rather famous sports writer, particularly about boxing,
for Sports Illustrated ----Mark Kram.
Although this is not sports related, one early evening sitting on the bench
with just a couple of the guys around we heard a tremendous explosion. We looked
towards the noise and saw debris rising up in the air a few blocks away. We
hustled off to the location and found a row home demolished and burning. As it
turned out no one was seriously injured but we learned that the only person in
the house was upstairs taking a bath. The blast caused by a gas leak sent him
upward but fortunately he came back down still in the bathtub.
A few years ago on a trip back to my old hometown I went by the park to check
on the bench and found that it was no longer there. It made me kind of sad. If I
had been around when it was taken away, I think I would have tried to buy it.