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Father & Son — Big Leaguers

August 16, 2007
 

 
Adrift

Chapter 3

(continued from Ed Crosby)

My father never learned how to throw a baseball. His father was a tailor from a shtetl in central Europe, where baseball didn’t exist. The tailor married an innkeeper’s daughter sometime during the first decade of the 20th Century. I think it was an arranged marriage. Their first child died in infancy. My grandmother had been holding the baby when Cossacks stormed into the house demanding food, one of them threatening my grandmother with a bayonet. The baby became ill and died soon after. My grandmother always believed the boy died of fright. Two more children were born, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, then at the start of World War I my grandfather fled to America to avoid conscription into the Austria-Hungarian army. Had he stayed, he would have been sent to the front lines as machinegun fodder along with all the other young men of limited means.

He lived alone in the strange new country for several years, working in Manhattan sweat shops. He couldn’t speak the language. At some point he sustained a serious head injury. He was hit in the head during a labor struggle, either assaulted by union goons who took exception to his desire to work or by company goons trying to squelch a strike. It was a long time ago and subsequently seldom mentioned with any detail by anyone in my father’s family. The one certainty is that by the time my grandmother and Joe and Helen arrived in America, my grandfather was not well. He worked sporadically if at all and was profoundly withdrawn from the rest of the family, a looming, largely silent presence in the middle of a series of cramped Lower East Side tenement apartments. The living spaces became more crowded with the arrival of two more children: my uncle Dave and the baby of the family, my father. My father remembers very few times in which his father spoke to him. When my father was 13 his father was found floating in the East River. My Uncle Dave thinks my grandfather was murdered; my father believes it was suicide.

I didn’t know any of this at the time I got the 1976 card shown above, part of a series that year featuring the various father-son duos whose younger halves were currently active in the Majors: the Smalleys, the Hegans, the Boones, the Bells. Each card featured a cheery note on the back from the son detailing the guidance and inspiration he’d received from his father.

“We’d work out together frequently,” writes Joe Coleman, Jr., of Joe Coleman, Sr., on the back of the above card. “He taught me how to grip a ball and advised me to throw it straight and not worry about curves until later.”

By that time my father lived far away. He came to visit sometimes, always arriving with two movie theater-style boxes of M&Ms, peanut for my brother and plain for me. When I think of those visits now I imagine him watching my brother and me play catch in the yard. If my brother and I talked at all we talked about baseball, conversations my father could not have understood. Even if we didn’t talk, the zinging of the baseball back and forth between us must have seemed to my father like the indecipherable language of a strange new country.

(continued in Big League Brothers)

12 comments

  1. 1.  “Throw it straight and don’t worry about curves until later” seems like pretty good advice from a father to a son, regardless of occupation.


  2. 2.  C’mon, people, where are the comments? This was an outstanding piece.


  3. 3.  I find it interesting to see how families have changed some each generation. I think there will be very few fathers anymore that wouldn’t have some understanding of baseball. I remember only a few times where my dad ever really played baseball or even catch with us. That and things like fishing, there never seemed time for when I was growing up. I remember as a kid thinking there was always time for these if he would have tried harder. Now that I am the dad, I realize how hard it is and your writing just reminded me I need to try harder.

    Of course, St Louis has been in the 100s for the last week or so, so playing outside just isn’t happening right now. Good stuff as always.


  4. 4.  Jaw droppingly good.

    Come on, Josh, what’s your REAL name? You can’t possibly still be unpublished when you write this well.

    Fess up!

    🙂


  5. 5.  This makes me want to ask my Dad how he learned to play ball. I know it was his mother who took him to games (not his father), including seeing the Cubs in the World Series (hasn’t happened since, you know).

    It also makes me think of my Dad’s old glove. He has a newer one, but when my brother and I were growing up, Dad used an old first-baseman’s glove, a lefty’s glove, that looks like two oblong ovals stitched together. Really, nothing like what any gloves look like today, or since the 70’s.

    I’m sure he still has that glove.


  6. 6.  Josh,

    As you know, my dad died last week. Over the past week, my younger brother has been having anxiety attacks and my sister has lost 6 pounds. It’s been tough. I’ve been thinking back about everything. I was trying to think about what my Dad has taught me, if anything at all. The best I can come up with is, he showed me that if you squish the air out of a milk carton, and then place the lid back on, it takes up less space in the trash. Wow. That was it. Thanks Dad.

    The only aspiration he ever had, that he told me about, was that he always wanted to fuck a gymnast. He died without realizing his one dream….

    Never stop writing Josh. Ever.


  7. 7.  excellent, Josh.

    and here you said this was just a blog about baseball cards… i love how you make it about so much more…..

    keep up the great work.


  8. 8.  Great stuff. I had a father and four older brothers to play baseball with. Baseball was the center of my families life. I consider myself very lucky.


  9. 9.  A moving post, yes.

    Are peanuts considered to be a fruit?
    I have fond memories of your painstakingly picking raisins out of your trail mix, but I thought you were OK with the peanuts…

    Where did you stand on goobers and raisinets?


  10. 10.  9 : Peanuts are not considered a fruit by me, and, as you know, Ramblin’ Pete, my word is the law on such matters. I’ll eat peanut M & Ms, and in fact nowadays have no real preference between plain and peanut M&Ms, but I guess when I was a kid I preferred fewer complexities whenever possible.

    Raisinets are beneath contempt, in the lowest circle of candy hell along with (ugh) Chunky. I’m not real clear on what Goobers are . . . chocolate covered peanuts, maybe? If that’s the case, they’re OK by me.


  11. 11.  My dad grew up in the Baltimore area, mostly with his aunt and uncle because his mother died young and his father could not care for he and his several siblings, so they were split up among several relatives. I asked him if he was an Orioles fan growing up, but I don’t think he was a much of a baseball fan at all. He was a natural lefty, but the prevailing belief at the time, at least at the school he went to, was that kids should write with their right hand regardless, that left-handedness was some sort of flaw that could and should be corrected. It kind of screwed up the way he writes and throws, so on the rare occasion I could get him to play catch with me, I end up chasing the ball half the time because he couldn’t throw very straight. Fortunately I had brothers and other kids around to play with.


  12. My father was a big time Yankee fan (he was from Westchester County, NY which neighbors the Bronx) and was one of the million or so (The old Yankee Stadium held about 60,000) persons who claimed to have been at Don Larson’s perfect game in ’56 (I asked, no ticket stub extant). At one time the Yankees were very important to us, father and son, he even convinced the groundskeeper in the old Yankee Stadium (Center field a distant 464 feet to home plate) to let us on the field on an off day. (Try that today in their new Bronx fortress.) Then he divorced my mom. I had dinner only twice at my fathers house after he left……the first time was the earliest that I had ever eaten dinner (the sun was still shining bright, then after my dad asked me if I had had enough me and my sister were hustled back to our own house five minutes and a world away) the second time we were to have a special dinner (turned out to be hot dogs) which was cancelled due to the new step mom’s retching.



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