Friday, February 11, 2005

Emaculate Fields

The ball field is emaculate but empty. The contrast of the dirt infield and well-tempered green grass forming the diamond call out: The echoes of memories collected after two American centuries. You can drive by the little league ballpark and only rarely see a father and son playing catch. Nor are there games of pickup, easy and disorganized diversions where you just pick sides and play. Soon, little league teams will play there. Soon, the annual rite of spring will be renewed. But for some reason, for the local children, the game needs a jump start. Instead of the pastime being as spontaneous as stickball in the street, it's an organized thing: An adult system imposed on childhood. There are kids aplenty, and games for them on every level--Little League, Bobby Sox, Pony League, Babe Ruth, American Legion, high school...but where do kids just go out and play? The ball field is empty. Absolutely perfect. It's a
sunny, spring training kinda day. The national pastime's light is on. There is nobody home.
The sad state of the major leagues have something to do with this ebb in the continuum. "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and reality of the game," wrote cultural historian Jacques Barzun in his 1954 book of essays, God's Country and Mine. Sure, in '54, the game was on a roll. In '54, major league baseball was in the full glory of the golden age of Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Ebbets Field was still standing. The collective soul of Brooklyn was still intact. That year, Willie Mays made his famous "catch" in the World Series, and the Cleveland Indians were a contender. The Indians were expected to go to the World Series.
Oh how things have changed. Two years ago, Barzun, an 85-year-old professor emeritus at Columbia University, talked like a man betrayed. "I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore," he said, taking it all back. "I just see the headlines and turn my ahead away in shame from what we have done with our most interesting game and best, healthiest pastime."
It's doubtful, however, the average 10-year-old really cares if the game is abandoning its sense of tradition. The average 10-year-old is much more concerned with Nintendo, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and whether Shaquille O'Neal can make the transition from the basketball court to the rappin' MTV video. Meanwhile, their parents are wondering how they are going to transport their sons and daughters to all of the soccer games, basketball shoot-outs and judo jousts. Baseball is just another stop for the carpool.
Kids haven't changed, but the competition for their attention span certainly has.
Which is a shame. Baseball began as a boy's game in the country fields of 19th-century America. If the game has continued to reside anywhere, it's been in the heart of the child, both young and old. At no time of the year does the heart of the child call out more than in the spring. That's when children drag out their dusty bags of bats, tattered balls and gloves flattened like pancakes from months of disuse. You can search through relics from days gone by, and in the green cathedrals of America, to hear echoes of that fading heartbeat.
On the cover of March 1928 issue of American Boy magazine, there's a picture of a boy in knickers and stirrup socks renewing the ritual. He's apparently just searched through his closet and found his old uniform. It's spring time. Holding the jersey up to the light, he's noticed some surprising holes in his cherished outfit. "Moths!," exclaims the type. At the bottom of the page, a teaser for what's inside: "Miller Huggins Discusses His New York Yankees."
One can just imagine the excitement of a 1920s boy at the receipt of this issue. This was just one year after the fabled 1927 Yankees of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Yet, as famous as they were, such heroes were hardly the victim of overexposure. Or, for that matter, a cynical populace. For the standard kid in the Midwest, news of baseball was devoured like chocolate. Radio broadcasts were rare. Small town newspaper coverage was sporadic. And here it was, Miller Huggins, manager of the Yankees, talking about what it's like to breathe the same air as the Babe! One can just feel the hero-worshipping heart of the child at the very fevered peak of baseball in the 20th century.
And if that child could ever see the mighty Babe swing and play, well, that would be an indelible memory lasting long into childhood. Indeed, our childhood memories can resonate for a lifetime. They can be stronger than the game we saw just the other day. Which is why old baseball relics get saved to begin with: to keep those memories alive.
Move the clock forward to 1948: Ron Harner is six years old. His family, which lives in a small town in the coal mining region of central Pennsylvania, doesn't have much money. His father is good enough to play pro ball, but has to stay home to work in the mines and support his family. Any luxuries are rare. So it's a special event when Harner goes, with his mom and dad, to see the Philadelphia A's play the Chicago White Sox at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.
The A's! In person! Connie Mack! In person! Harner is ecstatic. But it gets better--in the form of a ticket stub: the picked-out-of-a-hat winner in a promotion held during the game. "I was six years old and ended up with a ticket stub that won a pair of free tickets and also an authentic A's jacket," the 51-year-old Harner said today.
The Harners go home and wait. Then, on August 9, 1948, a thunderstruck 6-year-old boy in Valley View, Pennsylvania receives the following message typed on official letterhead from the "American Base Ball Club of Philadelphia":
My dear young friend:
I know that you have been waiting patiently for the Athletics jacket which you won at the game with the White Sox on July 18th. I have just been informed that they will soon be ready.
I would like you to be my guest with one of your parents at the game between the A's and the St. Louis Browns at Shibe Park, Saturday, August 28th at which time it will be my pleasure to present this jacket to you ...
Looking forward to seeing you at the game, I am
Sincerely yours,
Connie Mack
There is no signature, and therefore no real way to know if Connie Mack wrote the letter. But Mack's hand was real when Harner shook it in the A's dugout 45 years ago. He still has that jacket, the letter and his memories of his mom, his dad, and the man whose career in baseball spans back to more than a century ago.
"I remember," Harner says, "an old man saying to me when I had the winning ticket for the prize, `Son, you just won a prize from the greatest manager in baseball.' "
Everyday he can look at that jacket and ride the only feasible time machine we'll ever have: the one inside our heads.
"Baseball always reverts back to childhood," said artist Andy Jurinko, another person whose memories of Shibe Park in the 1950s have powerful--and relevant--lifetime resonances.
Jurinko, 55, saw his first baseball game at Shibe in Philadelphia when he was a teenager. In those days, he spent industrious hours making full-color diagrams of every major league ballpark. The drawings were for a dice baseball game he'd invented.
Eventually, he put childish things away. He went to Kutztown State College in Pennsylvania on a football scholarship, joined the Army, then art school, then spent years as an acid-dropping hippie artist in San Francisco in the '60s and '70s. His life was a metaphor for a changing America. His early work focused on pop culture and the street scenes of the era, topless go-go dancers, Hell's Angels, portraits of Jayne Mansfield holding a Chihuahua. Later, realizing his sense for gritty realism didn't quite fit in with flower power, he retreated east, trying to find a niche in corporate America.
Then, in the late '70s, he told a friend about his baseball dice game. Jurinko recreated the game, doing tempura paintings of old major league ballparks for the backdrop, and started playing diceball with his buddy for hours at time. He realized: This childhood obsession could be an adult one, too.
By 1986, he'd sold his first ballpark painting: A black-and-white aerial of Ebbets Field and a Polo Grounds oil, the latter going for $11,000. He was onto something. Next thing he knew, a Fenway Park piece sold for $25,000. There was money in memories. Now Jurinko is one of many who are making a living on fashioning his memories to reach a nostalgic baseball public.
Jurinko's work plugs into the way an old ballpark can conjure memories of youth. Even the most tinkertoy ballpark or ragged field can produce a cathartic flood of emotion.
Such was the case for myself when I visited old Arlington Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which has since been replaced by the grand, neo-classic Ballpark at Arlington.
It was a few months before Arlington Stadium was torn down. I was let inside the ruin by an old African-American dressed in a guard's uniform with a Texas Rangers' insignia. He patroled the sun-punished remains of the ballpark as if games were still going on every night. He was a lesson in denial. His job was to refuse to let dreams die. He made the rounds, regularly checked the cluttered ramps, strolling through the red seat-backs strewn like a pile of autumn leaves.
The ballfield's infield was buried in a Kilamanjaro of scooped-out Texas peat. Windows in the luxury boxes were broken in spidderwebby patterns, and inside, knotted telephone lines were stunned into silence. I walked through all of this and got this spooky feeling. It made me feel like I was in the movie, The Poseidon Adventure, which was about a cruise ship that had been overturned by a tidal wave. The gutted luxury boxes were desolate except for cracked wall mirrors, and I wondered if this meant seven more years of second place for the Texas Rangers.
Because the Rangers were my team, ever since we lived in Dallas in the early '70s. But we left in 1972, and I didn't get to see very much ball played in this stadium as a boy. Perhaps, for that reason, the sight of that eight-ton scoreboard lyng dead filled me with an overpowering sense of loss. Across the way, I could see the new stadium. It represented new dreams for all of the youths who talk their dads into buying them red caps and inflatable bats and baseball cards of Jose Canseco, Will Clark and Juan Gonzalez.
Yet, looking at the shards of seats littering old Arlington, like so many bodies after a battle, I saw my childhood denied. I broke down in tears, thinking about something I hadn't thought of for a long time: Dick Billings' wrist bands. Billings, catcher for the Rangers in '72, was my hero, mostly because of the wristbands he wore. Those red, white and blue wrist bands were the definition on machismo for this 11-year-old boy. Anyway, there I was, 34-year-old, crying like a baby. Just letting go. Then, I decided to take something of value, important to me perhaps, but nobody else. I gathered one of the red plastic seats, an old program, a blue plastic sliver off a refreshment stand that said, "Nachos."
I reclaimed my youth. And my hero, Dick Billings.
Later that day, I went to see the Rangers play the Oakland A's at the new ballpark. That night, we watched in the press box as O.J. Simpson played out his tragi-comic drama in his Ford Bronco on an L.A. Freeway. A few minutes before, I'd caught Will Clark and Jose Canseco in the hall leading to the dugout. They were ducking "The National Anthem." Canseco wheedled in an irreverent Tweedy Bird voice as Clark winked, "Can you imagine hearing that song one-hundred and sixty-two times a year and for twenty five or so spring training games?"
Yes, the modern sports hero has changed. So it's easy to understand how the intensity of a young's persons gaze is at a considerably lesser beam. But perhaps we always had to drag our kids to the ballpark. Maybe they always needed prodding to understand the game's nuances, its beauty and history. Tradition is taught, not inherited. Father and sons play catch, at first with some tentativeness, and then with gathering speed. Adults look at their old four-fingered gloves, autographs and souvenirs and remember. It's not that we are so enamored of the game as children. It's that the seeds we planted so long ago have a way of growing on you. The continuum is funny that way.


At 8:32 PM, Blogger Ron Harner said...

It was very interesting to read this because my name is Ron Harner and my father was born in Valley View, PA.

Can you fill me in on the details of this interesting coincidence?



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