Walking Ringo the dog this morning on the South Common, I think baseball came into my head because the sky was bright and sun promising on a day that feels like the start of summer. I had been looking at vintage baseball cards online earlier. I don’t buy cards online, but I like to look at the real “holy pictures” of my youth. As in countless other households, there was a fateful day in the past when a couple of shoe boxes filled with small cardboard treasures were tossed in the trash. One of the baseball players that came to mind today is Ted Williams. Maybe because it is Memorial Day, I was remembering the special 1959 Fleer brand Ted Williams card set that included at least one image of him as a pilot: he flew combat missions in Korea for the US Marines. These days, not many professional athletes serve in the military. It’s a rarity to find a volunteer in the NFL, NBA, NHL or in Major League Baseball. Ted Williams was in my brother David’s era, who is five years older than me. I caught the end of Williams’ years with the Red Sox as a little kid, but the Sox didn’t really come into focus for me until Carl Yastrzemski replaced Ted in left field at Fenway. The first year I collected baseball cards seriously was 1964; my brother David had cards going back to the late ’50s. He had nearly all the cards in the special Ted Williams set of 1959. We never had the card shown here. What a beauty. Nobody had the card. It didn’t exist. This is a fantasy card made by a guy named Uncle Doc in San Diego (uncledocscardcloset.com). He’s a high-end collector and has a sideline of making cards that never were. While Topps was the standard for baseball cards during the ’50s and ’60s, you won’t find a Ted Williams card from 1959. Doc speculates that Williams signed an exclusive deal with Fleer for the special Ted cards, which blocked Topps from having him in the annual set.
When I was growing up, the traditional Memorial Day backyard barbecue at the home of my Brady cousins in Centralville would often include a sprawling baseball game with fathers, sons, and a few daughters picking up teams across the street at Hovey Park on Aiken Avenue, behind Ouellette’s Funeral Home. The infield was measured for little league games or softball with the pitcher’s mound closer than on a regulation baseball diamond, as I recall. Many years later, I played on a couple of men’s softball teams that used the field, but the game was always baseball when we were kids. My cousins Tommy and Danny and I would spend whole afternoons playing home run derby, taking turns at bat and playing outfield—hitting the ball out of our hands as we tried to smack the ball over the head of the fielder and into the tall grass beyond right field (the center field wall was about 500 feet away, and left field merged into the right field of the second ball field at the other end of the park). Right field was the only chance for what looked like a home run. I must have caught thousands of fly balls in that park over the years. We didn’t think of it as practice. We were having fun. But that kind of repetition is the only way that catching becomes second nature. At some point you just know the ball is going to go into your glove. You don’t have time to measure angles or inches. You stick your glove up, and the ball goes in. Your eyes track the ball, and your body flows to the flight of the baseball. It’s an amazing thing when ball and glove connect.
One of my best memories of hitting a baseball was a day when I was high-school age and living in Dracut. It must have been a summer day. I had walked up Janice Avenue, which ran alongside the house I grew up in, with about six kids from the neighborhood, headed for one of the farm fields at the top of Janice (on maps the area is called Winter Hill, and house contractors called the area Crosby Heights for Crosby Road that ran parallel to Janice, connected by three cross streets). When we got to the field, over a rock wall behind the back yard of a house on Gloria Ave., one of the kids said, “I’ll pitch to you, and we’ll have fielding practice today.” The field was a meadow on which we had worn base paths and put pieces of plastic or squashed boxes for bases and home plate. For the next hour I stood at the plate and pounded fly balls and line drives to left, right, and center. The fielders ran around like crazy, making routine and spectacular catches, diving to stop balls from going into the woods, pulling in high flies, and throwing the balls back in to the pitcher. I felt like I had won the lottery, getting to swing and hit until my arms ached. To someone who has not played baseball, it’s difficult to explain the physical satisfaction felt in driving a baseball hundreds of feet in the air. The channeled power of a clean hit, particularly off a wooden bat, gives the batter a good feeling that lights up bone and muscle. A football and basketball leave your hand in the motion of trying to score. Batting is more like kicking a football or soccer ball or slapping a hockey puck. The contact travels through your nervous system. When it goes right, you feel a physical alignment from the brain on down.
Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Joseph Albert “Skippy” Roberge of Lowell, who played several years for the Boston Braves. He also played for several minor league clubs, including Toronto (see below).
Another twist on the Kerouac thing. Read about this designer, Gary Joseph Cieradkowski, and what he writes about Kerouac and baseball.
Watching a bit of the ballgame tonight. The Cards are facing elimination, but are leading the Phils 3 to 2 about mid-way through the game. Reminds me of watching the Game of the Week on one of the three big TV networks when I was young. It was the only time, other than the All Star Game and World Series, to see the National League players who were on baseball cards. One game sticks in my mind. It was a Saturday when I was about 12, I guess, and I was with my two Brady cousins who were a year younger and older than me. We were a trio in those days. My uncle had driven us to a “camp” on a pond in Westford that was owned by a friend of his. The weather was damp, so we were inside watching baseball.
The game could have been the Cubs and Giants or the Pirates and Dodgers. I think it was the Cubs because I can see the classic brick and ivy of Wrigley Field in my mind’s hard drive. Maybe the Cubs and Pirates—I vaguely recall Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks were in this game. We rarely saw those guys in action. My recollection is that we were there a long time and saw most of the game. Nobody was in a rush to go. My uncle must have been talking with his friend. They may have been on the dock fishing. My cousins and I were heavy-duty baseball fans at the time. I don’t know why that afternoon of all afternoons has stayed with me. Maybe it was the unusual waterfront cottage or being a visitor in a new place—or simply the unhurried feeling of having all the time in the world when you are 12 years old. And there was something slightly exotic about watching a National League game in Red Sox country.
That afternoon came back to me tonight while watching the Cardinals and Phillies scrapping for a win. The Cardinals’ home uniforms with the two bright birds on the golden bat across their white shirt fronts are one of the most appealing designs in the majors. And the Phillies with that longstanding P on their caps are the latest in a line that gave us Johnny Callison, Fergie Jenkins, and Cookie Rojas.
The moment was immortalized by young John Updike writing for the New Yorker. His piece was titled “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” Read the Updike article here from baseball-almanac.com.
You have to like Red Sox fans. Yesterday’s game against the Mariners was Maine Day at Fenway. New England state days are a ballpark tradition. The weather cleared as the game began. You have to like Red Sox fans. Team veteran Tim Wakefield got nicked for a couple of runs in the first inning, but soon settled down. The Sox piled up five runs in the bottom of the first, and it was looking like it would be a lot of fun at the game. In the top of the sixth inning, Wakefield struck out Mike Carp to end the inning. The scoreboard flashed the news that it was Wake’s 2,000th strikeout for the Red Sox. Only Roger Clemens has more K’s in Boston history. The crowd erupted and gave Wakefield a long standing ovation, calling him out of the dugout for a bow. Six innings. 11 to 3 in favor of the Sox. I figured the manager would give his starting pitcher the rest of the afternoon off. No. Old Tim came out to the mound for the seventh and got knocked around for a bunch of hits, including a grand slam homer that seemed to leave the park in slow-motion. Now it was time to go. Terry Francona walked to the mound to make the change. With his first step to the dugout, Wake set off another standing ovation, as if all the bottled up gratitude for his year-in, year-out work for the Red Sox got uncorked in that moment. You have to like Red Sox fans. Give up a granny—get a standing O. It helps when you are still up by three runs.
I hadn’t been to a Red Sox game in a while. In recent years I’ve seen the Spinners play in the Fenway Futures game and witnessed the Paul McCartney concerts, but it’s been several years since I’ve taken in a Sox game in the 99-year-old ballpark. My son and I had excellent seats that we picked up in a benefit auction at the American Textile History Museum last fall. We were in the red boxes, Sec. 17, Box 124, Row MM, between the batter’s box and on-deck circle. Fenway is a living museum. Jim Lonborg was in the house and saluted on the jumbo-screen. Looking down at third base, I could see the ghosts of Malzone, Foy, Petro, Lansford, Hobson, Mueller, Boggs, Lowell, even Wilton Veras who came up with the Spinners. I could see that miserable pop-up of Yaz’s in the playoff game against New York. I had a straight shot view of Fisk’s foul tower in left. I enjoyed the modern-day World Series banners. But it is largely the same shape and size as the place I visited as a kid. It’s a Boston time-machine.
You have to like Red Sox fans. In one of the middle innings, David Ortiz took a rip and his bat exploded. The barrel ended up in the boxes near the on-deck circle. Ushers rushed to the scene to be sure nobody was hurt, and tried to retrieve the shattered bat. On cue, the fans nearby started chanting, “Let her/Keep it, Let her/Keep it”—and the ushers gave in. You have to like Red Sox fans.
The former manager and player passed away last week. Here are a couple of baseball card memories of Dick Williams. The first is a Topps baseball card from 1964, and the other is his manager card from the Impossible Dream year of 1967, also a Topps card.
The great Minnesota Twins teams of the mid-1960′s were favorites of mine as epic opponents of the Red Sox. Tony Oliva, Jim “Mudcat” Grant, Earl Battey, Camilo Pascual, Bob Allison, Don Mincher, Zoilo Versalles, Jim Kaat, Cesar Tovar, Ted Uhlaender, Jim Perry, Rich Rollins, and the rest. Rod Carew joined this crew in 1967.
Harmon Killebrew was like a battleship in the middle of the line-up, always ready to pound the opposing pitchers. To my kid’s ear, his name reminded me of Killer Kowalski, the hulking professional wrestler. I saw him hit a lot of home runs on TV.
In the hey-day of the Twins of this era, my father took me to a Red Sox-Twins Sunday double-header at Fenway Park. I was about 12 years old. The game was sold out, so we had standing-room tickets. We stayed for both games, standing in the rear of the homeplate grandstand. Late in the second game, we finally got seats. I remember the experience as pure baseball joy.