101 Classic Short Stories: Rollo Learning to Play

By Robert J. Burdette

Early in the afternoon of the same day, Mr. Holliday came home bearing a large package in his arms. Not only seldom, but rarely, did anything come into the Holliday homestead that did not afford the head of the family a text for sermonic instruction, if not, indeed, rational discourse. Depositing the package upon a hall table, he called to his son in a mandatory manner:

“Rollo, come to me.”

Rollo approached, but started with reluctant steps. He became reminiscently aware as he hastily reviewed the events of the day, that in carrying out one or two measures for the good of the house, he had laid himself open to an investigation by a strictly partisan committee, and the possibility of such an inquiry, with its subsequent report, grieved him. However, he hoped for the worst, so that in any event he would not be disagreeably disappointed, and came running to his father, calling “Yes, sir!” in his cheeriest tones.

This is the correct form in which to meet any possible adversity which is not yet in sight. Because, if it should not meet you, you are happy anyhow, and if it should meet you, you have been happy before the collision. See?

“Now, Rollo,” said his father, “you are too large and strong to be spending your leisure time playing baby games with your little brother Thanny. It is time for you to begin to be athletic.”

“What is athletic?” asked Rollo.

“Well,” replied his father, who was an alumnus (pronounced ahloomnoose) himself, “in a general way it means to wear a pair of pantaloons either eighteen inches too short or six inches too long for you, and stand around and yell while other men do your playing for you. The reputation for being an athlete may also be acquired by wearing a golf suit to church, or carrying a tennis racket to your meals. However, as I was about to say, I do not wish you to work all the time, like a woman, or even a small part of the time, like a hired man. I wish you to adopt for your recreation games of sport and pastime.”

Rollo interrupted his father to say that indeed he preferred games of that description to games of toil and labor, but as he concluded, little Thanny, who was sitting on the porch step with his book, suddenly read aloud, in a staccato measure.


“Read to yourself, Thanny,” said his father kindly, “and do not speak your syllables in that jerky manner.”

Thanny subsided into silence, after making two or three strange gurgling noises in his throat, which Rollo, after several efforts, succeeded in imitating quite well. Being older than Thanny, Rollo, of course, could not invent so many new noises every day as his little brother. But he could take Thanny’s noises, they being unprotected by copyright, and not only reproduce them, but even improve upon them.

This shows the advantage of the higher education. “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” It is well for every boy to learn that dynamite is an explosive of great power, after which it is still better for him to learn of how great power. Then he will not hit a cartridge with a hammer in order to find out, and when he dines in good society he can still lift his pie gracefully in his hand, and will not be compelled to harpoon it with an iron hook at the end of his fore-arm.

Rollo’s father looked at the two boys attentively as they swallowed their noises, and then said:

“Now, Rollo, there is no sense in learning to play a man’s game with a toy outfit. Here are the implements of a game which is called base-ball, and which I am going to teach you to play.”

So saying he opened the package and handed Rollo a bat, a wagon tongue terror that would knock the leather off a planet, and Rollo’s eyes danced as he balanced it and pronounced it a “la-la.”

“It is a bat,” his father said sternly, “a base-ball bat.”

“Is that a base-ball bat?” exclaimed Rollo, innocently.

“Yes, my son,” replied his father, “and here is a protector for the hand.”

Rollo took the large leather pillow and said:

“That’s an infielder.”

“It is a mitt,” his father said, “and here is the ball.”

As Rollo took the ball in his hands he danced with glee.

“That’s a peach,” he cried.

“It is a base-ball,” his father said, “that is what you play base-ball with.”

“Is it?” exclaimed Rollo, inquiringly.

“Now,” said Mr. Holliday, as they went into the back yard, followed by Thanny, “I will go to bat first, and I will let you pitch, so that I may teach you how. I will stand here at the end of the barn, then when you miss my bat with the ball, as you may sometimes do, for you do not yet know how to pitch accurately, the barn will prevent the ball from going too far.”

“That’s the back-stop,” said Rollo.

“Do not try to be funny, my son,” replied his father, “in this great republic only a President of the United States is permitted to coin phrases which nobody can understand. Now, observe me; when you are at bat you stand in this manner.”

And Mr. Holliday assumed the attitude of a timid man who has just stepped on the tail of a strange and irascible dog, and is holding his legs so that the animal, if he can pull his tail out, can escape without biting either of them. He then held the bat up before his face as though he was carrying a banner.

“Now, Rollo, you must pitch the ball directly toward the end of my bat. Do not pitch too hard at first, or you will tire yourself out before we begin.”

Rollo held the ball in his hands and gazed at it thoughtfully for a moment; he turned and looked at the kitchen windows as though he had half a mind to break one of them; then wheeling suddenly he sent the ball whizzing through the air like a bullet. It passed so close to Mr. Holliday’s face that he dropped the bat and his grammar in his nervousness and shouted:

“What are you throw nat? That’s no way to pitch a ball! Pitch it as though you were playing a gentleman’s game; not as though you were trying to kill a cat! Now, pitch it right here; right at this place on my bat. And pitch more gently; the first thing you know You’ll sprain your wrist and have to go to bed. Now, try again.”

This time Rollo kneaded the ball gently, as though he suspected it had been pulled before it was ripe. He made an offer as though he would throw it to Thanny. Thanny made a rush back to an imaginary “first,” and Rollo, turning quickly, fired the ball in the general direction of Mr. Holliday. It passed about ten feet to his right, but none the less he made what Thanny called “a swipe” at it that turned him around three times before he could steady himself. It then hit the end of the barn with a resounding crash that made Cotton Mather, the horse, snort with terror in his lonely stall. Thanny called out in nasal, sing-song tone:


“Thanny,” said his father, severely, “do not let me hear a repetition of such language from you. If you wish to join our game, you may do so, if you will play in a gentlemanly manner. But I will not permit the use of slang about this house. Now, Rollo, that was better; much better. But you must aim more accurately and pitch less violently. You will never learn anything until you acquire it, unless you pay attention while giving your mind to it. Now, play ball, as we say.”

This time Rollo stooped and rubbed the ball in the dirt until his father sharply reprimanded him, saying, “You untidy boy; that ball will not be fit to play with!” Then Rollo looked about him over the surrounding country as though admiring the pleasant view, and with the same startling abruptness as before, faced his father and shot the ball in so swiftly that Thanny said he could see it smoke. It passed about six feet to the left of the batsman, but Mr. Holliday, judging that it was coming “dead for him,” dodged, and the ball struck his high silk hat with a boom like a drum, carrying it on to the “back-stop” in its wild career.

“Take your base!” shouted Thanny, but suddenly checked himself, remembering the new rules on the subject of his umpiring.

“Rollo!” exclaimed his father, “why do you not follow my instructions more carefully? That was a little better, but still the ball was badly aimed. You must not stare around all over creation when you are playing ball. How can you throw straight when you look at everything in the world except at the bat you are trying to hit? You must aim right at the bat—try to hit it—that’s what the pitcher does. And Thanny, let me say to you, and for the last time, that I will not permit the slang of the slums to be used about this house. Now, Rollo, try again, and be more careful and more deliberate.”

“Father,” said Rollo, “did you ever play base-ball when you were a young man?”

“Did I play base-ball?” repeated his father, “did I play ball? Well, say, I belonged to the Sacred Nine out in old Peoria, and I was a holy terror on third, now I tell you. One day—”

But just at this point in the history it occurred to Rollo to send the ball over the plate. Mr. Holliday saw it coming; he shut both eyes and dodged for his life, but the ball hit his bat and went spinning straight up in the air. Thanny shouted “Foul!” ran under it, reached up, took it out of the atmosphere, and cried:


“Thanny,” said his father sternly, “another word and you shall go straight to bed! If you do not improve in your habit of language I will send you to the reform school. Now, Rollo,” he continued, kindly, “that was a great deal better; very much better. I hit that ball with almost no difficulty. You are learning. But you will learn more rapidly if you do not expend so much unnecessary strength in throwing the ball. Once more, now, and gently; I do not wish you to injure your arm.”

Rollo leaned forward and tossed the ball toward his father very gently indeed, much as his sister Mary would have done, only, of course, in a more direct line. Mr. Holliday’s eyes lit up with their old fire as he saw the on-coming sphere. He swept his bat around his head in a fierce semi-circle, caught the ball fair on the end of it, and sent it over Rollo’s head, crashing into the kitchen window amid a jingle of glass and a crash of crockery, wild shrieks from the invisible maid servant and delighted howls from Rollo and Thanny of “Good boy!” “You own the town!” “All the way round!”

Mr. Holliday was a man whose nervous organism was so sensitive that he could not endure the lightest shock of excitement. The confusion and general uproar distracted him.

“Thanny!” he shouted, “go into the house! Go into the house and go right to bed!”

“Thanny,” said Rollo, in a low tone, “you’re suspended; that’s what you get for jollying the umpire.”

“Rollo,” said his father, “I will not have you quarreling with Thanny. I can correct him without your interference. And, besides, you have wrought enough mischief for one day. Just see what you have done with your careless throwing. You have broken the window, and I do not know how many things on the kitchen table. You careless, inattentive boy. I would do right if I should make you pay for all this damage out of your own pocket-money. And I would, if you had any. I may do so, nevertheless. And there is Jane, bathing her eye at the pump. You have probably put it out by your wild pitching. If she dies, I will make you wash the dishes until she returns. I thought all boys could throw straight naturally without any training. You discourage me. Now come here and take this bat, and I will show you how to pitch a ball without breaking all the glass in the township. And see if you can learn to bat any better than you can pitch.”

Rollo took the bat, poised himself lightly, and kept up a gentle oscillation of the stick while he waited.

“Hold it still!” yelled his father, whose nerves were sorely shaken. “How can I pitch a ball to you when you keep flourishing that club like an anarchist in procession. Hold it still, I tell you!”

Rollo dropped the bat to an easy slant over his shoulder and looked attentively at his father. The ball came in. Rollo caught it right on the nose of the bat and sent it whizzing directly at the pitcher. Mr. Holliday held his hands straight out before him and spread his fingers.

“I’ve got her!” he shouted.

And then the ball hit his hands, scattered them, and passed on against his chest with a jolt that shook his system to its foundations. A melancholy howl rent the air as he doubled up and tried to rub his chest and knead all his fingers on both hands at the same time.

“Rollo,” he gasped, “you go to bed, too! Go to bed and stay there six weeks. And when you get up, put on one of your sister’s dresses and play golf. You’ll never learn to play ball if you practice a thousand years. I never saw such a boy. You have probably broken my lung. And I do not suppose I shall ever use my hands again. You can’t play tiddle-de-winks. Oh, dear; oh, dear!”

Rollo sadly laid away the bat and the ball and went to bed, where he and Thanny sparred with pillows until tea time, when they were bailed out of prison by their mother. Mr. Holliday had recovered his good humor. His fingers were multifariously bandaged and he smelled of arnica like a drug store. But he was reminiscent and animated. He talked of the old times and the old days, and of Peoria and Hinman’s, as was his wont oft as he felt boyish.

“And town ball,” he said, “good old town ball! There was no limit to the number on a side. The ring was anywhere from three hundred feet to a mile in circumference, according to whether we played on a vacant Pingree lot or out on the open prairie. We tossed up a bat—wet or dry—for first choice, and then chose the whole school on the sides. The bat was a board, about the gen eral shape of a Roman galley oar and not quite so wide as a barn door. The ball was of solid India rubber; a little fellow could hit it a hundred yards, and a big boy, with a hickory club, could send it clear over the bluffs or across the lake. We broke all the windows in the school-house the first day, and finished up every pane of glass in the neighborhood before the season closed. The side that got its innings first kept them until school was out or the last boy died. Fun? Good game? Oh, boy of these golden days, paying fifty cents an hour for the privilege of watching a lot of hired men do your playing for you—it beat two-old-cat.”


Instruction  Miscalculation  Paralysis

Instantaneity  Pastime    Hasty

Liniment  Contusion  Supererogation

Can a boy learn anything without a teacher?—Does the pupil ever know more than the instructor?—And why not?—How long does it require one to learn to speak and write the Spanish language correctly in six easy lessons, at home, without a master?—And in how many lessons can one be taught to walk Spanish?—What is meant by a “rooter”?—What is the difference between a “rooter” and a “fan”?—Parse “hoodoo.”—What is the philology of “crank”?—Describe a closely contested game of “one-old-cat,” with diagrams.—What is meant by “a rank decision”?—Translate into colloquial English the phrase, “Good eye Bill!”—Put into bleaching board Latin, “Rotten umpire.”—Why is he so called?