It’s hard to take your eye off the baseball glove.
Which is not to say that the salt-and-pepper bearded face of Willie "Big Ray" Hale, a former bat boy for the Austin Greyhounds and Austin Indians, is not fascinating.
His picture hangs on a fence alongside that of Lawrence "Fireball" Tucker, pitcher for the San Antonio Outlaws and San Antonio Black Sox, and Allen "Big Bam" Hicks, catcher for the Kerrville All-Stars, and other players from the former Negro League at historic Downs Field in East Austin.
Photographed by Cindy Elizabeth as part of her "A Beautiful Symphony" series, these portraits, which include figures from the Huston-Tillotson baseball team and neighborhood heroes, complement what might be the most acute intersection of sports, arts, culture and history anywhere in Austin.
More about that history in a bit, but let’s keep an eye on Hale and his well-worn glove. Much of the vertical image is taken up by Hale’s sunlit and unbuttoned denim jacket. To his right side leans a notched wooden rod. Is it a bat, a symbol of youth? Or a walking stick, a sign of inevitable age?
Hale sports jaunty shades, wriggling braids and what looks like a batting helmet that bears the letter "A." The lights of Downs Field poke out from the background, as does a leafless tree, most likely one of giant cottonwoods that watch guard over the baseball complex, which also includes Mabson Field, as well as nearby Boggy Creek, railroad tracks and a hiking trail.
But that Rawlings brand glove: Tawny with darker leather woven into the web and bridge, it seems to match his big hands well. Without knowing Hale, I’d guess this glove has seen a lot of action and probably a good deal of excitement.
It’s an enduring image.
As is the whole complex, which includes striking mosaics by Reginald Adams that commemorate the greats of the Negro League associated with Downs Field at East 12th Street and Alexander Avenue. It was moved from its original 1949 location at East 12th Street and Springdale Road in 1954. Before that, this location was used by Samuel Huston College for baseball as early as the 1920s.
The Austin Black Senators, Austin Black Pioneers and Austin Greyhounds played here, as did college athletes and barnstorming showmen. It is also here that the L.C. Anderson High School football team won the 1942 state championship in the Prairie View Interscholastic League, the segregated Black counterpart to the University Interscholastic League.
On a warm, windy day in October, I walked out onto the crisply maintained field — always a little awesome to a complete non-athlete who nevertheless loves sports — where mockingbirds and meadowlarks were the only players.
My mind went back to a night in August 2015 when several surviving Negro League athletes attended "District Days," a community party that preceded a performance of Forklift Danceworks’ "Play Ball." As I described it back then, in Allison Orr’s visionary piece, baseball players from Huston-Tillotson emerged from the dark like so many ghosts from "Field of Dreams." They enacted imaginary innings in progress without baseballs; at other times, they pitched, caught, hit or otherwise executed novelties with bats, balls and bases.
Also present was a surviving daughter of Willie Wells, who was born in South Austin — a line drive from my current home — and was dubbed "El Diablo" for his playing intensity. (For more on this Baseball Hall of Famer, read Bob Luke’s "Willie Wells: ‘El Diablo’ of the Negro Leagues.")
The Friends of Downs Field group has much to be proud of regarding the now-pristine state of the historic site, as does Austin Parks and Recreation, Austin Parks Foundation, St. David’s Foundation and, especially, Six Square: Austin’s Black Cultural District.
Special props, too, to Orr and Forklift Danceworks, who have found a way to bake countless community members, respectfully and playfully, into movement pieces built around, say, utility or sanitation workers, for instance, as well as historic swimming pools in East Austin, among other nationally recognized projects.