(Brooks Robinson, by Norman Rockwell)
What is it about baseball that has inspired poetry, song, art, storytelling, and writing like no other sport? We can argue whether it is still the “national pastime”, but it has clearly inspired the greatest American writers to explore its joys and mysteries. The likes of Walt Whitman, John Updike, and F. Scott Fitzgerald have all taken their turn.
Baseball was my dad’s gift to me. He was always ready for “a catch” in the front yard. He loved the history of the game, and we never missed an “Old Timers” exhibition. He took me to Cooperstown and snagged great seats for two World Series. He introduced me to his old pal Early Wynn, Hall of Fame pitcher for the Washington Nationals (Senators), Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. With Cleveland, baseball historian David Fleitz called Wynn “part of the greatest pitching rotation of all time, along with Bob Feller, Mike Garcia, and Bob Lemon.”
Wynn came to Florida for Spring Training with Washington in 1942 and his wife roomed in the same apartments as my mom. Mom had gone to Florida to shadow dad who was there for Army training. The two couples clicked and spent special time together. After the war Dad stayed in touch with Early and would connect every time he’d come to Baltimore. Early got Dad tickets to the 1958 All Star Game at Memorial Stadium. We took the whole neighborhood to the Parade of All Stars on 33rd Street and as Early rode by sitting atop the back seat of a sleek white convertible, he shouted out my dad’s name when he spotted him in the crowd. I was so proud; I was ready to bust wide open.
It was several years later that I got to know Early. He loved Maryland hard-shelled crabs and in spite of what it did to his gout, on road trips to Baltimore as a player and later a coach, he would count on my dad to pick him up after the game and drive him to a crab house for a night of eating, drinking, and storytelling. We went to a tavern in Irvington on one occasion that proved memorable. Early complained to the waitress that their beer mugs were way too small and asked to see the size of their small pitchers. She brought one out and for the rest of the evening, it became Early’s glass. My dad said, “a pitcher drinking from a pitcher…seems natural to me.”
I felt like I was sitting in the presence of a modern-day Babe Ruth. Real baseball fans would recognize him, and while pleasant to everyone, he generally refused to give autographs. He couldn’t have been nicer to me and in his coaching days would approach the box seat railing and greet me with a “hey Johnny”. What could be better?
The other Hall of Fame pitcher who had crossed paths with my dad was Robert Moses “Lefty” Grove. Lefty played for the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Sox and was one of the greatest pitchers in major league history. He led the American League in wins in four separate seasons, in strikeouts seven years in a row, and had the league’s lowest ERA a record nine times. In 1931, Lefty was named the major league’s MVP with a 31-4 record and 27 complete games.
Dad’s connection with Lefty was Lonaconing, Maryland. My grandfather was called to be the pastor of First Methodist, Lonaconing, in 1932. A mountain town in coal mining country, it was also the birthplace and home of Lefty Grove.
Lefty would always return to Lonaconing in the off-season and was often found at his bowling alley on Main Street, “Lefty’s Place”. Dad spent his junior and senior years of High School in town and got a job as a “pin boy” in this neighborhood establishment. The bowling in Maryland was traditionally “duckpin”, featuring much smaller pins than ten-pin bowling, and a 5-inch diameter ball with no finger holes. Automated pin-setting wasn’t introduced by AMF until 1941, so in 1932 “pin boys” sat on three-legged stools, set the pins and cleared the “dead wood” by hand.
Lefty had a famous temper, usually channeled on the field, but occasionally volcanic off the diamond. Dad told the story of being the target of Grove’s wrath one afternoon when Lefty was in a pclose contest and a significant amount of money was on the line. Lefty accused my dad of kicking over one of his pins and after sending a stream of invective in his direction, followed it with a three- and one-half pound bowling ball. To the average human, launching a three-pound missile the 60-foot length of a bowling alley would be difficult. To a major league pitcher, it could arrive on the fly with impressive velocity. Dad ducked, the ball splintered the wall behind him, and the game went on. That story and a beautifully signed baseball in Lefty’s “Palmer Method” penmanship, were Dad’s souvenirs of Lonaconing.
From an early age I loved to play baseball and was a decent pitcher in my “Little League days”. I was not a natural athlete but something about baseball clicked with what skills I had. I had pretty good speed and control and a sidearm delivery that drove my instructional managers crazy. But, as long as my weird delivery resulted in strikes and outs, they left me alone.
One funny tale about those days. I was pitching for Zepp Insurance and my mom was in the stands on the first base side. A kid came up to bat from the Rotary Club and hit a check-swing foul ball right toward my mom. It was a bang-bang moment and a man sitting next to Mom caught the ball right in front of her face. Had he not, it clearly would have creamed her. After the man tossed the ball back to the umpire and the relieved chatter died down, I threw my next pitch (unintentionally) right at the batter’s head. It buried him in the dirt and brought both the home plate umpire and my manager sprinting to the mound. I at once apologized and convinced everyone that I was as surprised at the ball’s trajectory as they were. It’s a story that survived in family lore. We called it “The night I tried to kill the kid who tried to kill my mom”.
My first recollection of Orioles baseball was a trip to Memorial Stadium when I was eight years old. I don’t remember much about the game. I don’t remember who the Orioles were playing. I just remember that the game went into extra innings, and we got home way past my bedtime. I cut out the story in the Baltimore Sun the next day and pasted it in a scrapbook...long lost at this point. My archival skills developed much later in life.
Three things I learned from Dad were 1) don’t sit in the cheap seats 2) always get there early and 3) keeping score was a science worth learning.
My dad’s entire quote was “we only come this way once, so let’s not sit in the cheap seats.” Dad was a telephone repair guy and Mom worked for an Insurance Agency, so we were never rolling in cash. We were middle class and comfortable and other than a new car every two years and a one-week vacation to Ocean City, luxuries did not abound. However, when it came to paying for a ticket to watch someone play a sport, perform on stage, or sing a tune, my dad never even considered the bleachers, the balcony, or the back row. He was box seats or orchestra all the way.
Then there was the matter of early arrival for a baseball game. There aren’t many performances where for the same price you can come to watch the rehearsal. We never missed batting practice. Get there early and you can see your favorite stars for an extra hour of baseball. Back in those days, they’d let you come down to the railing and watch the players play catch on the sidelines, take fungo (field hit balls to the infield and outfield), or take part in a nightly home run derby from the batting cage. You also got an extra hour of ballpark treats like Esskay hotdogs, popcorn, and Coca Cola. Oh, and don’t forget the traditional “peanuts and Cracker Jacks”.
As for keeping score, it made more sense in the days before Megatron scoreboards that tell you exactly what happened in the batters last plate appearance. The smartphone is also a handheld trove of information that wasn’t dreamed of in my dad’s day. Looking back, I’m so glad that my dad and I bought a scorecard on the way to our seats every night and meticulously recorded every hit, run, and out with our stubby little pencils. I kept many of those 25-cent scorecards in my baseball archives and when I pull one out, I can read my dad’s neat hieroglyphics and picture the entire game. It’s like holding three hours of your life on a dog-eared orange and black piece of cardboard. Another part of baseball’s magic.
My dad was not a beer drinker, and I don’t remember beer consumption as being a very big deal in the 50’s and 60’s at the ballpark. The family atmosphere started with the low price of a ticket in those days. Bleacher seats were just over a dollar and food was cheap. The whole atmosphere at Memorial Stadium was more family friendly than it eventually became. “Wild Bill Hagy” arrived in his taxicab from Dundalk in the late 70’s and turned Section 34 into a cheering, beering, and cursing Sodom and Gamora. Goodbye family atmosphere.
When it comes to low prices, you couldn’t get a cheaper seat than we enjoyed. Dad and I went to Memorial Stadium for free.
Our across-the-street neighbor in Catonsville was Doug Brown, Dartmouth grad and young sportswriter with the Baltimore Evening Sun. When he and his wife Marion moved in as a newlywed couple, my parents adopted them and aided them in their new homeowner and novice cook transition.
They loved my folks and Doug showed his gratitude each year with an amazing gesture. He covered the Baltimore Orioles baseball team for the Sun and received two season tickets each year as a perk for his family. Marion hated baseball, they had no children, and so, each year, Doug would walk across Thackery Avenue and hand my dad a pack of two lower reserve seats, Section 41 behind home plate, for his choice of home games at Memorial Stadium. Those seats were where I spent quality time with my dad, and I became a lifelong and longsuffering Orioles fan.
It just so happens that Section 41 was also where the Oriole wives sat. Young and beautiful, as I think back on it now, they made the viewing quite pleasant for my dad and win or lose, he always seemed to be in a good mood at the ballpark. One year we sat right beside Brooks Robinson’s wife Connie Butcher Robinson. She was a former flight attendant and even my 11-year-old self was smitten by this blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty. The following year Brooks David Robinson arrived on the scene and everyone on our row was pressed into babysitting duty during the game.
The other Oriole wife who stands out in my memory was Mary Ann Roberts, wife of Whiz Kids legend Robin Roberts. In 1962 when the Orioles picked up veteran Roberts as a relief pitcher, Mary Ann would have been 34 and stood out as a senior member of the wives’ club. It’s funny now as I look back on it that Mary Ann seemed “old” to me at the ripe age of 12. She had been a grade school teacher and knew just what to do and say to make my evening pleasant.
Another senior member of the contingent was wife of Orioles announcer Herb Carneal. Katherine Carneal was friends with Mary Ann Roberts as Herb had announced for the Phillies during Robin Roberts playing days there. She was probably the most generous seat mate and would buy me a bag of peanuts during every game that we were together. She was most particular about who she bought the peanuts from and would wait for a certain vendor to come by. It so happens that she and Herb had befriended this young fellow and had employed him to do gardening and yard work at her home. I thought it was cool that she knew the name of the peanut guy.
We didn’t get to all the games. Spring and Fall were tough on school nights and summer vacation at Ocean City often knocked out one or more home stands. However, we were there for 25 or 30 games a year from 1961-1964 and saw a lot of Orioles baseball. Doug Brown would occasionally sneak us into the press box, and I remember meeting the New York Yankees broadcast team of Mel Allen, the “Voice of the Yankee’s” and Phil Rizzuto, Hall of Fame Yankees shortstop who was nicknamed “The Scooter” in his playing days. I especially remember meeting Rizzuto. It was August 26, 1962, when Robin Roberts beat Whitey Ford to complete a 5-game sweep of the Yankees. When Doug introduced my dad and me to “The Scooter” I sheepishly asked if he wouldn’t mind signing my Orioles program. As he signed the autograph he said, “After the whipping we’ve taken from your Orioles, I’d be proud to sign it.” I still have that program.
I have passed my love of baseball on to my children. I sadly had no source for free tickets as they were growing up, but we always found a few evenings a season to watch the Orioles at Memorial Stadium and later, Camden Yards. Our traditions included never sit in the cheap seats, sandwiches from Subway and of course, early arrival and keeping score. I have great memories of those evenings. One night we created a memory that I’ve never lived down.
It was Friday, May 17, 1996, and I had taken 13-yr old Megan and 10-yr old Brittany to Camden Yards to watch the Birds take on the Seattle Mariners. In the bottom of the 8th with the Orioles down 3 runs, I declared the night over and despite some complaints from my companions we walked to the car and headed down Interstate 95 for home. As we listened to the play by play on WBAL Radio, the Orioles loaded the bases in the bottom of the 9th, and Megan and Brittany were already on my case about leaving too soon, fair weather fan, etc. With two outs, up to the plate comes Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles. With the extra drama of taking the count to 3 and 2, you guessed it, Hoiles became the 23rd player in baseball history to hit a grand slam in the bottom of the 9th to win the game. Play by play announcers Jon Miller and Chuck Thompson went wild; Camden Yards went wild, and my fate was sealed as the dad who left too soon.
Both daughters have found life mates who have played the game and enjoy watching the national pastime. In Megan’s case, she found a North Carolina guy with Maryland family roots who loves the Birds. I’ve always opined that that was the link that sealed the deal, but I’m sure that’s an exaggeration on my part. Drew and Megan have introduced their daughters to tee ball and minor league baseball and so we have a shot at yet another generation of fans. I have a closet filled with scorecards, autographed baseballs, game bats, and Orioles yearbooks that I will hang onto until I am sure they will not windup in a landfill or on eBay after my final slide into home.
So, one final recap. We only come this way once, so don’t sit in the cheap seats. Always get there early. Learn how to keep score. And, if your daughters tell you that the Orioles may come back in the 9th, believe them.
And now friends, a video tribute to the game, my city, and The Earl of Baltimore.