[Note: There will be two postings a week until December.]
A color photograph of a young me hangs above my desk. I am sitting in profile at the L-shaped work area I once used. Pens, matches, photocopies, a thesaurus are lying on the surfaces–some of the tools for my writing in those days. Seated on my lap is the two-year-old daughter. While I look forward, she has turned towards the camera. She has a proud, joyful smile as her finger is poised over the keyboard of a Selectric. The picture defines an era of her childhood for me.
Another photograph, this one in black and white, is to the left and above. It defines an era of my childhood. Two men in old baseball uniforms–stirrups, baggy, no names, are walking with their backs to the camera in a narrow, concrete passageway with harsh lights in the ceiling. “41” is on the left and “44” on the right. The caption to this picture, which I reproduced from a book, said it was Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron’s last trip off the field as Milwaukee Braves from County Stadium. The team would no longer exist.
The Milwaukee Braves were my childhood team. Our radio, as were our neighbors’, was tuned to their games. I could walk down the street on a warm evening with everyone’s windows open and not miss a pitch. I knew not just the lineup but idiosyncrasies of all the players. (I did not know as much as some did. At one of our family’s yearly outings to a game, two young women sat in front of us. One said to the other, ”Root for Frank Torre.” Torre was the backup first baseman who sometimes came in as a defensive replacement, hardly the one with a large fan following. The woman went on, “He’s the only one who is single.”)
I learned early that the mythic figures on the ball field were actually human beings. I went to my first major league game with a youth group—Cardinals versus Braves. We were in the right field bleachers where there was a low fence that we could stand next to. There he was—Stan Musial. I had heard his name on the radio a gazillion times. I knew that he was a baseball god, and I guess I expected a god-like figure or at least someone as heroic-looking as the good guy in a cowboy movie. But as I stood a few yards away from him, my boyish eyes saw an old man in need of a shave. (It was low-scoring game, and I remember Musial hit a home run in the tenth inning to win the game. I have never tried to look for the box score in case my memory is wrong.)
Baseball players were mortals, and I learned that they made mistakes and often failed. I heard a story that at a dinner honoring Stan Musial after he retired, Joe Garagiola said, “Stan was an all-time great. He batted .333 and got two thousand hits. (Pause.) Wait a minute. What are we doing honoring a man who made out four thousand times?” I learned that the best often failed, and that all players made errors, struck out at inopportune times, gave up home run pitches.
Individuals failed, and so did teams. Of course, the fan of any sports franchise learns that the season generally ends without winning the championship, but still some disappointments are larger than others. That was true for Milwaukee Braves fans. In a four year stretch of my childhood, the Braves finished one game out of first, won a world series, blew a world series, and ended up tied for the pennant but lost in a playoff. Had a few outcomes been different in this stretch, the Braves would be seen as the dominant team of an era, one of the all-time great teams. Instead, those clubs, the teams of my youth, are mostly forgotten by anybody who was not a fan.
These are lessons any sports fan learns. Players often fail; teams seldom win championships. These lessons remain with me and seem to speak to more of life than just sports. But the Braves also gave me a false lesson, one that was situated in the particular era of my boyhood. The Braves presented me an overly optimistic picture of race in the country.
Major league baseball had been integrated a few years before the Braves moved to Milwaukee. The team arrived just as the United States Supreme Court held that segregation of public schools violated the Constitution. I am not sure when I heard about Brown v. Board of Education, but to this third grader, integration was an abstract issue since my town–fifty miles north of Milwaukee–was all white. Even so, I and seemingly everyone I knew, were adamant anti-segregationists.
It took a while to realize that the whole country did not feel that way. I think I came to that realization during the Little Rock school crisis. The hate on the faces screaming at that brave little girl in her simple dress filled me with fear and disgust. But I naïvely thought that such hatred could not last for long, and I thought that because of the Milwaukee Braves. How could you not want Henry Aaron–in my ten-year old (yet carefully-considered) opinion probably the greatest ever to play the game–to be in your neighborhood, in your school, in your home? Maybe there were some problems with integration now, but baseball seemed to be indicate that the hatred would disappear and all people would soon be treated according to their merits. That’s what happened on the ball field. That Lew Burdette was white and Billy Bruton was black was not an issue. What mattered was whether the Braves won. And, of course, I saw that the Braves all worked together for that goal. Surely these teammates were all friends. If that could happen on the ball field, surely it would soon happen everywhere. Right?
[To be continued.]