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Still A Grand Old Game
Roger Kahn
August 16, 1976
In the first of a three-part pilgrimage, the author of "The Boys of Summer" finds baseball retains all its charm, whether played in suburbia, in the Ozarks or at Chavez Ravine. It fails only when its overseers fail it
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August 16, 1976

Still A Grand Old Game

In the first of a three-part pilgrimage, the author of "The Boys of Summer" finds baseball retains all its charm, whether played in suburbia, in the Ozarks or at Chavez Ravine. It fails only when its overseers fail it

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Roger came toward me slowly. The Ron Santo model seemed almost as big as he. His face was white. "Dad, I didn't mean to hit a liner at your face."

Getting up, glad to still have my nose, I fall back on an old Wayne-Bogart gambit. "Gosh, kid, I didn't know you cared."

"Sure I care," Roger said, and he put an arm around my waist. We started hiking to a distant house where splits of maple crackled in a fireplace. There we could sit before the fire and talk baseball.

What would I tell him? Of Stan Musial, most gentle of athletes, whose swing was like a viper's lash. Or of the day when Early Wynn brushed back Mickey Mantle, who bounced up and hit a single. Wynn was so furious that before he threw another pitch, he went into a careful pickoff move. Then he hit Mantle with his throw, knocking him to the ground alongside first base. "That S.O.B. is so mean he'd like to knock you down in the dugout," Mantle complained. Or about Victor Pellot Power of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, whom the Yankees traded in 1954 for announced reasons that are not worth remembering. The real reasons were that Power was black and Latin and reputedly liked the company of white women. When I saw Power in the hilly Puerto Rican town of Caguas several weeks ago, he demonstrated that the Yankees had been correct. He liked white women well enough to have married a compact, smoldering blonde whose name is Ada. But in between, while the Yankees employed Joe Pepitone, erratic, libertine—but white—at first, Power, a solid .285 hitter, was indisputably the best fielder at that position in the American League. Seven times he won the Gold Glove.

Or would I merely tell him about my father, a teacher and an editor, who hit a baseball hard. Two months before his heart stopped, he was lining high drives to center on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. He was 52 and I was 24, but I could not hit a ball as far as he. No power. He had hoped I would grow taller and stand someday beside Jake Daubert and Zack Wheat, the heroes of his own sand-lot days. Then he was dead, and the people who admired his eidetic memory and his understanding of the Renaissance told me how fine it must have been to grow up at his side and to talk seriously with him about serious things, such as the gardens of the Medici. I don't believe we ever did. We talked seriously (and joyously) about baseball. That was a serious thing, and that was enough.

You learn to leave some mysteries alone. At 28 I was susceptible to suggestions that I explain—not describe but explain—baseball in America. I published in small quarterlies. I addressed a Columbia seminar, and I developed a showy proficiency at responding to editors who asked me to "equate the game in terms of Americana."

Such phrases now bang against my brain like toothaches. I never look at the old pieces anymore, but I remember some generalizations I drew:

Baseball is not played against a clock. (But neither is tennis, golf or four-handed gin rummy.)

Baseball rules have barely changed across generations. (Neither have the rules of water polo.)

The ball field is a mystic creation, the Stonehenge of America. That is, the bases are a magic 90 feet apart. Think how often a batter is thrown out by half a step, compared to instances when he outruns a hit to shortstop. But artificial surfaces have lately changed the nature, if not the dimensions, of the diamond. A ground ball at Riverfront Stadium moves much faster than the same grounder bouncing on the honest grass of Wrigley Field. Yet at last look, baseball in Cincinnati seemed to be surviving. Batters there are also thrown out by half a step.

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