The image is still very clear to me. Baseball entered my life on a gray April morning in 1953. My mother called me in from playing outside in order to watch television. How often does that happen to a kid?
On that day, WTMJ-TV was covering the biggest Milwaukee news story in years – the arrival via train of the Braves, recently of Boston, Massachusetts who would henceforth (and forever, we believed) be known to the world as the Milwaukee Braves of the National League.
I remember my mother, who had misspent much of her youth watching the old minor league Brewers play at Borchert Field, pointing excitedly at the television screen, informing me that the modest looking gentlemen climbing down the steps of the railroad car was none other than “the great Warren Spahn”. Spahnie became a part of my life that day and forever more. His son Greg was in my Little League (playing shortstop, not pitching) and the Spahns and Lou Burdette and his wife shared a duplex not far from my house. Even the disillusionment I experienced one day while bicycling past Spahnie’s house on the way to Hawthorne Glen was only temporary. Yes, that was the World’s Greatest Left-Hander up there in the 2nd floor picture window vacuuming the living room in his underwear. But I knew he could shut down the Cubs even in that less than regal attire if he wanted to.
My childhood contact with my Braves didn’t end there. I saw Ray Crone at Mass on many summer Sundays when the team was in town. Carl Sawatski lived next door to my cousins, until he got traded to the Phillies for Joe Lonnett on June 13, 1958. I remember going sledding one cold December day with my second cousins and with Gene Conley and his kids. Hank Aaron was on my cousin Phil’s paper route. I met Johnny Logan, spoke with Eddie Mathews and even the Immortal Sibbi Sisti. Heady stuff for a kid. It was all the intimacies of small town baseball, only with major leaguers.
As Babe Ruth once said in what was perhaps his only moment of eloquence “The only real game in the world, I think, is baseball… You’ve got to let it grow up with you, if you’re the boy.”
If my life is any example, the Babe was right then (1948) and he’s right today. I cannot imagine my life or what it would have been without baseball. Here are six reasons why:
1. There is no clock in baseball. It is a human endeavor that has stood the test of time yet in a real sense exists outside of time itself. Theoretically, a baseball game could go on forever. You don’t have time as your enemy or as a determining factor in the outcome of the struggle. The game goes on until it is over, 27 out per team. Forget about the fat lady singing and all that, there is always hope in baseball, right up until the end. A good example for the way to approach life itself.
2. Baseball remembers. Baseball has one foot in its present and one foot in its past. The great feats of today are measured against those of its yesterdays, great players of today are seen in the reflected glow of the immortals who played the game in days gone by. Sure Pujols is a great player, but greater than Mays? Williams? Ruth? Let the discussions begin.
3. Baseball is fair. This sport takes its rules seriously and changes them only as necessary and even then with appropriate caution so as to preserve the balance of the game and the commensurate values between present and past performances. (We will ignore the designated hitter for the sake of this argument.) Basketball and football in 2011 bear little resemblance to their 1930s counterparts.
4. Short people can still play this game. We will call this the Dustin Pedroia Factor. You don’t need to be a physical marvel to be a star, if your heart and your effort and your determination know no bounds. So you’re 6″10″ and you can dunk a basketball? At that height you SHOULD be able to do that. But Michael Jordan, the World’s Greatest Basketball Player, hit .202 in the minor leagues in 1994. He couldn’t hit the curve ball.
5. Baseball is connective in a deeply personal way. Most major leaguers will tell you they first played baseball with their fathers, some with their brothers. Most baseball fans attended their first games with family members, or listened to their first games on radios in their homes. Baseball memories are family memories. My dad saw his first major league game in 1928 when my grandfather took him to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs play the Pirates (dad caught an errant throw from Pie Traynor that went into the stands behind first base). My brother and I saw our first Braves’ games when my Uncle Phil took us to Sunday double-headers at County Stadium. Baseball memories are family memories. If you don’t understand, see or read Field of Dreams and you’ll know what I mean.
6. Baseball has inspired great writing. As a writer myself, I hold dear the body of literature the sport has produced. Here are just some of the great books about baseball and its heroes, 6 fiction, then 6 non-fiction:
The Natural – Bernard Malamud (1952)
Shoeless Joe – W.P. Kinsella (1999)
The Southpaw – Mark Harris (1953)
The Universal Baseball Association – Robert Coover (1968)
You Know Me, Al – Ring Lardner (1916)
Sometimes You See It Coming – Kevin Baker (1993)
Eight Men Out – Eliot Asinof (1963)
The Boys of Summer – Roger Kahn (1971)
Veeck, As In Wreck – Bill Veeck (1962)
Cobb – A Biography – Al Stump (1994)
Babe – The Legend Comes to Life – Robert W. Creamer (1974)
Men At Work – George Will (1990)
Any of these books is a great way to pass a summer day or two. As Roy Hobbs, the fictional hero of Malamud’s The Natural says, “God, I love baseball!”