Rollie Fingers

April 3, 2007

The Mustache Ride, Chapter 2

In 1969, my mother met a young man with facial hair. She was riding by herself on a bus to a peace march, her clean-cut husband at home with my brother and me. I think the facial hair on the young man amounted to a scruffy week-old growth, but that fledgling beard, along with his round wire-rim glasses (like those made notorious at that time by John Lennon) and other similarly-themed sartorial details that I am not exactly sure of (but that I have, in my endless compulsive imagining and reimagining of the moment, nonetheless guessed at: shoulder-length hair, a bristly wool poncho, a lopsided homemade corduroy cap, maybe some sort of necklace medallion purportedly imbued with shamanic powers) communicated membership in that loose-knit tribe of young, predominantly white men and women that was either (depending on your viewpoint) breathing joyous new life into a stagnating, death-bent, unjust world or trampling the norms and values of common decency and traitorously undermining the stability of American democracy.

In other words, my mom met a hippie.

Previous to the peace march, while chained to a toddler and a fat, wailing baby in a generic suburban housing unit, my mom had begun romanticizing the exploits and lifestyles and passions of these young people. She was not alone. Today the idea of the hippie has been reduced to a comical stereotype: the unshowered space cadet in the broken-down Day-Glo VW bus, the starry-eyed, sloganeering peace-and-love simpleton, the brain-fried anachronistic acid casualty, confused by and/or oblivious to any cultural or technological advances occurring after the deaths of Janis, Jim, and Jimi. But in 1969 hippies were a potent cultural force that seemed capable—to both those who romanticized them and those who feared and loathed them—of changing the world. For my mother, I think they also represented the life she had always hoped to live, a life of meaning, community, significance, and, most of all, passion. She signed up to ride the charter bus to the peace march because she wanted the Vietnam War to end, but also because she wanted to become part of the colorful world she was romanticizing. In my novel, The Kappus Experiment Sings, the fictional character inspired by my mother talks about this growing desire to "get on the bus" in the months leading up to the peace march: 

I caught glimpses on TV, read articles in the wrinkled copies of the New York Times Max brought home on the commuter train. I felt like I was watching the violent birth of a new galaxy through a cheap telescope. The Human Be-In, campus takeovers, the riots in Chicago. Woodstock. We are stardust, we are golden. And then there was the brand new image of the world, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts while orbiting the moon. Here for the first time was the whole fragile blue earth, one world, our world. And in all the other images: here were the people singing in millions of different voices the clear single note of that vision: This is our fragile blue moment. Ours!

I wanted my voice to be part of that song.

So that was 1969. Let’s jump ahead to 1972, the year the Oakland A’s, with Reggie Jackson in the lead, shattered baseball’s long-held clean-cut look. I was four years old, still oblivious to baseball, and living in a house with my brother, mother, father, and Tom, the man my mother had met on the bus to the peace march. 

My father now wore a mustache, albeit somewhat incongruously, and Tom’s scruffy beard and shoulder-length hair had bloomed into something worthy of a man who had been shipwrecked on an unmarked island for a decade. I imagine that his appearance (which consistently attracted the attention of members of the New Jersey police force), combined with his undefined status in our family to make him the focal point of scrutiny by outsiders of his and my parents’ strident experiment in open marriage. (For more on the open marriage experimentations of the early 1970s, see the Cardboard God profile on Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson.) The experiment had been based on the idea that maybe the family, challenged by the new love that had first sparked on the bus to the peace march, could not only hold together but could perhaps even grow into something capable of embracing a bigger, wilder love than previously imagined possible within the traditional model of the family.

(Hippies. Love them or hate them, it seems to me you have to at least admit they swung for the fences.)
Now let’s jump ahead some more, to 1978. That’s the year this card became property of my 10-year-old self. By now the family, which had moved from New Jersey to rural Vermont four years earlier, had morphed back into something approximating the nuclear family norm, albeit with Tom in the father slot and my dad an occasional visitor from his apartment in Manhattan. The family, minus Dad, had moved to Vermont with hopes (at least among the two attending adults) of attaining a utopian rural self-sufficiency. My mom was going to grow all our food, and Tom was going to be a roving blacksmith. He installed a small forge in a used Dodge van, cutting a hole in the roof of the van for a peaked metal chimney. The kids of East Randolph, Vermont, thought this implied the van ran by the burning of wood, an idea that they worked into the arsenal of mockery they aimed at us. I imagine the farmers Tom was hoping to have as clients had a similarly withering view of the unorthodox van, if not also of the unorthodox longhaired, long-bearded blacksmith; either way, he was never able to drum up much business. After a few years the back-to-the-land dreams faltered substantially in the face of one small disheartening crisis after another, like a dead-of-winter car repair bill overmatching a paltry bank account built on the occasional sale of a fireplace poker that Tom had hammered into shape on his blacksmith anvil. By 1978, both Tom and my mother had given up on total self-sufficiency and gotten regular jobs.
I imagine the late 1970s for Mom and Tom and other former hippies and weary back-to-the-landers as a somewhat anticlimactic, diasporic time. Because I relate everything to baseball, I see this miasma as something akin to what the scattered members of the ’72–’74 championship A’s were experiencing at the same time. The early ’70s had been a turbulent, exciting time in which they had banded together against a hated authority figure (Charlie O. Finley), and come out on top for what was one of the most extended periods of triumph (and undoubtedly the most colorful of such periods) in baseball history. Similarly, Mom and Tom and the people they identified with felt that they were rejecting the idiotic edicts of a corrupt despot named Nixon to stake their own claim to a golden life. And while they never quite got there, in retrospect it always seemed that those woozy, careening, love-drunk years were something of a championship run.
And now there was a feeling of being spread out and scattered. For Mom and Tom this feeling was hard to define, more just a sense that they were on their own now, not part of some movement with great uplifting momentum. For the A’s the scattering was literal: Bando to Milwaukee, Campaneris to Texas, Reggie, after a stop in Baltimore, fittingly reunited with the limelight in New York, Catfish there with him but fading into the polluted sunset, Rudi on the Angels, Blue on the Giants, etc., etc. The most symbolic exile of all, for both the way he symbolized the strident zeitgeist-embracing look of the dynastic A’s and for the nauseously drab brown and yellow anonymity of his new surroundings, was Rollie Fingers, shown in the 1978 card at the top of this page displaying a pitching grip with what seems to be an expression of tentative, nervous supplication, as if he is hoping the expert grip will somehow gain him a release from the exile of toiling onward in obscurity with the 93-loss Padres.
But of course this is not the first thing you notice about the photograph. The first thing you notice is the very thing that Rollie Fingers had most in common in 1978 with the man my mother had met on a peace march almost ten years earlier.
The mustache. 

Of all the A’s, only Rollie Fingers fully carried his essential A-ness with him into the wandering years. The A’s had been an excellent, superbly well-rounded team, but they had also been an iconoclastic emblem of the times. Rollie, who would gain entry into the hall of fame on the strength of his pitching, remained a living monument to both aspects of the Swingin’ A’s. As for Tom, his entry into the 9-to-5 world signaled the final goodbye to the long hair and the wildman beard, which had been in remission for some time, but in their place now was a Rollie Fingersesque handlebar mustache. "The times are never so bad that a good man cannot live in them," St. Thomas once said. And the times are never so deflated and drab that a spirited man cannot fight against them with a mustache that curls up at both ends.

Go forward some more to 1982. Tom’s job in the company had changed from customer service to dealer rep, and he had begun traveling all over the country to visit stores that sold his company’s wood stove. I’m not really sure why there was a wood stove store in San Diego (maybe there was an industry conference there), but on a trip out there Tom brought back a San Diego Padres cap for me that closely resembled the one on Rollie Fingers’ head in the 1978 card. Rollie Fingers himself had moved on by then to the Milwaukee Brewers, and my family was on the brink of going its separate ways. 

One day I wore the cap into the high school where I was a freshman with bad grades and no extracurricular activities besides participating sparingly in brutal junior varsity basketball defeats. The varsity basketball coach, Viens, saw me wearing the cap in the hall. He’d never said anything to me before. He stopped me and squinted up at the cap. He wore a tie and a short-sleeve button-down shirt.

"The Padres?" he said, his upper lip curled. 

He had short hair. A clean-cut face. 

"Why in hell would you want to wear something from the Padres?"

"I don’t know," I said. I took the cap off and looked at it. It was different. It was from somewhere far away. And Tom had gotten it for me. 

I wasn’t able to verbalize any of this.

"Losers," Viens said and walked away.


  1. 1.  This is a heartbreaking way to start the morning. Our countries inexplicable move to the right in the 80s, combined with most hippies cutting their hair and getting jobs- often writing off their past as misspent youth- managed to rewrite the hippies as doofuses and their movement as selfish and drug addled. I was raised in an ex-hippie household, but my parents mostly used their experiences as cautionary tails (“Don’t do drugs, they made us do silly things in the 60s and 70s.”). However, my dad does have a mustache, so maybe he is still holding on. I guess I’m still holding on for a day when the word “liberal” isn’t used like an epitaph on billboards and talk radio, but the temptation to pack it up and move to Europe is pretty strong sometimes. I am so glad that you moved your blog to the toaster, it is a daily read.

  2. 2.  The parent–child dynamic is endlessly fascinating, especially now that I’m on the other side of the matter. I’ve gained new appreciation for my parents as my kids swirl around me. My experience is a qualitatively different one from my parents: when my mom was my age, I was a sophomore in college whereas my oldest will be three on April 27th. My wife and I have resources that would have boggled the minds of my parents 30 years ago. It’s strange.

    The most enlightening moment about my parents came about six months after my son was born. I was up feeding him in the middle of the night when I had a revelation of sorts. I had always sort of thought of my dad as a boring guy, he really didn’t have any hobbies to speak of while other fathers had motorcycles and fishing boats—that sort of thing. It hit me how self-absorbed I had been when I realized that my dad did have a hobby: Me and my brother and sister. Dad was my little league coach (and my brother’s), he never missed a game or a piano recital or a school event. He was immersed in our lives not just his own.

    I think of that often when I think how I’m going to try to explain the bizzare world that is Earth to my children. What will their place in all of this be, what monumental changes will they be witnessing?

    I guess we’ll all find out together.

  3. 3.  Damn Josh. Good stuff. My favorite article of yours yet. I love Chris in Illinois comments as well….I’ve coached my girls’ softball team for the past two years. Being so overwhelmed with my own career, my book writing, my art, my band, I almost said “no” to coaching their team this season. My wife convinced me to continue. Reading this affirmed that my wife knew what she was talking about.

  4. 4.  This is the best post I have ever read on Baseball Toaster in the two years I have been visiting, far and away.

  5. 5.  Well, well said, by everybody, but especially Josh, of course.

    I draw comfort from the fact, as my own spawn enters the storms of adolescence, I have minds like Josh to comfort me and remind me that I am not alone in seeing the world as a confusing, bizarre mess much of the time.

  6. 6.  Josh, I have to agree with 4 here.

    Keep them coming. I was not born or brought up in this country, and was born in distant India at a time when Nixon was facing a very turbulent time. Your post gave a great account of those times. I have to check out your novels, you are a fabulous writer.

    Around the same time, my own state saw a fair bit of violence due to a Marxian movement that was brutally subjugated. Parallelly, the misrule of an authoritarian federal Govt. in India, and of a state Govt. that had the same ruling party resulted in the win of a “Communist” Govt. for the state elections in 1977. And they have ruled that state ever since, winning successive elections.

    And of course, mustaches are cool in India, even considered virile and macho.

  7. 7.  Thanks for the kind words, everybody. I really appreciate it, and I also am really enjoying the personal observations and anecdotes.

    6 “I have to check out your novels…” Music to my ears, sam2175, but unfortunately you’d have to have a key to my apartment to read them right now. I’ve written two, one many years ago that sits in a file cabinet, and the more recently completed one that I quoted from, which I’m still trying to find a publisher for (an excerpt from that novel has been published in an anthology called The Way We Knew It, available at http://www.tui.edu/mfaw/).

  8. 8.  Okay, I have to satisfy my appetite reading the anthology, it seems.

    Any chance you have one of the Goose Gossage cards, and planning on doing a feature on him? His cards seem very interesting, and fittingly scary.

  9. 9.  8 About Goose: I just gave a quick look, and I’m surprised to find I’m Gooseless, but I do have a card from when he was still known as “Rich” (on the White Sox).

  10. 10.  I have every confidence that I will be buying a copy of your novel soon. Hopefully not at a Barnes & Noble in a strip mall, near the corporate park that abuts the Hall of Anonymity (that trope deserves a spot in the next novel!) At a chichi Manhattan literary B&N, instead. Seriously, this blog just seems to be amplifying and reflecting diff facets of the novel most excellently. I think the book should be called Cardboard Gods!

    Yeah, the A’s were an epochal team, for sure. I remember very much liking Rollie Fingers, with a kind of childish, secretive satisfaction at having found a really cool player on a far-away team. And I’ve spoken before of how I loved my Vida Blue Pitchback. Ah, those A’s.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: