A bit of baseball humor the first day of high school baseball tryouts in South Carolina.
There were no baseball cups at my high school in 1967 or 1968 or if there were, no one took any time to explain the need for one to me. Instead, we had a chest protector with an extension that hung down between our knees when we went into a squat. This chest protector probably had been acquired when catchers still set up ten or twelve feet behind the batter and caught the ball on a hop in the early 1900’s.
IT WAS AN ILLUSION OF PROTECTION! IT WAS A BELIEF IN A FALSE GOD!
Take a common household sponge and rest it against your face. Now let me uncork a baseball into it. Really, no one wants to do that. You know you are going to get a broken nose, black eye or lose some teeth. I should have known that a little extension, the thickness of a common household sponge, would not protect my little “floppies” but bought into the belief that if struck by a bounced pitch or foul tipped ball, the little boys would be ok. In other words, the seventeen-year-old me was A DUMMY!
Just so you know a foul tip on to a cup will still take your breath away. A foul tip to an unprotected man part will make you contemplate suicide to make the sickening pain stop. To quote a friend who had tried to cauterize a wound with a red-hot poker, “the pain was exquisite.” I knew exactly what she meant as I remembered a foul tip that bounced off the plate and up into my chest protector extension making solid contact with my man parts. One definition of exquisite is keen or intense. Yes, the pain was exquisite in its intensity and sharpness. It was also sickening to the point of regurgitation, and it wasn’t even a direct shot. Sick, Sick, Sick!
Strangely, somewhere in the small portion of my brain that was not dealing with pain receptors, I remember thinking, “Don’t grab them. Don’t grab them.” This I thought, despite the almost uncontrollable urge to do exactly that. “DON’T RUB IT! IT MIGHT SPIT AT YOU!” That was not likely to happen for a long, long while. Even today there still seems to be an unwritten rule that keeps a catcher, or any other player for that matter, who has just taken a hundred mile per hour shot directly off his cup, from grabbing his little danglies.
Sportscasters will skirt the issue by saying, anything other than “OOOOh, he just took one off the nads!” Well, Bob Uecker might but Curt Gowdy would say something; like “…a glancing blow to the groin” or “he has just got the air knocked out of him” as the poor catcher was being led stiff legged into the dugout for an “equipment adjustment.” As the replay unwinds, over and over, you can almost hear the collective intake of breath as millions of male baseball fans react to an event that we are all too familiar with.
Just in case you are ever in a sports trivia contest, Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench holds the dubious career record for broken cups, seven. From someone who knows the truth, this should be one of his least coveted records.
Historical note: According to the Baseball Book by SI, the first protective cup was worn by Claude Berry in 1915 while catching for the Pittsburgh Rebels. Protective baseball helmets were not required until 1971. We now know which head was most important.
“Middle age is when a narrow waist and a broad mind begin to change places.” – Anonymous
At best I’ve never had a narrow waist and my mind may be broader than it has ever been. Middle Age? I passed that landmark a while ago.
My body was never a temple, more like an old barn, some of its weathered cladding falling off, the tin roof turning reddish brown with rust, and one door sagging on its hinges like a drunken sailor on liberty. If I could see inside, broken down stalls would be filled with old, dried-up horse apples and cow patties. Let’s face it, middle age is in my rear-view mirror along with a steadily approaching figure known as the grim reaper.
With the approaching fall, the dreaded “physical” season is upon me. It began midweek with a full body “search” for nasty squamous cells, basil cells, or any other carcinoma that might be found. As I looked into a strategically placed mirror, I saw an alien old man who’s pale and scrawny shoulders and chest had fallen into his waist and his waist into his ass. My only six pack is cooling in the fridge. Not a pear shape exactly, more of a triangle. Note to self, stay out of eyeshot of mirrors, it is easier to lie to yourself that way and not as depressing.
The scan went well considering. I stood in my underwear in front of my extremely attractive and pregnant dermatologist and her attractive nonpregnant nurse. I didn’t know I could suck in my stomach for that long. Oh, the vanity of it all and they are young enough to be granddaughters.
One suspicious area was biopsied and three pre-cancers burned off, one squarely in the middle of my forehead. Cue the “Did you forget to duck” comments.
Early next month I have my general physical with all its bloodwork and a week later a physical with my cardiologist with the sticky and ice-cold patches reading electrical impulses for the EKG. It is a known fact they store them in a freezer. I don’t expect any unwelcome news, but they do trigger reflection. The physicals will all confirm what I already know, I’m old…but I’m still alive.
Two quotes about aging by baseball great, Satchel Paige are stuck in my head. Born in 1906, Paige pitched his last professional game in 1966, just weeks before his sixtieth birthday. Due to the Major League’s color barrier, he pitched for over twenty years combining time with the Negro Leagues, barnstorming and semi-pro ball before getting an opportunity to pitch in the Majors for the Cleveland Indians. Owner Bill Veeck knew a draw when he saw one and knew Paige would put people in seats.
Paige was forty-two and two days old when he threw his first pitch, still the oldest rookie to debut. When reporters asked about his age, Paige replied, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?” Sage words. Time is a human construct used to torture us with thoughts of our own pending mortality.
In the two and a half months left in the 1948 season, Paige finished with a 6–1 record and a 2.48 ERA, pitched two, nine inning shutouts, struck out forty-three against twenty-two walks and gave up sixty-one base hits in 72 and 2⁄3 innings. And Cleveland? They won the World Series in six games; the last time Cleveland won a World Series. Not bad for a rookie of any age.
The second notable Paige quote rattling in the empty drum that is my mind, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” I know the grim reaper is drawing closer, but I rather not know when he will place his bony hand upon my shoulder. No need to dwell on the inevitable. I hope I wake up dead one morning with a surprised look on my face.
Three additional quotes from Satchel Paige:
“You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.” (Metaphor for life)
“I ain’t ever had a job, I just always played baseball.” (When you enjoy what you do it is hard to call it work)
“Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way. And don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.” (Don’t just pray when things are bad.)
I used an old saying I had heard all my life in my latest endeavor to write the greatest American novel. My stalwart hero used “A ghost walking across your grave” to describe a shiver felt by my heroine. I found myself on one of my pig trails. The path twisted and turned before falling into a rabbit hole of old sayings, superstitions, and baseball as I researched where the saying had come from and my own genetics. Once and a while, a blind pig might find more than an acorn.
One side of my family is diverse if family traditions are to be believed. A large piece of my genetic pie on my mother’s side of the family is Scot Irish. According to family lore there are dashes of a Native American princess and an African seaman to spice up my pie. I haven’t had a DNA test and may not. I’d rather trust what I believe than find out the stories are fairy tales or out and out lies.
I am certain about the Scot Irish piece of the pie. All I have to do is look at a picture of my red headed, freckled faced, alabaster skinned mother and early pictures of my red headed and bearded brother. When I gaze into my own mirror, I see an argument for more than a dash of Native American or African seaman…or maybe an argument for a Bavarian named Miller or Müller on my father’s side…ah diversity.
In the early to middle 1700s settlers with the names of Perry, Rogers, Griffin and Morrow made their way South from the chilly North through Virginia’s and North Carolina‘s Appalachia. Eventually they would settle in the fertile area around the Catawba River in northern South Carolina and bring sayings and superstitions picked up along the way.
I ’m not sure how the side of my family with the surname Miller got here. There seems to be an argument over its English or German roots. More research is needed.
Shivering a bit, I found that the saying that sent me down my rabbit hole should have in fact been, “A rabbit (or goose) ran across my grave.” According to Appalachian lore, your final resting place is preordained and anytime an animal runs across the site of your grave to be, you shiver.
I don’t remember my family being overtly superstitious…well my father with his Miller surname, always spit on the windshield of our car (yuck) and made the sign of an X any time a black cat crossed our path.
From the Appalachians, the practice is believed to ward off any bad luck that some say follows the four-legged creature, long seen as an ominous sign of bad luck in the Southern Appalachians. From my research, it appears that the sign must be made three times and that spit is not needed to ward off the bad luck.
Also, from Appalachian folklore, toss a pinch of the spilt salt over your left shoulder into the face of the Devil who lurks there. Always leave a building using the same door as you entered to avoid bad luck. “Nevah, evah” nudge an empty rocking chair lest you invite the wrath of evil spirits.
My favorite might be holding your breath as you pass by a cemetery so you do not accidentally inhale a recently departed soul. That makes sense. I have enough voices in my head without adding a departed soul.
One that didn’t make sense to me was gathering acorns amid a thunderstorm and placing them on the windowsills to protect their home from lightning strikes. Not sure about that one, seems gathering acorns from under a tall oak tree during a lightning storm might be counterproductive as in dangerous.
Another, for those of us with apple trees, remember to leave a single apple hanging from at the end of the harvest, lest they attract the Devil.
I coached baseball most of my teaching career and while studies show that the passing on of Appalachian superstitions is in cultural decline, I assure you, in baseball superstitions are alive and well. Much effort is made attempting to please the baseball gods.
In an age of non-wood bats, if someone goes on a hitting spree; everyone wants to use his bat. Anyone in a zero forever slump, their bat was avoided like the plague.
If a pitcher is pitching a no hitter late, never mention it, don’t talk about it even in whispered voices. In fact just ignore the pitcher totally.
One of my teams used a “rally monkey”, dugout Ju Ju in the form of hand jives, and even had a model toilet to flush their frustrations down. Anything that might help appease the gods of the diamond.
As a manager, I never stepped on the white line entering or exiting the field of play. That is bad Ju Ju for sure. No, I don’t know why?
I always looked for a red head to rub for good luck. Not sure the young lady in the first-row bleachers seats appreciated me rubbing her. A bad joke. I looked for a red headed player to rub his head.
One of my biggest superstitions was to make sure I changed everything except my uniform when on a winning streak. Baseball players are notorious for wearing the same underwear or socks, over and over again, unwashed until a streak comes to an end. I made sure I stayed clear of dirty socks or underwear.
One of my teams went on a twenty-two-game winning streak. No one washed their socks…except me and I only washed mine. I didn’t check their underwear. I changed everything every game. Socks and underwear as fresh as Arm and Hammer could make them. My players? The aroma from their socks was strong. Left unattended the socks might walk off on their own. When the streak was over, we had a ceremonial burial of the socks in the deep centerfield outfield. Grass still refuses to grow there.
There are plenty of superstition in baseball. Eating special pregame meals, jumping over foul lines, putting an X or writing a message in the corner of the batters box or behind the mound, talking to the ball or bat while going through batting rituals, ala Mike Hargrove, the “Human Rain Delay.”
My favorite baseball film is the 1989 comedy, Major League. Much was comedy but so much of the comedy happens in real life or at least real baseball life. The reason it is a favorite is the character Pedro Cerrano, the Cuban player who couldn’t hit a curve ball believing his bat was afraid. Pedro tries to cure his bat by using chicken bones, snakes, and a nonexistent Vodun god named Jobu.
From the movie:
Pedro Cerrano : Bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straight ball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come.
Eddie Harris : You know you might think about taking Jesus Christ as your savior instead of fooling around with all this stuff.
Pedro Cerrano : Jesus, (Hey Suse) I like him very much, but he no help with curveball.
Eddie Harris : You trying to say Jesus Christ can’t hit a curveball?
I had a player who carried around chicken bones in his bat bag hoping the bat would gain favor with the baseball gods. No snakes, no cigars or rum…may be. I don’t know how he felt about Jesus Christ but he was Catholic. Like most players, he struggled with hitting anything that bent unless it bent badly.
Me? In a Pedro Cerrano voice, “I like to drink de rum and smoke de cigar. That is good Ju Ju for me.” I couldn’t hit a curveball consistently and I don’t think it was the bat’s fault. And Eddie Harris, I’m not sure Jesus could hit one either.
When the news came across my feed I felt as if I had lost part of my childhood. Henry Aaron was dead at eight-six. I knew his days were numbered at that age but still. I had just seen pictures of him taking the Covid-19 vaccine to help other African Americans make the decision to do so. Henry “Hank” Aaron was never just a baseball player. His legacy is much more than the game he played.
He was always larger than his historical moment. The moment he hit Al Dowling’s pitch into the left field bullpen on April 8, 1974. It was an early birthday present to me. The day after Aaron’s name went into the record books as the “Homerun King” I turned twenty-four. Since that date others have had their names etched in above his, but no one hit more home runs in the pre-steroid, pre-juiced up ball, pitcher’s era. To me he will always be the “Homerun King”…and much more.
He was a quiet man…soft-spoken, a man who let his glove and bat do his talking. He never liked the moniker “Hammerin’ Hank.” His mother named him Henry, that was good enough for him. Aaron never doubted his own ability but never felt the need to toot his own horn. He was a team player on some pretty bad teams.
He hit 24 or more home runs every year from 1955 through 1973, a pitcher’s era, and he is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a season at least fifteen times. He also earned three Gold Gloves during that period. In 1999, The Sporting News ranked Aaron fifth on its list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players”. Considering the man, they ranked him too low. He was so much more to a white kid who so much wanted to be a baseball star.
He was the baseball definition of grace. There was an elegance just walking into the batter’s box or jogging around the bases. Loping after a fly ball. He had a beautiful, artistic swing, whether a swing and a miss or a ball roped into the left field bleachers. It was about the finish. Art frozen on a photograph.
My brother put it this way, “Mr. Atlanta Brave has passed away. As a lifelong Brave fan, it is a sad day. Been a sad month or so with Phil Niekro and Don Sutton passing before him. Hammerin’ Hank will always be the true Home Run champ, not the juiced-up cheaters who currently are ahead of him. I can see him now with batting helmet in hand, slipping it on his head, taking three practice swings before stepping in the batter’s box. It was a thing of beauty.” I agree.
I remember when the Braves moved from far away Milwaukee to not quite so far away Atlanta for the 1966 season. We finally had a team. I was an instant Braves fan…but it was hard. Every season began with hopes and dreams, hopes and dreams that were usually crushed by the All-Star break. But we had Hank, “Hammerin’ Hank”, Henry Aaron.
My father took my brother and I to a Sunday double header that first year. I was stoked. Not only would I get to see Hank but Willie Mays’ San Francisco Giants. What a day. To see two of my childhood idols. Hammerin’ Hank versus the Say Hey Kid. Baseball nirvana. Aaron didn’t see the field that day and Mays only pinch hit late in the second game. Instead, I got to see Atlanta pitcher Tony Cloninger hit two grand slam homeruns…I say that as if I have swallowed something unsavory.
When Vin Scully, the great baseball announcer, retired I wrote about Vin and his call of Aaron’s historic homerun. As Aaron rounded the bases, Scully said into his microphone, “What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron.”
As I listened and cried a bit, Vin’s words troubled me because I have seen an increase in the words and actions that motivated his descriptions. Aaron was subjected to a road littered with racial landmines as he moved closer and closer to Ruth’s hallowed record. Racial abuse and death threats followed him around those bases but somehow, he managed to stay above it all. As a man he was much greater than the stage he played on.
“I had many, many, many death threats. I couldn’t open letters for a long time, because they all had to be opened by either the FBI or somebody. I couldn’t open letters. I had to be escorted. In fact, just recently I went to a funeral, Calvin Wardlaw, who was the detective — the policeman — with me for two years, passed away just recently. He and I got to be bosom buddies really, but that was the hardest part. I wasn’t able to enjoy — you know.” A real shame, “I wasn’t able to enjoy…”
I wish I had taken the time to have written Mr. Aaron. From an old white Southerner. An apology of sorts just to let him know how much his exploits meant to me…meant to most of us, I think. I would remind him of the joy I received living through him. He was a towering hero on and off the field. Unassuming, quiet but forever inspiring.
There are many pictures of Henry Aaron, but I have a favorite. It is not a picture of my idol wearing a Milwaukee or Atlanta uniform, hitting or fielding. It is of a young Henry Aaron standing in front of a train car. He is about to embark into his future…his destiny. He would step onto that train and head to Indianapolis to play shortstop for the Negro League “Clowns” for two hundred dollars a month.
I feel I HAVE lost a part of my childhood. So many have transitioned over the last year. Tonight, I will gaze at the night sky hoping for the flash of light. Scientifically I know it is a meteor burning up in the atmosphere. In my heart I will know it is Henry Aaron hitting another one out of the park.
A former player and I were conversing via social media. At the end of our conversation, he thanked me for putting up with the knucklehead he had been during his youth. Knucklehead was his word but he used it honestly. At the time, twenty years ago, I probably would have said worse…but with all the love in the world.
Damn him…his comment took me down a rabbit hole populated with knuckleheads jumping out at me as if I were riding a tunnel of horrors…well, not horrors, a tunnel of laughs. Instead of ghouls, skeletons, and ax murders, they were former baseball players dressed in clown paint with big floppy shoes. Ah, the memories.
My years as a high school coach were packed tighter than a sardine can with knuckleheads…as if I might have attracted them. Knuckleheads…not sardines. I would have never used the word knucklehead but I’m trying to remember what I would have used…that is fit to print…Goofy blond headed kid? Not likely.
I can slide backward in time and find one or two knuckleheads for every one of the forty-four years I coached. Some years entire teams were filled with knuckleheads. I’m sure it had nothing to do with my personality.
I had them in all of the sports I coached, but with the down time associated with baseball, between innings and when we batted, it seemed my dugout cup runneth over with knuckleheads…or maybe it is just the game of baseball itself. Baseball is a game fraught with player shenanigans.
It is funny odd. With all the successes associated with those days when I talk to former players, invariably, the conversation turns to “Do you remember when ‘so and so’ did ‘such and such’?” Yeah, I remember. During those days, I feigned anger when I really wanted to laugh…sometimes I feigned badly and laughed anyway.
As I continued down my rabbit trail, I realized that all the really good teams were loaded with knuckleheads, many as crazy as bed bugs, usually pitchers. If I were to award an All Knucklehead Team, the top five would include…four pitchers. I can think of two immediately who were crazy as bed bugs.
They all used their craziness to defuse tense situations…for themselves and their teammates. Gatorade bottles fill with rock noisemakers, Gatorade cup binoculars, rally monkeys, fins up hats, and hand jives. Dug out Voodoo one team called it. At least they didn’t cheer like softball teams.
The teams were much looser than I was or at least they hid it better. I sat on my ten gallon baseball bucket undergoing butt pucker while they chilled under fire, shaking their noisemakers or dancing with the rally monkey.
The teams taught me as much as I taught them, maybe more. Over time they taught me I didn’t have to be a cross between Attila the Hun and Billy Martin to be a good coach. I could use my own personality; I could be me no matter which version I was at the time.
They taught me that getting close was better than remaining distant no matter the pain closeness sometimes brought. Mostly they taught me it wasn’t about the game but the people who played it.
The knucklehead I was conversing with almost caused a brawl when he laid a bunt down late in a game we were well ahead in. He had broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules. You don’t rub another team’s nose in it, instead you call off the dogs.
My next batter received a fastball between the shoulder blades because of the faux pas. Ordinarily, such would not go unanswered, but it seemed an appropriate response at the time even if the wrong knucklehead got hit. To the original knucklehead’s defense, we failed to tell him the dogs were off…I guess I was the knucklehead.
I have learned a few things since retiring. Mostly I’ve learned I miss the camaraderie from those earlier years. I miss the youthful exuberance of teenagers. I miss watching them play the game. I still watch the game but it is not the same. I don’t know the players. They aren’t mine.
I don’t miss the long hours, the foot numbing cold of the early season games, or the long rear numbing bus rides to and from games. What I miss are the kids…the young men who grew from knuckleheads into successful citizens. I’d like to think I might have contributed to some of their successes.
My first attempt at writing badly was, “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” It chronicalled many of the knuckleheads I was blessed to have coached. Winning wasn’t the only thing but it was written about the winners who made winning possible and my life much sweeter.
My induction into a former high school’s athletic hall of fame has me flitting hither and yon over memories from forty-plus years of teaching and coaching. For some reason, I don’t feel very worthy of the accolades.
It was great to see former players now conquering their own lives and being successful by any standard applied. Former students, coaching peers, and parents stopping by and pumping my hand or hugging my neck. It wasn’t great, it was wonderful.
Still, I wonder in the back of my head, “Why?” “How?” “Am I a fraud?” Sometimes things were too easy…except when they weren’t.
Dozens have extended congratulations and well wishes on social media and email. Despite my pride and delight…I don’t feel worthy.
The festivities were poignant, my plaque sitting alongside Tim Bright’s, a player who passed too soon due to colon cancer. A player who was, along with hundreds of others, responsible for my success. I wonder what he might have accomplished had he not left us. His family is so dedicated to his memory. His charity is still doing great things for those who suffered as he did.
My wife…a former coach herself and far superior in my estimation. As always, standing by my side. Always supportive, always ready with a meaningful critique of the last game’s outcome. Greatest supporter and greatest critic. “Just let them play and quit bunting so much.” “Why did you do….” I do miss her voice distinguishable from anywhere in a stadium no matter how large or loud the crowd was. “Come on Coach, run your other play!” I am so lucky and so unworthy.
As I look back, it seemed too easy. I know I’m looking through the sands of time and the time is becoming a sandstorm. Still, great assistant coaches, great players, and great parents made my successes. I just walked around being me.
I’ve heard so many horror stories that I never experienced. There were just a few bad apples, just a few obstacles…maybe they weren’t bad apples…maybe I just did find the key to unlock their potential. I do feel like the king of frauds.
There were laughs and tears but the tears were minimal. When we gather and exclaim, “Do you remember…?”, the question is always about the laughs. It is easy to remember the good times.
Through the magnifying glass of retrospection, even the bad seasons were good. Seasons we knew we were bad but managed to get better. Sometimes a seven-win season could be as rewarding as a state championship season. Seasons you really didn’t know how good or bad you were. Seasons you just put in the work that didn’t seem like work and hoped for the best. I believe I always received the best they had. I hope they received mine.
When I first began my coaching journey, I was terrible. Some might say, “Nothing ever changed.” It is a fact I’m comfortable with because I believe I grew despite feeling apologetic to those early teams.
I grew and turned a corner of sorts after a bitter loss. I lamented to the offending coach. “I don’t know what to do.” His answer was, “You love them. Remember, you’re not coaching football, you’re coaching kids. Win or lose you love them.” I tried to apply his nugget through the rest of my career.
Names and faces blur over time but I can honestly and unapologetically say, “I loved them.” I didn’t coach football, soccer or baseball, I coached kids. Maybe I’m not as big a fraud as I believe.
It has been three years since I last stalked a sideline or a dugout. I honestly haven’t missed the practices or the games. Every time I think I might return to a grassy field my body does something to remind me of the beating it has taken over the years and those feelings pass.
What I miss is the comradery. I miss the interactions with my players, the coaches and the opponents staring back at me from the opposing dugout or sideline. Those were good times and I miss them.
I still feel like a fraud. It was too much fun, it was too easy. Great players make for good coaches. I had a cornucopia of great players. Thanks for the memories guys, thanks for the effort, thanks for my successes. Thanks for letting me be me and letting me be a part of your lives.
Today is Jackie Robinson Day. A day celebrated in major league baseball stadiums across our land. A celebration that I’ve seen little hoopla about, just some passing mentions. I don’t think anyone is ignoring it for any nefarious reason, it is tax day after all…and Tiger did win the Masters, and Notre Dame Cathedral is burning.
I wrote this piece a couple of years ago as part of a celebration for Black History Month and decided to rewrite it in honor of Jackie Robinson…and Pee Wee Reese.
Athletics in general and baseball specifically have played a very important part of my life. I coached at the middle or high school level for forty-five years, thirty-six coaching baseball, all forty-five coaching kids.
I began my coaching career at the end of segregation and the beginning of integration in the South. The opposition to black and white kids going to school together was still high but in athletic locker rooms around the South, young people figured out a way around their prejudices…at least for a few hours daily.
I have very strong opinions about the state of race and bigotry in the United States and am sure professional baseball locker rooms of today are no different than the general population of today. What is different, they find a way to overcome it, a way to make it work…kind of like Jackie and Pee Wee. From two years ago….
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you can’t use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” A short speech by Leo “the lip” Durocher, manager of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers, letting his team know that Jackie Robinson was in the big leagues to stay…with or without them. I’m sure Leo said more, he was, after all, a man of many words…many “colorful” words.
April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to break the major league baseball “color line” since the 1880s. The “color line” was a “gentleman’s agreement” among major league owners to not allow Blacks to play. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger owner, would scuttle the “gentleman’s agreement” signing Jackie Robinson and putting him on the field. I would be remiss not to mention that Larry Doby would be the line breaker in the American League with the Cleveland Indians and for some reason flew under the media radar.
Normally a middle infielder, Robinson started at first base his first day in the “Bigs” because All-Star Eddie Stanky was playing second, and Pee Wee Reese was playing shortstop. While not getting a hit, he did walk and scored a run. Facing ALMOST universal racial prejudice, Jackie finished his initial season hitting .297 in one hundred and fifty-one games and received Rookie of the Year honors. Not bad considering the weight of an entire race that he carried.
I was too young to care much about Jackie Robinson the player and his trials and tribulations. I hadn’t even been born yet and when I was born, I wasn’t much of a Dodger fan…at least that is my excuse and I’m sticking to it. Much later, the old newsreel films I watched incessantly proved him worthy of six all-star appearances, a league MVP award and an election to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Today I celebrate the way he revolutionized the game and the trail he blazed for the stars of my own youth and for those who followed. I cannot fathom what baseball might have been without the likes of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson, Hank Aaron, Ozzie Smith, Frank Robinson…you get the idea. There were a bunch of others. Today I am also aware of his many trials and tribulations.
When I said almost universal prejudice there were a few opposing players and teammates who came to Robinson’s defense while offering him a hand in brotherhood. One of those men became an all-time favorite of mine as a broadcaster. He was Robinson’s former teammate and Dizzy Dean’s “Little Partnah”, Pee Wee Reese. Many of my youthful Saturdays were spent sitting with my father watching the Falstaff Game of the Week with Dizzy and Pee Wee bringing the play-by-play.
During the trailblazing 1947 season, Reese was quoted as saying, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” Pretty profound for a white guy from Kentucky in 1947. During the Dodgers first road trip as Robinson was being heckled during pre-game infield, Reese, the captain of the Dodgers, went over to Robinson. Engaging him in conversation, Reese put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder in a gesture of support which silenced the crowd. An eight-foot bronze statue located at the minor league, Brooklyn Cyclones’ stadium commemorates that moment. A plaque states as follows:
“This monument honors Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese: teammates, friends, and men of courage and conviction. Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Reese supported him, and together they made history. In May 1947, on Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, Robinson endured racist taunts, jeers, and death threats that would have broken the spirit of a lesser man. Reese, captain of the Brooklyn Dodgers, walked over to his teammate Robinson and stood by his side, silencing the taunts of the crowd. This simple gesture challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”
I felt my heart rate and respiration jump. At least I hadn’t screamed. I need to get up…wait, “What the….” In the morning light escaping around the pulled blinds, I saw nothing that looked familiar. I was in a king-sized bed in what appeared to be in an old-fashioned bedroom complete with a patchwork quilt, wainscoted walls, a dry sink with pitcher and bowl. Heavily stuffed chairs resembled prehistoric animals gazing at me from the corners. Glancing at the other side of the bed, I saw it had not been slept in…”What the f….”
“Okay I get it, it’s a dream within a dream. I only think I’m awake. The scene is too real. If this is a dream within a dream, why do I feel the urge to pee?”
As I stood over the urinal, I noticed something was wrong…well…different. The lower body I looked at didn’t resemble mine in the least nor did the dragon I was draining. Short, thick legs were now long and slender, bowling ball sized calves replaced with long, supple, athletic ones. The “over Sixty” paunch I worked so hard and failed to eliminate was gone, replaced by toned abs and a chest covered in dark, curly hair.
Turning on the light at the bathroom sink, the mirror reflected a face and upper body that wasn’t mine. Looking back at me, mimicking my every move was Tom Selleck. Not the Blue Bloods or Jesse Stone Tom Selleck, the Magnum P.I. Tom Selleck. The shaggy dark hair and matching mustache, dimples that deepened like the Grand Canyon when I smiled Tom Selleck. “Man, what a dream.” Dipping my head a bit and angling it to the side, my face became the winking Tom Selleck’s.
The body didn’t feel like mine either. I usually groaned when I got out of bed. The body I looked at in the mirror didn’t ache at all. Locking my knees, I bent and reached toward my toes…“Man, what a dream.”
Looking around the room, my gaze fell on the armoire that housed a television set above its pullout drawers. A folded notecard made from expensive stock sat to one side of the TV, a remote to the other. Picking up the notecard, I felt chills chase themselves up and down my spine, ‘Welcome to Pearly Gates Bed and Breakfast,’ was embossed in gold on the front. The inside also etched in gold, welcomed me. ‘We hope to make your transition enjoyable and stress-free.’ It was signed, Petra Saint, Proprietor. I pondered…”I’m missing something.”
A gentle knock to my door brought me back to the here and now, where ever the here and now was.
Through the peephole, I saw a shapely petite woman with a clear, coffee and cream complexion and short blue-black hair. She tapped a pen against a clipboard before placing it under her arm and straightening her clothes. The woman had an “all business” look on her a pretty face. A familiar silhouette stood on shapely, well-formed legs, displayed in a black leather skirt. Black moderately heeled pumps made her calf muscles stand out. A matching leather jacket covered a blazing white blouse with a moderate neckline covered in frills.
I recognized her. I had watched her on TV the night before as I fell asleep, Tamron Hall on the ID Channel. I kept the TV on to blot out the sounds buzzing in my ears…except my ears were no longer buzzing.
A tangerine sky had been painted above an old textile baseball field. Above the bleachers and avocado green grandstand, a child’s hand-drawn clouds chased each other around a hippie-inspired sun of brilliant yellows and oranges. Old Sol featured a smiling, female face with almond shaped, green-blue eyes.
A stiff breeze blew out to right field but clouds seemed to move in any direction they wished. The US flag, in vivid colors I didn’t recognize, and pennants in mauve, purple and gold, snapped and popped as the wind swirled. A pink, blue and green, paisley print flamingo soared above the thermals, riding the wind…high, higher, highest.
Wooden bleachers built when Methuselah was a child, were weathered to a gray patina, the boards rough, warped and twisted. The roof of the old grandstand was rotted with jagged holes allowing bright sunshine to leak through, highlighting men in white dress shirts, sleeves rolled up above their elbows, their fedoras pushed back on their heads. I saw them in black, white and gray, as if from an old newsreel.
The one women I saw was surrounded by pastel colors from a Monet painting as she strolled on boardwalks that shouldn’t have been in a ballpark. Twirling her parasol, she strolled by in a long-sleeved and high necked dress. The hem of the ethereal gown, lacy in pinkish beige, swept the old boards of the esplanade.
Her gaze was distant and pensive under hair piled high and restrained by a straw boater. The flat brimmed hat was pushed forward at a jaunty angle to accommodate her dark brown tresses but her stare was anything but gleeful.
Watching from my vantage point in my head I wondered how she could sit wearing such a large bustle and how she could stand the corset that made her waist so small.
The field was of dark green, perfectly maintained grass…grass marred with red clay and sand baselines and infield cutout. Sharp white lines were arrow straight and ran toward the infinity of the outfield foul posts. Sack bases gleamed in the technicolor sunshine as a ground crew finished the field with earth movers and bulldozers.
It wasn’t an LSD trip, just a dream…a dream that featured a heavenly figure dressed in Yankee pinstripes and a Satan in tie-dye. God was a midget who looked like Yogi Berra, Satan could be no one else other than Billy Martin. Martin glared at me from behind dark sunglasses his cigarette smoke twisting and turning, rising into the tangerine sky. He held up a martini glass in an empty salute…as empty as the glass itself.
I was playing right field…I think it was me. I looked like Tom Selleck in Mr. Baseball and I openly wondered why Babe Ruth or Roger Maris wasn’t available. Yogi said Maris was on a mountain top contemplating the asterisk after the number sixty-one in the “Good Book”. Ruth was holding court in street clothes, smoking a cigar while drinking a beer and eating a hotdog. A high school chum was there too but he looked more like Thurmond Munson than the friend I remembered from fifty years ago.
I don’t normally dream so vividly. I blame it on a sinus infection, the drugs that treat it and the left-over quesadillas my wife brought me after her luncheon with a friend. There is something about cilantro that sometimes fuels my more psychedelic dreams. Cheaper and less dangerous than peyote or hallucinogenic mushrooms, not that I really know.
I had died in my dream, the casualty of a falling treetop and found myself in a heaven of my own creation. No blazing white mansions or streets of gold. No old, bearded white men in long gowns, No call to a warm and embracing light. Just a perfectly laid out baseball field and hot dogs to die for, an all-star team of dead Yankees playing an all-star team of devil’s minions. Both teams cheered on by men in a black and white newsreel and a woman in pastels. The call was to the Big Leagues not into the light.
It seemed I had awakened from one dream into another, my death from being shish kebabed by a treetop to a heavenly baseball game. Speaking in cliches, Yogi told me the game was being played for all the marbles, good versus evil, winner takes all. As I jogged to right field he growled, “Don’t forget! It gets late early out there.”
Though I desperately tried to stay asleep, my dream ended before the game was decided. With the game tied and a runner on second in the ninth, Ty Cobb stepped to the plate, or a devil’s imp appearing to be Ty Cobb. Depending on whose history you read, in real life, he might have been the devil incarnate. Razor sharp cleats glinted in the tangerine light as he taped the dirt off them with his bat. Watching him step into the batter’s box, I awoke as a puppy dog pawed me, blind eyes saying “Open the door, I need to potty.”
I don’t normally remember dreams but this one was just too vivid, just too real…just too troubling This one I want to remember despite the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach. It’s too good of a subject for a short story and I can end it any way I wish.
I need to remember it today because my plans were to cut down the dead tree that killed the dream me. I think I will let Mother Nature do her part and cut it up after it falls.
There was once a young boy who went to sleep listening to his small transistor radio. The circular dial on its front was more than a tuner, it was the young boy’s window to a far away world…the destination depending upon atmospheric conditions.
AM radio, Amplitude Modulation, is still iffy in perfect conditions and FM, Frequency Modulation, was the new-fangled, next big thing of the early Sixties. AM radio stations blasting rock and roll so clearly during the daylight hours became impossible to pick up due to changes in the ionosphere or went off the air entirely.
Magically it seemed to the young boy, AM transmitters bounced their signal off the charged layer of the atmosphere. Honestly, the old man who replaced the young boy still believes it is magic. The young boy knew none of the science, he just knew night time brought in far off places and in the summer, brought him baseball games played late into the night.
Just last night I was reminded of the young boy, now wrinkled and gray. As I drove home in the early evening, my satellite radio brought in a far off, crystal-clear signal from somewhere on the left coast. Not the crackling, fading in or out signal from his childhood.
The little transistor radio brought him games played by “Mr. Sunshine”, Ernie Banks of the Cubbies or “The Killer”, Harmon Killebrew of the Twins…depending upon atmospheric condition. Sometimes it brought games from southern climes with sportscasters speaking in an excited, rapid-fire language the young boy did not understand. On very special nights, the atmospheric gods brought him the Detroit Tigers and their star outfielder Al Kaline. I remember the young boy struggling to stay awake long enough to hear the last out recorded.
This was a time when baseball was the American Pastime…before the breakneck speed of our lives, the internet, iPhones, and interactive video games made baseball seem too slow. This was a time when we built up our athletic idols instead of finding ways to tear them down. A time before the designated hitter and performance-enhancing drugs. It was an era when bases were bags and sandlots and playgrounds were filled with youth dreaming of being the next “Mick” or “Sandy” or “The Say Hey Kid.” It was a time before life got in the way.
I listened to a broadcaster whose voice I didn’t recognize, announcing players I did not know, playing for a team that didn’t exist when the young boy listened to his transistor radio. For a moment I was sad until I remembered the young boy. The young boy grew up to play the game he loved and later coached it for a goodly part of his life.
Baseball may no longer be the American Pastime, but it still mimics life. Life involves so much failure and successful people find ways to rise above their missteps. Baseball is the same, a game built on failure. A great hitter fails seventy percent of the time. A hitter may do everything right and still get robbed, his line drive somehow finding a glove. A pitcher may make the perfect pitch that ends with a “fourteen hopper” somehow finding its way through a drawn-in infield. Baseball gives, and it takes away…just like life.
For more wit and witticisms from Don Miller https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM