Wednesday, July 17, 2019
The Joys of Summer #7: Baseball
Being America's pastime does not mean that baseball is our nation's most popular sport. Oh no no no. That would be football, by a wide margin—so wide that if you added college football as a separate category, that would beat baseball too.
No matter. Baseball is religion and ritual, summer and sunshine and lazy afternoons at the ballpark. It is tradition and history, our country as it was and, so long as there is baseball, always will be. "Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game," as George Carlin explains in his essential comedic bit "Baseball v. Football."
Baseball is summer as in "The Boys of Summer," Roger Kahn's great book about the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s. And yes, I read it when it came out in 1972, revering Gil Hodges, pitying catcher Roy Campanella, paralyzed in a car accident, no doubt the first time that tragic concept ever entered my young mind. At the time my taste in baseball literature ran to lighter stuff like "Strange But True Baseball Stories" by Furman Bisher, tales of Eddie Gaedel, the midget Bill Veeck sent in to bat and similar fare, a book I notice three feet from where I'm sitting now. I was 12, and at the height of my baseball fandom, which was tough to do when you lived in the western suburbs of Cleveland, your team is the hapless Indians, laboring year after year under the curse of Rocky Colavito, and your father was a nuclear physicist.
Baseball cards were important. Buying and collecting and trading them. I had a whole team of Jewish players, otherwise divided the cards by years, thick chunks wrapped in rubber bands, the edges gently rounded. I think my favorite card was Harvey Haddix, the Pirate who pitched 12 perfect innings and still lost. He seemed like Christ on the Cross, or St. Harvey.
My father had his own baseball memories. He was a Giants fan; his favorite player was the Big Cat, Johnny Mize. But that's about it. No miracle at Coogan's Bluff, no heartbreak move to San Francisco. As he explained it, the Giants hired loathed Yankees manager Leo Durocher to run their team in 1948, and that was it. My father never recovered from the betrayal, the cognitive dissonance, with Satan suddenly in charge of your ballclub. That seemed the end of baseball for him. He never took me to a game, or played catch, that I remember. I'm sorry that never happened, I would have liked that
My mother filled the void, a little. She was an Indians fan when that meant something. World champions in 1948, when she was 12. A classic series against the Giants in 1954, including Willie Mays classic behind the back running catch.
Her father Irv was an Indians fan too, and once, sometime in the mid-1960s it was arranged for my grandfather and I to attend a game, though the only fact about that game that lived in family lore was that I ate two hot dogs, and thus removed from the opportunity of ever going to a game again. It was my fault.
I loved those 1950s players—Bob Feller, Larry Doby, and of course Al Rosen, the sluggin' third baseman who was Jewish. Like many Jewish kids, I had an affinity for Jewish stars, a thumb in the eye of the common stereotype that I embodied, as Jews as bespectacled and unathletic. I think my Little League career lasted a week, but I still have my Sears glove hanging on the door, a simple, five finger model, the glove Charlie Brown wears. Every half decade or so I go over it with neatsfoot oil, to keep it limber.
Most people aren't that good at baseball, which is why, when we talk about the sport, we don't mean the slipshod pick-up games we play but the far more polished pro games we watch. Far too polished, now, it seems, the game given over to agents and metrics, drained of that pastoral quality that once clung to it.
Though not much of a fan, I had my moments. One fine summer afternoon in 1973, my father generously consented to drop me off at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, the biggest venue in baseball, where I met my friend from summer camp Alan Lictschien, or something similar to that, and we took in a double-header against the Boston Red Sox. Afterward, we lurked in the parking lot outside the stadium—you could do that then—and got the player's autographs, intercepting them as they headed for their Corvettes and Porsches. I got both my hero, Gaylord Perry. I read his memoir, "Me and the Spitter," and Carl Yastremski, who I liked, I believe, for his distinctive batting stance, bat held utterly vertical. I also liked Boog Powell, a heavy has-been, cast-off from the Orioles, but a star by Indians standards, and catcher Ray Fosse who, like so many Indians players, showed great promise until he didn't. I seem to recall being a member of the Buddy Bell Fan Club one season. I also saw Henry Aaron hit his 704th home run against Montreal in 1974, a moment that shows up in my book on Failure for reasons I won't go into. That must count for something.
There's more, but you get the idea. I went to a game in Japan, the Nippon Ham Fighters versus the Sebu Lions at the Tokyo Dome (baseball teams are named for companies instead of teams in Japan). I was deeply jet lagged that day, but remember how the crowd stood in block section, like students at college football games, chanting percussive cheers. "Ni-pon Ham! Ta-Ta-Kai!"
Add 10 million more little facts like that and you can be a baseball fan. It proved too time-consuming for me, and while I can admire and envy the devotion to the sport of a guy like my pal, literature professor, baseball expert and Cubs season ticket holder Bill Savage—we literally met and became friends because of "Casey at the Bat"—it is the kind of envy I extend toward someone who speaks German. I wish I could do that. It would be wonderful to read Rilke in the original But my envy is not so much as to actually learn German. Every few years I'll go to a game, usually when a pal gives me a pair of tickets. It was easier when I lived in the city. I would go on my own. I used to work the night shift, and I remember one afternoon I took in an afternoon game, then arrived to start my evening fresh from Wrigley, unshaven, in a Hawaiian shirt and no doubt with a few beers under my belt.
I can still see our city editor at the time, the gentle, courtly Southern gentleman, Steve Huntley, stand up, and take the long, slow walk to my desk, and utter a few sorrowful words which I have thankfully forgotten but certainly amounted to, "Don't do that again."
I think I've made my point. I could share with you the tale of taking my oldest son to his first game, but it's a set piece of my Chicago book and, frankly, I'm not up to retyping the thing. Besides, if you haven't read the book, well, hell, get with the program. You can order it here, $6.32 used and free shipping. I think I'll pick up a few myself, to hand out to strangers. It has two really good baseball stories about both my boys. The youngest has his photo on the mound at Wrigley Field on the wall in Harry Caray's, and if you want to know how it got there, read the book.
In parting, I'll share you a more recent father-son baseball tale. Father's Day occurs shortly before summer, but it's close enough for baseball, as the saying goes. My wife flew my older boy in from New York City as my Father's Day present, and after our family brunch I prevailed upon both boys to go into the front yard for a game of catch. We hadn't done that in, oh, maybe 10 years. The older boy didn't have a glove, but he's a southpaw, so I gave him the first baseman's mitt I bought to play catch with the younger when he was in a park district league. I raced up to my office and grabbed my Charlie Brown mitt from where it has hanging, at the ready, from one doorknob or another, for the past 50 years. We tossed the ball around for maybe 30 minutes. Quite well, in my estimation. The throw and the solid "thwack!" At a respectable distance, catching it most of the time. I thought of taking a photo, or asking someone to take a photo, but that sometimes sets them off and besides, no photo could ever capture how it felt, the golden glow of love and connection that I felt talking and throwing and catching, the arc of the ball, the grab, stretch back, and release. I can't say what it meant to them—indulging the old man, no doubt, exchanging eye-rolling glances. But it meant a lot to me, as does baseball, which you can love though not being a fan, the way you can stray far from your faith and still belong. Baseball is a practice greater than the sum of its parts, the players and managers and ballparks, the bats and balls and gloves, the fans and games and scores and inning and outs and walks and runs. A thing like nature itself, like summer, green and alive, current yet ancient, complex beyond any individual comprehending, but available to the youngest child. And no matter how long you're gone, how far you stray, it's always ready to welcome you home on any given summer day.