Archive for the ‘Sparky Lyle’ Category

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Sparky Lyle

January 28, 2010

Somebody check on Sparky Lyle. All the writers that helped lead me to writing are dying off, so I’m starting to get worried about the author of The Bronx Zoo, Lyle’s hilarious recounting of the 1978 season in diary form that inspired me, at the age of 11, to first start writing down words to describe my life. After Lyle got me started, the next two writers to take me by the hand were Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries, who died this past September, and J.D. Salinger, who died today.

I first read Salinger’s book in 10th grade, for school. Our assignment was to read a book and produce a book cover for it, with jacket copy that described the story. I hadn’t done shit for the class all year, so when I turned in a semi-coherent assignment the teacher ended her speech to the class about the evils of plagiarism by saying, “Yours was one of them,” and handing me back my book cover with an F on it. I stammered some kind of a denial (I was on the verge of tears), and she snapped, “Oh yeah? Then define the word ‘prestigious.’” I knew what the word meant but I couldn’t explain it to her. I think she eventually changed the F to a C because of the suicidal look on my face. At around the same time, in my French class, I was also accused of plagiarism for an assignment in which we were asked to translate the English words on a music album of our choice. I translated Rush’s Moving Pictures. The teacher believed I’d gotten my hands on a French-Canadian version of the album. Anyway, by then teachers didn’t believe I was capable of much except cheating, I guess. The next year I went off to boarding school and within a year and three-quarters was tossed out, just like ol’ Holden getting the heave ho from Pencey Prep, and that summer, with GED in hand and no clue what to do with myself, I reread The Catcher in the Rye and decided I wanted, when not smoking bong hits, masturbating, watching television, and staring off  into the distance, to try to make something as beautiful as that book. It’s an impossible aspiration, in my opinion, especially for a lazy person like me. (The closest anyone has ever come is Peter J. Smith in his great and underappreciated novel Highlights of the Offseason.) But I wouldn’t have wanted any other life than one at least half-assedly dedicated to chasing after that book.

As for Sparky Lyle: may he live for many more years. I choose to hold it as a good omen that even as early as 1975, as attested to by this 1976 card, he was wearing the ridiculously high-waisted pants of a nonagenarian.

And as for J.D. Salinger, I suggest avoiding the obituaries, which will spend an inordinate amount of time pointing past the work he did as a young man to revel in the odder details of his later life as an unrelenting recluse. In lieu of that, here’s a thoughtful 2001 article on his greatest creation.

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Sparky Lyle in . . . The Nagging Question

June 15, 2007

  Cheers for Mark Harris, Part 2

My favorite baseball book is The Southpaw, but it wasn’t always that way. For a while there, before I knew of Henry Wiggen, the tale of a different lefty topped the list. And I still owe a big debt to him.

Sparky Lyle got me writing.

His diary-style recounting of the tumultuous 1978 season, The Bronx Zoo (written with the help of Peter Golenbock), came out in 1979 when I was 11. I bought it that summer, when my brother and I were in New York City for our annual visit to see our dad. The cover featured a picture of a baseball festooned with a walrus mustache. The mustache bulged up above the otherwise flat surface of the cover, like the raised letters on the front of a Harlequin Romance. I practically went into cardiac arrest from laughing while reading the book on the busride home.

My brother and I had always seemed to find a way to laugh our asses off on that 8-hour ride. In earlier years we’d done it by filling in all the blank spaces in Mad Libs with swear words, or coming up with obscenity-laced versions of common acronyms such as FBI and CIA (this latter riff beginning with the two of us inventing “blue” versions for the UFP acronym on my brother’s official United Federation of Planets Star Trek T-shirt). I don’t remember anything particularly funny from the homeward busrides in the years after the Bronx Zoo hilarity, however, which suggests that Lyle’s descriptions of clubhouse pranks and dugout fueds provided our last Greyhound hurrah. By the summer of 1979 my brother had become a teenager, while I was still a kid, the two-year gap between us never wider, and so by then in most settings he reacted to my pestering demands for his attention by, first, totally ignoring me, then if that didn’t work fixing me with a brief glowering stare, and finally if I still kept at it unleashing a spring-loaded backhand punch to my upper arm. But I guess the regular rules were-up to and including that summer but not beyond it-suspended for our busride home from seeing our father. In that moment of suspension between parents it was the two of us against the world, laughing.

And in that last laughing busride we had Lyle’s book open between us, painting a graphic picture of grown men acting like children: bickering, playing baseball, cursing, playing baseball, getting in fistfights, playing baseball, and, in the most memorable running gag, perpetrated repeatedly by the book’s narrator upon a string of teammates, sitting bare-assed and ruinously on birthday cakes. All this must have been reassuring to me. If they haven’t grown up, maybe I don’t have to grow up, I thought. Baseball can go on, laughing my ass off can go on, feeling like I’m part of a team can go on. All these things had buoyed my childhood, and though I didn’t consciously note their imminent departure from my life, the fact is they were all on the brink of diminishing, and on some level I must have sensed this. So I seized on Lyle’s book, which is another way of saying I loved it.

And when the following year’s little league season came around, my final little league season, I decided to emulate Sparky Lyle. My father had recently given me a diary and had implored me to write something in it every day. The cover of the diary was denim. It had gnomes on it. In fact, it was called a Gnome Gnotebook. It took all my strength not to beat my own ass for owning it. But the evening after my team’s first little league practice of the year I ignored the gnomes and began to write, hoping that my increasingly mundane life would instantly burst into side-splitting hijinx. A few years later, during my college years and in a tantrum of frustration at still not being able get down on the page anything close to resembling what was inside me, I tossed all my writing notebooks (including the Gnotebook) into a dumpster. But I still remember the sentence that started my lifelong attempt to write down my life. I was trying to be sardonic and weathered, a crusty self-deprecating veteran. I guess I was probably trying to sound like Sparky Lyle. And I was trying to tell the truth.

“I couldn’t lay my glove on anything today, much less my bat,” I wrote.

II.
My ten most favorite baseball books:
The Southpaw, by Mark Harris
Hang Tough, Paul Mather
, by Alfred Slote
Bill James’ Historical Abstract
Bang the Drum Slowly
, by Mark Harris
The Donald Honig Reader
Five Seasons
, by Roger Angell
The Bronx Zoo
, by Sparky Lyle with Peter Golenbock
The Great American Baseball Card Flipping Trading and Bubble Gum Book
, by Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd
The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., by Robert Coover

III.
On to The Nagging Question:

What is your favorite baseball book?

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