Townsfolk eyed the vacant lot behind New Windsor School, and erected a field on the cheap. Materials came from barnyards and back yards. A red snow fence, on loan from the county, circled the outfield. For a backstop, they strung turkey wire between discarded phone poles.

Home plate was a chunk of plywood until midsummer when the club could afford a rubber one. Parents cobbled together the team benches and refreshment stand. The feed store supplied bags of crushed lime, with which the Cubs lined the base paths, dribbling it out of rusty coffee cans.

After each game, a volunteer would drag the field, attaching an old bedspring to a pickup truck and circling the bases.

Shopkeepers chipped in to buy uniforms for the players. Cairns remembered the day they arrived: gray flannel outfits that shouted "CUBS" in bold blue letters.

"It was like Christmas morning to the fourth power," he said.

Having tried on the uniforms, no one wanted to take them off.

"Do you sleep in that thing?" his grandmother asked Schlee.

The shortstop smiles now, recalling the question. "I may have, once or twice," he said.

The Cubs breathed baseball. Never mind that, 40 miles to the east, the fledgling Orioles had just arrived in Baltimore.

"With our elevated egos, there was some thought in our minds that we were better than the Birds were," said second baseman Herb Weller.

The Cubs were no bumpkins. Wilson, the manager, was fresh out of the Air Force and drilled them hours on end. No one complained; what else was there to do? Video games and computers were the stuff of Marvel Comics, and the gang only knew one kid who had a television.

In a weedy field, the manager built a sliding pit and had players do hook slides until their thighs burned. The Cubs practiced dropping bunts and shagging flies hit way over their heads. A ground ball was fair game for Owings' mutt, Cookie, who'd seize it and race toward her yard, the team in pursuit. That was the only break they got during practice.

"I probably took it more seriously than I should have," said Wilson. "I never let up - and they never quit."

The manager doled out salt pills for dehydration and linseed oil to soften gloves. To keep the rooting balanced, he paid a fan to cheer the Cubs on the road.

"Ray would give Les Davis, who worked at the local cement plant, a buck or two to holler," says Dan Hartzler, star right-hander. "Then, all game, we'd hear, `C'mon, babe, knock 'em in!' or `strike 'em out!' "

Most spots on the team were up for grabs. Hartzler would pitch; that was a given.

Hartzler was always horsing around, firing fastballs, breaking glass. "In the history of New Windsor, I must've busted more windows than anyone," he says, bold talk considering the town had been ransacked by Rebel troops during the Civil War.

"Danny could throw a strawberry through a battleship," said Weller.

A tall, limber 12-year-old, Hartzler had honed his control the previous winter, hurling snowballs at fence posts and passers-by.

The last man he wanted to hit was Albert Benedict.

One afternoon, Hartzler was warming up along High Street, lobbing snow at a lineup of linden trees, when he grabbed a slushball and uncorked a screamer. Just then, Benedict - a burly ex-Marine - appeared and took it flush in the head.

Hartzler paused. "I was petrified," he said. "I mean, Albert just kept walking and never wiped his face."

Without turning, Benedict growled, "Danny Hartzler! Do that again and your butt'll be in a sling!"

Cairns, the catcher, witnessed it all. "That," he said, "was the most famous pitch Danny ever threw."

Come summer, Hartzler would spin two one-hitters and a two-hitter as New Windsor routed all comers, then defeated the Frederick-Carroll All-Stars, 5-4. There would be no playoffs. Though the Cubs followed Little League rules, they couldn't afford the fees to join.

Their reward was to be more far-reaching.

On Sunday after the second inning, the Camden Yards scorecard flashed: "A Special Welcome To The New Windsor Cubs' Undefeated 1954 Team." The players knew their bond went deeper than their record in that long-ago summer.

"We came from a very small town at a very special time in this country," said Cairns. "We were a fraternity of children, black and white; the game was the common denominator. ...

"Now, we're a bunch of old men who still obviously care about each other. That's the biggest gift of all."