Sunday, May 31, 2020

“For the Love of Baseball” by Cynthia Close - 2019 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize Semi-Finalist

For the Love of Baseball


Cynthia Close

“You don’t have to be a giant to play baseball,” so says Joe Castiglione, Boston Red Sox play-by-play commentator on WEEI radio this hot July afternoon. His remark followed the revelation that Mookie Betts, one of the team's star players, is only 5’8”although his “official” stats claim 5’9”an inch shorter than my 17-year-old granddaughter.
            How can you not love a team with players named Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts? Their names roll off the tongue like the taste of a newly discovered candy bar. In 2018 the Boston Red Sox had ignited a fire in the heart of every fan. Halfway through the season and they blew every team in every league out of the water, shattering records so fast even the usually well-informed on-air sportscasters were having a hard time keeping up. They left their archrivals, the second place New York Yankees,shaking their heads in open-mouthed disbelief. At mid-season “the Sox” were more than fifty games over the five hundred mark and had secured a place in the World Series playoffs that they eventually won. Longtime fans know well enough not to take anything for granted. This year, 2019, their fires were still burning but not quite so bright. Baseball, like life, operates in the random collision of things. 
            I have always loved baseball. Specifically, Red Sox baseball. The love happened around the same time I arrived in Boston as a college freshman and with the sudden joy of newfound freedom adopted the city as my official hometown. Sport in Boston is a way of life for most of the population,extending far beyond the city limits. It cannot be escaped since these iconic teams follow you year round from Patriots football in the fall, through Bruins hockey and Celtics basketball in the winter, but it’s the boys of summer who captured my heart.
            Not that I came from a particularly athletic or sports-participant type of family. No touch football before Thanksgiving turkey dinners. No leisurely golf before martini’s at the country club in the afternoon. Dad was indifferent when it came to sports. Although he was fit and loved the outdoors, he preferred tooling around the Long Island Sound in his boat, or working to restore one of his classic cars in the garage rather than sitting in front of the TV watching men (and it is usually men on sports TV) competitively clobber each other.
            Mom was another story. She was a voracious consumer, a vicarious sports fanatic. Football was her passion after dad died. She knew the records of all the quarterbacks, and could tell you who the good coaches were and why. She especially loved the Patriots own Tom Brady when she heard he was a Republican. She could recite statistics well into her 8th decade even when she had trouble remembering which medications to take. As a young woman when summer came around mom’s attention switched to baseball and her radio was always tuned to the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1957 she was devastated when her New York favorites abandoned the city of her birth and hightailed it out to California where they became the Los Angeles Dodgers. My mother never forgave them, switching her allegiance to the New York Yankees without shame.
            We didn’t have air-conditioning in our house in the 1950’s – so the windows were wide open in the summer. The exciting play-by-play punctuated by the roar of the crowd drifting out on to the street provided the underlying rhythm to my languid childhood summer days. Baseball was synonymous with the freedom of summer. Free from the obligations of homework and housework I could stay outside from morning till dusk and no one thought to inquire where I was going or what I was doing as long as I was home before dark.
            My mother never actually threw a baseball. I never even saw my mother run or ride a bike. She moved purposefully through life, feet on the ground, restricted by the unwritten rules foisted on women who came of age in the 1950’s. Much of her life experience came via projection of her desires on to others. Concern for her physical safety motivated by unfounded fear of the unknown kept her in front of the TV or at her ironing board, listening to the radio.
            Mom was born in 1924 in the borough of Queens, close enough to attend games with her friends at Ebbets Field in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn where the Dodgers played from 1913 to 1957. This was before she met my dad in 1944. He was a tall, blond, self-confidently handsome, uniform wearing B17 pilot home on leave from WWII. I doubt they talked much about baseball. They had little time to do much talking at all since they knew each other a grand total of seven days before they became engaged, and soon after married.
            By late 1945 the war had ended and my mom and dad moved into my grandparents house in Queens. I was born in that house, just as my mother had been. I have no doubt that my mother had the radio tuned to a Brooklyn Dodgers game in spring of 1947 when they announced the signing of Jackie Robinson the first African American player to crash through the baseball color line. I’m sure she cheered him on with the rest of the team when he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 and continued to play in six World Series games in his ten year Major League Baseball career, including when the Dodgers won the 1955 World Series Championship, the year I turned ten.
            The house in Queens that accommodated four adults and me in 1945 had three bedrooms and a bath upstairs and looked most like the one in that much-loved long running TV sitcom, All in the Family, led by the openly bigoted but not dangerous, Archie Bunker.My grandparent’s house was cozier inside than the Bunker household and had more elaborate furniture. It was the only house I’ve ever lived in with an attic. There was a door in the upstairs hallway opening to a narrow staircase leading to the place under the eves where mom’s white satin wedding dress was folded neatly in a trunk. As I got older, but still before school age, I’d sneak up those stairs to explore.I found a box with a slice of fossilized wedding cake on top of yellowing love letters written by my dad to mom. There were 2 tickets to a Dodgers game in an envelope with some faded pictures of my mom and a man I didn’t recognize. Although grandma knew where I was she pretended to be surprised when I excitedly dashed into the kitchen yelling,“grandma, guess what I found!” I’m not sure what happened to that piece of wedding cake, or the dress, or anything else that was in the trunk. 
            The house with the attic sat in the middle of198th Street, separated from the neighboring houses by driveways on either side. There was an intimacy, a sense of community when you could look out your kitchen window, directly into the house next door. Loud conversations were easily heard through those open windows. In the summer elderly women leaned on their elbows resting on the sills while their chatter floated across the narrow strip of concrete pavement separating them.

            Queens today is a very different place in some respects and not so different in others.Based on 2017 estimates, Queens is home to one of the most diverse populations on the planet.Approximately 48% of the roughly 2,358,582 residents are foreign born. Jamaica, the largely middle-class subsection of Queens where my grandparents lived now accommodates a large African American and Caribbean population. That was not the case in the late 1940’s and early 1950’swhen it was predominantly white and European. I can’t pinpoint exactly when a vague uneasiness seeped into my grandparent’s house. There were hushed references to “certain kinds” of people who had started to buy houses at the far end of 198th Street. Racism was not part of my vocabulary or consciousness when I was a child. It took a confrontation with James Baldwin years later when I read The Fire Next Time in my freshman year at Boston University to awaken my sluggish intellect to what was hiding in plain sight. Even today, I am embarrassed to admit that the grandparents who loved me, the two people in the world I most adored, were racist.
            The word “nigger” was never uttered, but it was soon after those “certain kinds” of people bought houses on 198th Street that my grandfather chose to retire from his city job. A For Sale sign went up on the front lawn and my grandparents moved out to the far reaches of Southold on the North Fork of Long Island. By that time, my dad’s job situation had improved and I along with my parents moved into a duplex in Montclair, New Jersey. My elementary school was integrated. There were several black students in every classroom. At recess we played together in the schoolyard on the swings and on the baseball diamond. When the final bell rang at the end of the school day and we kids fanned out walking home in separate directions black folks disappeared from my line of vision.

            I never saw a black person inside my grandparent’s house. My parents had no black friends. We never had a person of color, any color, male or female included in holiday celebrations. This was the norm in my family circle and in all the circles of all the families of the friends I knew. Yet, in 1947, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recognized the talent of 28-year-old Jackie Robinson and invited him into the house of baseball, knowing he would be subject to the inevitable racial abuse that was rampant in nearly aspect of American culture and only thinly veiled in polite middle-class homes on 198th Street.
            Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31st, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, and died October 24th, 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut. His journey from south to north mapped a critical period in our countries tortured path of race relations that continues unabated today. Robinson’s all-around athletic prowess was recognized when he was a student at UCLA. He was a star on the football field, on the basketball court, on the track as well as on the baseball diamond. In 1942 he entered officer candidate school, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, just as my dad had been. But unlike my dad, Robinson faced court-martial in 1944 for refusing to follow an order that he sit in the back of a military bus. This was 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus to a white man. Ultimately the charges against Robinson were dismissed and he received an honorable discharge from the military. Things could have been worse and they were worse for other black folks who were not Jackie Robinson.Before he caught the attention of Branch Rickey, Robinson played for the Negro American League. Rickey deserves some credit for his very conscious plan to integrate baseball, and for his concern for his star players well-being in the light of racist attacks he knew were sure to follow when Robinson walked out on the field. And come they did. Even from some of his team members. I wonder what my mother was thinking during a game when she may have seen other fans hurl bottles at Robinson or when opposing teams deliberately pitched balls at Robinson’s head.I imagine these things were conveniently ignored, over shadowed by her love for the game and a willful blindness to strife, both inside and outside our home.
            On the day my mother died at the age of 92 the TV in her apartment at the south Florida assisted living complex where she spent her last three years of life was tuned to a preseason football game. It was the year before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the national anthem, sparking a cascade of similar silent protests calling attention to the ongoing oppression of people of color and their nearly unchecked murder by police in the United States. In the next two years “taking a knee” became more widespread. It was associated with the motivating forces behind the #Black Lives Matter movement and culminated in several hundred players joining the protest in response to President Donald Trump’s calling on NFL owners to “fire” the players who refused to stand for the anthem.
            I don’t know how my mother would have felt about “her players” protesting against racism. Had she lived long enough she may indeed have been one of those silent but seething white middle-class folks who voted Trump into office. For me, I choose to remember the finest examples of how human beings can act towards one another, people like Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, two “boys of summer” who knew the pain of racism firsthand and did not allow it to infect their lives. Admittedly, the Red Sox journey initiated by Rickey and Robinson has been down some rocky roads. But there have been gratifying moments, notably the outpouring of love shown to David Américo Ortiz Arias – affectionately known as “Big Papi”– upon his retirement in October 2016.And now, Alex Cora, the only Puerto Rican manager in the major leagues, coaches his Red Sox team on this hot July afternoon as the din of the crowd rises and falls to the rhythms of the game acting as a soothing panacea in this politically and culturally fevered moment in time. Seasons change. The Red Sox’s fortunes rise and fall sometimes in unpredictable ways.But wins and losses don’t affect my love of baseball where the seeds of possibility still reside for a fully integrated future when race is ignored and talent rules the game.

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