'Our Three Sons'
Henningses Board Three Ballplayers for Summer
By Rich McManus
On the Front Page...
Among the pleasures enumerated in the classic tune "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" including the title sentiment, the peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the wistful desire that the experience never end, the pleasures of rooting, the survivability, albeit with shame, of a loss, etc. no mention is made of bringing home a ballplayer to stay under your roof, drink your juice supply and feast upon your deli meats. Yet this is exactly what Marsha and Henry Hennings two longtime NIH'ers agreed to this past summer. They didn't host just one hungry, strapping, 19-year-old college baseball-playing kid, but three of them, for 10 weeks.
Like many hardships freely undertaken, they did it for their son, Bill, a 16-year-old novice baseballer who plays for Thomas Wootton High in Rockville.
"We thought it would be a neat experience for him to meet boys at a higher level, and learn more about the game from them," said Marsha Hennings, an administrative officer for the NIAMS intramural program.
She and her husband Henry, who is assistant chief of the Laboratory of Cellular Carcinogenesis and Tumor Promotion at NCI, fell into housing one-third of a baseball team by accident. Like many local residents, they had read in the sports pages last spring of the founding of a new Bethesda-based team for college players on summer break. The Bethesda Big Train, named after famed Washington Senators pitcher Walter "Big Train" Johnson, who had been a Montgomery County resident, would play in the Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League at a brand new gem of a park built in Cabin John Regional Park.
"We thought it would be nice to volunteer our time and maybe work at a concession stand at the games," said Marsha. Henry, a "fanatical" Cleveland Indians fan (he was born near Cleveland) was intrigued by the 54-year-old Griffith League's insistence on the use of wooden, rather than aluminum, bats. "It just seems more authentic because that's all there was when I was a kid. It's more like the way baseball ought to be."
The Henningses attended a session last May at which the Big Train pitched a recruitment message for volunteers. "The more information I got, the more I realized they needed host families," recalls Marsha. "So we signed on for one player. All that was necessary was to provide a bedroom and bath, and some food, mainly breakfast."
The couple was heartened by the appearance of an old friend at the recruiting session Randy Schools, president of NIH's Recreation & Welfare Association, who headed the Big Train Booster Club. Henry had known Randy for years, owing to his service as volunteer leader of the R&W Basketball Club, which fields a team in the county recreation league. Still an athlete himself, Henry was ready to help a young player any way he could.
By Memorial Day weekend, 24 of the 25 players on the Big Train squad were claimed by host families (including another NIH'er, NCI Administrative Officer Larry Chloupek, whose ties to the Big Train include friendship, dating back to their days as varsity baseball coaches at Churchill High School, with Manager Derek Hacopian.) "So we volunteered to take a second boy," says Marsha, "because he had no home."
For June, the first month of the season, things worked out fine. Bill Hennings loved having slightly older role models around the house, and Marsha and Henry were enjoying free passes to thrice-weekly home games. "Bill thought it was great having older 'brothers' to hang out with," recalls Marsha.
In late June, Bill moved to his parents' beach home in Rehoboth to take a job for the summer. That's when the Henningses learned that one of the other Big Train players needed a new place to stay. Since their son's room was newly vacated, they decided to take on relief pitcher James Dawson of Maine. Relieving the reliever, so to speak.
With an infielder (Steve Thomas), a pitcher (Bo Acors, whose name alone holds big league promise) and a closer in the house, food and drink disappeared fast. "We provided a lot of lunch meat," Henry noted dryly.
"I couldn't keep up with the bread and lunch meat," marveled Marsha. "I was at the store buying milk and juice every day. A lot of their friends ended up hanging out at our house."
Given the amenities available in the Hennings' recreation room, it is no surprise that players swarmed there. "We have a pool table, ping-pong table and a hot tub," noted Henry. "They kind of became family," added Marsha. "We got to know at least half the team."
The Henningses only prepared one big dinner a week for the players, who had games or practices the other six nights. The boys would leave for practice around 3 in the afternoon and be gone all evening. During the days, all had jobs, mostly in the sport: Thomas and Dawson were groundskeepers at Povich Field at Cabin John Park, and Acors worked at local baseball camps, teaching pitching.
The Henningses, too, had their Rehoboth house to repair to, which they did often. "We were gone a lot," says Marsha. "Our only request of the players was that they take care of our cat and plants while we were away." Observed Henry, with gratitude, "It's rare that our plants are surviving at this time of summer."
Marsha said the key to enjoying the experience was firm realism. "I didn't expect anything of them," she said. The boys were responsible for their laundry and the state of their rooms. "I wasn't going to act as a maid service," she said. Yes, she admits, they partied. "But there was no destruction. They were very responsible. They were really great kids."
So great that the Henningses want all of them back next summer, if they make the team. "They kind of became sons," said Marsha. "We met all their parents. James' mom brought 35 live lobsters down from Maine when she visited. They were the biggest I've ever seen."
The Henningses grew so close to the athletes that, after working for three games, they scrubbed their game-day volunteer posts (Marsha sold raffle tickets, brochures and commemorative bricks, and Henry directed traffic and cleaned out storage space) to be full-time fans in the 700-seat stadium.
The Big Train finished their inaugural year with 39 wins and 19 losses; the players went back home early in August. "I have a cleaning service at the house today, cleaning top to bottom," laughs Marsha.
Their memories of the boys are sweet. "Someone suggested we put a sign on our lawn saying 'Hennings Inn,'" says Marsha, recalling the times when their own three cars competed for space in the driveway or on the lawn with those of a half-dozen players. "We hope our son will find a family that cares if he's ever lucky enough to be in a situation like this."
Bill Hennings has already secured promises from all three players to host college visits this year, which includes campuses in Virginia and South Carolina. He can use these visits to determine how effective the advice of his cancer researcher father has been; Henry advised all three players to avoid the habit of chewing tobacco.
"We'll keep in touch with them and hope to take Bill to see some of their baseball games at their schools next spring," said Marsha, whose interest in them is more familial than epidemiological. "We have all their phone numbers and addresses."
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