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One evening last winter I was sitting at a social gathering with a middle-aged contemporary, a lady who is a professor of international studies at a Midwestern university. Strangers in many and profound ways, our conversation was difficult until we accidentally discovered that we both suffered from an obsessive, diseased attachment to baseball teams that hadn't played a game in 30 years. Her imaginary bag is the Chicago Cubs of 1935 or so, while mine is the Detroit Tigers of the same era. After the secret was out we got along swimmingly, happily comparing symptoms and scars of our disorder like two newly discharged appendectomy survivors. For example, we bet drinks on who could most accurately reconstruct ancient lineups.
"Jo-Jo White, Pete Fox, Charley Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Goose Goslin, Mickey Cochrane, Marvin Owen, Billy Rogell, Tommy Bridges. Today, Tommy Bridges; Schoolboy Rowe tomorrow; Eldon Auker on Saturday and Chief Hogsett in the bullpen," I commenced. "Little Augie Galan, Billy Herman, Kiki Cuyler, Gabby Hartnett, Charley Grimm, Stan Hack and—ah, my goodness, what was his name, the shortstop, great arm, hit about .260?" The lady hemmed and hawed and kept saying things like I-know-his-name-as-well-as-my-own and this-room-is-so-hot-I-can't-concentrate, but she could not come up with Billy Jurges, so I gracefully accepted a bullshot, which was what we were drinking and betting.
The point of this episode is not to illustrate my mnemonic prowess or to scoff at that of the lady internationalist. (Later, when we were naming 1936 first basemen, she won a bullshot because, though I-knew-his-name-as-well-as-my-own, I couldn't remember Hal Trosky of the Indians.) What I am trying to say is that the lady and I are retarded baseball fans and that this disorder is more common among the citizenry than the ordinary mental health survey and common sense might indicate.
The prime characteristic that distinguishes the retarded baseball buff from your normal, wholesome fanatic is that he is a chronological as well as geographical chauvinist to a pathological degree. To explain, the usual fan, sometime during his or her formative years, becomes attached to a team, and this addiction lasts for a lifetime. If, for example, he was hooked early on the Philadelphia Athletics he will continue to be an A's fan no matter where fate exiles him (to Kansas City, Mo., Oakland, Calif., Hungry Mother, N.C. or Reykjavik) or what temporary disguise or pseudonym the real A's happen to be using in any given season. The retarded fan has some loyalties of this kind, but his hallmark is a fanatical allegiance to a team that existed at one particular moment in time. Thus a normal Detroit fan roots for—in any given year—the Tiger third baseman, whoever he may be, Marvin Owen, George Kell, Don Wert. The retarded baseball fan, while preferring Kell to Keltner or Wert to Brooks Robinson, does so only because Wert and Kell happen to play the same position that Marvin Owen does on the real, genuine, only Tiger team—that of 1935-40. In truth, this sentimental interest in Kell or Wert is tinged with hostility, because no matter what these youngsters may do, they are forever usurpers whose ability is extremely questionable.
In addition to this unshakable belief in not only the superior but continued existence of the good old days, another characteristic of genuinely retarded baseball fans is that nearly all of them are middle-aged. Like the lady internationalist and I, most of them contracted their ailment in the 1930s. There were a few struck down earlier (I had an uncle who thought Hank Greenberg was an inferior Wahoo Crawford substitute) and perhaps a few who have become retarded later, though I only recall meeting one. But the '30s was the vintage decade for making retarded baseball nuts.
This strange, psycho band is still numerous and certainly curious enough to rate a short clinical report, one that may be of as much interest to historians as to the mental health crowd. And for personal reasons, last fall was an excellent time to assemble notes on the subject.
As the 1968 Tigers edged toward their American League pennant, my own case flared up so badly that I was incapacitated for other pursuits, being choked with nostalgia for the real Tigers. In fact, I was afflicted with what might be called nostalgic schizophrenia. How this ailment is contracted was once well described in a case study published by an authoritative, if obscure, medical journal, one which I feel at liberty to quote:
"BG was a scrawny prepubescent living on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Mich., suffering from a badly fragmented personality. During most of his waking hours he believed he was (often simultaneously) Mickey Cochrane, Hank Greenberg, Charley Gehringer, Bill Rogell, Marvin Owen, Pete Fox, Jo-Jo White, Goose Goslin and/or Tommy Bridges, Schoolboy Rowe, Eldon Auker, Chief Hogsett. Additionally, for shorter periods of time, he was able to convince himself that he had become any one of several hundred other major league ballplayers: Tony Lazzeri, Ted Lyons, Joe Cronin, Pepper Martin, etc.
"During the summer months BG's periods of derangement seemed to follow a rigid cyclical pattern. In the morning, equipped with a tennis ball and a $2 baseball glove, he would repair to the side yard, which was within easy throwing range of a sloping porch roof. Following a complicated set of rules regarding walks, hits, errors, strikeouts, runs, he would bounce the ball off the roof. To begin with, he would be Tommy Bridges and would give the roof nothing but curves. [When he was Schoolboy Rowe he would burn in fastballs against the shingles and when he was Eldon Auker he would use the appropriate submarine motion.]
"When the ball bounced off the roof, as it would when BG's control was right, he would pursue it and catch it as a Detroit Tiger fielder. The role of the roof, in addition to being something a tennis ball would bounce off of, was to serve as the New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs or some other major league baseball team. When Bridges or another of the stout-armed Tigers had set down the roof, usually in one-two-three order, the sides would change. BG would lob the ball against the house as, for example, Red Ruffing, and the roof would become, sequentially, Hank Greenberg, Charley Gehringer, Goose Goslin, et al. Because of the frequent big innings staged by the roof when it was a Tiger, these games generally lasted several hours.