The Baseball Desert

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Born in the 50's

Winter - outside of occasional mad Matsuzaka-themed breaks - is always a time for catching up on some reading. In this case, reading actually means listening, but the principle is the same, and this week's offering is one that lends itself well to the audiobook format: Bill Bryson's memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, read by the author.

If you don't know Bill Bryson, I don't really have much to say, except "Why not?" He is a writer with a gift for acute observation on life, the universe and everything and, almost as importantly, the ability to translate that into funny and interesting writing. It wasn't until I started reading his memoir that I realised that the gift for writing might be something in his genes. Bryson's father was a sportswriter - apparently a very good one - who covered many sports, but principally baseball. As a result, the book contains a number of baseball references. In the midst of the craziness of $51m posting fees and 6-year mega-contracts, I thought it might be refreshing to take a walk with Bryson down memory lane to a simpler time, when baseball ruled America:
Every year for nearly forty years – from 1945 until his retirement – my father went to the Baseball World Series for the [Des Moines] Register. It was, by an immeasurably wide margin, the high point of his working year. Not only did he get to live it up for two weeks on expenses in some of the nation's most cosmopolitan and exciting cities – and from Des Moines, all cities are cosmopolitan and exciting – but he also got to witness some of the most memorable moments of baseball history: Al Gionfriddo's miraculous catch of a Joe DiMaggio line drive in 1947; Don Larsen's perfect game in 1956; Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning homer of 1960. These may mean nothing to you – they would mean nothing to most people these days, I suppose, but they were moments of near ecstasy that were shared by a nation.

In those days World Series games were played during the day, so you had to play hooky, or develop a convenient chest infection – “Geez, Mom, the teacher said there's a lot of TB going around...” – if you wanted to see a game. Crowds would lingeringly gather wherever a radio was on or a TV played. Getting to watch or listen to any part of a World Series game – even half an inning at lunchtime – became a kind of illicit thrill. And if you did happen to be there when something monumental occurred you would remember it for the rest of your life. My father had an uncanny knack for being there when such moments were made, never more so than in the seminal – and what an apt word that can sometimes be – season of 1951, when our story begins.

In the National League the Brooklyn Dodgers had been cruising towards an easy pennant when, in mid-August, their cross-town rivals, the Giants, suddenly stirred to life, and began a highly improbable comeback. Baseball in those days dominated the American psyche in a way that can scarcely be imagined now. Professional football and basketball existed, of course, and were followed, but essentially as minor spectacles that helped to pass the colder months until the baseball season resumed. The Superbowl was years from its invention. The only sporting event that gripped the nation, the one time in the year when even your Mom knew what was going on in the sporting world, was the World Series. And seldom did the race to reach the World Series hold America more firmly in thrall than in the late summer and fall of 1951. After months of comatose play the Giants suddenly could do no wrong. They won 37 of 44 games down the home stretch, cutting away at the Dodgers' once-unassailable lead, in what began to seem a fateful manner. By mid-September people talked of little else but whether the Dodgers could hold on. All across the nation fans were dropping dead from the heat and excitement. When the dust cleared after the last day's play the standings showed the two teams with identical records, so a three-game playoff was hastily arranged, to determine who could claim the pennant. The Register, like nearly all distant papers, didn't dispatch a reporter to these impromptu playoffs, but elected to rely on wire services for its coverage until the Series proper got under way.

The playoffs added three days to the nation's exquisite torment. The two teams split the first two games, so it came down to a third, deciding game. At last the Dodgers appeared to recover their invincibility, taking a comfortable 4-1 lead into the ninth inning, and needing just three outs to win. But the Giants scored a late run and put two more runners aboard when Bobby Thomson stepped to the plate. What Thomson did that afternoon in the gathering dusk of autumn has been voted many times the greatest moment in baseball history.

"Dodger reliever Ralph Branca threw a pitch that made history yesterday," one of those present wrote. "Unfortunately it made history for someone else. Bobby Thomson – the flying Scotsman – swatted Branca's second offering over the left-field wall for a game-winning home run so momentous, so startling that it was greeted with a moment's stunned silence. Then, when realization of the miracle came, the double-decked stands of the Polo Grounds rocked on their 40-year-old foundations. The Giants had won the pennant, completing one of the unlikeliest comebacks baseball has ever seen."

The author of those words was my father, who was abruptly, unexpectedly present for Thomson's moment of majesty. Goodness knows how he had talked the notoriously frugal management of the Register into sending him the 1,132 miles from Des Moines to New York for the crucial deciding game – an act of rash expenditure radically out of keeping with decades of careful precedent – or how he had managed to secure credentials and a place in the press-box at such a late hour. But then he had to be there – it was part of his fate, too. I'm not exactly suggesting that Bobby Thomson hit that home run because my father was there, or that he wouldn't have hit it if my father had not been there. All I am saying is that my father was there, and Bobby Thomson was there, and the home run was hit, and these things couldn't have been otherwise.

My father stayed on for the World Series, in which the Yankees beat the Giants fairly easily in six games – there was only so much excitement the world could muster, or take, I guess – then returned to his usual quiet life in Des Moines. Just over a month later, on a cold, snowy day in early December, his wife went into Mercy Hospital and, with very little fuss, gave birth to a baby boy: their third child, second son, first superhero. They named him William, after his father. They would call him Billy, until he was old enough to ask them not to.
It was indeed, as Sinatra said, a very good year.