Boys of Summer

Photo by Steven Pisano

In my family, being baseball fans was like being Catholic. It was simply who we were.

For as long as I can remember, we rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals. Well into adulthood, I had no idea why. Neither we nor anyone else in our family had ever lived in St. Louis. But I never questioned our loyalty, just as I would not have questioned our height (tall) or eye color (brown). Those characteristics defined us. Even the special connection I’ve always felt to the actual scarlet birds followed from feeling connected to the team, rather than the other way around.

I grew up with the names of the players a natural part of my language; “Stan the Man” stood for any great, solid guy; “Doing a Bob Gibson” meant whiffing someone in any sport – ping pong or Frisbee included. The force in the blunt names Lou Brock and Curt Flood, the flow in Tim McCarver and Orlando Cepeda (even Tito Francona, a name I came to love later in Boston) still give me pleasure today. I hear my brothers’ exultant voices, too, in response to long-ago radio exploits. They re-enacted double plays they’d only heard from the play-by-play guy.

They knew everybody’s batting averages, on-base percentages and RBIs, and I knew players’ positions and which way they batted and pitched. I collected stories and rumors about my favorites, the way, later, I’d follow adored rock and roll musicians.

Just as I didn’t know how the Cardinals became, as it were, nested in our family, I wasn’t sure why baseball itself figured so prominently. Maybe it was having three boys in the family, all of whom played quite a bit of baseball themselves – with considerable success and a lot of style. But our devotion long predated their stints in Little League. Maybe it began when our parents lived in Boston in the late ’40s, near two major league ball fields. My father had grown up in New England and had always loosely followed the Red Sox. The 1948 season, the almost-subway series, overlapped with their courtship. That year, the Red Sox almost made it to the World Series (losing in the first American League pennant playoff to Cleveland) against the Boston Braves. My parents’ first apartment was in the building below the now-iconic Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, near Fenway Park. But, more likely, baseball mattered because it captured my mother’s romantic sense of summer boys playing a graceful, outdoor game.

I developed a similar sense, though I also remember baseball uniform laundry, which is a lot less romantic. I scrubbed hard with my two fists inside the knees and backsides of my brothers’ Little League uniforms to get that orange-y baseline dirt out. I remember last minute scrambles for socks and gloves, pulled muscles, sprained wrists, and awful losses that should have turned out differently. I remember sitting for endless hours on hard stands, while next to nothing happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I was talking about my family’s fandom, not my brothers’ actual participation in the sport.

Recently, I called my youngest brother Bob, to ask about the Cardinals. Unlike me, he knew why we rooted for them growing up. During our early family years, we had lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Because Tulsa was the location of the St. Louis organization’s AAA team, the Cardinals were the closest thing we had to a big league home team.

When we lived in Tulsa, my parents listened to Cardinals games on the radio, so we did, too. After my father died, though, it was our highly educated, musician mother who developed the greater devotion. She listened to games in the kitchen almost every summer day. The sport began to infuse our worldview with a distinct flavor, providing ready metaphors like being “on deck” and “swinging for the fences.” Looking back now, I imagine that baseball was a sort of stand-in for an adult male presence in the family. If so, she made a pretty good choice: the players appeared to be admirable and strong men, clean-cut and brave. We held our myths close to our hearts, safe from contradictory information, practically sacred.

Following my father’s death, we began to move. Often. The main criterion for a new neighborhood seemed to be its Catholic Church. When we left Oklahoma for Long Island in 1960, we carried not only our Catholicism, but our St. Louis loyalty with us.

Not that New York presented any competition. The Dodgers and the Giants had already departed the city. The Yankees offered individual players to admire—Roger Maris hit 61 homers in 1961, our first full season there—but seemed privileged, fat with a success they’d achieved without our support. Like a religious tenet we all endorsed unquestioningly, in our family we didn’t trust the Bronx Bombers.

Nor did 1962’s embarrassingly bad expansion team, the Mets, seem likely to tempt us away.  Their first year record, 40 – 120, was the worst since Major League Baseball settled on the 162 game schedule. (Two games were cancelled.) Nobody we knew longed to go to games at the Polo Grounds. None of us kids had any interest in the Mets except as the butt of jokes. It wasn’t just their losing; we were as certain of the Mets’ uselessness as we were of the Cardinals’ essential heroism. Such baseball sensibilities had seemed to spring spontaneously (and, we thought, permanently) from deep within us.

Although we kids kept faith in the Cardinals through our frequent, abrupt moves and our mother’s escalating mood swings, a mysterious shift in our mother’s allegiance threatened to throw us. She began to root for the Mets. Before she left for work in the mornings – whether in spectator pumps and carrying a steno pad, or wearing a waitress uniform and white tie-up shoes – she began to leave open the sports page on the kitchen table. Converging at home after school, we’d find inked circles around paragraphs and underlinings in the stats boxes if any Mets player did anything good – rare as that was. But, in the midst of our family’s worsening season, we kids, as a bloc, refused to have anything to do with the Mets. We regarded her change in team loyalty as practically blasphemous. Moreover, her newfound affection seemed out of character: Our mother definitely loved a winner. Only later would we realize she especially liked a come-from-behind winner, someone who proves other people’s expectations wrong.

After many moves on Long Island, each house less stable than the last, my mother threw in the towel on keeping our struggling household going. I was nine when she headed to the proverbial showers and sent us away to an orphanage in upstate New York.

In the Children’s Home, I was separated not only from my mother but from my brothers. I saw my younger brothers at school occasionally. Bobby, the youngest, endeared himself to me (and all the other girls in my grade) by hugging me in the hallways. Over the time we lived in the orphanage, Byron, seventeen months younger than I was, grew almost as tall as I and much bolder, which I found annoying.

The main occasions when I saw my older brother Bill came on Saturdays, when all the Home children were required to participate in Recreation Time. My favorite days were warm ones when the boys played ball out in the back fields. Girls rarely played any sports. Older girls watched boys from the sidelines and tried to get the boys to notice them. At first I was too young for the general boy-watching, but I kept a close eye on Bill as he played, feeling connected then, less lonely. Whether it was kickball or softball or baseball, the boys took their positions in the field and the game unfolded in a recognizable pattern. Seeing my brother move naturally, unencumbered by the heaviness he carried throughout most of our time in the orphanage, calmed me down. The game itself, with its predictable structure, settled me.

My mother wrote us occasional brief notes, addressed to all her children, in age order. After the World Series of 1963, she sent us a note announcing the “highfalutin’ Yankees’ comeuppance.” She wrote that the Dodgers, “late of Brooklyn, with one Sandy Koufax on the mound” had bested them.

The sports pages provided a way to feel connected to her. The local paper carried mostly stories about the Yankees, but we also read shorter reports of Mets games – sometimes involving their National League opponents, the Cardinals. Our commitment to St. Louis remained clear; we felt no loyalty conflict.

But then, during the first full season we lived at the Home, a surprise arrived. Instead of a short note, we received a flat, brown-papered parcel. Inside were separate white envelopes, one labeled for each of us. In the accompanying note, our mother wrote that she had won a hundred-to-one bet on the Mets in a bar near her latest Manhattan apartment. She sent each of us a $5 bill – which to us was a considerable sum – generously sharing her winnings. After her bet, we grudgingly allowed the Mets to become a second-tier team of ours, the hard luck, underdog team, unlikely to win.

Our stay in the Children’s Home stretched across a second winter and into another baseball season. On an early summer day, a picture postcard arrived. Viewed from the sidewalk, the Empire State Building zoomed from shadow into bright sun. On the back, our mother had written that she was leaving New York and heading south.

Over the next weeks, then months, additional postcards came from the New Jersey shore; Dover, Delaware; Annapolis. Her purpose was indecipherable, but we hoped she was looking for a home for us. She proceeded down the Eastern seaboard, skipping Baltimore and Washington because she never liked their baseball teams. It had become a point of some personal resentment for her that the Twins (relocated from DC) were flourishing in Minnesota. None of us can remember what she had against the Orioles. We charted her location, as we waited through most of the next baseball season, through the summer of my first crushes on boys and my first real bra. The mapped line of her travel was crooked and confusing. We couldn’t determine her trajectory.

Finally, when it seemed that she was running out of states, she found us a new house. The picture she sent, a crisp black and white snapshot of a stucco cottage surrounded by strange, large-leafed plants, came from Florida. Her new town, St. Petersburg, held the distinction of hosting spring training for two major league baseball teams: the St Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. It seemed fated. We joined her there, in a climate that allowed baseball to be played year-round. We lived two quick blocks from the field where the Mets trained.

My brothers all played baseball for years; I became a scorekeeper for the town recreation department. Diagramming plays appealed to my sense of orderliness and my affection for capturing a story in symbols. As a scorekeeper, I could watch as much baseball as I wanted. Between plays, my primary focus on my brothers made way for growing interest in other baseball-playing boys. Nonetheless, I continued to follow my brothers as they won Little League titles.

Even our reluctantly-chosen team went on to become winners. Known as the “Miracle Mets,” they won the 1969 World Series.

During our twenties, Bill traveled around the country playing semi-professional softball. One summer weekend, I showed up in Parma, Ohio, for the men’s National Slow Pitch Softball Tournament. I surprised Bill at a bright green baseball field. As I approached, he leaned on a waist-high wire fence wearing his uniform of baggy trousers and three-quarter-length sleeves. He stood up in the late afternoon summer light, the kind that lingers so you don’t believe the day will ever end, and hugged me tighter than he ever has, both of us laughing. I watched him play, drank a lot of beer, and yelled myself hoarse. His team, Nelson Painting, became national champs. Bill hit eleven home runs in that tournament.

Since then we’ve all changed our patterns. We lost Byron to an illness related to the one that killed our father young. Our mother died, too, still residing in St. Petersburg. Now, well into our middle years, Bill, Bob, and I are close. Despite living considerable distances from each other, we get together when we can. I often write about the lifestyle predilections the three of us share. We are all drawn to any body of water, for example, and usually feel compelled to submerge ourselves in it. We are avid composters. We embrace Buddhist practices. And we often watch baseball.

Bob and I root for both our own respective home teams (Boston for me, Tampa Bay for him) and each other’s. It’s good to have a second choice in the same league, because no team can win all their games and no team can play against the Yankees all the time. We used to talk on the phone while watching our teams play each other. Now we text, which is less annoying to our families. We still keep an occasional eye on the Cardinals. First loves and myths fade slowly.

I, who never played baseball—who, being a girl, never considered playing—still tear up when I catch a first glimpse of the emerald grass at Fenway Park. Recently, Bill visited and we attended a Red Sox game, the first time he’d been to the park since our grandfather took him as a little boy and he saw Ted Williams hit a home run. We both sniffled our way through an inning or so, before posting Facebook pictures of the two of us with Fenway signs in the background.

Baseball didn’t give our lives all the structure or truth we needed as children. But the game provided a particular sensibility and a source of connection with our mother and among us. Baseball taught us about patience and rules and grace in the face of disappointment. The game remains our shared history, a pattern of wins and losses – like the ones my family encountered, like the rhythm of spring coming, reliably rich with possibility, and summer inevitably fading. Like the next season arriving again.

 
 
 

Photo: “Baseball – SBBL Cardinals v. SFX Copperheads” by Steven Pisano; licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 COMMENT

  1. Molly, What a beautiful essay! I, too, was profoundly affected by this game, although not professional teams. My father was MVP of his high school baseball team and would have loved to play pro ball. I grew up at the softball park, watching him play. Many of my happiest childhood memories are about those times – tossing balls to help him warm up, cheering from the bleachers, bursting with pride when he was awarde Golden Glove for best infielder at a tournament. (He played shortstop.) I wanted more than anything else to play, and he wanted that, too – but my mother forbade it. It was a horrible confrontation that day, that I will never forget. I lost him to cancer 12 years ago. Each baseball season is a sweet reminder of special times together…

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