Charlie WilliamsMarch 8, 2010
The American Dream is to find home. This dream shaded a 1972 trade featuring Charlie Williams. Charlie Williams was not the focus of the dream, however, and so ended up actually being taken from his home and moved elsewhere. This is the problem of the modern world, I guess, or one of them: the dream of home, always elusive and often invasive or worse (ask an Indian, if you can find one, how he or she feels about the American dream of finding a home), ends up making everyone more or less rootless and adrift.
The trade I’m talking about is the one that sent an aging Willie Mays from San Francisco back to New York, the city where he had begun his incredible major league career. The Mets sent Charlie Williams west to facilitate this homecoming, not balking at the fact that Charlie Williams had an even stronger tie to the Mets’ home than Mays ever could: the young pitcher was then and remains (according to Brian Joura) the only player in Mets history to hail from the very ground the Mets stood on: Flushing, NY. [Update: as pointed out in the comments below, Ed Glynn was another Flushing native who played for the Mets.]
The back of this 1977 card confirms the plumbing-evocative neighborhood name as Charlie Williams’ point of origin, and also relates that the pitcher decided after the 1972 transaction to try to make his new home in Foster City, California. Right around the time of his arrival, events in Foster City inspired an article in the San Francisco Examiner that went on to gain some renown entitled “Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree.” I haven’t seen this article, but its reputation is of a sensational report on rampant youth vandalism in a recently formed community that had been planned out with the highest aspirations.
A few years ago, a student looking to gather information for a project on the trouble in Foster City posted a question on an internet site hoping to get memories from any Foster City residents from that time. The responses almost all professed surprise that there had been any trouble at all. To them, Foster City was and is just fine. One responder did hint at some trouble out beyond the margins of the vision of the American Dream. It’s interesting to note that in this commenter’s description, the opposite of trouble in Foster City is a world saturated with baseball and with players, or one player in particular (a player who will forever pull Charlie Williams at least slightly into the limelight), who decades later can serve as a potent symbol of home, if not the whole idea of home altogether. Everyone wants to find home. For some of us, home means this game, these cards. Anyway, here’s the take of the commenter, “Joe2,” on the two versions of Foster City, one within the safety of the baseball field, and one beyond that safety:
I remember the “Mouse Packs” clearly. I was 13, it was summer of 1973 and it was baseball season. We played in a big field that used to be behind the fire station. We were good kids, we played in the parks, went swmming/sailing in the lagoon, joined a father & son group called “indian guides” and rode our bikes to Safeway to buy baseball cards. I still have my Willie Mays in action cards. There were a couple of bad influence kids arround, and I know they were going arround pulling hood ornaments off cars. They pulled the BWM crome plates off with screw drivers. I remember Dad told me about the Mouse Packs story, and I thought it was about these kids . . .
There were some bad apples, but we were good kids.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot, as I am prone to do, about Kelly Leak, specifically the particularly iconic version of Kelly Leak in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, and I have even gone so far as to begin trying to imagine Kelly’s life away from the baseball field.
This past weekend, I finally watched the 1979 film Over the Edge (which has come up several times in conversation on this site) while wondering about what might have happened to the star of the Bad News Bears after his heroics in the Astrodome (note: while asking “Where have you gone, Kelly Leak?” I do not and never will recognize the existence of the execrable, useless third Bears movie, The Bad News Bears Go To Japan). Put another way, as the 1970s came to a close, was there a place in America for Kelly Leak?
For a possible answer, I turned to Over the Edge, which focused on a community built on the core American Dream idea of perfect safety and harmony, of home, far from the dangers of the city.
Over the Edge was originally supposed to be set in Charlie Williams’ adopted home of Foster City, California, as it had been inspired by the aforementioned San Francisco Examiner article on the “mouse packs.” Because of some restrictions in the child labor laws in California, the production moved to a planned community in Colorado with significant similarities to Foster City, according to the filmmakers, most importantly the element that gave the film a haunting visual look that corresponded to and enhanced the central theme of alienation: building after building of eerily sterile and lifeless architecture, a dream of perfection that had forgotten to include a beating heart.
The community, called “New Granada” in the film, was intended to be the perfect home, a place of security and harmony and prosperity. But the community in Over the Edge is not well: the adolescent teens of the town are not given anything to do or anywhere to go. They have been left out of the plan for perfect American prosperity. What is there to do but wander around, smoke pot, drink, maybe break shit?
It is not too difficult to imagine Kelly Leak among these kids, especially the imagined, implied, offscreen Kelly Leak, who reminded every boy raptly worshipping his every move in the Bears movies of his own town’s cool, tough kids, who wandered around and smoked pot and drank and broke shit.
In the Bears films, Kelly is a loner, but that is only in the context of the boys on the team and their childish pursuits. In the first Bears movie, before he has joined the team, Kelly initially rebuffs Amanda’s attempts to get him on the team, telling her that the Bears (presumably because they still care about baseball enough to pull on their little yellow-trimmed uniforms and happily prance onto the field) are “fags”; early in Over the Edge there is a prominent piece of graffiti on the school that reads “jocks are fags.” Kelly Leak and the kids in Over the Edge seem to speak the same language and seem to be oriented in similar ways toward the world. It’s not that much of a stretch to think they might, once Kelly and his rapidly aging body are finally barred from pounding the pitches of small children, fall together some night at a darkened playground and share hits from a skull-headed bowl before going down to the highway overpass to throw lit M-80s at cars.
The scene of greatest exhilaration in Over the Edge is when the two main characters, Carl (Michael Kramer) and Richie (Matt Dillon, in his film debut) make a getaway from a cop in a vehicle Richie has swiped from his mother. Though the moment of freedom is brief and much more realistically rendered than the ultimate scene of male adolescent fantasy in Breaking Training when Kelly and his teammates start out toward Houston in a stolen customized van, I saw a key correspondence between the two scenes. Though presented in completely different ways, in both scenes there is joy. It’s the joy of believing that the world, after a whole life of wanting, is finally at the command of those who have seized the wheel.
Unlike the irresistible fantasy of Breaking Training, the scene of escape in Over the Edge lasts for just a few moments and ends grimly. Events in the movie escalate from there, and the action climaxes with a scene of a wildly destructive spree by the kids that reminded me acutely of Disco Demolition Night, which just happened to have occurred the same year that Over the Edge came out. It’s pretty much the same thing: Longhaired white kids getting high and setting things on fire and rampaging: rebellion, yes, but impotent, useless. Next stop for America: the candy-colored teen films of John Hughes, the reactionary reign of Ronald Reagan, and, by virtue of beefed-up security at ballparks, no more longhaired mobs going wild across the fields of the American Dream.
And Kelly Leak was nowhere to be seen.