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Friday, May 2, 2008

The Baseball Story

I love a good story.  I love Americana as well.  The mixture of these two loves can be an intoxicating combination especially when someone knows how to tell an Americana story, well.  I've always wanted to be a writer and have the ability to tell good stories; the kind that were spun around a small table in the bowels of the Orca during the scar competition in Jaws, only happier.  Luckily, I was treated to a wonderful story about one of our nation's greatest pastimes, baseball.  Unfortunately, baseball has degraded into a business of making money and finger pointing at each other in terms of performance enhancing drug use.  But there was a time in the era of the baby boomers when baseball was as magical as James Earl Jones' depiction of it, saying why "they" will come in Field of Dreams. Granted, my brother's and even my father's heroes weren't exactly squeaky clean as they were prone to booze and broads. Yet, those vices seem to be innocuous compared to today's.

Because of that, I continue to pass along this story as it is one of those great anecdotes about a time when childhood, baseball, and America were something to take comfort in and be proud of without worrying about Amber Alerts, Mitchell Reports, or Wars in the Gulf. In 2006, my parents celebrated their 40th anniversary and over dinner, in one of those old houses that have been converted into a restaurant, my Dad's cousin, Joe, spun this related tale of baseball.  It was one of those stories that sprung from unrelated conversations that he could tie together with great ease.  The original conversation involved medical procedures during the 1950's as Joe is an oral surgeon who lives in Oneida, NY, but grew up in Long Island.  So, imagine sitting around a huge dinner table, eating good food and drinking good wine with friends and family as this man with a booming voice tells this tale in a Long Island accent.

Back in 1955, I was playing around with an old tricycle. I was riding with my feet on the step and pulled on the handle bars and fell off, cracking my skull. At the time, cranial pressure wasn't treated like it is today. Now, you would drill a hole into the skull to relieve the pressure. Back then, they put you on bed rest for 8 weeks, no sitting up, always horizontal.  I had nothing to do but bounce a baseball off the wall above my bed with one hand and catch it, into a mitt, with my other hand.  Years later it was discovered that my family could never get paint to stick to that particular patch of wall because of the amount of oil I would put onto the mitt.

During my weeks of bed rest, my grandfather, who was a lawyer, decided to do something to cheer me up.  His office was at 215 Montague street in Brooklyn. Some of the work they did involved drawing up wills and other legal documents for the local baseball players. In return, he would sometimes get various baseball related items as small gifts.  During my bedrest, one particular gift he gave me was a baseball.  It was something that kind of sat in a desk drawer in my room.  Unfortunately, I didn't have it very long.  After my bed rest was over and I was able to resume outdoor activities, the baseball went missing.

You see as boys grow up, their moms don't always understand the intrinsic value of certain things in their room. Over the years baseball cards and other objects tend to disappear, some lost forever, only to be explained as frivolous toys that were no longer important to a growing young man. Like that baseball, other things in Brooklyn also disappeared. But they weren't lost, they were just relocated.  It was about this time I believed my grandfather had a friend named "Thatgoddamned." Because I would always hear him say Thatgoddamned O'Malley this and Thatgoddamned O'Malley that. What I didn't realize was that O'Malley's real first name was Walter and he had just moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.  They were one of his biggest clients and, of course, he was also a fan.

Some thirty years later, I'm come home from work and I find this little box on the desk in my study.  I had no idea where it came from.  I opened it and it contained two items with writing on them.

One was a note.  The other was a baseball.

The note read,

"I was looking for some papers in the attic and found this ball.  I was going to keep it but once I realized what it was, I figured I should return it to you."

The baseball read,

"Gil Hodges, Peewee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Don Newcombe, and Jackie Robinson" among others.

It turned out that one of my relatives was clearing out some old things at my boyhood home in Long Island and came across this baseball, signed by the 55 Brooklyn Dodgers. It was still in perfect condition considering it spent 30 years in a NY attic.

When I heard the story, my jaw dropped. You'd think this was a story that he'd been telling for years, honing like it Spalding Gray or Dave Allen. The events were constructed in such a fasion that it gave a twist at the end as you never expected the baseball to be that important, let alone valuable. Depending on the number of signatures, this baseball could be worth anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand. Yet, it's the kind of baseball and story that should be passed down through his kids and grand kids as a testament to how baseball was a historical and important piece of this country. Future generations are more likely to remember Pete Rose or Barry Bonds more than Marris' asteriked carrer or the triumph of the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees in the 1960 World Series.  Baseball is a dying sport, corrupted and old. Yet, the commercialism of the NFL and the NBA can't hold a candle in terms of rich and storied history. Baseball was one of those things that was more than a sport. You could write stories about baseball. You could tell stories about baseball. For that, I hope basebell will find a way to regain its place as the national pastime.

Two classic pieces of dialogue from baseball movies

Field of Dreams

Ray, people will come Ray. They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won't mind if you look around, you'll say. It's only $20 per person. They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they'll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they'll watch the game and it'll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they'll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

Bull Durham

Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman's back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

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