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Almost every child learns to read on a diet of simple sentences. The nouns are Dick, Jane and Spot. The verbs are run, walk, hit. The first verbs I learned, indeed, were run, walk and hit, but the nouns were more complicated: Goslin, Cronin, Bluege (the good guys) and Gehrig, Combs, Lazzeri (the bad guys). I may have learned to read more slowly than most kids, but I faced a greater challenge.
It was not, however, more fun. The subject of my earliest reading lessons was the day-to-day travails of the Washington Nats (also Senators) during the 1928 and 1929 baseball seasons. This did not give a 4-year-old boy an optimistic view of life. In the first year of my education, my heroes finished 26 games out of first place. In the second year, they finished 34 games out. Other boys' heroes—Tarzan, Robin Hood, Buck Rogers—provided a constant parade of victories, but the only time mine ever won a World Series was in 1924, two weeks before I was born. From there, it was downhill through swamp and jungle, dismal childhood reading but splendid early training in learning to live with adversity.
My father certainly meant well. He was convinced that schools waited far too long to teach children to read, so he decided to teach me himself. Because he was a baseball fan and we lived in Washington, it seemed obvious that I should learn by reading about baseball. In those days all games were played in the afternoon, usually in less than two hours. They ended in plenty of time for The Evening Star to print a play-by-play account on the front page of its late afternoon edition, which my father always brought home from work, having avoided reading the account of the Nats' game en route.
He would lie down on the couch and close his eyes, perhaps in preparation for what he was going to hear about his favorite team. I would spread the paper on the floor and read the play-by-play aloud to him. This may sound like a difficult task for a boy who had not yet started school, but it was really quite simple, at least during Washington's half innings. A typical Nats first inning went like this: Rice fanned. Bluege fouled out. Goslin popped to short. No runs. By comparison, the activities of Dick, Jane and Spot made for rich literature. Once I had learned to recognize the players' names, I could read the chronicle of disaster quite smoothly. Every now and then the Nats' flow of misery would be interrupted by a single or even a double, but this was swiftly corrected by a double play or a pickoff. Nothing to it, really.
But when the opposing team was at bat, reading became more arduous. Not only were the players' names less familiar, requiring me to spell them aloud to my father, but the action also grew hectic. Now one had to face complexities: Combs tripled to right centerfield, and when Flagstead threw wildly to third, Combs scored on the error. A sentence like that would be read haltingly, while my father groaned softly at Flagstead's perfidy. Or take this sequence, straight out of Poe: Gehrig homered over the rightfield barrier, scoring Bengough, Lazzeri and Ruth ahead of him. Burke replaced Marberry on the mound for the Nats. Bob Burke! Too late again. Firpo Marberry had already been cut to pieces.
Sometimes, around the sixth or seventh inning of a particularly bloody game, my father would rise from the couch and announce, in a stricken voice, that while I was reading very well, he thought he had better get ready for dinner. I was never fooled—a Washington fan, no matter how young, quickly became sensitive to distress. But even after he left the room, I always read on to the end, whispering the terrible words to myself: struck out, lined out, flied out, grounded out. If you followed the Nats, out was a word you really got to know.
In my later seasons of reading to my father, The Evening Star developed a more elaborate way of summing up each inning. Instead of merely saying no runs or two runs, it furnished a full report: One run, three hits, one error. This gave my father and me a little comfort, because even though the Nats often did not score in an inning, they frequently got a hit or two, and we could hope that the next inning would be better. Perhaps Washington was getting to the other pitcher. But then the play-by-play reporter thought up a fiendish shortcut so that he would not have to type No runs, no hits, no errors. At the end of such an inning he wrote the implacable words. Nothing across. By this time I was reading fluently, but when I first encountered this phrase, I simply did not understand it. I asked my father, "What does 'nothing across' mean?"
A long silence from the couch. Should this little boy be told the sordid truth about life? Or should innocence be preserved a bit longer? My father was a teacher who believed that a child's curiosity should be encouraged, that questions should be answered so that an inquiring mind might grow. "Nothing across," he said in the quiet, solemn voice he had used to explain why my puppy died, "means that nothing happened anywhere. The Nats did absolutely nothing."
Nothing across. Yes, that made sense, that was the story of the Nats. In fact, it was the story of my entire educational experience up to that moment. Except that I had learned to read. And eventually I would discover that there were other kinds of stories, and that some of them even had happy endings.