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Al Bumbry

February 14, 2019

Al Bumbry

Kingdom Come

Conclusion

Al Bumbry came home from Vietnam in 1971 and played baseball like a man hungry for life. Before going to war, he’d played one year of professional baseball, and it had gone poorly, the then 22-year-old college graduate batting just .178 with no home runs, no triples, and four doubles at Stockton, a single-A team in the Orioles minor league chain. After his tour of duty he was 24, the oldest player by at least three years (and in several cases as much as six years) on another Orioles single-A squad, Aberdeen. He batted .336, loudly, almost a third of his hits going for extra bases. The next season, 1972, the Orioles moved him up a rung, to their Double A club. It was in Asheville, North Carolina.

***

After we sprinkled some of my father’s ashes into a stream and then on the grave of Asheville’s most famous son, Thomas Wolfe, we spread the rest of him around the outside of the house he lived in with my mother for the last several years of his life. We saved the last bit for where his favorite cat, Calypso, was buried.

I’ve been working on this stupid post for several days and have dumped thousands of words into the void, missing the mark. I keep trying to define my father, to reach out somehow into the absence as if with a bat, like Al Bumbry is doing on this 1979 card, as if my father could grab hold and I could pull him back.

He’s not coming back.

***

In Asheville Al Bumbry came into the orbit of what would become one of the most famous and emotionally resonant father-son connections in baseball history. The manager of the Asheville club was named Cal Ripken, and his son of the same name was the clubhouse boy. Bumbry would recall many years later, as Cal Ripken Jr. was on the brink of breaking the hallowed record for most consecutive games played, that in Asheville the younger Cal dutifully shined Bumbry’s shoes. The father’s motto to his players was “give me a good day’s work.” The son echoed the father from his Asheville shoeshine days all the way to Cooperstown.

***

My father was hungry for life. He wanted beauty and art and transcendence and meaning. He wanted to go beyond the safe base. He wanted a better world. He was also, like me, crippled on some level with timidity. He hugged the safe base. I have seen this while poring over his belongings. There are letters from his friend, a sociologist who started out with him and then went on to write groundbreaking books of sociological theory. My father wanted to do the same, but judging by his failure to, despite his friend’s imploring, pursue a career in academia that would have supported the reaching for that extra base, that new territory, and judging more intimately by the style of his note-taking that I’ve also been poring over since he died—he has notes in all his books and almost all of them are thoughts that he second-guessed to the point of complete abnegation, crossing out his own words to the point that they are made unreadable—something was holding him back.

***

Al Bumbry kept up his hot streak in Asheville, batting .347 and earning a midseason promotion to Triple A Rochester, where he batted .345, which catapulted him in September to the Majors, where in 11 at-bats he laced 4 hits, including a triple. His blistering skein continued in 1973: He earned the Rookie of the Year award, batting .337 with 11 triples, including, as the back of this card points out, 3 triples in one game, which tied a major league record.

***

“If possible,” my father wrote in his will, “please spread my ashes by the cat.” It was virtually his only personal demand in the document. The other was that all his books be preserved whole by going to my brother and me. By the time we were ready to fulfill the wish about the ashes, we’d already decided that we were going to ignore a literal carrying out of his wish about his books. There were too fucking many. So I now have only fifty of them, almost all of them dense and huge, one for each year for the rest of my life if I live as long as humanly possible.

My father held me in his arms when I was first born. When there was just a little of him left I carried him in a box lighter than a baby to where my mom was pointing.

“Calypso’s up there in those bushes,” she said.

***

A triple, like life itself, is a beautiful fluke. It’s much rarer than an out, of course, and rarer than a single, a double, a home run. Any major leaguer can gather enough fluky luck for an occasional triple. Steve Balboni hit 11 in all, for example, one for each of his glorious years in the majors. But the record-breaking triple-hitter manifests the multitudinous glory of baseball itself. It’s no accident that the image that most often punctuates Pete Rose’s quote about how he’d walk through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball is of the All-Time Hit King flying headfirst into third base. The triple materializes from a tripling of rare abilities—the ability to hit, the ability to run, and the ability of wanting: wanting life, more life. Triples are the provenance of pitiless hungering joy.

A triple, like any individual life, is an incomplete act.

Someone else needs to bring him home.

***

As I clambered up to the spot where Calypso was buried, I thought about how my father doted on her. She was scared of or outright hostile toward almost everything else alive by the end of her life, but she loved him. She sat on his bony lap and purred as he gently brushed her fur with a comb. He loved all of us that way.

I looked over at my brother before I tipped out the ashes and started to cry. I was thinking, this is it. This is the last of him.

 

3 comments

  1. Really beautiful. I read the book years ago and am so glad I just discovered this site. I’ll be back. Keep it up. And sorry about your dad. RIP.


  2. There’s just no writer like you, Josh. I’ll always remain in awe. Hang in there, best as you can.


  3. Thanks, John and Jon.



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