One in a series honoring Spring, and with it, the opening of baseball season.
What did Yogi Berra say was the secret of baseball?
Who did Abbott and Costello say was playing first?
How did Casey Stengel assess his hopeless Mets?
Ah, yes, with the start of another major league season, it’s time once again to renew ties with my favorite baseball tales and trivia.
The new season and all the legends and lore attached to it are the essence of the game for me. I should also perhaps mention the old glove on my closet shelf. It was designed for use in the infield. Of course, I used it to play outfield. All right, I’ll do more than mention it. Where’s that photographer?
Baseball for me is a rich repository of history, memory and comedy such as Yogi Berra explaining anything or manager Bruce Bochy’s classic comment after watching the huffing-and-puffing Pablo Sandoval attempt to run home from second. Pablo, he said, ran to third like a man moving a piano and after third like a man who sat down to play it.
There’s also Casey Stengel’s cogent summary of his hapless Mets team: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
And let us not forget the best baseball movie of them all featuring fastballing rookie “Nuke” Laloosh, veteran catcher and mentor “Crash” Davis and a groupie named Annie who has her own lessons to impart. You think you know baseball? You ain’t seen baseball if you ain’t seen “Bull Durham”.
It all started for me one warm summer evening 70 years ago when I saw my first baseball game as a kid vacationing with my parents and big sis in Sacramento. The ballpark was the home field of the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League. The vivid green field that greeted us as we emerged from the outside world seemed like an invitation to witness something very special. Between the National Anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” I sat as if mesmerized. I had no idea what was happening on the field, but I felt more and more as if I wanted to be part of it.
A few years after that, I received an infielder’s glove for my birthday, I kept trying my luck with it, watching sizzling grounders streak past it or roll under it or bounce off it. No wonder I preferred chasing fly balls across the wide open spaces. One had liberty out there, but the San Francisco winds were a problem, taking fly balls on unexpected flight patterns. The problems persisted as I grew up, but I compensated with a strong throwing arm that could rocket the ball back to the infield (never mind my lack of precise alignment to the cutoff man or catcher).
The outfield was free range and relatively harmless unless your fellow outfielders forgot to call for the ball or you made full speed contact with a wall that ought not to have been there. “How come this never happens to Willie Mays?” I asked after one such encounter. “Willie knows where he’s going,” came my rebuke..
Golden moments? I had a few. Like the time baseball immortal Ted Williams walked slowly past my seat at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium with bat in hand in a 1957 exhibition game (the San Francisco Seals at that time were a farm club of the Boston Red Sox). Teddy Ballgame, the last man to hit .400 in the major leagues, stared straight at me–and I mean stared — with a pair of unforgiving eyes that made me wonder if he was making a silent comment on my fielding or hitting. Possibly both.
Teddy’s hard cold stare might have cowered pitchers, but it didn’t stop me from dreaming of someday joining the Red Sox to learn how to hit from the master himself and redeem myself, I imagined spending the off-season there, too, visiting historical sites, downing Boston clam chowder, cultivating a Boston accent and taking a class in the literature of baseball at Harvard where my Sox uni would of course grant me free admission and a discount for sporting events.
And then there’s the tale of my glove, a Lou Boudreau infield glove dating from the forties. Half a century after I received it, I was astonished to see a huge replica of the glove mounted above the left field wall at the Giants’ AT&T Park. I began wearing the glove to the ballpark in order to bring the Giants luck and bring me a foul ball. A nearby fan was always sure to ask if the glove on the wall was a replica of mine or if mine was a copy of it. Sometimes a fan would ask permission to hold it. Sometimes the same fan asked how I ever managed to catch a ball with a glove so small. “Well,” I replied, “you had to be good, but if you weren’t good, you had to be lucky, and if you weren’t lucky, you had to come up with a convincing excuse like “the sun was in my eyes” or “I sneezed” or “‘the lady in row six was blowing me a kiss and signaling me where to meet her after the game.”
Imagine what Ted Williams or Casey Stengel would say about that.
In 1958, the incredible happened. The Giants came to town and brought the Say Hey Kid with them. My baseball buddy and I went to Seals Stadium (home to the Giants before Candlestick opened for business in 1960) to see our first major league game in person. Two bucks bought a seat in the bleachers. Less than that bought a hot dog. The Giants took the field and Willie Mays ran right past us on his way to patrol center field.
“It’s him!” My baseball buddy exclaimed like a man seeing a god materialize before his eyes.
“We’re in baseball heaven,” I agreed as my hot dog arrived and a vendor kept shouting “Cold beer here!” as if he was asking for one.
A few plays later, a fly ball headed to center. Willie was perfectly positioned to make one of his trademark basket catches, with glove at the level of his gut.
“Did you see how he caught that?” My friend asked. “Isn’t that the wrong way to catch a fly ball?”
“Why don’t you tell him that?” I suggested.
We moved on from lovely little Seals Stadium (where you were close to the playing field and where the nighttime aromas of a coffee plant and beer brewery scented the air) to Candlestick Park where you could win a commendation button for attendance if you survived one of those bone-chilling night games with the fog blowing in from the nearby bay. The fog was so thick at times that you could lose sight of an outfielder.
“Hey! What happened to the right fielder?” The baseball buddy asked, suddenly conscious of the fact that there were less than nine men on the field of play.
“i’m sure he’s out there somewhere,” I said reassuringly. “He just can’t see us.”
Years later, the Giants moved again, this time to the Frisco Embarcadero and a state of the art ballpark where you couldn’t get a bleacher seat or anything else for two bucks. But that’s major league for you.
Let’s hope this year they replace the cardboard cutouts in the stands with living, breathing fans. If so, you might look for me there. I’ll be wearing my glove, hoping for a foul ball, pestered about my glove by curious fans and trying to remember the wisdom of Yogi’ who declared that “Baseball is 90 percent perspiration and the other half is—-“
Hold it right there, Yogi. Other half? Half of what? 10 percent is all we have left. Unless you figure you’ve got another 90 per cent? You talking 180 total percent?
“Inspiration,” Mr. Berra said, completing his thought and ignoring my logical objection.
Okay, I get it now. Never mind the math. Forget the logic. Go with the spirit. The spirit of the game. Don’t they call wise men yogis?
This wise man has two words of priceless wisdom for all of us now that spring is blossoming with the sweet sounds of popping mitts and cracking bats.
Related: “The Future of Baseball” by Howard Lachtman
A retired reporter and editor, Stockton resident Howard Lachtman has written Delta-centered detective stories, Stockton Civic Theatre reviews and a variety of baseball tales for Soundings. In 2006. he was honored by the Stockton Arts Commission for “24 years of superior review and commentary on the performing and literary arts in Stockton.”