[Previously published in Olde Tyme Baseball News]
Guest Blogger: Dr. Charles T. Gregory
Professor of Tactical Leisure History and Comparative Phrenology, Mountebank University
Dear Professor Gregory:
I remember my grandfather speaking of the "awful death" of an ex-baseball player named "Fig" Newton. What happened to him?
(Signed) Morbidly Aroused
I referred to Newton’s awful demise, though only obliquely, in Chapter 186 of my book A History of Balls of the Base Variety. As a matter of fact, his fate was one of the first pieces of baseball-bilia I ever heard and may well be the genesis of my lifelong quest to know everything about baseball. As I remember, I learned of Newton on the day my Uncle Alfie told me about the hoop snake.
"The West Virginia hoop snake," Uncle Alfie said, setting his glass down firmly on the cabin table, "is the single most dangerous animal put upon this earth. If it is ever your misfortune to meet up with one, my boy, that will be a dark day for you indeed."
In all my eight years, I’d never met up with a hoop snake, or even heard of one. I knew about rattlesnakes and even once saw a dead copperhead coiled menacingly in a jar of formaldehyde, looking like a fat, rubber spring. But never a hoop snake. However, Uncle Alfie’s knowledge of the world and its ways went far beyond mine. Uncle Alfie had been a sailor in The War.
Every evening that week at the fishing camp, Uncle Alfie and my father put their poles and bait away and played euchre with my mother and Aunt Lil. They let me watch until they took their sandwich break. After my snack, it was off to bed for me.
"Fortunately for the human race," Uncle Alfie continued, "the hoop snake confines himself exclusively to the environs of the sovereign state of West Virginia."
As a lifelong resident of West Virginia, I found little consolation in the hoop snake’s choice of home. My father took a sip from his glass and asked, "Why is that, Alf? Why do they live only in West Virginia?"
Uncle Alfie’s heavy black eyebrows went up, down, then up again. "Because of the hills," he said. Certainly I had to admit that West Virginia had more and steeper hills than any other place I’d ever seen. Of course, I’d never seen any other place.
My mother, slicing ham by the sink, said, "I don’t think you should talk about snakes right before his bedtime."
"His," of course, was me.
"Knowledge is power," Uncle Alfie said, and my father nodded very seriously. "You see, my boy, the terrible hoop snake needs these steep hills for his peculiar mode of locomotion. When he wants to get from one place to another, he grasps his cruel tail in his ugly mouth and rolls like a hoop." Aunt Lil, buttering bread alongside my mother, giggled.
"Down the hill he rolls" -- Uncle Alfie made a wide vertical circle with his large right hand -- "building up speed! Faster and faster! Until he’s traveling at such an awful clip he rolls right up to the top of the next hill."
My father nodded. "I’ve only seen one or two. Down by the rapids," he said. I gulped. I’d sat on a big rock by the rapids that very afternoon while watching my father cast for trout.
"Oh yes, they are rare. And thank heaven for that!" Uncle Alfie reached over and gripped my shoulder. "The hoop snake’s venom is so lethal that one bite, even a slight nick, and it’s --" Here he lowered his eyes and shook his head sadly over the hopelessness of it all.
I asked, "Isn’t there any anti -- anti --?"
"Antidote? Only one."
"Swearing on a Bible," suggested Aunt Lil.
Uncle Alfie frowned, a heavy black V forming above his eyes. "No, the only known antidote for the deadly venom of the hoop snake is West Virginia White Lightning. Corn liquor."
I wondered if my mother would let me drink corn liquor even if I got bit. Probably not.
"I am reminded of the melancholy fate of that farmer." He turned to my father. "You remember the old fellow."
"You mean MacDonald?" my father asked.
"Schuetz! That was his name," Uncle Alfie remembered. "He was a poor dirt farmer with only three rocky acres and a shack up on Cherry Hill. He raised corn, as I recall."
"No doubt, you supplied his fertilizer," Aunt Lil said.
"One day, old Schuetz was out hoeing his cornfield -- a few tattered stalks -- when he happened to look up the hill. And there, rolling down upon him like Armageddon itself, came the biggest, most angry hoop snake he’d ever seen in all his miserable life."
"What did he do?" I asked.
"Why, he dropped his hoe like a hot rock and leaped for his life! But before the old hoe could hit the ground, that hoop snake collided with it, wrapped around it like a whip, sank its horrid fangs into the handle, and injected every drop of his pernicious venom into the wood. Then the monster crawled away on his belly. That’s what they do when they’re out of venom -- crawl."
"Then Schuetz was saved," I said, glad for him.
"At first. In fact, at first he thought his luck had changed. With all that hoop snake venom in it, the hoe handle began to swell. It swelled and swelled until it reached such a prodigious size that the next day he took it to the saw mill and had it cut into boards. He got so much lumber that he was able to build himself a five-room house slicker than cow slobber and had enough left over for a nice-sized chicken coop."
"It’s late," my mother said flatly, as she handed me my ham sandwich and glass of milk. Aunt Lil was giggling again.
"Well, one day old Farmer Schuetz is sitting on his rocker in his new living room, thinking how lucky he is. Naturally, he had his jug of White Lightning right there beside him."
"That’s the antidote," I said.
"A very powerful antidote," my father said solemnly.
"As luck would have it -- bad luck, that is -- old Schuetz had been nipping the Lightning heavily that day. So when he reached once more for his jug -- wouldn’t you know -- he knocked it over, and that liquor began to pour on to the floor.
"Right away, the wood absorbed that antidote -- and it began to shrink! Old Schuetz tried to get out. He took a flying leap for the window and almost made it. But he went out feet first! Before his head could clear the window sill, the hoe handle shrank back to normal.
"That poor old man was strangled by his living room window!"
Aunt Lil rapidly chewed her sandwich. My mother, at the sink, mumbled something and dropped the butter.
My father shook his head. "A sad story," he said.
Uncle Alfie drained his glass. "The epilog was even sadder. You remember, they auctioned off Schuetz’s few acres and his chicken coop to a fellow named Newton. Everyone called him ‘Fig.’ I never did know why."
"Maybe he liked figs," Aunt Lil suggested.
"Oh, of course," my father said. "Fig Newton, the baseball player! He hit .270 for the Reds one year."
"Be that as it may, young Newton was by this time out of baseball and attempting a career as a farmer. Which was why he purchased old Schuetz’s land and coop. All went well until the day he decided to paint his chicken coop. Sad!"
"Very sad," said my father.
"What -- what happened?" I asked.
"He was painting up a storm, with all of old Schuetz’s laying hens clucking away inside, when he noticed he was running out of paint. Well, it so happened there was an old jug filled with some liquid just sitting there beside the coop. Newton pulled the cork and dumped the contents into his can to stretch out his paint.
"What he didn’t know was that old jug contained some of Farmer Schuetz’s White Lightning. He no more than touched his paintbrush to the coop and the building started to shrink like air out of a balloon."
"But Newton was outside," I said hopefully.
"Ah, yes. But the hens were inside. And poor Newton was machinegunned to death by flying eggs."
Aunt Lil began shuffling the cards -- the signal it was my bedtime. My mother sat down as I got up. "Why did you tell him that story?" she asked.
"Think of the moral," Uncle Alfie said. "Stay away from hard liquor -- unless you’re bitten by a hoop snake."
"You used to be bitten a lot," Aunt Lil laughed.
Uncle Alfie laughed too. "Sometimes it took me hours to find a snake. It’s my deal, I think."
I went to my little alcove at the back of the cabin and climbed into my bed, but I wasn’t sleepy. I could hear them at the table talking about trump and bowers. I thought about what Uncle Alfie had told me. There wasn’t really a hoop snake, I’d bet.
After a while, I noticed that my window was open. It faced a hillside and was covered by only a thin screen. A hoop snake would break right through, I thought. If there was a hoop snake.
Which there wasn’t.
It was a warm night, but I decided to get up and close my window. It might get cold while I was sleeping.