Bill Campbell

February 10, 2008

Born in the USA

(continued from Steve Garvey)

Chapter Six

I know it’s un-American, but I’m going to have to admit defeat here. I spent several hours on Friday trying and failing to finish this series. I spent several hours on Saturday trying and failing to finish this series. I spent several hours today trying and failing to finish this series. Now I say fuck it. I mean who am I, fucking Bertrand Russell? Jesus Christ, I’m just some sheltered douchebag with an unhealthy connection to his childhood baseball cards who read a few books about Vietnam and rented a few movies about Vietnam and then went to great lengths to disguise an ever-deepening confusion about what it means to be born in the USA. I’m going to turn 40 in a few weeks and I’m a childless solitary with a low-paying cubicle job and the social life of a chunk of concrete and possibly a fledgling case of agoraphobia. I’ve spent my whole life dreaming. A few years ago I wore a small American flag pin on my jacket for a few months, but I let other poor fuckers kill and get shot at and get their limbs blown off and meanwhile I denounce war as if I never had anything to do with it and I shove food in my face and I watch my large television and I burn my fossil fuels and I take giant American dumps while reading about baseball in books crumbling from needy overuse.

During one of my shits I read that Bill Campbell was the first official free agent, the first of the sanctioned deluge that followed the pioneering forays of Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally. The card here was created just after that historic signing, as you can see by the crudely doctored Boston Red Sox cap and the uniform shirt that is clearly still that of Campbell’s previous team, the Minnesota Twins.

From my haphazard research I also know that Bill Campbell was one of hundreds of thousands of young American men sent to fight the Vietnam War. Over 58,000 of these Americans died. An additional 300,000 were wounded. Bill Campbell probably seemed to most to have come back unscathed.

“You’re not used to seeing people blown up,” he was quoted as saying in a 1999 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “You’re not used to seeing body bags. When you see it a lot, it changes you. I remember I’d been back about a month when I drove by a horrendous car wreck. It had just happened. A couple people had been thrown out on the street and one guy was just laid open. I looked at it like it was nothing.”

I don’t know what else to say about that, or about anything. I know Bill Campbell was a vital member of the 1977 Red Sox, my favorite team of all-time with the possible exception of the boys who finally won it all in 2004. But that latter team was not part of my childhood, and the 1977 team was, and the 1977 team seemed to make every game into an Ali-Frazier slugfest, surging to leads, losing them, making thunderous comebacks, imploding, rising from the ashes, maybe hanging on for dear life, maybe not. Their all-star-studded lineup was so potent their number nine hitter, Butch Hobson, drove in over a hundred runs. But they had very little pitching, except for Bill Campbell, who that year chugged in from the bullpen again and again during catastrophes and found a way to hold back the marauding infidels wearing the uniform of the enemy.

That year was my first in little league. When the season was over we held onto our uniforms so we could march in the Fourth of July parade. We marched as a team through town, other teams in front of us and behind us. My brother marched up front, he and another of the bigger kids holding the sign that said the name of our team. People gripping American flags in their fists cheered as we went by. The parade ended at the little league field, where the whole town ate chicken barbecued by the local rotarians and watched the little league all-star game. A few years later, my last in little league, I played in the all-star game myself, going 0 for 1 (flyout to center) and playing a couple innings in right field, where I threw out a guy trying to stretch a single into a double. Just before the game I’d shaken the hand of the governor of Vermont, Richard Snelling, who was making the Fourth of July rounds. I remember wondering if he saw my outfield assist. That evening everyone gathered in a field on the outskirts of town and watched the volunteer fire department shoot fireworks into the night. It was 1980, one war safely buried, doctored out of sight, the next still a couple decades away. Bright explosions bloomed in the sky. Everyone oohed and aahed. Me, too. I loved it. I fucking loved every minute of it.

(go to epilogue)


  1. 1.  Campbell was an RTO, greenspeak for Radio Telephone Operator. He had to hang around the Lieutenant platoon leader in case the LT needed to call on someone to rain fire on the VC. Bill Lee mentioned this in The Wrong Stuff and thought that it was a cruel joke that a tall guy like Soup, who made a good target, had a job like that. If I am not mistaken, the Twins found him in a factory league and signed him from there as a free agent (not as a Free Agent. That would come later.)

  2. 2.  I broke my arm during the first Gulf War. Actually, I fell while playing basketball in Indiana, but I’m the kind of douchebag who will tell people he was injured during the war. Anyway, it was my senior year of high school and it was going to take a few months to fix it, so it ended my baseball career.

  3. 3.  Your standards are high. Your writing from beginning to end was thought provoking and moved everyone who read it that I shared it with. My wife no longer wonders why I spend so much time reading the threads on the Toaster. She just asks “Did the baseball card guy write anything new today?”.

  4. 4.  I dunno, man. I found this a very satisfying ending. Sorta like a big, giant American dump. Which I incidentally haven’t had one of since contracting a particularly vicious stomach flu during the Superbowl.

  5. 5.  1 : Here’s how Campbell describes the league he was playing in when he got discovered (from the article I linked to above):

    “It was one of those scout leagues, where teams would send guys who had signed pro contracts. One of the Twins scouts happened to see me as I was pitching and saw me pitch a no-hitter. He followed me around a couple of weeks and then signed me.”

    3 : Thanks, TC. I appreciate it. I was just frustrated by my inability to get something coherent down, so I had to go into one of my periodic obscenity-laced self-denigrations. It’s “how I roll.”

    By the way, I liked the piece you wrote recently for TrueBlue LA.

    Also, it turns out I’m not quite finished with this series after all and I should have another (final?) piece later today…

  6. 6.  4 “I found this a very satisfying ending.”

    I’ll call the last thing an epilogue or something…

    Funny that you mention dumps and the Super Bowl. I recently was thinking about that. In addition to being the day in which domestic violence is at its highest, the Super Bowl, in my opinion, surely must create in its next-day aftermath by far the most taxing load on American plumbing. We’re Number One indeed.

  7. 7.  That is to say, We’re Number One at Number Two…

  8. 8.  Sounds like a winning campaign slogan.

  9. 9.  Was it really that long ago that the whole Tim Johnson fiasco happened? I am really tripping out on that. 9 years ago? I feel like I read about that maybe 2 or 3 years ago at the most. Did something similar happen like that again recently in MLB? This is really going to bother me.

    Anyway, great writing and I can only imagine how difficult it was for Campbell to realize that there were two ways to leave that place in a year. By plane or by body bag.

  10. 10.  Either way it was by plane.

  11. 11.  10 If you want to get into specifics, yes, either way would have been by airplane.

  12. 12.  9 : I was also surprised that the Tim Johnson imbroglio happened that long ago.

    A note on action in the older posts: ramblin’ pete has a some thoughts in the Garvey post as well as a good story in the Tom Seaver post about meeting the Franchise.

  13. 13.  6 I also find this to be a great ending, though unexpectedly optimistic.

    You found the time slice in which we start to feel good about the USA again, and you paint it with a tale that has to be one of happiness from your youth. A parade, a picnic, playing in an All-Star game, shaking the hand of the governor… How much more Americana can you pack in?

    Thanks for a great series!

  14. 14.  Thank you for, honestly, some of the best writing I see anywhere. Bar none.

    I actually went out and bought Jesus’ Son, but I haven’t started it yet.

    I replayed the 1977 pennant race using a cards and dice game recently, and we fell short, of course, but not until the very last week. And, as you said, thrilling play all the way-epic, mind altering slumps followed by hot streaks to defy logic and probability.

  15. 15.  There’s nothing so satisfying as throwing out a runner trying to take an extra base, eh?

  16. 16.  Soup!!!!!!

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