Monthly archives: March 2007
The Hall of Anonymity: An Introduction and First Nomination
October 1, 1976: Purchased by the Seattle Mariners from the Baltimore Orioles.
In other words, Dave Johnson was the first Seattle Mariner.
Or he would have been.
He would have had this claim to historical significance if he hadn’t found a fate similar to Broberg and Bevacqua. All three of these Cardboard Gods ended up never actually wearing a Seattle Mariner uniform in an official major league game. Bevacqua was released in March, Broberg was traded for a player to be named later in April, and Dave Johnson was sold in May before ever cracking a Seattle Mariner box score. He pitched a few games for the Twins that year, posed for this picture, went 0 and 2 in 1978, and was released at the end of the year, his major league won-loss record fixed forever after at 4 wins and 10 losses.
Yesterday I started copying comments attached to the older Cardboard God profiles that originated on my old site and pasting them as a block into one comment on each of the identical versions of those profiles here at Baseball Toaster. I wanted to do this because the old profiles felt bare to me without the memories and observations supplied by readers in the comments. I haven’t really gotten very far yet (still not on Baseball Toaster, for example, is the moving Seattle Pilots elegy posted by Ramblin’ Pete Millerman in a comment attached to a Gorman Thomas profile), but, working backward, I was able to at least reach a February 19 post about Alex Johnson. My claim that Johnson stands as one of the more anonymous of all batting champions and my imagining him now (because of his inability to stay in one place long enough to form a bond with fans of any particular team) as an unclaimed item in the baggage claim carousel of baseball nostalgia, prompted a whisper of mild disagreement in the comments over whether or not Alex Johnson was, in fact, anonymous. This innocuous debate ended up making me giddy with pleasure even as it was petering out from lack of momentum and interest. I gushed my appreciation:
Dave Johnson broke in with the Baltimore Orioles in 1974, a couple years after the departure from the Orioles of Davey Johnson, a three-time all-star. In 1990, a little over a decade after Dave Johnson's soundless exit from baseball, a pitcher named Dave Johnson led the Orioles in victories with the modest sum of 13, the highlight of a brief and generally unremarkable career.
In other words, when the name Dave Johnson is mentioned in the context of baseball, it seems likely to draw three responses:
2. You mean Davey Johnson?
3. You don't mean Davey Johnson? Oh. Hm. Let's see. Dave Johnson. Dave Johnson. Did he pitch for the Orioles for a couple years in the early '90s, maybe? Or am I thinking of Jeff Ballard?
In other words, the Dave Johnson pictured here is by virtue of his generic moniker and short, highlight-bereft tenure in the majors obscured on both sides of history by two other players with nearly identical given names.
"Boy," you'll say, "I thought I knew baseball, but I never heard of this guy!"
"Oh, well, I might as well tell you," the attendent will say. "I never much cared for baseball."
"Oh," you'll say.
"My wife, Etty," the attendent will go on. "Why, she said once to me . . . rest her soul . . . she said . . . "
And he won't be able to finish, overcome with thoughts of his deceased wife. He'll weep quietly into his hands. You'll leave a few minutes later, grabbing one of the cheaply-made Hall of Anonymity brochures for a souvenir on your hurried way out, mumbling "thanks" to the devastated attendent, who by now has resumed displaying his desperate smile. Later you will eat a Twix bar from a candy machine you come upon while trying to find the building's exit. It will take you a long time to find a gap in the traffic on the four-lane road suitable for you to cross over to catch the bus going back in the direction you came. While waiting for that gap, wondering if it will ever come, your stomach will start to hurt.
Or at least until a daydreaming night janitor inadvertently bumps against the plaque and shakes the Etch-A-Sketch screen blank, thus releasing Dave Johnson from the paradoxical celebration of anonymity and back to the pure anonymity from whence he came.
Kurt Bevacqua (Continued)
Prayer for Expansion, Part 2
Kurt Bevacqua seems in this 1977 Seattle Mariners card as if he has been wandering around with mounting confusion on the same blurry, ethereal plain seen in the background of Pete Broberg’s 1977 Seattle Mariners card.
It makes me wonder about the birth of the Seattle Mariners, who had yet to play a game at the time the two cards came out. Maybe the beginning of that franchise was not a series of bargain-bin purchases and expansion draft signings but instead a kind of ambiguous baseball afterlife. Maybe what we’re seeing in the 1977 cards of Kurt Bevacqua and Pete Broberg are not fake Elysian Fields created by the rushed doctoring job of a Topps artist, but instead some kind of miraculous photograph of the netherworld where baseball journeymen go when they pass beyond the veil separating the Big Leagues from the Great Beyond.
The statistics on the backs of both Kurt Bevacqua’s and Pete Broberg’s cards seem to support this idea. In the 1976 season, both of them struggled for playing time on a last-place Milwaukee Brewers club. Broberg went 1 and 7 with a 4.99 ERA, and Bevacqua hit .143 in 7—yes, 7—at bats. Both were in their late 20s, no longer able to be identified as prospects. As he rode the pine and watched his teammates rack up 95 losses, it must have at some point occurred to Bevacqua (if not to Broberg, who, judging from the photo in his '77 card, seems capable of blithely ignoring any and all negative portents) that he may not be long for the world he’d come to know. I imagine Kurt Bevacqua thinking to himself, If I can’t cut it in Milwaukee, where the hell else can I possibly go? I imagine a feeling of doom beginning to infiltrate the ever-wider spaces between at bats. I imagine a hazy feeling beginning to prevail, things that once seemed inarguably solid starting to become incorporeal.
“What pitch he get you with, Bevacqua?”
I imagine a teammate asking this. Bevacqua has just gotten a rare at-bat, and it has ended in a strikeout.
“My bat,” Bevacqua replies in a near-whisper, but he swallows the rest of his thought. He understands it’s too strange:
My bat is turning to fog.
“Your bat,” says the teammate. “What about your bat?”
But before Bevacqua can answer, the world he has known dissolves altogether. No more teammates, no more dugout, no more fans, no more game.
He is wandering around the blurry, ethereal expanse captured in this card.
It looks a little like the lifeless, bulldozed plain of a landfill. It also looks a little like a dormant spring training complex stripped of its baseball accessories. No batting cages, no pitching machines, no stands, no bases.
No players. There’s no one else around.
Kurt Bevacqua gradually becomes aware as he wanders that he is still wearing a baseball uniform, but it’s not the same one he’d been wearing before, and in fact is unlike any uniform he has ever worn or even seen. There is an M on his cap, just as there had been on his last cap, but it clearly does not stand for Milwaukee. In fact, the M seems to be in the shape of a pitchfork, an alarming realization considering the connotations of pitchfork iconography in afterlife scenarios.
“Oh no,” Bevacqua mutters aloud.
But the physical conditions don’t seem particularly infernal. He’d rather not be alone, and he’d rather everything not be kind of blurry, but he’s not being burned alive, or flayed, or mangled. In fact, the climate is preternaturally mild, as if the blue above his head is not the sky but the painted ceiling of a brand new air-conditioned dome.
“Could be worse, I guess,” Bevacqua murmurs, and he even relaxes a little and entertains the hope that the blurriness of the landscape is merely the world of his wildest dreams slowly coming into focus. Maybe it’s like one of those newfangled Polaroid instant camera pictures, he thinks. Blurry at first but then as you look at it everything slowly, magically appears.
But at the moment he thinks this, a figure emerges from the murky horizon, walking toward Bevacqua. He’s another man in a baseball uniform. As this figure draws nearer, Bevacqua understands that he is wearing a uniform similar but not identical to his own. Then he realizes that he recognizes the man in the uniform. His heart sinks. No way this is paradise. Bevacqua’s expression becomes like the one seen in his 1977 card: Confusion feeding into something verging on anger.
“Broberg,” he says, pained. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Hey, man, I know you,” Pete Broberg coos with lidded-eyed calm. His face is the placid mask seen in his 1977 card. “You’re, uh, hm. Yeah. Ha! I definitely know you.”
“Where the hell are we?” Bevacqua says, exasperated. What a friggin’ idiot, he thinks.
“Don’t worry about it, friend,” Broberg purrs. “I mean, relax, you know? You’ll live longer.”
Bevacqua fights back an urge to punch his former Brewer teammate in his unflappably contented Ivy League face. Live longer? This seems a potentially ridiculous thing to say in the current circumstances.
“I don’t know,” says the angry-faced Bevacqua, “I don’t like this bullshit. I mean, our uniforms. They don’t even match.”
Broberg gazes at Bevacqua, then lazily looks down at his uniform, comparing. Broberg’s uniform has a lighter shade of blue, and his neckline lacks the gold piping seen in Bevacqua’s. Broberg removes his own cap and sees that the outer prongs on the M on his cap seem to splay out more than the straight prongs on Bevacqua’s cap. Broberg shrugs.
“Details, my friend, mere details,” he says. He puts his cap back on his head. He yawns.
Bevacqua, already sick of being around the guy he figures he might have to spend eternity with, glares out at the mushy horizon.
“I think we’re in a horseshit operation,” he grumbles.
But as he says this another figure appears off in the distance. Then another. Soon a couple dozen figures are meandering half-dazed from every direction toward Broberg and Bevacqua, all wearing slightly different uniforms, everyone with a uniquely crooked pitchfork M on their head, everyone in white with lighter and darker shades of blue. Bevacqua recognizes some as fellow marginals. Others he doesn’t know. Nobody says anything.
Then, like the distant crashing of waves or the wide lonesome susurrus of wind through trees, there is the sound of cheering, far off. The baseball players don’t have any idea that the cheers are emanating from opening day at a place called the Kingdome. But they all understand they should move toward the sound.
And so they do, together, a new kind of team.
So last night I woke up suffocating. I bolted upright in bed as I gained consciousness, my lungs empty and my nose and mouth unable to suck in any air, as if my body had forgotten how to do its most basic work. I finally broke the spell by gasping in a shred of breath as if pulling in syrup through a narrow straw, but not before thinking I might be through.
It happens once in a while. I guess it’s sleep apnea, not that I really know much about that. But thoughts about what it is, or might be, don’t occur to me during the moment of panic, nor do they help during the unsettling aftermath, when I lie awake in the dark breathing greedily and worrying about death.
It’s much easier to push such thoughts to the side in broad daylight, but at 3 in the morning the eventuality of someday not being anything forever seems as concrete and present as the pulsing colon in the digital readout on my bedside alarm clock. Near and getting nearer with each pulse.
Maybe I need a religion, a way to come to terms with these thoughts. In some ways this whole project of mine, writing about my childhood baseball cards, has been a meandering effort in that direction all along, ever since I kicked things off with an attempt at an ode to the joy and heartbreak of Mark Fidrych.
If anything’s going to give me solace or guidance or support in this life, if anything’s going to serve as my religion, however flimsy, it’s going to be these rectangles of cardboard, which I’ve carried with me in a shoebox for decades, far longer than anything else I’ve ever owned, all the way into a stunned middle age, the present defined in rougher moments by the shock of having lived past the statistical halfway marker while still feeling as if life has barely begun, the past a ragged riddle of failure, the future a TV Guide grid of reruns with a fixed end, a scheduled and unchangeable time when the station will go off the air and the screen will go blank.
These moments are thin, airless, a kind of suffocation. So I’m fighting for more air, more breath, more life. I’m trying to bring about a feeling of wider horizons and greater possibilities. I’m trying to encourage expansion. But I need help.
So I’m calling on the Cardboard Gods.
The first thing that comes to mind when I say the words Kurt Bevacqua is that he was the winner of a contest among major leaguers to blow the biggest bubble using Bazooka bubble gum. This feat, celebrated in a special 1976 Topps card that I do not own but that I was intimately familiar with (my brother must have owned it), could not possibly have loomed larger in my 8-year-old mind. It was an event that existed at the nexus of practically everything I loved most at that time: baseball; sugary candy; the 1970s Guinness Book of World Records craze for transforming nonsensical trivialities (The longest fingernails! The fattest motorbike riding twins! The most weight pulled by a man using only his teeth!) into celebrated, even somehow numinous, significance; and even the whole 1970s proliferation of crazes (the pet rock, mood rings, streaking) that the Guinness Book of World Records mania seemed a part of, as did, at least in my mind, the 1975 Topps bubble gum contest. And not least among the factors feeding into my infatuation with the event was the name of the event’s winner. The name was unknown to me, but at that time any and all major leaguers were gods, and the gods that were unknown were no less powerful and if anything more mysterious. More than that, the unusual collision of consonants in Kurt Bevacqua’s name was to my still-growing reading abilities like a difficult but not impossible new move to an eager karate student. It did not immediately roll off my tongue, but after a few times practicing it, I had it, and its whipping double hard-K sound cracked out loud in the changed air of my bedroom.
And Kurt Bevacqua’s feat did not fade from my mind in subsequent years but rather served as a seemingly reachable level of immortality. (The allure of records was that they would fix your name into the books forever.) His bubble was big, but it wasn’t that much bigger than the bubbles I could blow, and as the years went on I blew bigger and bigger bubbles, using more and more gum and whispering breaths with more and more subtlety into the fragile, pendulous globe that grew like a second featureless head from my own kissing lips, until I was verging on thinking that I was almost the equal, at least in blowing bubbles, to this Cardboard God.
By the time I’d come to this point, however, the feat had lost most of its magic. In the beginning, the attempt to match Kurt Bevacqua had been something I’d done in tandem with my brother. If either of us had a good bubble going, and the other was in another room in the house, the bubble blower would carefully make his way to the room where the other was and alert them to the possible Bevacqua-defeating extrusion of Bazooka with an urgent, if necessarily soft, moaning sound in the throat. The other would look up from the comic book or TV show he was absorbed in and honor the possibly earth-shaking significance of the moment with a rapt gaze and an almost prayerful silence. But as the years went by my brother’s interest in such things waned, then disappeared altogether, and so I was left to pursue Bevacqua in solitude, understanding even as I did so that I was childish, uncool, an understanding that made the ritual seem even more solitary than it already was, stripping it even of the illusion of being something the world might still be interested in.
This anticlimactic phase emptied into the wider anticlimax of the figures in my baseball cards ceasing, at some point during the spasms of puberty, to be godlike. Kurt Bevacqua was a prime example of this, my stronger understanding of the facts of baseball combining with my growing disinterest in baseball to reduce the major league careers of journeymen such as Kurt Bevacqua to inconsequentiality. By the time the persistent Bevacqua, who lasted 15 seasons in the major leagues despite the apparent accuracy (considering Bevacqua’s career BA/OBP/SLG averages of .236/.305/.327) of Tommy Lasorda’s semi-famous claim that "fucking Bevacqua couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a fucking boat," had his one big moment in the limelight, hitting a game-winning three-run home run in a 1984 World Series game, I was barely even paying attention. Bevacqua’s thin-membraned bubble of a career finally popped the following year. I doubt that this happened with any fanfare. I sure as hell didn’t care.
"This is not a photograph - no
And if that's not enough jagged postmodern abnegation for you, this is not a Seattle Mariner, either. Pete Broberg was drafted by the Mariners with the 35th pick of the 1976 expansion draft, but he was traded to the Cubs for a player to be named later before the Mariners had played (and lost) their first game.
Moreover, at the time this mysterious portrait of Pete Broberg in cheesy Elysium emerged, the Seattle Mariners did not quite fully exist. For example, they did not yet have caps, or even an official cap design. The pitchfork represented here on the crown of the fake cap painted onto Pete Broberg's head, perhaps the product of an overworked Topps artist's interpretation of some hurried instructions delivered over the phone by an overworked Seattle Mariners official, is not a bad rendering, especially when compared to other Topps-doctored cap insignias, such as the loopy "NY" on Rudy May's 1975 card, but it is decidedly smaller than the actual logo that appeared on the Mariners caps when they officially began their existence.
The undersized insignia contributes to the overall impression of unreality, an impression strengthened further by the background, a glue-huffer's foggy hallucination of paradise. Another even stronger element in the creation of the card's ersatz bliss, ironically the one part of the picture that seems the most likely to have originated as a photographic representation of reality, is Pete Broberg's face.
This face, which seems more a part of an oil portrait made to look like a photograph than a part of a photograph, represents the most placid, careless expression I've yet come across in my investigations of the Cardboard Gods.
It's as if Pete Broberg has left behind all the complications of life. Or perhaps has never been the least bit acquainted with such complications.
"I thought we had another Bob Feller. But he's a hardhead."
Pete Broberg is 27 years old in this picture, and his past to this point has been a series of gleaming futures that never came to pass.
He'd been 18 years old in 1968, which was for most young men in America a bad time to be 18: U.S. troop deployment and casualties in Vietnam had reached their highest levels, and you could expect a letter in the mail at any time, demanding that you come join the carnage.
But Pete Broberg was special, the best high school pitcher in the nation. He was chosen by the Oakland A's with the second pick in the first round of the 1968 amateur draft (Tim Foli was taken first). As the A's had just moved from Kansas City that off-season, Pete Broberg had the distinction of being the first pick ever taken by the Oakland A's. While others his age with fewer options were on their way to Vietnam, Broberg was being offered a $175,000 signing bonus by A's owner Charlie Finley. Broberg turned him down and instead enrolled in Dartmouth College. (One of the ways of avoiding the military draft back then was to go hide out in college for a while. I don't know if this figured into Broberg's decision. In an article on the Oakland A's website the only clue Broberg offers on his turning down of the $175,000 was that he didn't feel ready yet for the big leagues.)
Three years later, he was the best amateur baseball player in America, bar none, and he did feel he was ready for the majors. This time he was taken first overall in the amateur draft, the last first round draft choice ever taken by the Washington Senators. Broberg signed with the Senators with the stipulation that he never have to spend a moment in the minor leagues. Two weeks after being drafted, he pitched in the majors against the Boston Red Sox. He struck out 7 and allowed two runs in a 6-inning no decision. Most who saw him in his early days were impressed by his talent, as touched on in this Baseball Fever discussion thread.
But the talent, which seemed to surface in glimpses (including the day Broberg was the pitcher of record in the first-ever win by the Texas Rangers), never translated to any kind of sustained major league success: In his entire career, he never once finished the year with a winning record. By the expansion draft of 1976 everyone had long ago ceased waiting around for Pete Broberg to blossom into the next Bob Feller.
But in this 1977 picture Pete Broberg doesn't seem to give a shit that his early promise has gone unfulfilled. That year he racked up another lousy year with the Cubs, then brought his career full circle, in a raggedy ass way, by going 10 and 12 for the A's, the team that had tried to throw $175,000 at him right out of high school 10 years before. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent the following year but told him he'd have to go to triple-A or be released.
In the aforementioned article from the Oakland A's website, Pete Broberg recounts the choice in a way that seems to fit his expression in this card:
"I went home," Broberg said. "They still had to pay me, and the Dodgers paid my way through law school."
This sounds like the words of a guy who just doesn't care that much about baseball. But in keeping with the theme that everything connected with this card is not what it seems, Pete Broberg later put his law career on hold in 1989 to play for a pittance while pitching for the West Palm Beach Tropics of the short-lived Senior Baseball League, an act that had to have been, after all those years serenely reclining in the fake Elysian Fields of well-paid apathy, an achy-muscled labor of love.
This card marks Bob Gibson's first and last appearance in the world of my Cardboard Gods. Like a lot of other 1975 cards, this one is a little off-center, a facet that seems OK, or even somehow appealing, when part of, say, Ed Brinkman's card, but in this card it just seems wrong, like if Sidney Poitier's last public appearance involved sitting on a small booby-trapped platform above the rusty hose-water of a county fair dunking booth. The dipping of his right shoulder creates the impression that Bob Gibson is actually teetering slightly to his right with the queasy yawing of the lopsided card. Bob Gibson's expression, however, makes it clear that even if the whole goddamn world started flopping and flailing like a boated fish, Bob Gibson himself would not go down.
The numbers on the back of the card have a slight wobble to them, too, Gibson's long unbroken string of winning coming to an end in the final season shown, 1974, when he posted his first losing record since becoming a member of a major league starting rotation 15 years before. All the winning years seem to feed into the confident expression of the man on the front of the card, but the fresh season of losing seems a part of the expression too, making it seem all the stronger. This is not a man whose confidence has been built by happy accident, by being a scarless darling of the gods. He's done it all himself, the hard way, and so it can't be undone.
Things just got harder in 1975. By mid-season he'd been bumped out of the starting rotation and demoted to long relief. His final appearance came against the Cubs on September 3, 1975. In the 7th inning, he was called into a 6-6 game. He rose to the occasion of facing that year's eventual batting champion, Bill Madlock, getting him to fly out, but then he loaded the bases by walking Jose Cardenal, surrendering a single to Champ Summers, and walking Andre Thornton. It still looked like he might get out of the inning, however, when Manny Trillo grounded back to the mound. Gibson, winner of 9 Gold Glove awards, handled the grounder and threw out Cardenal at home. But Gibson then uncorked the 108th and final wild pitch of his career, allowing the go ahead run to score. With first base now open and the pitcher due up next, Gibson intentionally walked the batter, Jerry Morales, once again setting up a force at any base. It seemed he might still get out of the inning with minimal damage. However, a 23-year-old part-time player with the quite possibly distracting name of Peter LaCock was then sent in to pinch hit against the great Bob Gibson. The somehow unseemly moment did not end well.
"When I gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock," Bob Gibson said later, "I knew it was time to quit."
The end had to come some time, of course. That it came in that particular game was due to the failure of the Cardinals' starting pitcher that necessitated the appearance of Gibson out of the pen. And, in yet another in a growing series of signals to me from the Cardboard Gods that everything is connected, one way or another, the Cardinals' starter was that fading echo of The Basketball Kid himself, the pride of LaPorte, Indiana, Ron Reed.
Had some bizarre ruling deemed that the 7th-inning tie be broken not by a progression of pitcher-batter matchups but by a two-on-two basketball game, Bob Gibson would have without question helped bring his team a victory. I say this without having any idea who the Cubs would have sent out to hoop it up (but just to help illustrate the preposterous scenario, I'll say the Reuschel brothers, Paul and Rick, a couple of 6'3" Rambis-begoggled "widebodies"), because the two men who combined to surrender 11 runs to the Cubs that day were unquestionably the best two basketball players ever to be major league baseball teammates.
I make this claim after spending an inordinate, and I mean inordinate, amount of time today thinking about guys who've excelled at both of my primary childhood loves, basketball and baseball. After much deliberation, I have decided that even though Ron Reed may have come the closest of any Cardboard God to walking in the mythic Converse All-Star high-tops of The Basketball Kid, he was not quite the best basketball player ever to play major league baseball. His time in the NBA does put him ahead of some other great college basketball players who went pro only in baseball (Tony Gwynn, Kenny Lofton, and Dave Winfield come to mind), and his promising numbers as a top reserve for two years for the Pistons suggest he may well have been the on-court equal of Gene Conley, a bench player on three Boston Celtic championships teams, Dick Groat, who played one season in the NBA after being a nationally renowned two-time college hoops All-American, and perhaps even Danny Ainge, who was a key player on two NBA championship teams, appeared in the 1988 NBA all-star game, and, most importantly, helped enable the existence of the fact-based headline "Tree Bites Man."
But Ron Reed was not as good a basketball player as the player he backed up on the Pistons, Dave DeBusschere, who happened to have pitched in 36 games for the Chicago White Sox before focusing his attention solely on his hall of fame-bound basketball career. He may not have been as good a basketball player as Bob Gibson, either, who followed up his brilliant college basketball career at Creighton University by playing for a few months with the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters were by then world famous for their clowning antics, but at that time they also still provided one of a very few ways for an African American basketball star to make a living playing basketball. Only a handful of black players had made their way onto NBA squads by then, so the Globetrotters were still loaded with world-class talent, suggesting that any player who could crack their roster would either have to have been a very talented clown who could also sink a hook shot now and then, such as Goose Tatum, or someone able to play some serious ball. And Bob Gibson was not a clown.
Anyway, there's no way to accurately judge how good Bob Gibson could have been in the NBA. By the looks of it, the NBA seems to have still been employing an unofficial quota system at the time that Bob Gibson came out of college in 1957. Some teams had a couple of black guys, some had one, some had none. It seems farfetched to think that these roster configurations were built solely on merit. Also a little farfetched is the notion that merit was the sole cause of the lack of black players being featured scorers on any of the NBA teams in 1957. Early black NBA players such as Sweetwater Clifton, Earl Lloyd, and even the incomparable Bill Russell handled the dirty work: rebounding, playing tough defense, setting picks, and passing the ball to the team's version of The Basketball Kid, the white guy with the perfect jump shot, the beautiful jump shot, the jump shot as pure as the American Dream.
In my previous post on Ron Reed, I mentioned some fictional towns that resembled my own invention of Hartland, hometown of The Basketball Kid, but I neglected to include one that seems obvious to me now, the town from the movie Hoosiers, Hickory, which, like LaPorte and French Lick and John Mellencamp's "Small Town," just happens to be located in Indiana. It is also located in a glowing, soft-focus version of the past. And it of course is a town that lives and breathes basketball, and at the heart of this basketball life is a boy, Jimmy Chitwood, with a perfect jump shot, a beautiful jump shot, a jump shot as pure as the American Dream.
Oh yeah, one other thing. There ain't no blacks in Hickory. Not a one.
Hickory, Riverdale, Willoughby, the candy-colored Milwaukee of Richie Cunningham and the Fonz, the generic '80s town in Teen Wolf, The Basketball Kid's beloved Hartland, all these places make me wonder if imagining a small-town paradise, imagining the whole white picket fence American Dream, requires imagining people of color either into the shadows or beyond the town limits altogether?
"I think being a professional athlete is the finest thing a man can do," Bob Gibson once said. But when Bob Gibson came out of college in 1957, the professional versions of both of the sports he excelled in were still showing signs of an institutional embrace of the deep white longing for Hartland. The few blacks in the NBA were toiling in the shadows, while in baseball many teams were still dragging their heels to fully comply with the integration of the league that had started with Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947. Gibson's own team, the Cardinals, had been the most demonstrably opposed of all major league teams to Jackie Robinson's presence on a major league field, and by Gibson's signing had still yet to have a single full-time black player.
So when you're being told you don't belong in Hartland, or that you should stay quietly in the shadows if you're ever blessed to be allowed into Hartland, what do you do?
If you're Bob Gibson, you get angry.
"In a world filled with hate, prejudice, and protest," he once said, "I find that I too am filled with hate, prejudice, and protest."
If you're Bob Gibson, you get fearless.
"I guess I was never much in awe of anybody," he once said. "I think you have to have that attitude if you're going to go far in this game."
And if you're Bob Gibson, you fucking kick ass. By the time he gave up the grand slam to LaCock, he'd racked up one regular season MVP award, two World Series MVP awards, two Cy Young awards, 8 selections to the National League all-star team, and several World Series records that highlight his ability to shine brightest when the pressure was the most intense.
When baseball fans aren't talking about Bob Gibson's willingness to play fearsome chin music with batters leaning in too close to the plate, his plate, they are often choosing him ahead of every other hurler in history as the starting pitcher for the hypothetical one-game playoff against the aliens with the fate of the earth hanging in the balance. He's the one you want out there if you absolutely need a win.
"I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me, but I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."
Though the above quote seems to me as if it could have come from Bob Gibson, it was actually uttered by the most famous racist in the history of baseball, the guy guarding the Hartland town line against invasion with a fifth of moonshine in one hand, a shotgun in the other, and a maniacal gleam in his eyes. If I could see a confrontation between any pitcher and batter from baseball history, I'd choose to see Bob Gibson pitch against the speaker of the above words, Ty Cobb. At the end of that at-bat someone's down in the ditch and someone else is walking away a winner. I wouldn't bet against Cobb in any other matchup you could name, but in this one case my money's on Gibson.
Yesterday I watched basketball and wrote some more about The Basketball Kid. I don't know if I really got anywhere with the writing, but at least I decided on a name of the town where The Basketball Kid lives his eternal teenage moment: Hartland. I named the town after the tiny block-long street I live on at the moment, Hartland Court.
The imaginary Hartland differs considerably from the real Hartland. The real Hartland is a malodorous diorama of modern urban life, an abandoned 20th century warehouse at one end, a rotting 19th century house at the other, and in between those two buildings a discordant mixture of the following: a couple lopsided, dilapidated two-story houses, some flimsy brand-new condos with brick fronts and aluminum-siding sides and backs, one low, ugly brick and cinder-block apartment building, and one vacant lot overgrown with spiny, trash-clogged, rat-friendly brush.
White people live in the condos, black people live in the apartment building, one large Hispanic family occupies one of the dilapidated, lopsided houses, cheerful Korean girls studying to be doctors and lawyers live in the first floor apartment in the other dilapidated house, and my wife and I live above them in the second floor apartment. The roof leaks in several places, and the walls are crumbling, and the floor is so slanted I feel like we're in a bad guy's hideout in the old Batman television show, and there's an everpresent possibility that the whole place might just keel over at any second.
We will be leaving the place soon; it's being converted into another flimsy yuppie-trap of a condo. This last detail, that we're moving away from Hartland just a year after we moved to Hartland, is the one I'd highlight if I was asked to name the single defining aspect of the real Hartland as opposed to the imaginary Hartland of The Basketball Kid.
People come and go all the time on the real Hartland. In the short time we've been here, our first downstairs neighbor moved out (amid screaming matches with the landlord, which seem often to be part of the soundtrack of transience), replaced by the Korean girls, the building we live in has been sold, a "for sale" sign has appeared outside the Hispanic family's house across the street, the vacant building next to their house has been demolished, and the vacant lot next to the site of the demolishing has been transformed by Ukrainian construction workers into another generic condo that looks as if it could collapse in a stiff wind, meaning it's perfect for the real Hartland, where nothing lasts.
But in the imaginary Hartland, home of The Basketball Kid, everything and everyone stays the same. Houses belong to families of people who were born in Hartland, who grew up in Hartland, and (though this seems not to be something the eternal Basketball Kid has to worry about) who, when the time comes, die peacefully and surrounded by all their loved ones in Hartland.
Clearly there are similarities between my imaginary Hartland and other imaginary towns. Jack Berrill's Milford comes to mind, as does Rod Serling's Willoughby, as well as Riverdale (the hometown of "America's typical teenager"), and John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town," which is used to greatest effect on this rousing YouTube clip as the backdrop for the heroics of a man who appears to be a mulleted emissary dispatched from the very center of white America's deepest Hartland dreams.
Of course the hero of the YouTube clip is not from imaginary Hartland, but from French Lick, Indiana, a town often presented in hagiographic sportspage offerings as being a real-life version of the popular myth of the Hartlandesque small town. This painting of actual towns as "Hartlands" is common. Many of us seem to be looking for Hartland. Sometimes this search results in fictional versions, and sometimes this search results in the willful softening of reality. Indiana, home state of Larry Bird, John Cougar Mellancamp, and the man pictured in the 1980 baseball card at the top of the page, Ron Reed, seems to be something of a nexus for this popular style of American dreaming.
Ron Reed was born in LaPorte, Indiana, a town recently featured in a book of found photographs that seems to speaks directly to the American quest for Hartland. The book, LaPorte, Indiana, presents a series of black and white portraits taken by long-time LaPorte studio photographer Frank Pease, displaying not only (as John Mellencamp blurbs on the book's website) "real people . . . [whose] grace and dignity . . . should be a source of hope for us all" but also a kind of nostalgic, idealized American dreamland: The subjects of the pictures seemingly inhabit a town where The Basketball Kid himself might feel very much at home.
This makes sense in terms of the man pictured here, Ron Reed, who may just be the Cardboard God who comes closest to being, or at least having once been, the sunny, mythic figure that is The Basketball Kid. Reed was an athletic superstar in high school in LaPorte, earning a basketball scholarship to nearby Notre Dame, where he was good enough to be selected, in 2004, to the university's All-Century Men's Basketball Team. He played professional basketball for two years, averaging 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game for the Detroit Pistons, then switched to baseball, where he had a productive 19-year career that included selection to an all-star team, a World Series championship, and the tying of the modern-day record for fewest home runs allowed in a season (250 innings or more).
According to Ron Reed's enshrinement page on the Indiana Baseball Hall of Fame, this last accomplishment is the one that gives Reed the most pride. It is mentioned on the back of this card, in a marginal cartoon that features a smiling, generic baseball player reading about the mark in a newspaper. Oddly, the partially obscured newspaper headline seems to read "DOWNING ALLOWS FEWEST HOMERS."
Wanting to find the reason for this mistake, I checked to see if the pitcher Reed tied was Al Downing, but Al Downing never allowed that few a number of home runs in that amount of innings. Al Downing did allow the most famous home run of all time, Hank Aaron's 715th, in a game, ironically enough, won by Ron Reed. Perhaps that thin connective tangle of Reed and Downing and home runs and records led to the mistake on the part of the artist.
I have an alternate theory, however, one that probably comes from my being someone who pays rent by working in the field of mistakes (as a proofreader). It goes like this: The overworked and distracted artist was churning out a ton of cartoons to meet a deadline, and to save time he recycled some previously used cartoons. In this case, it must have been a cartoon for an old Al Downing card in which the caption read something like "Al surrendered Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th home run," and the newspaper headline mirrored the caption with something like "DOWNING SURRENDERS AARON'S HOMER." The artist inserted the new caption for Reed, changed the frown on the cartoon character's face to a smile, changed "AARON'S" to "FEWEST" in the headline, then rushed off to keep himself conscious with some more terrible-tasting Topps coffee, forgetting to change "DOWNING" to "REED."
Mistakes like this happen all the time here outside the town limits of Hartland. In the photo on this card, Ron Reed seems to have come to understand this. He is certainly not someone who gives in easily to mistakes, as both his stern, unwavering gaze and his pride in his record for fewest home runs (which really is a record for fewest mistakes) attest. But life in the big leagues, life in a world of mistakes and transience, has wiped from Ron Reed's countenance what I imagine to have once been something very much like the bright, friendly smile of Hartland's favorite son, The Basketball Kid.
The Basketball Kid, Part 2
So who is The Basketball Kid? Well, on one level he is the persona invented for me by my friend Ramblin' Pete just a couple days ago, on the eve of our annual hibernation into the jittery sanctuary that is the first two days of the NCAA college basketball tournament. We're in a pool every year with some other friends, and Pete basically demanded that I enter the pool this year with the moniker The Basketball Kid. On that level, The Basketball Kid is doing OK. After the first two days of the tournament, he's currently tied for sixth in a field of twenty-four, within striking distance of the top (and also just a couple key losses away from oblivion).
On another level, The Basketball Kid is the young lad pictured here. This is me in the only photo I own, despite all my years playing basketball, in which I'm wearing a basketball uniform. It was photo day for my junior varsity team, and I could not keep a straight face to save my life. The photographer kept directing us to freeze ourselves in poses that harkened back to the days of George Mikan and the two-hand set shot, and I kept bursting out laughing. The photographer began to lose patience with me. Etched into his expression was an unsaid admonishment not at all unfamiliar to me during those years: Jesus Christ, kid. Grow up. On this second level, The Basketball Kid is a skinny fifteen-year-old who is about to let the thing most important to him at that time, basketball, slip away from him, and all he can think do is giggle like a much younger child.
But over the past couple days, as worries and burdens have slipped through the cracks of my self-made NCAA cave, I have begun to imagine a third level of existence for The Basketball Kid. This third level connects to the first level in that the third figure I imagine is an extrapolation of the persona invented by Ramblin' Pete, and it connects to the second level in that the third figure I imagine is something of a negative image of the kid pictured here. He's the kid in the photo minus the invisible air quotes.
Once I started thinking about this third version of The Basketball Kid, I couldn't stop. Here's what I've figured out so far:
He represents all that is good and true in the America that may or may not still exist, and that may or may not have ever existed. Teamwork, friendship, strong family ties, an ice cream soda at the corner malt shop, a well-executed two-handed chest pass, holding hands with your steady at the movies, good sportsmanship, politeness, a foul-shot success rate of 85% or better, a warm smile, a clear blue-eyed gaze, optimism, good hygiene, a firm handshake, a strong work ethic, a devotion to selflessly helping the nobly downtrodden, and, of course, a perfect jump shot, a beautiful jump shot, a jump shot as pure as the American Dream.
It has always been this way. In escapade after escapade, handed down in oral tales, in a short-lived Saturday morning television series, and in well-worn library books with such titles as The Basketball Kid Bears Down, The Basketball Kid Drives to the Basket, The Basketball Kid Warms the Bench?, and The Basketball Kid Mysteries XI: The Ghost Under the Bleachers, The Basketball Kid displays his sunny virtues as he solves some school-wide or even town-wide problem while simultaneously leading his ragtag, wisecracking, often injury-hampered squad (Irving "The Professor" Polk, Will "Stretch" Pennington, Chuck "Tubby" Breen, and Joey "The Li'l Dictator" McAvoy generally rounding out the lovable starting five), to a last-second victory over a taller, "more athletic" team from "the city" in The Big Game.
Throughout all the tales the Basketball Kid seems to exist in an unending moment of teenagerhood. He never gets any older, and so is always full of the promise of a bright and boundless future. He also never seems to have a past beyond the obvious implication that at some point previous to the currently unfolding situation he was born and subsequently became acquainted with the members of his family, with "Coach," and with his buddies on the team. The serial nature of the narratives encourage this trait, but so too does the humbly confident nature of the central character. As The Basketball Kid is fond of pointing out (in a gently ribbing tone), "Don't think too much, you might break something." He senses that in basketball, as in life, you start down the endless one-way, no u-turn road to failure the minute you start worrying too much about your jump shot, or your past, or your present, or your future. Just play the game hard, tackle problems as they come, and then when the final buzzer sounds you can walk off the court with no regrets. It is, for The Basketball Kid, always Right Now.
The Basketball Kid, Part 1
Here is a photograph of me holding with sarcastic ferocity the two league runner-up trophies my brother won while serving as a benchwarmer on his high school varsity team. I was 16 years old. I had just finished a year in which I'd played junior varsity basketball, not being nearly good enough to be even a benchwarmer on varsity, and I knew that the following year, my last in high school, I would also not be good enough to make varsity. I had quit playing baseball a couple years before (and quit collecting baseball cards a year or two before that), and I didn't care about school, and was incapable of making even the slightest connection with any of the girls I creepily lusted for, so I think it's safe to say basketball had become the most important part of my life, and I wasn't nearly good enough at it to keep playing it in a meaningful context. I was not The Basketball Kid. But if I was not The Basketball Kid, who was I?And who am I?
I mean, is this the story of my life? I haven't played basketball in a couple of years, not since a relaxed half-hour game of one-on-one with my Peruvian downstairs neighbor weakened my body to such an extent that I spent the next four months with bronchitis. But I still am finding myself not good enough to play on the team of my choosing: I turned 39 a couple weeks ago, which means I have less than a year before I'm a 40-year-old aspiring novelist who has never had a novel published. No real career to speak of, writing or otherwise, still living paycheck to paycheck, more or less. This dream of mine of becoming a writer, sometimes I fucking despise it. Change the addressee of the famous Brokeback Mountain monologue from "secret gay lover" to "vague, impractical dream of becoming a novelist" and it pretty much sums up the way I feel sometimes:
"It's because of you that I'm like this! I'm nothin' . . . I'm nowhere . . . Get the fuck off me! I can't stand being like this no more."
In my current job as a proofreader of educational testing materials, I am often called upon to check the spelling and grammar of math problems that I have no idea how to solve. This is OK; there are other people in the company to check the math. It's kind of like I work on an assembly line, checking that a particular bolt has been correctly screwed into each of an unending supply of identical gadgets that have a use I do not understand.
One type of math problem that comes down the assembly line from time to time has to do with the figuring of combinations. I don't know, something like "Billy has four different-colored socks in his drawer. If Billy reaches twice into his drawer at random, how many different combinations of socks can he possibly pull out?"
I mention this because I found myself this morning trying for a moment to figure out how many different looks the Pittsburgh Pirates could display in the late 1970s using their three different mix and match uniforms. Before I could come up with an answer I discovered that they added a fourth uniform to their arsenal in 1980, and also had two different types of caps and two different types of socks. In all, during the short window of time in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which I based a large part of my existence upon the shifting sands of major league baseball, the Pirates had a gold uniform, a black uniform, a pin-striped uniform, and (starting in 1980) a white uniform, and they mixed and matched all of these either randomly or according to a plan which is no clearer to me than the tortuous runes of advanced calculus.
With all the possible collisions of black, gold, and pinstripe, no single card can convey the full impact of the collective ugliness of the Pirates during the coke-addled death throes of the Me decade, but this Grant Jackson card, which shows that a nauseating warm-up jacket was also part of the Pirate wardrobe, can at least suggest something of the impact of that ugliness on the players forced to withstand it.
In other words, Grant Jackson does not look that happy. But, typical of the Pirates of that era, Grant Jackson even more strongly presents the aura of a true professional, resigned to carry on to the best of his abilities even though he's dressed up like an overripe, blackened-at-the-edges banana.
He has already been in the majors for over a decade by the time of this photo, and part of his resignation may be due to the fact that for most of that time his career has afforded one Dale Murray moment after another, i.e., he's always seemed to either arrive on a team just after they've had success or depart just before they've had success. His first stop was in Philadelphia just after they nearly won a pennant in 1964. Hopes must have been high that they could continue rising toward the top the following year, but that didn't happen, and in fact throughout Grant Jackson's time with the Phillies they gradually sunk farther and farther away from first place. Later just-misses included his move to Baltimore the year after they'd won the 1970 World Series and his move away from the Yankees just before they won the 1977 World Series. His arrival on the Pirates seemed to have the potential to provide more of the same, as they seemed to have just fallen out of a groove that had garnered them 5 division titles in 6 years.
But Grant Jackson was a pro, and he kept showing up for work in whatever atrocious combination of polyester shirt and pants was called for that day. His persistence paid off: On October 17, 1979, Grant Jackson (clad in the combination of the day, gold shirt and black pants) was called into the game with two on and two out in the fifth inning of the seventh game of the World Series. The Pirates, who had battled back from a 3 games to 1 deficit to tie the series, were down 1 to 0 in the game and were having trouble getting anything going against Orioles starter Scott McGregor. They could not afford to fall farther behind. Grant Jackson did his job. He held them, getting Al Bumbry to pop up.
In the sixth inning Willie Stargell menschishly swatted a two-run homer to give the Pirates the lead. Grant Jackson held the lead while facing the heart of the Orioles order. He pitched 2 2/3 innings of scoreless ball in all before giving way to bespectacled Pirates relief ace Kent Tekulve. When Tekulve got the final out, Grant Jackson officially became not only a champion but also the winning pitcher of game seven of the World Series.
The Cardboard God All-Stars
Is there a word for the feeling you get when you realize the syndicated sitcom rerun you've been hoping to burrow into for a little while, away from the world, turns out to be a clip show? You know, it seems to be a regular episode for a few moments, maybe even one you don't remember ever seeing before (this dawning, fragile possibility like the fringes of a low-grade miracle since the syndicated sitcom you are hoping to enwomb yourself in with the help of some Pabst Blue Ribbon and a huge bowl of three-for-a-dollar generic macaroni and cheese is one you've watched repeatedly, chronically, medicinally, for years), but then one of the characters begins relating the presently unfolding (and noticeably thin) scenario to something that happened in the past. Remember when Fonzie had to start building birdhouses to control his rage? Or when Kramer threw a giant ball of oil out the window? Or when Apu wore a cowboy hat and pretended to be a fan of the Mets, his "favorite squadron." The edges of the screen start to get blurry and wavy, and with that your hole-in-the-ground hiding place is gone. The clip show, that sack of used, thoroughly deflavored pebbles of gum, leaves you nothing to gnaw on but the air of the moment from which you'd been trying to escape. God, I hate that feeling.
So, on that note, here is the First Biannual 100th Episode Cardboard God Clip Show. Actually, here on Cardboard Gods there are no episodes, except of the mental health issue variety, but there have been profiles posted of about 100 guys. It gets a little blurry when you start considering that some of the profiles, such as Mario Guerrero, spread over the course of several separate posts, while other posts, such as the '78 Checklist or "Mitch Cohen," didn't profile a particular player at all. Whatever, who cares? I'm deciding to say that today marks the celebration of my first 100 Cardboard Gods, and so I am (with thanks to Jon for getting the ball rolling on this) presenting my choices for the 25-man all-star roster of the first 100 Cardboard Gods. Remember when Bill Lee said the back problems of Americans are caused by sitting in chairs? Or when Kent Tekulve prompted a humiliating authorial anecdote about a workplace lunchroom party? Or when Reggie Jackson was called a fuckhead and implicitly blamed for global warming? Or when Dave Cash sourly pondered the transient nature of identity? Etc., etc. . . .
C: Johnny Bench, Thurman Munson
1B: Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell (OF), Harmon Killebrew (3B)
2B: Dave Cash
SS: Ozzie Smith
3B: Ron Santo
Util: Toby Harrah (3B, SS, 2B)
OF: Jim Rice, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Jim Wynn, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson
PR: Herb Washington
SP: Tommy John, J.R. Richard, Vida Blue, Wilbur Wood
SP-RP: Jim Bibby, Bill Lee
RP: Cecil Upshaw, Dan Quisenberry, Kent Tekulve
Manager: Joe Torre
For my first few years at the liquor store, I worked mostly evening shifts, usually with a guy named Dave who'd been at the store since his undergraduate days at NYU in the mid-1970s. By the time of my arrival in the early '90s he was also an adjunct philosophy professor in the city college system. On Friday nights Dave gave me a twenty from the register and I went around the corner to get us some Italian takeout. We ate in the back, on Morty's desk, shoving his adding machine to the side for the food and for a couple chipped coffee cups and a bottle of wine off the rack. Customers weren't much of an issue, even though it was a Friday night in Greenwich Village in the City That Never Sleeps. If one happened to come in, either Dave or I would walk up front to the register, depending on whose turn it was.
The store had been successful for most of Dave's tenure, but since two large warehouse-style liquor stores had opened nearby business had been waning. Sometimes people stuck their head in the door just to smugly tell us that we were selling something for considerably more than one or the other of the big warehouses. Sometimes just for something to do we took empty individual-sized boxes of Absolut and used them to cover up large gaps in our shelves. This practice of covering up the empty shelves increased as the years went by, until eventually most of the store was empty boxes.
"Wow, you guys really have a lot of Absolut," a customer sometimes observed.
When we weren't filling in empty spaces, we were filling up empty time. I did a lot of reading. I also watched baseball games on the television up front behind the counter. Both New York teams were out of the running in those years, the games usually meaningless. For the Yankees it was something of a return to the days when I'd first followed baseball, their roster full of latter day versions of Rudy May, Cecil Upshaw, and Alex Johnson, guys who were just passin' through. Fittingly enough, the defining figure of their previous extended pennantless drought, Bobby Murcer, was often the broadcasting voice bringing me the soothing news of the Yankees' irrelevance.
Anyway, with the general downturn in business, Dave and I didn't have to get up very often from our Italian food and red wine. Conversation during the first half of the bottle was generally confined to two subjects, either the wine itself (Dave was a connoisseur) or sports. Dave did most of the talking, and he also took care of the refilling of our chipped coffee cups. Once the bottle passed its halfway point, the conversation turned to memory lane, to Dave's memories, that is, or to be even more specific to the difference between Dave's girl-glutted past and my gnawingly lonely present.
Dave spun great expansive tales of romantic adventure and seduction that always seemed to begin with him leaving the liquor store with a bottle of wine in his satchel and always seemed to end with him smoking a joint with some beautiful sensuous she-beatnick on a rooftop below the gentle caress of the 3 A.M. night. I wish I could offer more than a general notion about these stories, because I don't at all want to sound like I'm mocking them, but I can't really remember any specifics. But the fact is I loved the stories, loved how he told them, loved feeling a little drunk at work on the free wine, loved the way the whole ritual seemed to beckon for a wider world than the one I was experiencing in most of my waking hours. Later, before we locked up the gates for the night, I dutifully tried to follow Dave's lead, jamming a bottle of wine into my backpack next to the Dostoevsky and the Meade Wireless notebook filled with my rantings. But my nights, instead of ending on a rooftop with a girl, always seemed to end while waiting alone or with my brother in a stink cloud of homelessness urine for the F Train to Brooklyn after last call at the International.
Eventually I tried to believe that I had merely arrived in the world too late. Times were different in Dave's day, I told myself. It was easy enough to believe in this scenario, since even the store itself seemed to support the theory that everything was humming along on all cylinders right up until the time I showed up. Throughout the 1980s business had been booming, girls were constantly sauntering down 8th Street with love in their eyes (Dave had met his future wife while standing in the doorway and enjoying the voluptuous parade), rich guys with mousse in their hair tipped you on liquor deliveries with lines of coke and with the rolled-up fifty through which you snorted the coke. To hear the tales, it was practically the carry-the-table-through-the-Copa scene of Goodfellas just before I'd gotten there. But now the championship days were over. Now came the meaningless years. Now the schedule of late-season games droned like a dusty conveyer belt in a factory about to be closed. Charlie O'Brien grounded out weakly to second. Mel Hall stared off into space.
This seemed about right. After all, I had always related to, or at least heaped inordinate sympathy upon, baseball players who arrived one year too late.
With that in mind, here is Dale Murray, looking in his 1978 card as if he is about to be blamed for something. He came to the Reds in 1977, just after they'd staked their claim as one of the best teams of all time with a dominating two-year reign as World Champions. That reign came to an end when Dale Murray climbed on board. I can sympathize. I mean, I often wonder: Is it me? Am I the reason that the winning is always being done just over the horizon, out of reach?
I've had a lot of people who were the boss of me, and I guess I've been fairly lucky, all in all. No tyrants, a few oddballs, the occasional would-be mentor. There was the ice cream store manager who played bass in a band that sounded, as he once told me while passing me a joint of his pot in the basement, "just like Grand Funk Railroad"; the college maintenance worker who I was assigned to as a helper whose motto for every task was "fuck it; good enough"; the leather store owner with a divot in his arm where a concentration camp tattoo had been who hired me to watch out for shoplifters and who told me, repeatedly, to "be a mensch."
"You know what a mensch is?" this boss would ask. Oskar Adler was his name. His wife had been in the camps, too.
"Yeah, I know," I said. You've already told me a million times, I'd think. I thought he had a bad memory.
I was bored out of my mind that summer, 19 years old, leaning on a broom for eight unending hours in the small, hot warehouse amid towering stacks of completely uninteresting cowhide. I ended up quitting before I'd said I was going to, making up some preposterous lie that I was needed early back at college, as if there was some emergency at my obscure state school that only I could solve. This left him short-handed for the last weeks of the summer. Fuck it, I was thinking. Good enough.
Oskar Adler didn't complain. He even drove me home from the Spring Street warehouse to my Mom's apartment in Brooklyn on my last day. Before I got out of the car he firmly shook my hand with his Nazi-surviving grip. He held the grip and looked me in the eye.
"Josh, be a mensch," he said. "You know what a mensch is?"
"I know, I know." He gave my hand one last squeeze.
"Be a mensch," he said.
I really thought I knew what a mensch was, too. I mean, he had explained it to me a hundred times. But of course you can't simply say you know what a mensch is. You have to be a mensch, which is not easy. You have to be solid, stable, reliable. A pillar for others, a constant in a changing world. Someone to lean on and to draw strength from.
You have to be Willie Stargell. Or at least try.
I don't know where the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we had at the liquor store came from. I also don't know where it went when the store closed for good in the late 1990s. On the store's last day, my friend Pete and my brother, Ian, who were both in the employ of the store during the End Times, packed up a rented truck with the remaining inventory. The owner, Morty, oversaw this work and probably ended up zealously pitching in, too, even though he was crowding eighty by then and probably under strict orders from his wife, Goldie, to leave the lifting to the two "boys." Once the truck was loaded and the store empty, my brother and Pete transported the booze upstate to Morty's son-in-law's liquor store.
But I don't know what became of the non-alcoholic odds and ends, such as the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger. There were a fair number of odds and ends. In the store's two-plus decades of existence it had had one constant, Morty, and a long parade of young men who were either aimless by nature or going through an aimless phase in their lives. None of these aimless guys owned much stuff while they were working at the store, but once in a while a piece of their meager collection of possessions dislodged from their porous grasp and accrued in one of the nooks and crannies of the store. One member of the long parade of aimless young men left behind a crate of scratchy, mediocre records in the basement, another a well-thumbed baseball encyclopedia in the back by the stereo, another a half-empty bottle of saline solution on the shelves by the sink, another a book on origami jammed in among Morty's collection of Beverage Media Guides. The last aimless guy hired to work at the store, i.e., the anchor of the entire twenty-five-year parade of aimless guys, was a pale young divorced mumbling NYU dropout named Dan who took most of his weekly paycheck in vodka. Dan left a collection of little flickable paper footballs behind the champagne rack, residue of his chosen method of time-killing, flicking paper footballs at the bottles of liqueurs above the champagne, each bottle assigned a unique point value, the stumpy, ornate bottle of Chambourd worth 10 points, the Mrs. Butterworth's-looking Frangelico worth 7, the large Bailey's gift box worth 5, etc., etc. Dan bestowed intricately layered personalities to each paper football and kept a running log of their exploits, complete with league statistics and player biographies. When one of the paper footballs fell into the unreachable space behind the champagne rack it meant that the player had, like Duk Koo Kim, Ray Chapman, and Dale Earnhardt, passed in a blaze of glory directly from the field of athletic battle to the Great Beyond. A eulogy was inscribed in the commissioner's notebook and black armbands were imagined onto the fallen hero's grieving fellow paper footballs left to carry on bravely in their unforgiving gladiatorial clashes.
Anyway, some aimless guy who had preceded me must have one day brought a Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger into the store. Maybe it was his own from earlier days (if memory serves, it was a 28-inch bat, in other words a little league model) or maybe he'd been sent by Morty to buy one from the sporting goods store up near Union Square (I forget the name right now, but the guy who played Tim "Dr. Hook" McCracken in Slap Shot once worked there). Who knows? Maybe that aimless guy or another aimless guy sank the two nails halfway into the strip of wood behind the counter from which the bat hung from the handle. It's all a mystery to me, really, which is fitting in a way, because Jeff Burroughs himself, represented solely in my childhood by this one unusually early (1974) card, was himself mysterious to me. All the other guys who had been awarded the Most Valuable Player award in the 1970s came to loom in my mind as ever-present, larger-than-life figures. Once or twice a year I was thrilled to find one of their dynamic action-shot baseball cards in a new pack; I read about them in Sports Illustrated; I saw them repeatedly in the All Star game; I thought about them, imagined them, sometimes even imagined being them. Bench, Reggie, Rose, Lynn, Carew . . . Burroughs? Part of the problem was that after getting this card, one of the few 1974 cards I own, I never got a Jeff Burroughs card again. He also never showed up in the All Star Game (his 1974 appearance had preceded my attentions, and while he was chosen to be a part of the 1978 National League squad he didn't get into the game). There was, to me, an aura around him. He actually seemed sort of scary. His lone MVP win, coming from what seemed to me to be nowhere, struck me as unpredictably explosive. Who was this Jeff Burroughs, and when was he going to strike again?
He did, I now know, have more than just that one good year, and in all fashioned for himself a respectable power-hitting career before becoming, with the help of his son, Sean, a two-time world champion little league coach. He will also be remembered by some for being a key participant in two of the more famous forfeits in baseball history (interestingly enough, he also was later a part of the most famous forfeit in little league history, the team he coached winning the first of their two World Championships after it was discovered that the team from the Philippines that had thumped them in the Little League World Series final had been stocked with deep-voiced over-aged ringers):
Forfeit #1 (September 30, 1971): The final game of the second edition of the Washington Senators
In this game, Burroughs, who would endure long enough in the majors to be the final active former second-edition Washington Senator (I believe Jim Kaat was the last of the original Washington Senators), was in left field when fans poured onto the field in the top of the 9th inning. Who can blame them? Their team was doomed, gone, not only bound for Texas but bound to be stripped of its name, just as the earlier Senators team that moved to Minnesota had been stripped. They stormed the field to rip up and take home anything they could, clods of dirt, the bases, pieces of the scoreboard, clumps of grass. (I wonder if anybody still has their clump of RFK Stadium grass.)
Forfeit #2 (June 4, 1974): 10-Cent Beer Night
Earlier in the 1974 season, at a game between the Indians and Rangers in Texas, Len Randle took out Jack Brohamer with a hard slide, which prompted Milt Wilcox to throw at Len Randle's head, which prompted Len Randle to drop a bunt down the first base line, which prompted Wilcox to race over to cover first on the play, where Len Randle rammed into him with a forearm. At this point, a melee ensued. During and after the violence Texas fans showered Indians players with beer.
The rematch between these two teams occurred in Cleveland on 10-Cent Beer Night. Many fans came to the park already well-lathered (a detail that offends my instinct for cheapness--why get drunk somewhere else when you can buy thirty beers for three dollars?) and with pockets full of old batteries, golf balls, rocks, and other assorted throwable items. They also brought smokable items, Jeff Burroughs saying afterward, "the marijuana smoke was so thick out there in rightfield, I think I was higher than the fans." In the ninth inning, the game-long fan unruliness reached a point of no return when one in a constant trickle of intruders onto the field swiped Jeff Burroughs' hat. Burroughs slipped and fell as he moved to get his hat back. In the Texas dugout, Burroughs' manager, Billy Martin, did not have a full view of Burroughs at that moment, and thought that his star player had been chopped down by one of the fans now pouring onto the field. Martin seized a bat and led his team onto the field to fight the entire ballpark.
Here's a few moments of the call from Indians broadcasters Joe Tait and Herb Score, courtesy of an excerpt of Cleveland Sports Legends quoted on The Sissybar:
Tait: Hargrove has got some kid on the ground and he is really administering a beating.
Score: Well, that fellow came up and hit him from behind is what happened.
Tait: Boy, Hargrove really wants a piece of him--and I don't blame him.
Score: Look at Duke Sims down there going at it.
Tait: Yeah, Duke is in on it. Here we go again.
Score: I'm surprised that the police from the city of Cleveland haven't been called here, because we have the makings of a pretty good riot. We have a pretty good riot.
Tait: Well, the game, I really believe, Herb, now will be called. Slowly but surely the teams are getting back to their dugouts. The field, though, is just mobbed with people. And mob rule has taken over.
Score: They've stolen the bases.
Tait: The security people they have here just are totally incapable of handling this crowd. They just--well, short of the National Guard, I'm not sure what would handle this crowd right now. It's just unbelievable. Unbelievable . . .
The Dave Kingman Report: At-Bat #1
I would like to introduce a feature that I plan to revisit periodically here on Cardboard Gods. But first a few words on the feature's titular player:
Throughout his career, Dave Kingman's at-bats ended in a strikeout more frequently than anyone who had ever preceded him onto a major league field. (By the time of his retirement, his contemporary Gorman Thomas had edged in front of him for the all-time lead in worst strikeout percentage.) Dave Kingman (unlike Gorman Thomas) was an atrocious fielder, once inspiring Phillies broadcaster Richie Ashburn to remark, during a break in play devoted to the repair of Kingman's glove, "They should have called a welder." Kingman's lifetime batting average was .236, and, because he seemed to lack both the ability and the will to draw a walk once in a while, his lifetime on-base percentage was an even more depressing .302, the same mark posted by Fred "Chicken" Stanley and lower than the success rates of, for example, Billy Almon and Shooty Babitt. He also had the reputation of being a detriment to the collective psychological well-being of his teammates, a characteristic most pungently described by one-time fellow Cub Bill Caudill, who said, "Dave Kingman was like a cavity that made your whole mouth sore." Teammates weren't the only ones subject to his malevolent demeanor: He once gift-wrapped a box with a dead rat inside it and presented it to a female reporter, apparently a Neanderthalic protest to the presence of women in the locker room.
At the time of Dave Kingman's retirement, however, only four men in baseball history had a higher percentage of home runs per at bat, and their names were Ted Williams, Harmon Killebrew, Ralph Kiner, and Babe Ruth.
He hit home runs, struck out, butchered fielding plays, sowed bad vibes. And then he hit some more home runs. Perhaps it's not surprising that he was well-traveled player. The team for which he was playing probably grew tired of his many shortcomings, while a team he had yet to play for was able by virtue of desparation and distance to narrow their vision to see only the home runs. This card shows Kingman in the rosiest light possible: the "N.L. ALL-STARS" insignia; the photo of the strapping slugger on one of the rare occasions when he'd just made contact with the ball, which probably meant that he had just sent it on a screaming 500-foot journey toward the windshield of a vehicle in the parking lot; and, perhaps most significantly, the bestowal on the back of the card by Topps of the number 500 in the 1977 series (I'm not sure if Topps still does this, but they used to have a hierarchical numbering system that gave stars numbers on the zeroes). But this is also the card that came out the year Dave Kingman became a member of five different teams (Mets, Angels, Padres, Yankees, Cubs) in a span of five months. Not even Bobby Bonds got hot-potatoed (or rotten-potatoed?) like that.
Suffice it to say that, like all the Cardboard Gods, Dave Kingman had his flaws. But this doesn't mean that there's not something about him that I, a Cardboard Goddite, can find to shine some more light on my shadowy life.
With that in mind, I have decided to create an ongoing feature entitled The Dave Kingman Report, which is intended to draw inspiration from the one thing that Dave Kingman did as well as any human who has ever lived, with the possible exception of the lovable Steve Balboni: swing for the goddamn fences.
I have never liked to strike out, not in baseball, not in softball, not in life, and this has at times prevented me from taking chances. The Dave Kingman Report is my attempt to address this shortcoming. I want to emulate Dave Kingman's willingness to go up to the plate and take his cuts. Strikeouts? So what. Keep swinging. At least that's the plan.
It is my hope that this project can encompass many different aspects of this life. Right now, what it most fully applies to for me is my writing "career," such as it is. A couple weeks ago I began a concerted effort to try to get the novel I've been working on for a few years published. I have made some efforts before, mostly through tenuous personal contacts that did not end up panning out. Now I'm sending query letters to people who won't know me at all. I also sent a shorter piece to a couple magazines. I have done this before but always reluctantly, hesitantly. I am trying to do it more often. Get a bat. Get in there. Swing.
Below is the box score including my first at-bat of this new season.
February 26, 2007
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Oh for one.
In Donald Honig's Baseball Between the Lines, 1940s Yankees standout Tommy Henrich is asked about Al Simmons, a fearsome hitter from the late '20s and '30s. He relates a story from Bill Dickey about the punishment Simmons used to unleash on the Yankees, then goes on to add his own description of Bucketfoot Al after the A's Hall of Famer had retired:
"He hung around as a coach after he was through playing. I used to yell to him during batting practice. 'Hey, Al, get in and hit a few.' He'd push out his lip and shake his head. 'Go on, Al,' I'd yell. 'Go on and hit a couple.' The guys would hear it and they'd let him get in. The reason I'd do it was to just watch him step in there. It was something to see. When Al Simmons would grab hold of a ball bat and dig in he'd squeeze the handle of that doggone thing and throw the barrel of that bat toward the pitcher in his warm-up swings, and he would look so bloomin' mad. In batting practice, years after he'd retired! I'd watch him and say to myself, 'Tom, old boy, that's the mood you ought to be in when you go to home plate.'"
With that in mind, here's Tom Hutton, who amassed 186 RBI in his career, just 21 more than Al Simmons had in 1930 alone. If I was, like Tommy Henrich, a habitual champion seeking to emulate an earlier star's focused, aggressive attack at the plate--at life itself--I'd probably seek out a seething conqueror such as Al Simmons. But I'm no all-star batsman. Literally speaking, I haven't even held a baseball bat in my hands since my liquor clerking years in the 1990s when I periodically hefted the Jeff Burroughs Louisville Slugger we kept hanging from two nails behind the counter. Back then I occasionally imagined single-handedly and with much gruesome head-smashing foiling the repeated nerve-jangling, racially-charged shoplifting assaults on the store from gangs of parka-clad teenagers. But anyway, literally speaking, my bat-wielding days, such as they were, are over, and I'm no figurative all-star ballplayer either, and not really a player at all. If anything, maybe I'm a player to be named later, but if so, when is later? When will I be named? And do I even want to be named? Maybe I'd just rather remain nameless. Do I want to even stand in there in the box hesitantly facing down the unknown as Tom Hutton is doing here? Maybe I'll just continue to lurk in the shadows. Or am I sick of the shadows? O, Tom Hutton, help me! O, Tom Hutton: In the big scheme of things I'm much closer to you than to Towering Immortal Al Simmons or October Hero Tommy "Old Reliable" Henrich, and so I turn to you for guidance in finding my way. You speak to me from your cringing, beady-eyed, mouth-breathing, lank-haired .250-hitting tremulous flinch of a batting stance. So that you might speak to other players-to-be-named-later-or-not-at-all, I have taken the liberty of attempting to translate your ineffable message into the following thick-tongued treatise:
Tom Hutton's Three-Step Guide to Existing within the Unfathomable Void
Step 1: Get a bat. You don't have to angrily grab or purposefully seize or heroically commandeer a bat, and once you have your hands on it you don't have to wave it menacingly or twirl it dashingly or throttle it with murderous ferocity. But you have to get one. I mean, not literally, unless you want to start an urban liquor retail business. But you can't go up to the figurative plate of life without a bat. So get a fucking bat. You know?
Step 2: Get in there. As shown by the instructional visual aid or holy icon or whatever you want to call Topps 1980 Montreal Expos card #427, "getting in there" can and often will, in most walks of life, fraught with ambiguity as they are, present some difficulties in the sense that there may seem to be no "there" there. Some in life are fortunate enough to be summoned unequivocally to the batter's box, to have a clearly defined purpose, a path, a calling, but the Tom Hutton Way shows that you can get in there with your bat even if there is no batter's box anywhere in sight. Look at Tom Hutton. He is most likely no closer than several hundred feet away from the possible flight of a pitched ball. Judging from the complete lack of other human forms in the photograph, Tom Hutton may, in fact, be on an entirely different training complex from that of his teammates, and so may be completely without hope of hitting a baseball while in his current stance. But he's in there anyway.
Step 3: Wait for the pitch. As suggested in Step 2 above, such waiting may be absurd. But wait you must, for consider the alternative: Without getting a bat, getting in there, and waiting for a pitch, where are you? You are nowhere. You are nowhere even after following the three steps but there is at least some humble dignity in your existence. You do not know if the pitch will ever come. You will begin to suspect, as Tom Hutton seems to be suspecting here, that you have already seen the last pitch you will ever see, and this suspicion will crease your brow and make your posture hunched and unsure. You will take on the look of someone in a cringe, cringing against the infinity embedded in the notion that no pitch will ever come and also against the notion that it will come, but only after your mind has wandered, and it'll be a bad pitch, up and in, and will hit you in the shoulder blade, and will hurt. But with all that you will also just stand there, waiting for your pitch, maybe cringing, maybe afraid, maybe full of doubt, but still with your tired eyes open and your bat sort of ready. You buck-toothed cipher, you drifting journeyman, you fifth outfielder on a doomed team in a foreign land, you wait.
Voice of the Mathematically Eliminated
About the Toaster
Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
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About The Author
Email: jawilker68 at yahoo.com