Matty was Bigger than Baseball

I’ve been thinking of Christy Mathewson lately, a great hero who died prematurely from an illness of the lungs that may have been related to a global influenza pandemic.

Matty’s tuberculosis could have been the lethal side effect from an accidental dosing of poison gas during a World War I training exercise in France, an unfortunate incident that Ty Cobb described in detail in his autobiography: “I can recall Mathewson saying, ‘when we were in there, I got a good dose of that stuff. I feel terrible.’ He was wheezing and blowing out congested matter.”

Branch Rickey – like Mathewson and Cobb, an officer in the Chemical Warfare Service – didn’t recall it that way, saying that he’d been through the same training with Matty, and later that day watched the great pitching ace beat everyone in a broad jumping contest, “by a considerable margin.”

It could be that Mathewson’s lungs deteriorated as a result of the flu, which caught up with him (as it did to about 500 million people, killing 16 million) on the cold, damp sea voyage to Europe. Or perhaps the combination of super flu and poison gas gave his lungs a deadly one-two punch that took seven long years to finish him.

What we do know for sure is that Christy Mathewson died on October 7, 1925 of tuberculosis pneumonia. He was 45 and it was 11 at p.m., “only hours after ‘Big Train’ Walter Johnson, whose right-handed pitching feats had constantly been compared to Matty’s, defeated the Pirates in the first game of the World Series,” wrote Ray Robinson in his terrific biography of Mathewson.

The public outpouring was massive. Newspapers in every big city or small hamlet had something to say, some of it a bit overwrought (imagine that, says yours truly, who never saw a sentence that he couldn’t overwrite, including the one you’re being tormented with right now). One claimed that Matty overshadowed George Washington. Mathewson’s longtime manager and friend, John McGraw, put it best (as related by Robinson) when he said, after his friend’s memorial: “I do not expect to see his like again but I do know that the example he set and the imprint he left on the sport that he loved and honored will remain long after I am gone.”

Mathewson the man has always been more interesting to me than Mathewson the pitcher (who may have been the best ever – no one will ever equal his 1905 World Series performance, when he threw three complete game shutouts to lift his New York Giants over the Philadelphia Athletics). He won 373 games (twice as many as he lost) and posted a lifetime earned run average of 2.13 in his 17-year career, relying heavily on what he called the “fadeaway” pitch, which was basically a screwball. He was the face of baseball in the early 20th century.

But something about Matty lured others to him like a gravitational pull. His positivity, his work ethic, his fair-mindedness, and level-headedness. In a sport that employed a lot of rough tactics back in the day, played by tough guys, Mathewson not only held his own, but rose above all of them. Saints and sinners alike respected Big Six (one of his many nicknames, taken from a famous New York City fire engine of the day). He was highly competitive, and all class whether he won or lost.

He was no brute or ruffian, but nor was he a boy scout or lightweight. The idol of millions, including people who hated McGraw and his Giants, Christy was one of those guys that you just wanted to be around. I would have liked to meet him.

Anyway, the picture.

The book is from 1912. It was mostly written by a guy named John Wheeler, from interviews with Mathewson. There are places where Matty’s distinctive voice comes through (and the book has been very popular for more than 100 years), but critics have said it could have been  better if it had been written entirely by Christy. The baseball card is a 1911 T-205 (tobacco card). Both of them came into our care accidentally (in other words, I wasn’t actively seeking Mathewson memorabilia, mainly because it’s way out of my price range).

I found the book in a Madison, Georgia, flea market about 30 years ago. It was in a bin with a bunch of other books and it cost me a buck, bargain of the century. The card cost even less, as it arrived in a stack of cards as part of a gift, purchased, no doubt, from someone who had no idea of what he or she was trying to part with. The Mathewson card arrived with a few other treasures (a 1940 card of Connie Mack and 1933 Dazzy Vance, among others). A sweet, unexpected gift.

Honestly, from the looks of them, they’re probably not worth much in the way of dollars. I’m not planning to get rid of them, anyway (although my dear, departed friend, Col. Bruce Hampton, offered to take them off my hands after saying, “Gawd, you have those?”). Anyway, these little scraps of history don’t belong to me. The way I see it, they belong to the four of us – Jane, Samantha, Joe, and I. As the oldest among them, and the one with the most experience as a baseball fan, and also the one who knows where they are kept, I’ll be their steward, whose primary task is to keep these things in a safe place and write about them, sort of like a show-and-tell, every time I do some spring cleaning.

The kids will have control after I’m gone, because Jane is very, “meh,” about it. Don’t get me wrong, she knows most of this baseball lame brain stuff because it’s the kind of stuff I’ll spew on a long ride to keep myself awake (which has the opposite effect on her, oddly enough). So, the kids will get to decide what to do with it when I shuffle off to the green room at the end of the universe, where the beer is cold, imported, and free.

I doubt that the kids will look at these items with the same sense of awe and loss that I get. These artifacts mean more to me than their trade value. They are a direct connection to the past, an imprint from everyone else whoever touched it (a scary thought these days). These little things are a handheld time machine that drive my imagination. I wonder what the world would have been like if Christy Mathewson had never gone to war, or never gotten the flu (or inhaled poison gas), and what would it be like if he had lived a full life. He was, by all accounts, a good dude. What further good, I wonder , could Christy Mathewson have done, either in baseball or outside of it. Also, I can’t help thinking about the irony that this baseball immortal known for clean living appeared on baseball cards that came with packs of cigarettes and then later died young from a lung disease.

But mostly, I imagine what it would have been like in 1912, when these items were brand new and can’t help thinking, damn, Matty has three great seasons left and then a short-lived career as manager of the Reds, and president of the Braves — he only has another 13 years left to live! And it kind of sucks, because when the world lost Christy Mathewson, it lost more than a baseball hero. It lost, in the words of Grantland Rice, “a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains, and personality.”

We can always use a little more of that.

Opening Day Called on Account of Plague

For some of us – and it’s been said over and over again by all manner of baseball egghead, including yours truly – baseball is more than a sport or a corporate enterprise. It really is a state of mind. It is both giddy thrill and deep comfort.

It is an imperfect but consoling and cherished companion on the transient existential road and, for some of us, it can be a spiritual salve that, more than religion, imparts a sense of a joyous (or even monotonous) eternal life: extra innings can, theoretically, go on forever.

But not today. Not on Opening Day. The game has been called on account of plague, and I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of messed up about it. I haven’t been the kind of ball fan that hangs on every pitch from every game, not for a long time. Hell, we haven’t had regular TV service (i.e., ESPN and other TV stations that broadcast ballgames) for at least 10 years. When I do take in a game, it’s been on the radio most of the time, or through box scores and stories online.

Even in those rare times when I didn’t give a damn, or I was pissed off at the game, just knowing it was there, marking the seasons, doing its job, gave off a sense of desired normalcy and permanence, kind of like gravity: something you don’t see or think about very often, but you’re really glad it’s there, because when it’s not you float listlessly into space, which is kind of how I felt in 1994, when the season (and World Series, which the Braves woulda won, and Tony Gwynn’s chance at batting .400) was cancelled because of a labor dispute. But this is much worse. At least the labor dispute didn’t cause people to get sick and die.

So, on the one hand, I’m really glad that there is wisdom enough in the world to postpone crowd-heavy events like Opening Day (and March Madness, and the NBA season, etc., etc., etc.) in an effort to somehow corral this historically bad virus. It makes total sense and is exactly the right thing to do. On the other … I don’t have to like it, damn it.

Today is a day I was really looking forward to, the big “Play Ball” to the 2020 baseball season. Well, I still looked forward to today (and look forward to tomorrow), but for entirely different reasons. We’re deprived of Opening Day for now, but it’ll come back. Maybe in May, June. Can’t say right now.

If this virus doesn’t finish us, Opening Day will come back. But since, temporarily, we can’t experience any new games  and new statistics and new records (the fantasy baseball enterprise is really struggling, I’m sure), here’s an example of some of the most memorable Opening Days:

1901 – The Detroit Tigers, playing their first game ever, scored 10 runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Milwaukee Brewers, 14-13, in what still stands as the biggest Opening Day comeback. The Brewers left town the next season and became the St. Louis Browns (who became the Baltimore Orioles).

1910 – President William Howard Taft starts a long tradition with the presidential first pitch on April 14, then sticks around to watch ace Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators blank the mighty Philadelphia Athletics, 3-0. The first pitch tradition lasted a century. The last time it happened was on the 100-year anniversary of Taft’s inaugural toss. Our nation’s last legitimate president, Barack Obama, threw out the ceremonial pitch on April 14, 2010, before the Washington Nationals’ season opener.

1912 – On April 20 the Boston Red Sox opened Fenway Park with a thrilling 7-6 win in 11 innings, just a few days after the sinking of the Titanic.

1923 – Babe Ruth christened brand new Yankee Stadium (known, naturally, as the House the Ruth Built) with a home run on Opening Day (April 18) in front of a record (at the time) 74,200 fans.

1926 – Walter Johnson did it to the Athletics again. This time he hooked up with Eddie Rommel as both hurlers went all 15 innings in a game Johnson and the Senators won, 1-0.

1940 – On April 16, Bob Feller threw a no hitter against the White Sox, the first of a career-high 27 victories for the fireballer.

1947 – Probably the best Opening Day ever was April 15, when Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in “organized” baseball, starting at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. If you ask me, all the baseball records before this date should have an asterisk.

1974 – Let’s just fast forward to April 14, 1974, the day that Henry Aaron tied Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, hitting No. 714 off Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham.

1988, 2001, 2018 – George Bell (Blue Jays, ’88), Tuffy Rhodes (Cubs, ’01), and Matt Davidson (White Sox, ’18) each hit three home runs on Opening Day.

1999 – The Colorado Rockies beat the San Diego Padres, 8-2, in Monterrey, Mexico – the first international Opening Day (unless you count games in Canada). Since then, there have been a number of other openers in other countries, including Japan (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2019) and Australia (2014).

2012 – The Indians and Blue Jays met in the longest Opening Day game ever, a 16-inning affair won by the Indians, 7-4.

Now that you’re totally bummed out that there will be no Opening Day (I was planning to tune into the Braves at Diamondbacks tonight, but I might watch Eight Men Out instead), let me leave with you some Opening Day wisdom from that legendary philosopher and catcher from St. Louis, who plied his trade in the Bronx, Yogi Berra: “A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.”

The Secrets of Hitting

When I was 13 years old and still secretly clinging to an unrealistic dream of playing professional baseball (preferably as an outfielder though I would have gladly considered a permanent move to third base if it would help the ballclub), I discovered a classified ad in Boys Life magazine that I thought may ensure my place (in some distant, silver-lined future which has already passed) in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

For a buck, an outfit that called itself Baseball Associates (based in St. Petersburg, Florida) offered the answers I was seeking (beyond having actual talent) to starting a career in baseball. They promised that I would “surprise everyone.” I’d been seeing this ad, or variations of it, for several years in the magazines and comic books that comprised most of my reading material in those days. Some of the Baseball Associates ads called it a “baseball career course.”

That sounded like just the ticket for me, especially since now as a newly minted teen, I was truly desperate. I’d just completed a somewhat successful campaign with the Dixie Youth League Cardinals in Lilburn, Georgia – “successful” in that I managed to play most innings of most games and throw runners out at home plate and we won almost all of our games; “somewhat” in that I could barely hit my weight (I weighed about 130 pounds in full uniform, with fielder’s glove).

I sent the buck and prayed (in lieu of extra batting practice). The picture that accompanies this confession tells part of the story. For my hard-earned dollar, I received a pamphlet of “Paul Waner’s Batting Secrets.” This would have been 1973, maybe 1974. Paul Waner had been dead almost 10 years by then, and hadn’t played ball since 1945. A useful first hitting tip would have been, “don’t be dead.”

Instead, the pamphlet contained pages of cartoon versions of Big Poison (Paul was Big Poison and his little brother Lloyd was known as Little Poison) demonstrating cartoon strike zones, suggesting which cartoon pitches to swing at and which cartoon pitches to ignore. There was nothing that helped me learn how to stand in against a good curve ball, or lay off the high fast ball (or even catch up with one).

At any rate, I headed into the next season with a new team (the Hornets) in a new league with my handy hitting secrets, and new-found confidence, which you can clearly see in this picture from our annual spring photo day. And it also showed in my improved batting performance that year as my weight increased to 145 pounds.

Later, after being ignominiously cut following the first round of tryouts for the high school team, I hung up my spikes and retired from the game to focus on more attainable baseball goals, like watching baseball games and occasionally writing about baseball, which allows me to know it all without actually knowing how to do it all – in short, the kind of work I was born to do. Thank you, Paul Waner!

Meeting Newk

Don Newcombe was the first pitcher to win Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards during his career, and the first black pitcher to start a World Series game, and the first black pitcher to win 20 games in the post integrated (and therefore, bona fide) Major Leagues, where he also became the first black pitcher named to an MLB All-Star team. He was also a great hitter (for a pitcher), batting .271.

One thing that Don wasn’t, however, was very good in the postseason. He had a decent 1949 World Series. In fact, I’ve often wondered if what happened in Game 1 of that series somehow affected subsequent performances, or just set the cosmic eight ball rolling against Don in October ever after. I mean, he pitched brilliantly in Game 1 of the ’49 classic, giving up just five hits while striking out 11 in a complete game that he lost 1-0 when the Yankees’ Tommy Henrich led off the bottom of the ninth with a home run to right.

After that, Don was never the same in the World Series, racking up an astronomical earned run average. But he was an absolute beast the rest of the time. Still, as a result of his poor late-season performances, he got an unfair reputation for being “gutless” in big games. What the hell does that mean? The people that called Newcombe gutless probably never played the game. Don even belted some loudmouth in the parking lot who used the g-word on Newk after one of his toughest losses.

Whatever the case, I don’t buy it. Gutless? The only reason that Don’s Dodgers got into so many big games is because Don (and his teammates) were so damn good. They played baseball, the hardest sport to play well, at its highest level, stood in, persevered, and won a lot of games, all of which takes an abundance of guts.

Anyway, I met Don Newcombe once, randomly, in the tunnel between the Braves dugout and their clubhouse in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. There he was, a giant looming in front of me all of a sudden, and not only because he was 6-foot-4 and well north of 200 pounds. I’d grown up with stories about Newk and his contemporaries that made the Olympian gods look like bush leaguers.

My father was a big Yankees fan, and his team benefitted more than any other when Don suffered a post-season collapse. But Dad never took that for granted, because he also he knew how great Don Newcombe was. Dad, the Yankees fan, did have a little bit of love for the boys in Flatbush … except at World Series time. Dad was a big Newcombe fan.

When I met Don, I was tongue-tied. This was completely unexpected, this meeting in the tunnel, and I’d be lying if I said anything profound came out of it, other than the fact that I got to shake Don Newcombe’s hand (a profound experience for me, anyway). I was so completely unprepared mentally, I forgot about the notepad I was carrying in my hand and the pen poised, as ever, on top of my ample ear.

All I could do was mumble and stutter something about my old man and his friends and how much they loved and respected Newcombe and even though most of them were Yankees fans, they never thought Don was gutless, at which point I thought to myself, did I actually say that? Don, all class, said, “well, I really appreciate that, especially coming from Yankee fans.”

Don Newcombe left the planet little more than a year ago, his soul traded to whatever team plays its home games on the Elysian Fields, where knowledgeable fans have sense enough to recognize real talent when they see it, and understand the difference between being gutless and having some bad luck, and where everyone has guts and good luck and all the games go into extra innings.

Or maybe I’m confusing that with a cornfield in Iowa.

It’s Roberto, not Bob

These two baseball cards tell stories that go far beyond the photos on front and the statistics (which are impressive) and anecdotes (meh) on the back.

First and perhaps most obvious to serious collectors is the year of the cards, both issued by the Topps company. The one at left is from the 1962 set, the one at right from 1973. Second, and equally obvious to the same folks is the condition of the cards – not great. Creases and bent corners. Ugh. They definitely wouldn’t fetch more than a couple of bucks at at a baseball card show, if there still are baseball card shows.

To me (though I’ve obviously not spoiled them as they deserve), they are priceless, because of who is on the cards, and the other story they tell.

Roberto Enrique Clemente Walker, better known as Roberto Clemente, was born in Puerto Rico, where the Spanish practice of using the last names of both parents was in play. So Roberto had the first last name of his father (Melchor Clemente), followed by the first last name of his mother (Luisa Walker).

As Roberto Clemente, he was the quintessential five-tool player, one of the best to grace a baseball diamond, delighting fans for 18 seasons – all of them as a Pittsburgh Pirate – with vicious line drives, daring base-running, amazing catches, and breath-taking throws from right field. In 1973, through a special election following his untimely and heroic death, he became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When he was enshrined his plaque (an ugly likeness, like all of the Hall of Fame plaques) called him Roberto Walker Clemente, a post-humous anglicization of his name. Now look at the names on these cards. The 1962 version calls him “Bob Clemente.” The 1973 version (issued after Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, an ill-fated mission of mercy to bring aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua) calls him “Roberto Clemente.”

This Bob vs. Roberto thing was always a point of contention for Clemente, whose Major League debut was in 1955. As a black person whose first language was Spanish, he faced a double dose of discrimination. The media and, obviously, the baseball card company Americanized his given name, calling him “Bob” or “Bobby” or even “Robby,” nicknames that Clemente hated. He had the audacity to insist on being called by his given name, Roberto.

It took him years to get the baseball card company to pay attention, and there’s an interesting kind of evolution to the whole affair. Clemente’s first two cards, 1955 and 1956, are typical of those beautiful-looking, horizontal oriented sets, in his case featuring the same portrait of his handsome face both years, but different inset action shots – Clemente in his batting stance in ’55, and making a spectacular catch in ’56. Both cards also call him “Roberto Clemente,” and feature a facsimile of his signature, also, “Roberto Clemente.”

Then, beginning in 1957, for some inexplicable reason and certainly against Clemente’s wishes, Topps started calling him “Bob Clemente.” Some of the media (including broadcasters) were calling him Bob, but not most. I did a quick search on Newspapers.com for “Bob Clemente” and “Pittsburgh Pirates” for 1956 and came up with 706 hits. Then I did the same search replacing “Bob” with “Roberto” and came up with 5,156 hits. But from 1957 through 1969, the Topps company insisted on calling the great Clemente by the wrong name.

The 1959 card is interesting because Topps brought back the fake autograph on the card. But Roberto wouldn’t play ball, apparently. The card company printed “Bob” but his autograph says “Roberto,” and he’s wearing a triumphant look, and I imagine it all as Roberto’s small act of defiance against the purveyors of cardboard gods and stale, lethally-sharp sticks of pink bubblegum. Right on, Roberto.

I wonder if it was this episode with Clemente that inspired Topps to shy away from facsimile signatures for a number of years, until 1967, when they brought back the fake autograph. This time, both his printed name and signature say “Bob Clemente.” Was this a fake signature of the fake name? I don’t know the story behind the story. Did Clemente acquiesce and sign his name as “Bob” to appease Topps? Or was this the work of some staff calligrapher at Topps? Did Topps have staff calligraphers?

Roberto finally won the quiet battle of his name in 1970, with Topps’ oddly attractive gray-bordered series of cards, in which he was immortalized on card No. 350 as “Roberto Clemente,” and so he remained for the rest of his baseball card life.

After dying tragically in that overloaded plane, shortly after taking off on Dec. 31, 1972, Clemente was remembered around the world as much for his great character and philanthropy as for his ability to hit triples and throw out baserunners. And the baseball industrial complex did the correct thing with his immediate Hall of Fame enshrinement (players typically have to wait at least five years after retiring).

Then, for the next 27 years his plaque at the Hall of Fame read, incorrectly, “Roberto Walker Clemente.” Finally, in 2000 it was changed to its proper Latin American form, “Roberto Clemente Walker.” A posthumous victory for Roberto over the anglicization of his most personal and cherished possession.

Clemente’s story about the use or misuse of his name has some relevance today when I think of the widespread practice of anglicizing names among international students. I was reminded of Roberto and these cards when I met a young Chinese man at Georgia Tech. His name is Yichen, but he explained to me that he was encouraged to change his name to something that sounded ‘White,’ because first names often shape the way people are treated, and can even affect their job prospects.

Yichen chose the name “Payne,” because he recognized it as an unusual name, even for Western ears. But soon after I met him, he went back to introducing himself as “Yichen.” Good for him.

He chose his own identity, even though research has shown that white professors respond more to Chinese students with Western names, and employers prefer applications with anglicized names. Yichen is, or soon will be, a scientist making discoveries that will affect all kinds of people, regardless of how their names are constructed. Yichen may never be depicted on a trading card but he definitely took the Roberto Clemente route. He knows who he is and insists on that identity, regardless of a small piece of a piecemeal world that would prefer he was called something else.

We can’t all be Roberto Clemente, but we can all be who we are and be remembered for who we were. I know that when Roberto Clemente went down in that plane, he didn’t go down as Bob or Bobby or Robby, and that’s not how he’ll always be remembered, whether or not it’s in the cards.

Bye, Bye, Uncle Bob

One of the first things I noticed about Bob Nerem was, he liked way too much of that fancy cream in his coffee, the French vanilla stuff that comes in tiny blue tubs. I saw Bob often around that coffee pot, which ought to tell you something about both of us though I’m not sure what it is, other than we both really like – in his case, liked – coffee. Truth is, I like the same cream that he liked, just not so damn much of it.

We were all expecting the bad news any day, because Bob’s health had gotten steadily worse. His kidneys were failing. When the news came that he’d died peacefully in his sleep in the wee hours of Friday morning, March 6, it was expected, but still kind of a shock, as it always is when you lose anyone that you’ve grown used to, and care deeply about. A sad numbness, a glance at an empty chair, a memory.

It was a busy Friday when Bob died, the kind of Friday at the Petit Institute that would have made him glad. It was graduate recruitment weekend across Georgia Tech, when hundreds and hundreds of the most brilliant young people toured the campus, broken up as is into different schools, departments, and disciplines. The Bioengineering Graduate program – BioE – is headquartered at the Petit Institute, or IBB, for Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience. More than 200 students from around the world visited and toured the building that Bob built, interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary research path that Bob helped blaze.

But that’s not why Bob would have been glad, not over his decades-old achievements. This kind of event would have provided him an opportunity to meet a lot of new people and ask a lot of questions. That’s one thing he seemed to have an unlimited supply of – curiosity about other people, especially young people. I never saw the man happier than at a function for Project ENGAGES, the high school education program he co-founded with his former student and current superstar researcher, Manu Platt. With a leadership team that includes the amazing Lakeita Servance, it’s a program that can’t fail, and it’s succeeded beyond even Bob’s wildest dreams. Every one of these kids winds up going to college – usually, a really amazing college. And it’s not because kindly old Uncle Bob greased the skids. He didn’t do that. If you entered a Bob program, you were going to work hard, like every one else. What Bob did so well was create opportunities. One of his friends and longtime colleagues, Barbara Boyan, the dean of engineering at Virginia Commonwealth, put it really well, calling Bob, “an indefatigable advocate for diversity in our field.” He was. Bob championed women and underrepresented minority faculty and students whenever and wherever he could. He found joy in the success of others.

He didn’t do it for himself, or the warm fuzzy feeling it gave him, and that was plain. It was simply the right thing to do, so it made total sense to him to do it, and that’s why he had so many friends and admirers. Sure, the science helped. I can’t comprehend most of what he did as a researcher, but I can say that a lot of very smart and reliable sources tell me that he was a true leader and pioneer in the fields of bioengineering and regenerative medicine. He won many awards and honors and even had a prestigious medal named after him. In his field, he was Babe Ruth. What I can comprehend is human nature, and I really liked his. Bob was enthusiastically fluent in humanity. And on that Friday when he died, when the halls of IBB – which everyone knows really stands for Its Bob’s Building – were buzzing with human energy, I took time to just walk the halls.

I remembered the stories Bob told me about the early days, of why they planned this building with the open atrium, creating a space where people could meet over coffee and too much cream – research is a people business, he always said. I thought of leader Bob, public speaker Bob, convivial host Bob, sincere Bob, friend Bob. His influence and therefore his presence was everywhere in the institute. This is his building, I thought, and this is what it felt like to walk around Yankee Stadium the day Babe Ruth died.

The first time I met Bob, in 2009, it was for a story I was writing about stem cell research and the biotech industry. He impressed me immediately because he could speak my language (that is to say, explain scientific things so my liberal arts brain could understand them). But most impressive to me the journalist was his willingness – no, his insistence – on speaking truth to power. Telling it like it is, as Howard Cosell used to say.

I reported that Bob was leading a movement to support new research in Georgia, where elected leadership was threatening to limit and even criminalize stem cell research. Bob said, “We should be working to provide patients in Georgia access to the most advanced therapies and treatments, including those that are derived from embryonic stem cells. Unfortunately, our elected leadership doesn’t seem to get that. And they’re sending signals to the rest of the country, and internationally, that you’d better be careful about making a bio-investment in Georgia.”

That was one of my few glimpses into Big Bad Bob. I liked him. But I also liked Uncle Bob a lot, my coffee pal, who prayed for me after my stroke, and said to take care because my family and friends need me, and who wondered if I’d seen any good documentaries lately and strongly recommended The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, and who used to come into the office that I share with my colleague, Tim, and sit in that empty chair and hold court, talking trash, or discussing the news, or sharing a story tip. That’s the Bob I knew. He’d been a world traveler and launched great explorations of the biomolecular universe and shaped the way thousands of geniuses do their work today, and he was still that guy, though he didn’t make a big deal about it. The Bob I knew, the same Bob and just as impressive, moved slowly and steadily through this building, his building, stopping at offices along the way to visit his friends and colleagues, listening to their stories and telling some of his own. I’m going to miss that Bob.

What Eternities May Come: Honus Wagner Drives in Cool Papa Bell

James Thurber wrote, “the majority of American males put themselves to sleep by striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees.” It’s basically just another way for the Walter Mitty in all of us — especially those of us who prefer a pleasing story arc as we nod off – to count sheep jumping a fence.
 
As someone who has struggled with insomnia from time to time I’ve found that Thurber’s scenario and its many variations will occasionally send me blissfully to the sandman, while sometimes keeping me awake and excited, depending on the narrative of the imaginary game that I’ve conjured. Will I be facing the 1927 Yankees this evening (Ruth, Gehrig, Lazerri!!!) as I nestle into a fetal position, or the 1967 Yankees (Clark, Smith, Amaro, zzzzzzz)? Or, will I immerse myself in games that never happened – the 1957 Milwaukee Braves taking on the 1996 Atlanta Braves?
 
Now that I am a lot closer to the resolution than the conflict in the story of my life, I’ve thought about the final nod and when I imagine what existential retirement (if we are somehow inclined to such a thing) could be like, I imagine occupying, forever, something like a Thurberian dream …
 
… the seamhead spirit flits from ballpark to ballpark, from Forbes to Shibe to Fenway, across time, unbound by geography. “Today” he enjoys a 1931 contest between the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords, and then “tomorrow” he might enjoy a replay of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff, but with Monte Irvin hitting the pennant-winning blast instead of Bobby Thomson, for shits and giggles.
 
The possibilities are, dare I say, endless.
 
The spirit may participate on the field of play, like Thurber’s American male, but instead of just pitching, playing a different position each game, hitting at a different spot in the batting order. This spirit, however – my spirit – would probably be more comfortable in the stands, watching it all happen, keeping a scorebook, watching the people in the crowd. Jesus, Buddha, and Martin Luther King, Jr., sitting together in the bleacher seats, eating hot dogs. Bogart and Bacall are chatting in the front row with Johnny Knapp and Col. Bruce Hampton.
 
The eons would move along with the natural pace of innings. The pitches and the endless ground balls to short would pile up and disappear, interspersed regularly by Jackie Robinson stealing third or Tris Speaker robbing someone of a home run with a spectacular catch. Whether my spirit is in the game or in the stands, it wants to see these things happen. It doesn’t want to make these plays – my spirit doesn’t want to be in someone else’s body.
 
Let Campanella be just Campanella, and let me be just me, and that would be just perfect.
 
But not really.
 
Something crucial is missing in this afterlife, something my Thurberized fantasies didn’t prepare me for. My spirit would inevitably become lonely, even though it was surrounded by the greats of the game in their prime; even though it was surrounded by thousands and thousands and thousands of fans from ever era of the game.
 
Lonely, until it comes across the other flitting spirit.
 
Perhaps we find each other somewhere in the concourse of an old ballpark that had never been built on Earth, some combination of great bygone yards that seat a million and has skyboxes hovering in the sky. With advertising for Chesterfields and Burma Shave on the outfield wall. Crowds move around or through us, concession stands sell peanuts and programs. Why does everyone have a Brooklyn accent?
 
She is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever experienced, this spirit. Ever. Here, a few feet from the hot dog stand in the concourse of the Elysian Fields, or on the other side of the veil separating this from what we had always considered the living. Her beauty lives somewhere in what is left of my living memory, stunning but familiar; immeasurable, exceeding the constraints of what we understand as sensual.
 
Her light is comforting and all encompassing, but invisible. “I’ve thought of this moment since the day you died in my arms,” she exuded, and there are equal parts sadness and joy in what she has imparted. And there’s a piece of me that still feels attached to the time before, that feels sadness because I know how she got here, and also there is a fleeting, hazy, but distinct memory, in some other language, of the people she left behind to come here. Her presence has reminded me of everything I’d ever loved before, but the people she left … the memory and reality of them breaks and lifts my ghostly heart.
 
But that old corporeal sadness – its useless here. It fades and something stronger and more permanent and more attractive than the crack of a bat and a cheering crowd and a lively ballpark avails itself. A never-before feeling of perfect belonging, of finding perfection because of belonging. To her, to her spirit.
 
Unsubstantial one moment, she holds out her hands the next. She’s wearing the light blue nightgown and the pink sweater and the green dress, and her hair is long and brown and curly and gray and short. But her eyes never change. Hold me, they say. I do.
 
And we floated there, two old souls, embracing without touching, perfect for all-time in each other’s company, surrounded by the swirl of eternity, while inside the ballpark, Cool Papa Bell scores on a single to the Kuiper Belt off the bat of Honus Wagner, and Frank Sinatra heckles Leo Durocher from a skybox hovering two hundred feet above the field.
 
After a long life, and so many dreams, and so many sleepless nights, and so many joys and sorrows, I was home, and it really was perfect.

Game Seven

Game Seven. There’s something special about it, something built-in but not guaranteed, the perfect fallback position in the fall. If two teams can’t finish their business in four, five, or six games, there’s always Game Seven, the alternative (and preferred) ending to a story that begins in February and ends in October (and these days, sometimes November). It’s elusive enough to have gravitas and common enough to be anticipated.

Game Sevens are a bonus, like finding a crumpled $20 bill in an old pair of pants. It deserves capital letters and all the formality accorded a proper noun, even if Game Seven is a blowout. It’s a gift that we are not promised, which makes it a keeper. If baseball is like life, as so many other writers have alleged, then Game Seven is the reward for a life well lived.

We’re all born with an expiration date, but we don’t know when that is. We all know a ballgame will end, but we don’t know when that is, either. We do know what the very last ballgame is, though, when every other ballgame is in the books and nothing else is left: Game Seven.

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Game Seven means we are treated to 63 innings, at least; 63 little chapters, but there may be more if extra innings are required to settle the argument. And that means we get to witness about 500 little skirmishes (give or take); individual battles between one guy flinging baseballs at another guy swinging a bat, with the first guy backed up by eight defenders, tried and true (unless we’re talking about the 1919 Black Sox, or Hal Chase, or some other scoundrel). So much action, tension, relief, anguish, and joy in every game.

Or boredom. That’s OK, too. You’ll get over it. Baseball, like reading, is for people who aren’t afraid of being bored, according to author Roger Angell. Or, as the late, great, and profoundly literate broadcaster Red Barber said, “baseball is dull only to dull minds.”

Either way, if you’re a baseball fan who collects experiences and memories, then Game Seven is something you can always preserve and look back on, fondly, the not-too-rare, accessible gem. Or you can look back on with regret, and try to forget if your team loses. But you never really forget. Just ask any Red Sox fan older than, say, 50 or 60. There can be horrible, tragic memories of defeat after defeat after getting so damn close (tempered by the knowledge that it still is, after all, only a game). But there can also be recompense (again – ask any Red Sox fan of a certain age).

For many of us, Game Seven is its own reward.

Love, Grace, Loss, and Longing

The Helen to Hardman Heritage Trail has become our favorite local trail, because of its accessibility and beauty — a lovely, wheelchair friendly path built on an old railroad bed, meandering through the North Georgia woods along a river. Recently we had an experience on the trail that I hope to never forget.

As usual we parked at the Hardman Farm lot on top of the hill and worked our way down the long, multi-tiered wheelchair ramp to the trail. About halfway to Helen, we saw a guy walking kind of funny from the other direction. He was clutching a camera with a long lens and he looked at us closely, like he knew us and wanted to say something, but all he could manage was an awkward, “hey,” which we returned in kind.

I didn’t trust the man. His smile seemed false. I realize now that in a way it was false, but not for the reasons I had imagined. Right then, I thought he was unsteady, possibly wasted. After our brief greeting he stared at us for an uncomfortable moment, looked at Joe, kept smiling. So we moved on and when I glanced back I noticed he was still looking, his hands on his camera. I thought he was going to take our picture. Anyway, I put myself between Jane (who was pushing Joe’s chair) and Joe, and we continued on our way.

On the return hike to Hardman here came the guy again. This time he stopped us, looked into my face and fumbled for words between nervous chuckles. “I was just noticing how much your boy reminds me of my son,” he finally said. “He had cerebral palsy, too.”

He guessed, or knew, that Joe has cerebral palsy. But I was stuck on the word, “had.”

“He loved being outdoors, he would have loved a trail like this,” the man said, again punctuating his words with a nervous chuckle. “He was 29 when he died.”

Right after his son died in May 2017, the man explained, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died last October.

“Can I … can I say hello to your son,” he asked, inching closer to us.

Jane and I had been standing between Joe and the man, with Joe pointed in the other direction, which is sometimes an instinctive move for us when other people get caught up in staring at the kid in the wheelchair. Some looks are fearful or pitiful or cruel, which are sometimes all the same thing. But some are sincere and honest curiosity. Some are love and grace. And some, I now know, are about loss and longing.

“Sure,” Jane said. “He enjoys fist bumps.” Because Joe often keeps his hands in raised fists, fist bumps are an appropriate greeting, better than shaking hands, although we’re working on that, too.

The man, who was visiting the area from South Carolina, came around and gave Joe a fist bump, smiling, saying, “hey Joe, hey buddy,” and all the while nervously chuckling, probably to keep from crying. I know that move. I’ve used that move.

The man didn’t have to tell us how much he missed his wife and son. It was all right there on his devastated, smiling face. Finally, I did the only decent thing I could come up with and offered my hand, said we were pleased to meet him, said, “God bless you, man,” even though I’m not sure who or what or if God is.

It seemed like the appropriate thing to say to this man, like maybe it was what he wanted or needed to hear, this smiling, shattered man who looked like he wanted something from us, who did want something from us. A reminder, a connection.

He ambled on toward Helen. We rolled back to Hardman, up the twisting ramp, then drove home. But I can’t stop thinking about that helpless man with the nervous chuckle. God bless him. Please. And while you’re at it, send him an angel.

 

Happy Birthday, Croc Hunter!

Google has a great Doodle today, honoring the 57th birthday of Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. If you’ve got Google (you do), check it out. It’s a tearjerker and a really lovely animated tribute to a wonderful human. In our house, we used to dig his show. He brought great energy and sincerity to the small screen, and a welcome air of positivity and adventure to his role as an ecological hero. And we loved the way he said, “pressure bandage.”

Back then, in my twisted imagination, I wondered what it would be like if you took Steve’s upbeat personality and placed it inside someone else who also was an outdoorsman, but not at all a good guy. This grossly perverted version of the Crocodile Hunter hosted a conceptual program that I called, in a bad Australian accent,  “Fucking With Nature,” in which the main goal was to annoy sharks and bears and the like by getting close enough to poke them with a stick (aptly called a ‘poking stick’).

Each imaginary episode would end with some awful disaster befalling the host, due to his callous disregard for wildlife and the space that it needs to be … well, wild. I’d be lying if I said, “I never imagined that Steve himself would be killed doing his job.” Obviously, I imagined it could happen (given the risks he took, risks he understood and embraced because that’s what a hero does). He must have imagined it, too, famously saying, “I have no fear of losing my life – if I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a kangaroo or a snake, mate, I will save it.”

So back then, we were staging a show in our community several times a year called Late Night Off Center, which featured a diverse range of mostly funny, mostly live shenanigans (there was the occasional film). At the time, there was an awful tourist attraction in the area, the Black Forest Bear Park in Helen. I never stepped inside the place, but it looked soul crushing from the outside, this depressing concrete hovel that was basically a prison for bears. Eventually, mercifully, the prisoners were rescued and sent to live in a Colorado animal sanctuary, and the bear “park” was closed down.

I remember thinking how much Steve Irwin would have hated that place.

About a year after Steve died, we did a themed edition of Late Night, a spoof of our local community story play, Headwaters (which I co-wrote and helped produce), which we called Bedwetters. While Headwaters (like Steve Irwin’s show) was “family-friendly,” Bedwetters was most certainly not, what with stories about a mobile meth lab, and strip-tease dreams, not to mention the man-eating, sodomizing bears.

Yep, so in the piece about the bear park, tourists are given poking sticks as they enter the facility, to antagonize the downtrodden bears (played with animal authenticity by my friends Roger and John, two firemen). After getting poked repeatedly by tourists, the angry bears bust out of their cages, attack the customers and go on a rampage through the woods. One scene ends with a bear pulling the arm off a tourist and eating it (“Tastes like chicken,” the bear growls), and another ends with both bears dragging a screaming camper into the forest — after they exit stage right we hear the camper sing in a terrified, falsetto voice, “Sweet mystery of life, at last I found you.”

It helps to have the unsettled mind of a 14-year-old to really pull off this high-brow comedy stuff.

Anyway, I’m sure that the perverted comedy bears had little, if anything, to do with the eventual demise of the park. That was PETA’s doing (good job, PETA). Our Late Night bear skits only reflected what most local people already knew – the bear park was a truly wretched place.

But I like to think that, in exploiting the plight of abused bears for cheap laughs, we were somehow striking a blow against animal cruelty, and that somewhere in the ethereal cheap seats, Steve Irwin was watching and smiling as the bears dismembered an abusive tourist, shaking his ghostly head, saying, “crikey that bloke’s gonna need a pressure bandage for sure.”