Fiction   Essays   Poetry  The Ten On Baseball Chapbooks In Memory

Tom Carlson

Three Players. Three Fans.

It is beauty itself
That lives
day by day in them
idly --

--William Carlos Williams, “The Crowd at the Ball Game”

A child of the depression, wolves forever at his door, my father had to keep moving. He jingled change in his pocket. His legs danced, always; his favorite radio station, he said, was W-O-R-K. He had trouble sitting still. Except at ballgames.

Several times a year, when I was in middle school, I’d ride the Jersey Central up from the Shore to meet him in Penn Station. Then we’d go over to his office in the Woolworth Building , and he’d do some last minute paperwork while I got up on the wide windowsill and peered past the huge stone gargoyle outside his window, down toward Battery Park. Then we’d walk over to Chinatown and look at the skinned pigs and rabbits, the plucked ducks and chickens hanging in the shop windows, the orderly fish on ice, the bowls of wriggling eels and scuttling crabs, the street vendors with their loud shirts and gold watches and lucky bamboo for sale.

I remember feeling safe and happy with my father then. I’d been allowed to cut school, and this was our conspiracy. I think he was happy too, but I can’t be sure. If feelings were expressed, it was through actions rather than words, or if there were words, they were obscurely coded. The clearest evidence I can muster of him being happy were the teasing conversations he would start up with the Chinese shopkeepers and later with the waiters in Little Italy where we’d stop for gelato and pastries. He waxed theatrical even with the panhandlers. They embarrassed me terribly and some even frightened me in their Red Skelton rags.

“Hey mister, I gotta make a phone call. Can you spare a dime?”

My father, good-naturedly, but firm: “Well, sure. I have a dime, but first tell me this; who are you going to call? Who in the world is waiting somewhere to talk to you?”

The man looked confused, then shuffled away, shaking his head.

Another bum, as we enter the subway, moments later; “Mister, you got some change? See, I gotta take the subway uptown to meet someone.”

My father, good-naturedly, but firm: “Hey, yeah sure. As a matter of fact, we’re headed uptown ourselves. Come on, you can ride along with us.” “Awww, man . . . .” A slow saffron smile, and then he’s already looking over his shoulder for the next mark.

I don’t think my father was being a bully in any of this, and I sensed it was street theater staged for my benefit, but of course I was too young to appreciate or understand any of it. My father chronically misjudged my age.

And then on to Ebbets Field and my beloved Dodgers. The odd thing is, I don’t remember being in the park with my father. I do remember waiting patiently with my program and a golf pencil to get Pee Wee Reese’s and Gil Hodges’ autographs.

They were right at the rail next to the dugout, and only two people in front of me. I could see the smile lines in their faces; I could hear their rich voices. These were not ordinary mortals. Now Furillo, Snider, Campy, even Junior Gilliam—yes, they were magnificent; they were men, to whom, as Arthur Miller would have it, “Attention must be paid!” Oh, but Reese and Hodges. The alpha, the omega, the long and the short of life as I knew it—these men for me were gods who walked among us. On four pitches.

And then there was only one kid ahead of me in line—actually, it turned out to be not a kid but a middle-aged dwarf. He swung around to me and said “Hey kid, lemme borrow your pencil.” And before I could answer, he took it and handed it to Pee Wee with his program. Pee Wee signed and handed it to Gil Hodges (if you’re scoring it was a dwarf-6-3 autograph). And then the pencil and the dwarf disappeared behind me. I stood there, face to face with the coolest man on the planet, the man whose name I had had sewn in white script letters, right over my heart, onto my blue satin Korean War windbreaker with the big orange dragon on the back. Pee Wee Reese looked at me. I looked at Pee Wee Reese. He looked for a pencil. He shrugged his shoulders “Sorry, kid.” And then he wandered off with his lanky first-baseman friend. Jesus wept! “Sorry, kid.” I can’t remember the first words spoken by my first-born daughter, I can’t remember my mother’s last words to me, but I can remember the first—and last—words Pee Wee Reese spoke to me more than a half century ago.

On the way home from the game in the club car of the Jersey Central train, my father read the newspaper and dozed. I sat next to the grimy window, pouring through my Tales from the Crypt comics, memorizing the perverse poems in between the tales (I dated a girl named Ginger,/ And while she was taking a nap,/ I hit her with a sledgehammer/ Just to hear Ginger snap.), as I watched the ass-ends of Hoboken, Newark, and Rahway rattle by.

I certainly remember the voice of my Uncle Joe when he would take me to see his beloved Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Uncle Joe was Joe Koerner, my father’s sister’s husband. They lived in Union , and Uncle Joe also worked at Prudential with my father. Aunt Helen and he had two boys, Richard and Buddy, some ten years older than I, and my constant heroes. Uncle Joe was tall and sternly jolly, well-groomed and cologned. From his face to his large feet he contained not a single sharp angle. He was roundness rounded off. He was what the artists call “painterly.”

And he loved baseball utterly, and the Yankees irrationally. When he took me along, he treated me to a booming basso pregame show on the subway to the Bronx (I hated the Yankees and he knew it, but he never brought it up). He knew the names, the stats, the injury reports, the salaries, the probable lineup, even domestic details—where the ballplayers lived, the shapes their marriages were in, the kids. He even had the skinny on forbidden behaviors, mostly involving Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Billy Martin, but this was always conveyed to me in discreet code.

“Billy probably shoulda taken an Alka-Seltzer before the game.”

“The Mick’s a terrific guy, but he oughta stay home more with the wife and kids.”

Then to the matter at hand--the Tigers-Yankees rivalry (I remember these games the best. My favorite pitcher for the Tigers was Frank Lary, “The Yankee-Killer.” Boy, did he have their number).

I remember our seats (it was the Prudential Company box, but Uncle Joe let me think he’d bought them). They were behind home plate shading just down the third base line. I remember the boxful of nuns in front of us, always primly scoring the game in unison (are those scorecards stored somewhere in the Vatican archives?). I remember the cokes and hot dogs, the mustard on my pants, the peanut shells crunching under my feet. I remember feeling Uncle Joe expand in his seat as the Yankee lead grew, and then shrink as the Bombers blew the three-run cushion and the game (Ryne Duren couldn’t find the damn plate as usual. JeSUS!! He couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel!).

I remember the grim shade of red he turned, how his jowls quivered as we walked down the concrete ramp after the game (in fact, I felt happily—and not just because the Yanks got knocked off—a part of this new-minted tragedy. My role was a classical Greek one—simply to bear witness to this fury and despair of the wounded protagonist, betrayed by his troops, bereft of hope, stewing on a subway to nowhere). Oh, the silence, absolute, stony, and seamless all the way back to Union , New Jersey ! The short, sepulchral ride in the Chevy Belaire from the station to Huguenot Avenue, the march in the front door past be-aproned Aunt Helen who knew the score without having to ask, who respected the boiling silence, and only when Uncle Joe stomped straight ahead up the stairs, tugged me gently out of line and led me to the kitchen for cookies and milk and a post game interview.

“Your Uncle Joe, he gets so upset when the Yankees lose,” she smiled to me, not afraid of him surely, not giving in to his sense of injustice in the world, but bemused by him, and—I can see it now, looking backward—in love with this man some of whose deepest passions were seasonal and followed the vagaries of a bouncing white ball across the river in the Bronx.

“Tell me about the game,” she said and she meant it—this generosity, so Hellenic, even as Uncle Joe was upstairs in his little office writing yet another letter to Casey Stengel (and later Ralph Houk and Johnny Keane) telling him he should have yanked Duren and brought in Art Ditmar to pitch to Kuenn, that Kubek should have cheated over towards second base when Reno Bertoia was batting in the sixth (He’s a slap hitter! Everyone knows that!), that Casey should have pinch-hit Norm Seibern or even Suitcase Simpson for Moose Skowron (Skowron hasn’t had a hit since the Senators series. Don’t you know a slump when you see one? What were you thinking?). And so on. Sometimes Uncle Joe would actually get letters back, formal and generic and absent any real mea culpas, but that mattered little. The letters themselves, whether or not they were authentic, bore the signature of the Yankee skipper of the moment and were more than enough to vindicate Uncle Joe’s shrewd management style—and to assuage his most recent suffering.

Uncle Joe’s baseball chatter as well as his long operatic silences made me feel as though I were grown up, on the barstool next to him, nursing a beer. Yeah, dem bums. Whaddya gonna do? Not so my father and our ball games. With him, there was no excited baseball talk. There were no cavernous funks. Did my father lack real passion for the game? For our day out at the ballpark? Was he just going through the motions? Was he reticent by immigrant training and habit? Was I muted by my father’s presence and he by mine? Is my memory being unfair to him?

Whatever the case, a similar silence accompanied us to our trips to the Polo Grounds (my father seldom took me to Yankee Stadium. He disliked the Yankees too). May 6, 1952, for example--Willie Mays’s twenty-first birthday, a week before my eighth, and I was there at the Polo Grounds. I remember the weather--chilly but cloudless and clear--the sparse crowd, Willie taking batting practice, laughing, kibitzing, always smiling. The Cardinals across the way, by contrast grim with purpose. Then Willie loping, pigeon-toed, out to centerfield, out toward the huge KNICKERBOCKER letters, and beneath them, the giant Chesterfield cigarette “A HIT!” and beneath that the odd row of ordinary sash windows, and beneath them the dark tunnel and stairs leading up to the clubhouses. And then the announcer wishing Willie happy birthday, and we stood and clapped, and Willie doffed his cap and smiled.

Where is my father in all this, besides right beside me, silent on a seat at Coogan’s Bluff? I know I have inherited his sweet reticence or stubborn reluctance—whatever it was—to expose oneself, to give a name to one’s feelings. Cards against the vest. His silence was likely exacerbated by an immigrant fear of standing out, of making a vulnerable, public spectacle. I, his educated American son, would learn to cloak my emotions too, but in academic garb—fashionable irony and a cultural aloofness befitting a university professor. At the time, I did not sense an absence in my father at these games he took me to. But I marvel now at the library silence that accompanies these memories. I struggle to explain how memory barely limns him in on these father-son occasions. Like so many other things to him, baseball may have been just another safe vaudeville, a spectacle full of beer and hot dogs, signifying nothing, really, beyond itself. It’s what you did. It’s where you took your kid for his birthday. It was a most American ritual and risk-free entertainment.

As a boy at Ebbets Field, at the Polo Grounds, I cared deeply. Winning and losing in these places mattered. Tectonic forces were at work here, elements shouldering other elements. Fate was playing itself out. And the players involved—I knew them intimately. Every night after dinner, and often beneath my desk in school, I read their lives on the backs of the hundred of cards I had, had won pitching them against the school wall on Broad Street in Manasquan. Leaners, toppers. Shoeboxes full. The faces staring out at me from beneath the creases, the dirt, even the powder from the sheet bubble gum that came packed with them, five cards for a nickel—these were not the mugs of ordinary men. This was not a mere game. Uncle Joe honored my caring by revealing his, so nakedly. Maybe it’s because my father was so far removed from this sense of the game that now I can barely hear him. I would later learn—too well--the value of risking little, of investing modestly, but right now, looking out upon the manicured outfield of the 1950s, I cared deeply about the fate of the free world in cleats.

Back then, I sensed what Joe Koerner knew in his bones and that was that baseball was something more than a verdant rite of spring, full of hope and ripe expectation. Baseball was a brilliantly lit morality play that for the great majority of playgoers ends tragically. Cubs fans know this (Hey, any team can have a bad century). I learned this firsthand at Shea Stadium in the 60s when I paid real money to witness Marvelous Marv Throneberry strike out, to see Roger Craig lose twenty games, Ron Swoboda misplay a can of corn in right, to nod yes when Dick Stuart aka “Dr. Strangeglove,” lost yet another ground ball in the sun. In the end, baseball grants us, the longsuffering, the infrequent triumph (the Marlins, the Red Sox, the Pale Hose), but these are the unexpected reprieves, the eleventh hour calls from the governor that miraculously baffle a more consistent lesson doled out by baseball—hopes served up--doubleheader wins in June-- and then dashed in October. The mythology, the lore—even the statistics of baseball (wherein success one out of three times at bat grants you All Star status)—are honied o’er with the pale cast of longing and loss. Baseball prepares you for the big things.

©2007 by Tom Carlson

Tom Carlson has taught American literature and creative nonfiction at the University of Memphis for thirty-two years. He has written extensively on Poe, Elvis, Romanian poetry, and the passing parade. His latest book is Hatteras Blues: A Story from the Edge of America ( U. of North Carolina Press , 2005).

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