The clocks have sprung forward and spring is in the air. Birds are chirping with new vigor and flowers are beginning to perk up in gardens all over town. Our ‘hood is being reborn. But, for me, spring brings memories of my father and our shared love of baseball. He was a catcher who loved playing the game and I got to see him play often for his company and our church teams before he died on March 16th many years ago.
Now, as lilacs bloom on vines all over our town, I hear the crack of a bat resounding in the air.
Soon there will be no more empty neighborhood diamonds as Little Leaguers will be swinging their bats and running around the bases, their parents cheering them on. Show biz leagues will be taking to the fields, along with school and corporate teams, and “pick-up” softball games will be popping up in our parks. Summer will be only “moments” away.
Baseball is a mystical and magical game. Sportswriters rise to eloquent, life-metaphor-ing heights when they write about the game and its fields of dreams. Norman Rockwell showed us that nothing’s more American than playing catch with dad…
For me baseball is America and, as I power walk around the Beeman and Hazeltine Park tracks encircling some of our ‘hood’s empty baseball fields, my heart races in anticipation of these diamonds coming back to life, and my mind is flooded with baseball memories which, for me, encompass women’s fight for equality as well as other life lessons.
Say what? you say. A little background:
I came out of the womb thinking women were smarter than men. I had good reason. There I was, ready to be born, when a male intern instructed my mother to cross her legs until he found her male obstetrician. The result was an out-of-body experience for her and a difficult breech birth for me. I remember it like, well, the day I was born. Well, not really, my mother told me, but still…
So, you’d think that’s where I got my feminist streak? Well, even I don’t hold a grudge that long! Ever pragmatic, I chalked it up as one of life’s unsolved mysteries, until the night I was jolted awake by an epiphany – baseball!
In the dark I stared at the ceiling as an announcer’s voice echoed in my ears. “Sixth inning. 2-0 Brooklyn… Berra waits for Podres’ next pitch … CRACK … it’s a long, high fly ball to left … it’s going, going…. NO! NO! He caught it! Sandy Amoros just made the catch of a lifetime! What a heartbreak for the Yankees! What a glorious day for the Dodgers!”
That was THE most thrilling play in THE most thrilling World Series in the history of humankind. Well, if you’re a Brooklyn fan, it was.
Childhood memories flashed on my bedroom ceiling like a home movie. There I was, a little girl from Queens running home from school, my mother yelling out of a second story window of our red brick house, “Brooklyn won!” When my father came home from the game, we danced up and down our tree-lined block, my baby brother waving his Dodger pennant. There was joy in Mudville, as my father’s heroes became mine: Robinson, Reese, Snider, Campanella, Hodges…
The following spring, joy deserted Mudville when I raced into my father’s arms crying. “They” wouldn’t let me try out for Little League just because I was a girl! I begged him to change the rules. A liberated man for that era, he told me things would change and I could be or do anything I wanted… someday. I didn’t want to know from “someday,” and as he watched the innocence fade from my eyes, replaced with the gestating look of a feminist, he held me closer and said, “Promise me you will always love baseball.”
I did promise, and then the unthinkable happened.
One night sitting at the dinner table listening to my Brooklyn-Finnish grandparents and father loudly debate politics (a “Finnish” tradition in our house), I blurted out…“They can’t trade Jackie Robinson!” Silence. I turned to my father hoping he could fix it, but one look told me he couldn’t. With my jaw set stubbornly I announced, “Men are so stupid!”
That belief was hardened like a bad artery when things went from the “unthinkable” to the completely unfathomable the morning my heartbroken father read me the day’s headline: “Bums Exit Brooklyn.” Are you kidding me?!? Leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles?!? I hated Branch Rickey for breaking my father’s heart (and mine). To comfort him, I solemnly vowed I’d never root for the Yankees.
It suddenly dawned on me that throughout my young life, I’d always had one man who understood, who kept a balance between disappointment and hope… even if he couldn’t fix everything. But I couldn’t hold on to that memory just as I couldn’t hold onto my father forever. Soon after the Dodgers left Brooklyn, my 41 year old father died, forever linking those two events.
I stood very still, dressed in my best “church” clothes, my braids peeking out of my hand-knit bonnet. My mother, wearing her black “dress” coat, held my hand. My brother, in his winter Sunday school suit, held her other hand. My grandparents, bundled up in overcoats, sat on bridge chairs. It was mid-March and the many bright floral arrangements stood in defiance against the bleak, half-frozen gravesite. My brother left my mother’s side and placed his tiny hands squarely on the coffin.
“Don’t worry daddy,” he whispered “we’ll never root for the Yankees.” (Finns are myopic people… probably because they come from too little sunshine and too much vodka, or maybe it’s just genetic.)
Without the Dodgers and without my father, April – October… hell, life! would never be the same. I took up tennis.
Years later when I met my writing partner, baseball re-entered my life. He was wearing a Yankee cap. I instantly became a devoted Met fan. Despite the fact that he was a fanatic Yankee fan, we became partners, even got married and, like the Dodgers, deserted New York and moved to L.A. Nobody’s perfect.
That first summer in L.A. when the Mets came west, I found myself, the girl from Queens, sitting in Dodger Stadium talking to a Giants fan from the Bronx. He dared me: You wanna meet Roy Campanella or not? Never able to refuse a challenge from a man, I agreed. At the VIP level he turned on his Bronx charm and persuaded the security guard to let me through the cyclone fence.
As the gate closed behind me, he yelled, “Say, hey.”
As I walked toward the owner’s section wondering if I’d been punked, I saw him - looking frail, but beautiful. Roy Campanella! My favorite catcher of all time, after my dad. As he approached me in his wheelchair, I struggled to keep back the tears, remembering how devastated my father was after Campy’s career-ending accident. Campy noticed a pin on my jacket. “See you’re a Yankee fan,” he said.
Horrified, I looked down and smiled. I had thrown on my husband’s jacket. “Never!” I told him and then showed him my vintage Brooklyn Dodger pin fastened securely to my tee shirt.
“Ah, so you’re really a Dodger fan,” he continued.
I shook my head, no, “You broke my heart when you left Brooklyn.”
He nodded and asked, “But you still love baseball?”
I smiled again, as it struck me for the first time in years that I kept my promise… I’ve always loved baseball and always will.
Now that Campy is gone, I treasure the fact that I got to tell him that, and maybe he got to mention it to my dad. I felt happy. At one with the world. Safe with the memories of my father, who taught me so many things in those few timeless summers.
Of course, I still believe women are smarter than men - Gil Hodges is still not in the Hall of Fame! But things are changing. Girls can play in Little League and women are getting more respect. My father knew they would… (He would have loved Hillary Rodham Clinton, three names and all)… And, at that moment, I realized why baseball made me a feminist. Baseball introduced me to the inequities of the sexes, to prejudice, injustice and heartbreak. Life. How can you not love a game that did all that?
But I’ll still never root for the Yankees.