Later that year, after my father's cookout, I began to appreciate the seriousness of gambling and along with it the seriousness of baseball. I equated baseball with something important that grown men did, and so I quickly gravitated to the sport. By the time I was 12 I was a star pitcher in Little League. My name was in headlines each week in the local newspaper. More strikeouts. Another no-hitter. A perfect game. I loved baseball from the first moment I played it. It was my distinction. When I got good at it, I loved it because it put me somehow above my suburban friends. People pointed me out. "There he is! Number 16. Jordan!" They followed me with their eyes, old men of distant semipro repute and parents with their young sons, pointing me out as an example. And sometimes their daughters, too. It excited me, all this attention.
I loved the game itself. The order and discipline of it. The finality. Win or lose. I lost myself in that orderliness for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that my life at home had grown increasingly chaotic. We seemed always to be on the brink of financial disaster. It was not until I was graduated from high school in 1959 and signed a $45,000 bonus contract with the Braves that I was able to ease my parents' financial burden by paying off the heavy mortgage on their house. Sometimes I think that is why I was so driven in my baseball career—to rid my parents of the financial worries that had filled my childhood with fear.
A couple of years ago, I sat at the kitchen table in my parents' tiny apartment in Bridgeport, where they had moved after selling me their house in the suburbs. They were in their late 60's then, modestly settled on a fixed income. My father's once debilitating vice had become little idiosyncrasies that we could all laugh at: stopping at the pay telephone by the side of the road, the pocketful of change, the numbers scribbled on odd bits of paper.
As we sat in the kitchen, I recalled the time I started the fire. Like most children, I had experimented with matches. On this occasion I lit an entire matchbook, and, frightened, tossed it into the trash. The garbage can, which was made of plastic, went up in flames. I panicked, but remembering something about using flour to put out a fire, I ran to my mother's spice jars and tossed a jar of flour on the flames. Too late. The can melted into a puddle of plastic, and my parents came home to a kitchen strewn with white flour. I was doubly punished, once for playing with matches and a second time for having incinerated my father's evening betting line, which he had written down on the inside cover of the matchbook.
The kitchen table in their apartment was set for my father's supper. Cheese, Italian bread, a steaming bowl of pasta e fagioli. My mother, washing dishes at the sink, told my father his supper was getting cold. He was standing by the wall telephone, nodding into the receiver at the voice of his bookie, who was quoting him the evening's baseball line. Again, my mother nagged at my father to eat his supper. He glared at her, cursed under his breath, but still she kept it up. He hissed, "Goddam it, shut up!" Suddenly his anger vanished. He signaled her frantically for a pen. She rummaged through a drawer and handed him one. Cradling the receiver between his ear and his shoulder he tried to write on a paper napkin.—New York 4, Boston VA. The napkin began to bunch up and tear. My mother rushed over and stretched the napkin taut with her fingers so my father could continue to write out the evening line.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has been trying to get my father to give up his gambling. She nagged him daily, not so much because gambling forced us to live precariously, which it did, but because, more than anything, she wanted respectability in the suburbs. But now, in her late 60's, her nagging was merely a reflex action. She knew he would never quit, and at times she seemed to be in consort with him. There was the night when I went to their apartment to find my father in bed with the flu, a thermometer stuck in his mouth. My mother was on the telephone in the kitchen. She signaled me to silence with a finger to her lips. Spread out on the kitchen counter was a napkin on which she was writing out the evening line. My father, moaning in bed, calling out to my mother, "Get the line on Frisco!" My mother, scribbling as fast as she could, taking her responsibility so seriously.
My parents and I laughed at such recollections. As they got older they liked to amuse me with such stories. "Patty, you won't remember this, you were only a child...." But I did remember. I remembered a Monday morning after one of my father's disastrous weekends betting football, when I sat wedged between the stove and the kitchen wall, huddled in fear, while a strange couple wandered about our house, peeking behind curtains and questioning my poor mother about heating costs. I remember the terror I felt in bed that night thinking we would be thrown out of the house if my father did not recoup his losses on that evening's basketball game. I prayed to St. Jude that the Knicks would beat the Celtics at least by a point-and-a-half. They did, and that crisis was averted.
There were many such stories, all of which seemed so funny when we retold them years later in my parents' apartment. There were some stories, however, which even in retrospect did not seem so funny. Like the time my father threw the radio down the cellar stairs, smashing it to bits because I wanted to listen to The Shadow and he wanted to listen to Pack at the Track. I was 10 years old.
Whenever I mentioned these moments, my parents would glance at each other in silent recognition and then, half kiddingly, they would chide me for my faulty memory. When I persisted, their faces would get red. "You exaggerate!" my mother would say, with a backward toss of her hand. "That's not the way it was." But it was. I did live in daily fear of financial disaster.
My father's angers were brought on not only by his gambling and its losses but also by my mother's constant quest for respectability. She nagged him day and night to stop his betting. And when he didn't, she demanded at least that he take a respectable job for "appearances' sake." To mollify her for a few months, he would take some menial but legitimate job which still allowed him all the free time he needed to pursue his real vocation.