They took away my cricket bat at the age of 9 and told me I wouldn't be needing it anymore. Out of kindness they didn't tell me I wouldn't need my soccer ball, either. Otherwise, I don't think I would have come to America at all, I would have lied about my age and joined the horse marines.
Exile is an ugly business at any age. Harold Pinter, the playwright, carted his bat with him all over England to remind him of the past (he must have been 8 when he started out). I was forced to hand over mine at the frontier, and with it the long summer evenings, the boys with the dangling suspenders, the whole Fanny-by-gaslight world of cricket; my life for the next few years would be a hunt for fresh symbols, a bat and ball I could believe in.
Baseball dismayed me at first blush almost as much as the big cars and the big faces in the street. In the dictionary of the senses cricket stood for twilight, silence, flutter. (See also Swans.) Baseball equaled noonday, harsh, noise, clatter. (See Geese.) That was how it looked at first—boys milling around dusty lots jabbering and hitching at their pants. But as I kept craning from train windows and car windows in my first days in America, I noticed something promising: that nothing ever seemed to be happening at that particular moment—the same basic principle as cricket. The pitcher peering in to get the sign, the ritual chant of the infield, the whispered consultations and then, if you were very lucky, a foul tip (before you were whisked out of range). Baseball was not as busy as it seemed but lived, like the mother game, on pregnant pauses. This, plus the fact that it happened to be in season and you played it with a bat and ball, made it look like my best bet.
Unfortunately, the place where we first lived was an almost deserted village, so there was no one to play with. There was one boy about a mile down the road. He straightened out my batting stance and filled me in on the First World War, too, but he was five years older than I, with his own life to live, so I couldn't bother him too often.
Instead, I became perhaps the outstanding solitary baseball player of my generation, whaling fungoes down the long, narrow garden and plodding after them, chattering to myself and whaling them back again. Anything pulled or sliced got lost, so my first encounter with American botany was staring sightlessly through it, hunting the tawny baseball. When that palled, I would chalk a strike zone on the garage door and lob a tennis ball at it. Already I had the style, though God knows where it came from: the mock aggression and inscrutable loneliness. Gary Cooper high on a hill, twitching his cap, shaking off the sign: nodding, rearing, firing. Clunk, against the old garage door. The manner came with my first glove.
Another thing that stoked my love affair was the statistics. I like a game that has plenty of statistics, the more inconsequential the better, and I began soaking up baseball records like a sea sponge before I even knew what they meant. I liked the way you could read around baseball, without ever getting to the game at all. I devoured a long piece in the old Satevepost about Hank Greenberg, baseball's most eligible bachelor, and another about young Ted Williams, who only shaved twice a week. Official baseball sneaked up on me through its trivia. My learned friend up the road took me, at last, to an actual game at Shibe Park, and I was hooked for fair. It was the St. Louis Browns vs. the Philadelphia Athletics, hardly an offering to stir the blood, but more than enough to stir mine. The Brownies built up a big lead, but the A's, led by Wally Moses and Bob Johnson, staged one of their rare comebacks and pulled it out of the fire. The sandlot games I had seen so far had not been beautiful to look at, only intellectually interesting (I used phrases like that occasionally, a real little snot in some ways); but here we had something as elegant as the Radio City Rockettes—explosively elegant and almost as fussily stylish as cricket.
Baseball became my constant, obsessive companion after that. Up and down the garden, faster and faster, first as Dick Siebert, the A's first baseman, then as Arky Vaughan, whose name and dour appearance I fancied, then right-handed as Jimmy Foxx. And at night I played out whole games in my head, in which I was always the quiet, unobtrusive professional (I detested showboating) who hit the penultimate single or made a key play in the eighth inning. It was as if I'd brought my cricket bat with me, after all.
The point about this was that it was all what D. H. Lawrence would have called "baseball in the head." When I came to play with other boys in the next few years, I continued my solipsistic ways, trotting out quietly to my position, chewing all the gum that my mouth would hold and gazing around with mild, shrewd eyes; or, for a time, grinning like Stan Hack, the Cub third baseman—a steady player on a steady club, the way I wanted to spend eternity.
A sociologist might (and I would probably agree with him, having just made him up) explain my choice of this particular type of athlete quite simply. Baseball was my social passport, and a slight averageness is good on a passport. It means that the officials look at you less closely. Who is that guy over there? Maybe he'd like to play. Say—he's quietly efficient, isn't he? I remember standing around picnic sites and county fairs, wistfully, with my glove half concealed under my arm as if I didn't mean anything by it. I was slightly ashamed of my accent and bitterly ashamed of my first name; but baseball did not judge you by those things. The Statue of Liberty, bat in hand, said, "Try this, kid."
Sometimes, magically, it happened. I was rather light for a ballplayer in spite of weighing myself a lot. I knew the names of all the light ballplayers (the Waner brothers were a special comfort), but still, 80 pounds was 80 pounds, and even with the most graceful swing in town I could rarely nudge the ball past second base. However, I waited out numerous walks, if there happened to be an umpire, fielded as well as the pebbles allowed and always looked a little better than the clumsy lout they had buried in right field. Afterwards they went their way, into houses I knew nothing about, to a life that contained other things besides baseball; and I went mine.