It’s December, the season is over, and I guess I can put my glove away for a few months.
Our New Hampshire poet, Donald Hall, told Ken Burns, “Baseball … is a place where memory gathers.” I wish I’d said that.
Baseball is the great equalizer. You can talk about it with the man at the dry cleaners, the cab driver, the young immigrant working at the convenience store, your grandchildren. What is it about baseball that fascinates? Maybe it’s because the games last as long as they last, unlike other team sports that have a fixed time limit. Maybe it’s the endlessness of statistics seeking to measure quality and success. Or maybe, for some of us, it’s still a field of dreams we once had.
Larry Tye’s new book, Satchel, tells a lot about baseball that most of us don’t know. It is a biography of the famous pitcher, but it is also a tribute to the old Negro Leagues, where Satchel Paige began pitching in the 1920s. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and go to your nearest bookstore or library. You’ll see what Ken Burns meant when he called baseball “the story of America.”
Baseball books take me back to when I was six or seven and my grandfather sat me down one day and began to explain, “Joey, there are two leagues, the American and the National.” A year or two later Satchel Paige, who by then was somewhere in his 40s, made it to the Cleveland Indians, the oldest big league rookie ever. (My grandfather loved that word, “rookie,” spoken with a Yiddish accent.) Satchel even pitched briefly in the 1948 World Series, the one where the Indians beat my team, the Braves (who skulked out of town a few years later, never to return).
We would leave Claremont early in the morning, my grandfather and I, get lost several times on our way to Boston (a trait I have inherited and passed on to my children), and still arrive at Fenway Park in time for batting practice. “Look, Joey,” my grandfather would say. “There’s Ted Williams.”
While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Kahn, a frequent visitor to the Monadnock region, has been writing about sports for a long time, but his 1972 tribute to the Brooklyn Dodgers is in a class by itself. It’s a book about baseball, yes, but it is much more. It tells the stories, some heartbreaking, of players such as Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo and others who played at the crossroads for baseball, and life, in America – the arrival in 1947 of Jackie Robinson, the first black person to play in the major leagues.
Those athletes are mostly gone now, and while many of today’s players are cut from their mold – New York’s Derek Jeter and Boston’s Dustin Pedroia come to mind – many are not. Performance enhancing drugs have polluted the pastime, with talk of placing asterisks next to record holders such as Barry Bonds. I’m not saying the old-timers were so perfect – Babe Ruth was a serious drinker, and Ty Cobb was, according to most accounts, an awful person. Still, times have changed since my grandfather’s day, and it’s hard to look up to players the way we once did. Paul Simon seems to have anticipated the problem in his memorable lyrics in the movie The Graduate – “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” The last line of the song answers the question, “What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson? Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away.”
Even so, of one thing we can be sure. The snow will melt in the spring, and it will be time to take out the glove. Do they still use neatsfoot oil?