"You going to listen?"
"Why not? You want to listen?"
So I was a fan at last. An authentic baseball fan. A fan despite my mother, who, as the daughter of a Scottish academic knighted for his work in 17th-century English literature, was also an alien to baseball culture and would soon be worrying aloud that my obsession with the game would interfere with the serious business of my life. As for my father, even as late as the 1960s he taunted me by asking how Babe Ruth was doing. "Daddy, he died more than 10 years ago," I would groan. "Died?" he would riposte gleefully. "How could he die? He was such a great American hero, that drunken, whoring baseball player." I was a baseball fan despite my subliminal awareness that the movers and shakers of history would never squander on baseball the time and energy that I was now spending on the "silly game."
Every morning for the rest of that summer of 1948, I would turn to the sports pages to see where DiMaggio stood among the batting leaders and to find out what team the Yankees would be playing next. And in the afternoon or evening, I would lie back on my bed and let Mel Allen's voice fill my imagination.
What I would do to hear that voice!
The following summer I was loaned out for a month to a farm family in Vermont, on my mother's assumption that milking cows and forking hay would be healthy for a 128-pound city boy who spent most of his time with his ear to the radio or his eyes on the sports pages.
But I outfoxed her. If the corn rows that required daily weeding were many and endless, they also formed a screen against prying eyes. I could duck walk behind them to the edge of the field, and from there it was just a short run to the bunkhouse, where the innards of an old radio sat on a bench by my bed. The machine had no switch, no volume control, no tuning knob, not even a dial. But by stretching myself prone on my bunk and reaching both arms through the space between the head bar and the mattress, I could make the thing work. With my right hand I would hold a loose wire against a terminal at the back of the chassis to get power, and with my left hand manipulate the variable condenser to tune in different stations.
In the daytime it usually took just a few seconds to find a local news broadcast with a roundup of ball scores at the end of it. In an instant I would be back down the stairs and out again among the corn rows pulling up weeds as if they were what stood between the Yankees and the pennant. At night, if the atmosphere was clear, it was possible to pick up the Yankee broadcasts directly, though it was always a challenge to chase after the signal as it faded in and out. I had to be careful also to hold the loose wire steady, for at the slightest tremor of my fingers the circuit would break and the signal would die. But if I did everything right, Mel Allen's bronze gong of a voice would ring in the darkness around me with a description of a game being played hundreds of miles away. I would pass evening after evening in the darkness of the bunkhouse, literally tuning in my fantasies, until my arms would fall asleep from the pressure of the mattress, my fingers grow numb, the wire slip and a vicious shock would jar my hand.
But even electrocution couldn't kill the dream. On days when everything else had gone wrong for me yet my team had won, I would drift off to sleep imagining the next day's victory and the one the day after that, an endless string of winning days winding all the way to October and another championship—a dream of perfection. And on days when my team lost, I would tell myself that my fixation on baseball was pretty silly after all, a residue of adolescence—I might even go so far as to promise myself to swear off the game. Yet just before nodding off, my mind would slip to a level deeper than discipline. And at the border of sleep and dreaming, I would discover again, as if it were a coin in tall grass, the hope that my team might win tomorrow.