Tommy Helms

April 23, 2009


Some of childhood’s confusions:

For a while I thought there was a musician named Bob “Dillon” and another completely different musician named Bob Dylan (first syllable pronounced “die”). I think I understood that they were somehow connected, that they might even maintain some sort of a friendship despite the stark differences in their personalities. Probably keeping with the fact that I knew of the former personage from hearing the word out in the world and that I knew the latter from reading the name silently to myself, I envisioned Bob Dillon as a somewhat grizzled, road-toughened adventurer (when he finally died off in my mind he did so by fading into my growing awareness of that singer of hoarse-voiced odes to the road-going past, Bob Seger), and I envisioned Bob Dylan as a reclusive bookish enigma, a guy who wrote songs for others to sing, perhaps including Bob Dillon. Maybe once in a while the recluse would appear in a club where another musician was performing and they’d beg him to come up to the stage, but he’d wave them off, preferring to stay in the shadows, sipping from a complicated, umbrella-garnished drink.

For a while I thought my father was “a google” years old. I thought this because it’s what he told me when I asked. I guess he didn’t want to tell me his actual age. (By the time I started asking he was in his late forties and early fifties.) I understood on one level that no one could actually be a google years old, but on another level I believed that if anyone could be it would be my father. He didn’t live with us for most of my childhood, and when he came up for visits it was always apparent to me that he was not like the other adults in the Vermont town where I lived, who were either hunting-jacket-wearing natives or gradually aging hippies. A lifelong clean-cut urban intellectual with thick glasses, a button-down shirt, and a tendency to daydream and absent-mindedly trip over things, my father didn’t fit either category. So maybe he was another category altogether, a man who had been around forever. Who would, it followed, always be around. That’s the thing with these childhood confusions. They are on some level at least partially willful.

For a while I believed I could fly. I sometimes had these dreams that were so realistic I was never completely sure, nor did I want to be sure, that they had not actually happened. In them I would be walking around my town and feeling the grit of the day, the weight of the earth, the actual indisputable details of existence, and I would suddenly remember that I could step up into the sky. Part of what made the dreams seem real was that my departures from earth were never seamless liftoffs. Instead they involved some work. It was like getting a bicycle moving from a dead stop on an incline. And then, as altitude increased, it was more like making a bicycle move on a straightaway. I would fly through the sky all over my town, amazed by my freedom, amazed that I kept forgetting that I had access to such unspeakable joy.

For a while I thought Tommy Helms was an immortal. The fact that he didn’t ever show up in lists of other immortals in any of the baseball books I was constantly poring through actually lent even more mystery and magic to his person, though as time went on I had to strain to continue willing this persisting misapprehension of reality. The singular source for this sweet confusion was this 1972 card, my only 1972 card, which I got along with a few other cards from before my time at a tag sale in my town.

I believe the odd combination in the flashy, battered card of sparkling celebratory newness and what seemed to be great age fostered the notion that Tommy Helms somehow existed outside of time altogether. I had never seen a 1972 card, so the design, particularly the brassy three-dimensional letters of the team name, surely wowed me, as it was more spectacular than any of the cards I had, and in my mind the more spectacular something was, the newer it was, so the card must have seemed by some miracle to have come to me from the future. But the extremely weathered condition of the card, which was in worse shape by far than not only all my cards but than any of the other cards I got at the tag sale, along with the plain fact that the player pictured seemed to come from an earlier time than any player I’d ever seen on a baseball card, set the card in a far distant past. The immortals I knew about, such as Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, and Babe Ruth, all stood outside of time, their iconic status immune to the erosion of years, but Tommy Helms achieved immortality by seeming to levitate above time. The card, already deep into the process of fading away, would only increase Tommy Helms’ magic as time went on, his gradual disappearance only widening his vast presence on a timeline stretching far into the distances of the future and the past.

It didn’t hurt that the card was so beaten up that I couldn’t study what were in actuality decent but decidedly mortal numbers. It also didn’t hurt that around the time I got the card at a tag sale Pete Rose made a gripping run at Joe Dimaggio’s unbreakable 56-game hitting streak, and in doing so he broke the estimable National League hitting streak record set by an old-timer named Tommy Holmes, who I immediately assumed, despite the difference in their last names, was the same player as the immortal in my tag sale card.

I eventually admitted to myself that Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helms were two different players altogether, and that even if they were somehow the same guy—if they somehow formed one amazing player who set a hitting streak record in 1945 and then magically stuck around long enough to add several solid seasons in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a slick-fielding middle infielder—I still wouldn’t own a card as priceless as the card that, for a little while, I thought I owned.


  1. I always had the same misperception about Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helmsn never completely sure they were different people. It was not until reading your post that I realized they even had different last names. Tommy Helms sounds like a timeless name in any event.

  2. I always had the same misperception about Tommy Holmes and Tommy Helms, never completely sure they were different people. It was not until reading your post that I realized they even had different last names. Tommy Helms sounds like a timeless name in any event.

  3. I conflate Tommy Helms with Tommy Hutton. One of them — I had to look it up, the latter — was considered to be Tom Seaver’s kryptonite.

  4. psychsound:
    I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one.

    Interesting. Hutton played for a time for the Phillies, who more recently employed Wes Helms, nephew of Tommy Helms. Wes Helms now plays for the Marlins, where his play is commented upon by Tommy Hutton, the Marlins color commentator.

  5. when i was a kid, i always got confused by garry maddox, elliott maddox, and gary matthews, as well as dusty baker and bake mcbride.

  6. Of course Pete Rose played with Tommy Helms before breaking the hitting streak record of Tommy Holmes. Did anyone ever confuse Tommy Boggs with Wade Boggs? Just kidding.

  7. I only remember Helms from a brief stint with the Red Sox. It’s odd seeing him wiithout a mustache. There’s a current pitcher named Galaragga. I keep thinking of Andres when I see his name.

  8. My childhood confusion: When I heard news about Beirut on the radio, I thought, “Wow! That Babe Ruth must have been one heck of a ballplayer to get a city named after him!”

  9. Growing up, every time I got my hair cut, my dad would say “no, you got ’em all cut.” And I’d nod and smile but never get what he was talking about. That’s because until I was 17, I thought he was saying “no, you got a mall cut.”

    I’m not sure it’s any better now that I know what he was saying.

  10. beautiful writing, Josh…there are still combinations/linkages to this day that I’m not sure how I created as a child…

  11. An early childhood confusion: I thought there was a football team called the Woodbee Tacklers as in “he eluded the would-be tacklers”.

  12. Child perspective is a wonderful thing. I was in the car with my youngest listening to the radio and the popular song Single Ladies began to play. We listened for a while until my son said, “That song doesn’t make sense.” To which I asked, “Why not?” And he replied, “What’s with all the single lettuce?” As for my own childhood vantage point; growing up in NYC I beieved it was the center of the world (sun, moon, stars and the earth itself revolving around it), later ratified by a cover of the New Yorker Magazine.

  13. I’m enjoying these kid confusions a lot, and some of them seem familiar to me, particularly the confusion of Beirut and Babe Ruth.

    The funny “single lettuce” thing reminds me of high school pal Julian once relating that he had a friend who thought the chorus of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” was “Want a beach party summer? You got a beach party summer!”

  14. Tommy Helms does truly look timeless. He looks like he time travelled from the 50s. It looks like he may be wearing a Reds uniform in this photo. He also looks like someone who would run a hot dog stand.

  15. When I was about five, my mom was alarmed when she overheard me saying that I really like that song “Feel Me Dear” to a friend of mine. After my friend went home, she asked me about it; in particular what exactly was the song again? I told her, “you know, you’ve sang it before”. At this she was really puzzled and so she asked me to sing it to her. So I sang, “Doe, a deer, a feel me dear, ray, a drop of golden sun…”

    My other favorite child perspective story comes from a little later when I was in second grade. Anyone remember the pencil set that had all the NFL teams printed on them in their team colors? This was also a time when I was starting to learn some swear words but I didn’t understand what they meant. After contmeplating my Tampa Bay pencil for awhile, I turned to my mom and asked her, “I bet the people of Tampa Bay wouldn’t like it very much if everyone called them the Tampa Bay Fuccaneers”.

  16. PeoriaBadger:
    I still have some of those pencils at home!

  17. When I was about six or seven, and just discovering “rock and roll,” references to the existence of both The Guess Who and The Who, made my young mind spin, and seemed to open up a pandora’s box of questions and possibilities that made me feel that there was a world out there I was, perhaps, not yet ready for. This feeling persists.

    And I believe much ink has been spilled on this very site concerning the Garry Maddox/Gary Matthews conundrum.

    Not to mention that Yankee-centric friend of a Native American Studies Professor, who thought the Who were singing “Livin’ in The Bronx…Livin’ in the Bronx! (…it’s a put on!)” on their “It’s Hard” album.
    Now let’s sing along with Sam (Cooke): “You best…walk out that do-o-oor…” or something like that.

  18. FYI, the number is spelled “googol”. The word “google” came from a misspelling of the number.

    Speaking of mondegreens, here’s an actual conversation I had with my 22-month-old daughter last week:

    Her: “Talker cat?”
    Me: “Huh?”
    Her: “Sing talker cat?”
    Me: “Talker cat???”
    Her: “Peanuts and talker cat?”
    Me: “Ahhh, OK, I’ll sing…Take me out to the ball game, take me out with the crowd, buy me some peanuts and cracker jack…”

  19. It was a Reds uniform Helms is wearing because he was dealt from Cincy to Houston in the Joe Morgan deal the previous November.

    The hockey Rangers used to have a player called Lucien Deblois who I used to think was two players – Loosh and Deblois.

  20. Another because I can’t resist. This was from a meeting wth television writers, generally pretty sharp people.

    Writer: For all in tents and porpoises.
    Showrunner: What does that mean?
    Writer: You know, in effect. Applying to everybody.
    Showrunner: Everybody and dolphis?
    Writer: Everybody. All mammals I guess, including those who live in tents.
    Showrunner: You went to Harvard?

  21. Somewhere, I have the Yaz card from that set. Similarly tattered so that it is utterly worthless. But it’s Yaz, man.

  22. Speaking of hockey, I would often hear Patrick Roy’s name on the radio and thought that he was an Asian guy named Wa.

  23. PeoriaBadger:

    Thanks for reminding me of those pencils. They #$@! ruled.

  24. My only memory of Helms as a kid is that he was one of a series of journeymen NLers who flashed through Boston in the late 70s on their way to retirement, obscurity, or both.

    Helms, Bobby Darwin, Ted Sizemore, Bob Bailey, Ramon Hernandez, Tom House, Tim McCarver, Deron Johnson, Jack Billingham, Frank Duffy, Fred Kendall, Steve Renko…

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