Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pafko at the Wall

    Sports dominates society, but it doesn't dominate everyone. If you asked me if the World Series were over, I'd have to pause, think, look at the calendar—Oct. 10, too early, right?—and then I'd say, "No, not begun yet. I would have heard if it had." And what teams might be in it? No idea. That would depend if the play-offs are over. I didn't follow the season at all. Baseball is outside my frame of reference.
     So when I heard that baseball player Andy Pafko had died, I did not think of the Cubs, or the 1945 World Series he played in. I learned about his connection to those in his obit in the Sun-Times Wednesday. What I thought of is novelist Don DeLillo, and "Pafko at the Wall," the novella of his that Harper's published in 1992. I can barely remember a single play in all the sporting events I've watched in my entire life. But I can remember the special section in Harper's where "Pafko at the Wall" was printed. I can see the pages.
     Five years later the set piece showed up as the bravura "The Triumph of Death" opening to his sprawling, marvelous novel of the last half of the 20th century, Underworld.
    The 800-page book touches on many themes that have grown in importance in the 15 years since it was published -- celebrity, technology, the numbing, splintered effect of modern life. “Violence is easier now," DeLillo writes, "it’s uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore.”
    In the opening scene, fictional characters mingle with historic figures at the Polo Grounds. J. Edgar Hoover is annoyed that a piece of litter is touching his body, a boozy Jackie Gleason is sick at his seat. Toots Shor and Frank Sinatra are there too.
     DeLillo conveys the moment of Bobby Thomson's epic home run this way, starting with the Giants radio announcer, Russ Hodges:
     Russ says, "There's a long drive."
     His voice has a burst in it, a change of expectation.
     He says, "It's gonna be."
     There's a pause all around him. Pafko racing toward the left-field corner.
     He says, "I believe."
     Pafko at the wall. Then he's looking up. People thinking where's the ball. The scant delay, the stay in time that lasts a hairsbreath. And Cotter standing in section 35 watching the ball come in his direction. He feels his body turn to smoke. He loses sight of the ball when it climbs above the overhang and he thinks it will land in the upper deck. But before he can smile or shout or bash his neighbor on the arm. Before the moment can overwhelm him, the ball appears again, stitches visibly spinning, that's how near it hits, banging at an angle off a pillar—hands flashing everywhere.
     DeLillo captures the strangeness of modern American life in all his fiction, the sadness of time passing. He is a master, yet a humble man. I had the good fortune to speak with him, briefly, at the Carl Sandburg awards dinner two years ago. In person, he was quiet, unassuming, pleasant, none of the ego you might expect in one of the country's great literary novelists. He tolerated a pesky stranger admirably. 
     The odd thing is, when I read Pafko's obit Wednesday, about his exploits with the Cubs, his trade to Brooklyn, I sincerely expected it might mention him figuring into DeLillo's book—would that not be a highlight in anybody's life?— though of course it didn't. Different people, different frames of reference.
Click here to watch a video of Bobby Thomson's home run. If you pause it at 27 seconds, you'll see Andy Pafko, at the wall.

Photo atop blog: Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick, Canada


  1. Unlike you, I was a big baseball fan when I was a kid. I was 11 yrs. old in 1951 and Bobby Thomson was my favorite player (BEFORE he hit the home run).

    I never tire of seeing that picture of Pafko At The Wall. I read DeLillo's story of course (and other writings by him). Too often he goes off on tangents I don't even understand.

    But to anyone who remembers that day (Oct.3, 1951) Pafko At The Wall needs no caption or explanation.

    1. I too was 11 in 1951, but more interested in Hank Sauer, Dee Fondy, Roy Smalley, etc. I'm not even sure I was aware of the Thomson home run at the time it happened. Heard about it later of course, for sure when Thomson was traded to the Cubs a few years later, as was Alvin Dark, who was on base, with Whitey Lockman, later a Cub manager. Herman Franks, another Cub manager, was stealing signs at the time -- in a remarkably generous statement, pitcher Ralph Branca refused to allow the sign stealing to diminish Thomson's accomplishment, "He had to hit the ball. It doesn't always help to know what pitch is coming."



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