Archive for the ‘Al Bumbry’ Category


Al Bumbry

February 14, 2019

Al Bumbry

Kingdom Come


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.



Al Bumbry

February 1, 2008

Born in the USA

(continued from Bob Jones)

Chapter Three

“The Iraq thing has the feel of a potential quagmire where we just get deeper and deeper and deeper involved, and when that happens it’s harder and harder and harder to get out. There’s also the similarity with the difficulty in finding the enemy. In Vietnam, we couldn’t find the V.C., they were blended in with the population, and we’re having the same problem in Iraq . . .” –Tim O’Brien, author, from a 2003 interview

Today in Iraq two severely retarded women were outfitted with remote control explosive devices and sent into a popular outdoor market where animals are sold. According to an AP report by Kim Gamel, the blasts killed at least seventy-three people. Many others were wounded. Many others saw things they will probably never leave behind.

“I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds,” said a market vendor named Ali Ahmed. “Then I found myself lying in a hospital bed.”

In his classic work of Vietnam War literature, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, describes a memory so vivid it had the power to rip him out of sleep twenty years later. In the memory that O’Brien can never leave behind, a mine has just blasted a member of his platoon into a tree.

“The parts were just hanging there,” he writes, “so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines.”

“It was indelible,” recalls another person who was in Vietnam in those years, a North Vietnamese child named Tran Luong who witnessed the aftermath of the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi. The aerial attack, which came just after the United States promised to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, killed 2,196 civilians.

“The morning after the bombing, I went to Kham Thien Street with some older children,” Tran recalls in Christian Appy’s oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. “I saw pieces of hair and scalp hanging on trees.”

Al Bumbry was a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He won the Bronze Star, which is given to soldiers for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service,” then he came home and made significant contributions as a speedy slap-hitting outfielder for the excellent Orioles teams of the 1970s and early 1980s.

He is shown here in the middle of that career, his hunched stance and his facial expression creating the impression of a man guarding private hurt. An earlier Bumbry card in my collection, from 1975, shows on the back his minor league years and the interruption in those years signified by the statement “In Military Service.” But on the back of this 1977 card there are only his major league statistics. It’s as if enough time has passed for certain more complicated elements of the past to have faded, the gap in the soothing progression of numbers gone, the wound healed. I don’t know if Al Bumbry believed in that kind of anesthetic forgetting. But the country he’d returned to seemed to believe in it. There were no victory celebrations. There were no parades. There was just a general desire to forget the whole thing ever happened.

So what was the weather like in Iraq today? It’s not usually something I concern myself with, preferring to fill my head with baseball, but information about the weather came out in the AP story about the homicide bombing mentioned above, probably because it correlates to the body count.

“It was nice weather today,” reports the hospitalized market vendor Ali Ahmed, “and the market was so crowded.”

It was nice weather on a certain day a few years ago. I was living in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan. I got up early to beat the crowd at a nearby laundromat. It was a tiny place, and if you didn’t get there early the whole day was shot battling hipsters and middle-aged Dominican women for a free drier. I wrote in my journal a couple days later about what happened next:

I was folding laundry at the laundromat on Bedford Avenue when a man came in and said the World Trade Center was hit by an airplane. He was a loud black man with a slight boozy chuckle and blurriness in his voice, so my first thought was that he was a street person and crazy. The Asian man who owns the laundromat turned on the television and the World Trade Center was burning, smoke pouring out a black gash near the top. I thought: accident. The adjacent tower exploded a few minutes later. I did not see an airplane flying into it and thought somehow the first building produced an explosion in the second. The television screen went blank. The Asian man tried to fix the television. I finished folding my laundry. . . .

All of us in New York have been breathing in dust and smoke and dead bodies for three days. I worked at the book store yesterday and had arguments with three coworkers, then late in my shift Abby called to tell me they were evacuating midtown. They were telling people to run toward the river. I thought: nuclear bomb. I am afraid of dying. The evacuation turned out to be based on a hoax, but for a few minutes I was waiting for the flash. I stole some post cards from the store that had the World Trade Centers on them. I went to Queens after work to see Abby and I was shaky and hollow and scared. I wanted to fuck but we were breathing in dead bodies then I didn’t want to fuck anymore.

I finally put away my clean laundry yesterday. The folded shirts and balled-up socks. I vacuumed the rug. I swept the kitchen floor.

A couple days later I met up with my brother in Manhattan. We went to a bar on Seventh Avenue and Nineteenth Street, the Peter McManus Cafe. There were a lot of off-duty firefighters and other rescue workers there, guys who’d been told, maybe even forced, to take a breather. One of the guys was next to us at the bar and something in him had snapped. He was a big guy and very strong and he kept grabbing onto us, clawing at us. He told us he’d served in Vietnam, special forces, and his training had gotten him onto a list of people called in to help with the rescue attempts at Ground Zero.

“I just can’t do it no more,” he said. “I can’t pull out no more bodies. When’s it gonna end?”

He kept repeating versions of these statements. Grabbing us, clawing us. He also said all the bodies he was pulling out were women. And a couple of times he said, “I’m back.”

I’m back. 

It’s OK, we kept trying to tell him. It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over. But he was inconsolable. He was trapped pulling out bodies of dead women from the rubble. He had been in Vietnam. He was back.

“When’s it gonna end?” he kept saying.

(to be continued)