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June 30, 2000

I was truly saddened the other day to hear about Lefty Cleeton's death, but then it dawned on me: If there's a celestial baseball team in the hereafter, they just picked up the option on a pretty fair first baseman who knows how to get timely hits. Think of it - just the other day we lost pitcher Joe Ripley, and he would have joined catcher Tiny Lang to make up a formidable battery. Manager Hump Daniels also is there, along with Dick Brocaw, reliever Pat Townsend, pitcher Tommy Warren, Bob Craft and several others who used to make things uncomfortable for foes of the semipro Perry Merchants and the Perry Oilers when those guys were in their prime. What a lineup Hump could have put on the field with all those guys ready to go. Wow! If all of them were in a lineup, we definitely would have a team worthy of the National Semipro tournament in Wichita, and I betcha we could have taken the measure of the Wilson Packers, the Oklahoma Natural Gassers, the Stillwater Boomers or the Eason Oilers any time they wanted to challenge.

Lefty was a natural at the game. It was pure pleasure to watch his glove work at first base and his good batter's eye as the leadoff hitter or in the cleanup slot. He was baseball smart but he followed his manager's orders because he was a team man. When the Perry stadium was new, several decades ago, Lefty and his mates drew big crowds to the baseball park on summer evenings when the Merchants (later the Oilers) were entertaining a visiting team from some nearby town. Those were carefree, happy days, before the infirmities of middle age and beyond crept up on him. But even when his playing career was over, Lefty kept up with the game by following Perry kids and our American Legion players. He must have dreamed some about what might have, been when he was invited to try out with the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League. He may not have fit in when the Cards had their famous Gas House Gang (he was too much of a gentleman to be in that category), but he could have helped the Redbirds in many ways.

Off the field, Lefty was a clerk for years at the Gottlieb brothers' Famous Department Store. He was not given to long-winded sales spiels about the garments for sale in the men's department, or even discussions and diatribes about baseball. Sometimes he barely spoke above a whisper, but he made himself understood. Later he became manager of the Perry store after a stint with the Peters Department Store in Broken Arrow, and finally came retirement here in his adopted hometown of Perry.

At Lefty's funeral the other day, his brother, Rev. Jack Cleeton, preached a touching sermon. He also related that the first baseball game he ever saw back in Arkansas where they grew up was one in which Lefty was a player. The game was a lifelong obsession, and I thought the song, rendered vocally at the opening of the funeral, could not have been more appropriate. It was "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and I have to feel that Lefty, was already warming up for the next inning while his family and friends took their seats for that final tribute to the old first baseman.