Archive for the ‘Chicago White Sox’ Category


“I could not feel my feet hitting the ground”

May 6, 2022

Through 18 games, the Worcester Birds are 12 and 6 and are leading their division in the hallowed “Auto League 460121” of the Strat-O-Matic online game. Mark Fidrych has pitched spectacularly well in one start and has scuffled otherwise, but with help from a potent lineup and an unexpectedly effective bullpen, he’s notched 3 wins, keeping him on pace at this very early stage to surpass 20 wins. He’ll be the main point of interest for me over the next few weeks as this simulated reconfiguring of the past unfolds, but you can’t say he’s been the story of the team’s hot start thus far.

If I were following this team the way I followed baseball in 1977, the story of the season so far would ring out loud and clear, as my main point of contact with the action back then was studying the batting averages and league leaders in the newspaper. Studying is not even the right word. Using, maybe? But to what purpose? I’m not really sure, but if a player for my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox, was near the top of the list in any of the major statistical categories of the day, I would fixate on that name. I might go find the player’s card in my collection. I would imagine being that player. And the ritual, or whatever it was, didn’t actually restrict itself to merely a search for Red Sox players. I felt compelled to memorize everyone, or to try to, from the very bottom to the top. Especially the top. I think that’s why I reacted to Lyman Bostock’s death when I was a kid by tacking to my wall a clipping of the Sunday averages with his name near the top. He had become a part of my mind, and not just any part but some aspirational euphoric pinnacle, part of a personal Sistine sky I was painting on the roof of my brain to replace the dark and inexplicable with fixed, glowing stars.

I’ll tell you more later about the brightest current star in this new fabrication of reality. For now I just wanted to capture a glimpse of Eric Soderholm riding high. His 1976 and 1977 seasons were something of a reverse echo of those same two years for Mark Fidrych. As Fidrych struggled with injuries in 1977 after his brilliant 1976 season, Soderholm posted a career-best season in 1977 after sitting out the entire 1976 season with injuries. Soderholm experienced a more extreme break from baseball in 1976 than Fidrych did in 1977, and similarly Soderholm didn’t achieve the heights in 1977 that Fidrych did in 1976 (because nobody ever got that high).

Still, Soderholm got pretty close. Closer than most of us ever get. As I fixate on his name at the top of the leaders lists, I imagine that feeling. In a great interview with oral historian Mark Liptak, Eric Soderholm reports about what it was like at the pinnacle in 1977:

Mark Liptak: Perhaps your greatest personal moment that year was on July 30, a nationally televised game on NBC. The Sox had come from behind to beat the Royals on Friday night. In this game the Sox trailed 3-2 in the 7th when you came up against Doug Bird. Bird was a tough pitcher because he threw almost sidearm, yet you drilled a three run shot in the lower left center field deck to give the Sox a 5-3 lead. It ended with the Sox winning 6-4. Talk me through the at-bat, what you were feeling, especially when you hit the pitch.

Eric Soderholm: That was the most powerful, impacting moment I had in my career. As you were asking the question, I was thinking about it and I still get goose bumps. When I hit the ball I thought it had a chance. When it went in the seats the energy that came from the fans shook the park. It was a magical moment, the park was electric. As I was running the bases I could not feel my feet hitting the ground. I mean that. The place was up for grabs. I remember that I took a big jump to touch home plate and then I was mobbed by the guys. Incredible.

from Eric Soderholm interview with Mark Liptak


Additional Worcester Birds notes, games 13 through 18:

  • G13: W 8-4
    • Munson 5 for 5 with 2 home runs and 4 RBI. Dixon earns win with 1 run in 5 innings. Cruz with 2 hits, including a homer.
  • G14: L 3-2
    • Lee now two for two in wasted, strong starts (5 innings, 1 run), and Soderholm blasts his 6th home run.
  • G15: W 13-7
    • Cruz 3 for 5 with 3 runs scored; Bowa 3 for 5 with 2 RBI
  • G16: W 6-4 (Fidrych 3-1)
    • Bowa with a game-tying 2-run homer; Soderholm with 2 hits and a homer; Tekulve with 2 scoreless innings for the save
  • G17: W 11-7
    • Soderholm with 3 hits and a homer; Hernandez with 3 hits and 2 RBI; Bostock with 3 hits
  • G18: L 5-4   
    • Morgan with 3 hits and a homer; Campbell with 3 scoreless innings


Jerry Hairston

November 7, 2017

Jerry Hairston

Jerry Hairston is smiling here, who knows at what, or why. There’s a gleam of sunshine on his batting helmet, and sunshine too on parts of his away uniform and on the blurry crowd behind him. To me it’s a quietly happy moment, a man thinking about something amusing as he takes a lazy fake swing in the sunshine.

There may be some baseball card detectives who can pinpoint the location of this photo. I can only take a guess that the photograph was taken in Oakland, based on my general sense that a lot of card photos back in those days were taken by a Bay Area photographer named Doug McWilliams.

Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors in 1975, when the photo for this 1976 card was probably taken, and in fact a possible angle for this essay, or whatever it is, could be that Jerry Hairston split time between the majors and the minors every single year of his career from his first call-up in 1973 until 1977, when he split time between two major league teams, and then after that year he dropped out of the majors altogether and played for three years in the Mexican League, a departure from the majors that must have seemed to anyone paying attention, if anyone was paying attention, which they probably weren’t, to be evidence that Hairston’s habit of periodically dropping out of sight throughout the course of a major league season had become permanent, but amazingly he returned to the majors in 1982 and stayed there for several more years, never once during that improbable resurrection suffering another demotion to the minors: the onetime utility infielder became a bit of a fixture, a pinch-hitting specialist, an expert, a pro. Yes, that could have been the point of this appreciation, and maybe it’s part of it, but really all I was going to say was that though Jerry Hairston shuttled between the minors and the majors in 1975, he was with the team during a late-September visit to Oakland, where perhaps this photograph was taken. If it was taken there, Jerry Hairston could conceivably, pun intended, have been aware at this moment that he was about eight months away from becoming a father of a child, boy as it turned out, who would be named Jerry Hairston, Jr.

The awareness of this kind of news is certainly something that can make a guy smile. It made me smile too, when it was my turn with that knowledge. It made me do a lot of other things, too, most of them in the family of panic. But there’s a certain feeling of something taking hold inside you, a more powerful tugging than you’ve felt before, as you walk around through sunshine and darkness, through the unstoppable flickering between major and minor, certainty and doubt, rising and falling. You take your usual swing and it feels empty, strange, unlike anything you’ve felt. But you know, ultimately, that now you have to keep swinging.

That casts a light on Jerry Hairston’s three-year disappearance from the majors that I never thought about before. Most of my words about these cards came years ago, before I became a father, so I’ve never really considered that a lot of the men on the cards in my shoebox were young fathers who were working at a job to support their families. Yes, Jerry Hairston kept swinging—and he must have also kept smiling, because otherwise how do you go on?—as he kicked around in the Mexican Leagues. What else was he going to do? He had a toddler and then, in 1980, another boy, named Scott, to support. And of course Jerry Hairston swung his way all the back to the majors. This is what you do if you’re a Hairston. There have been five members of the Hairston family in the major leagues, which I believe is the record for cross-generational families (there were also five Delahanty brothers in the majors, but that dynasty did not carry over to another generation). First there was Jerry Hairston’s father, Sam, who started out in the Negro Leagues before playing for the White Sox in 1951, and then Jerry’s older brother John, who had a brief stint with the Cubs in 1969, then Jerry Sr., who was followed several years later by his sons, Jerry, Jr., and Scott.

How this all relates to me is hard to say. I too am a younger brother and a father of two boys, so there’s that, I guess. But also, and more directly, Jerry Hairston’s smile made me think of the dance contest scheduled for this weekend at my house. My older son, Jack, had the idea a couple of nights ago.

“Let’s have a dance contest,” he said.

You never know where your life is going to go. Minors, majors, across some far border and back again.

So last night Jack and I made a trophy out of construction paper. It had handles and a support column and everything. The competition will include just the four of us: my wife, Jack, Jack’s brother, Exley, and me. Everyone has been practicing their moves. A few times this week I’ve been at work, in the middle of some problem or other, and I’ve remembered the upcoming dance competition and imagined all of my loved ones and me dancing and I smiled.


Mike Squires

December 30, 2011

The Cardboard Gods Ass Backwards ABCs of Parenting

S Is for Squires

What if baseball experimented with a rule similar to the one in volleyball where everyone has to keep rotating periodically throughout the game? That’s the question that occurs to me this morning after several days of sporadic contemplation of this somewhat dour Mike Squires card from 1980. In 1980, Mike Squires played two games at catcher, the first time in decades that a left-handed thrower had done so. A few years later, Squires would appear in 14 games as a third baseman, far and away the most games played at the position by a southpaw since the hazy early days of the major leagues. Squires, an excellent first baseman (the 1981 Gold Glove winner at the position), can lay claim to being the most versatile left-handed thrower the game has ever seen, as in addition to first, catcher, and third, he also played at least one game at all three outfield positions and, in 1984, he made a brief scoreless appearance as a pitcher.


My son is five months old now. He is learning how to do things. Lately, he has learned how to reach out and pull my glasses off my face. About a month ago he learned how to roll onto his stomach. He figured out how to roll from his stomach onto his back more recently; at first he did this in a way that caused him to tumble down too quickly and bump his head on the carpet, but now he does it smoothly. I was as impressed by this last development as by anything he’s done, as it reveals a process of trial and error, of refinement, and shows that he is not simply being moved along through various stages of development by instinctual evolutionary imperatives but is turning things over in his whirring little mind. He is experimenting.


Mike Squires’ unprecedented journey around the diamond got its start in 1980 with the two games behind the plate, an experiment spurred by White Sox owner Bill Veeck, then in his last year at the reins of a major league team. No one would have been surprised that Veeck was behind the stunt, just as no one would be surprised by the supposition that of anyone ever associated with baseball, Veeck would be by far the most likely to seize on my random thought about baseball, or a version of baseball, experimenting with a rule that required fielders to keep periodically rotating to a new position. Throughout his legendary career, Veeck was always experimenting. He’d try anything, driven by the impulse to reveal baseball for what it was: a game.


My son experiments as much as anything with language, or perhaps more accurately with sounds. His most utilized sound is a whine, which he learned how to produce with nerve-jangling effect some time ago. He whines when he’s tired or hungry or bored. This last whine-provoker is a new one, and it’s not something I identified right away. I was under the wishful assumption that since everything was brand new to him, everything—even within the modest limits of our apartment—would be infinitely fascinating, but now I’m realizing with yet another shading from the kaleidoscopic prism of dread that accompanies parenting that he is and will continue to be insatiably voracious for new experiences. He wants to see new things and do new things. He wants to sit up and he wants to stand and he wants to run. He wants to pull down every book from every shelf. He wants to shove entire closets full of athletic equipment and wrapping paper and light bulbs in his mouth. He wants to find out what everything tastes like and feels like. He wants to try everything.


In 1980, when Mike Squires ventured behind the plate and Bill Veeck spent his last summer in the big leagues, I was playing my final season of little league. I played third base more than anywhere else, but I also pitched a little and donned the tools of ignorance for a few innings at catcher and made appearances at second, short, and first. At the end of the year, on the All-Star team, I logged a couple innings in the outfield. My experience that year was not unusual, I don’t think. This is what little league was like for everyone, more or less. You play here and there and everywhere. The year that’s about to come to a close, 2011, has been, because of the arrival of my son, a good year, the best. But until this year my best year has always been the one in which I played all over the baseball diamond.


Baseball is often considered to be a part of some ideal bucolic America, a green agrarian dream, but in truth it sprang fully alive during the industrial revolution and shares with that development in human civilization a tendency toward specialization of task. Once upon a time, this was a country of farmers who did a little bit of everything to make it through the day. Those days are long gone, and now if we are lucky to be employed we most likely have a fixed position, a spot on the assembly line (or in the cubicle), and we cling to it with all our might, lest we be cast out into the harrowing realm of being without a position at all. Predictably, Karl Marx was against this specialization, according to my dad. My mom was talking about how she has discovered in her retirement that she has the patience and interest to do one thing for no more than two hours, at which point she has to move on to something else. My dad said that this was in line with Marx’s view on how the world would run if it weren’t organized into a system that enslaves most everyone in monotonous menial labor while funneling all the fruits of that labor upward to a tiny mind-bogglingly wealthy percentage of the population. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something along those lines, anyway. So I guess if Marx liked sports, he might have gotten on board with my hypothetical new Veeckian version of baseball, in which everyone has to keep rotating to a new position periodically throughout the game.


After some early experiments in laugh-like moans, my son has learned how to laugh. A few weeks ago, when he was first learning to do so, my wife took a video of me scatting like an unhinged tone-deaf crooner down to the boy, who was lying on his back in his crib, and at the end of every line of scat he smiled and smiled wider and then finally let out his goofy little low-voiced chortle, my favorite sound in the world: Uh huh huuh. I don’t know—or I didn’t know at the time—what prompted me to start going “Bibby dooby dooby de doo! Ribdoobydooby dooby dee doo!” to the boy, but then my wife posted the video on her facebook page and my uncle Bob left a comment under it: “Grandfather Andy is chuckling too.” I had thought that the sounds were just randomly spilling from my mouth, but with Bob’s comment I realized that I had unconsciously picked up the playful scatting from my grandfather, J. Andrew Squires. He had been a professional musician as a young man and had never let go of the compulsion to experiment with the making of playful sounds, sounds that looped here and there, up and down, skipping and bopping everywhere loonily. He used to make me laugh. He’s been gone a long time now, but here he is again, J. Andrew Squires in all his glory, making my baby laugh, too.


I have decided to name my new version of baseball Squiresball. The first rule of Squiresball is that that you do not talk about Squiresball. (Sorry. Just “joshin’.”) Seriously, the first rule of Squiresball is that everyone has to rotate to a new position at the start of every inning. Also, because I do not yet know what hand my son will throw with and because I want him to be a part of this game, and in honor of Mike Squires, each team has to employ at least one left-handed thrower. Finally, there would have to be some limitations on substitutions. I haven’t figured that one out yet—maybe each team gets two substitutions per game, and neither substitution can come so late in the game that the inserted player avoids playing more than one position. These substitution limitations would prevent loopholes allowing for specialization, such as using a player for just one inning at the pitcher’s position in the ninth inning. Squiresball would cause team management to greatly recalibrate their views on players. David Ortiz, for example, still a valuable asset to a team in baseball as it is currently conceived, would almost certainly go undrafted in Squiresball, considering that 89% of the time his team was in the field he would be a gaping black hole where outs turned into triples, and the other 11%, where he would be on the slightly familiar footing of first base, would not exactly be poetry in motion either. Ortiz’ liability in the field would more than cancel his lingering prowess as a hitter. But in cases not quite as severe as Ortiz you’d probably see some allowances made, teams mostly stocking rosters with guys with all-around skills but taking a chance or two here and there, figuring they can cringe their way through a few outs with Ryan Howard trying to turn the double play in the middle of the infield if it means he gives them a lineup-anchoring crusher. For the most part, however, you’d have to think that versatility, an ability to play everywhere, would be at a premium. (With all this in mind, and as a year-end tribute and embracing of my own brand of playful bedoobying useless digression, here is the all-time Squiresball all-stars: C: B.J. Surhoff, 1B: Mike Squires; 2B: Scott Sheldon; SS: Bert Campaneris; 3B: Shane Halter; LF: Tony Phillips; CF: Cesar Tovar; RF: Pete Rose; P: Martin Dihigo; Utility: Psycho Steve Lyons)


I have found myself hoping that my son will turn out to be left-handed, like Mike Squires. I’m not a lefty, and neither is my wife, but her sister is, and on my mother’s side of my family there’s also a slight tendency toward left-handedness. My mom and my uncle Bob are right-handed, but their older brother, my uncle Conrad, is left-handed, like his father, the aforementioned J. Andrew Squires. My grandfather never really played sports until taking up golf in his golden years, and by that point I guess he had reconciled himself with living in a right-handed world because with characteristic pluck he hacked and flailed his way around courses using right-handed clubs. It may have been difficult to get left-handed clubs back then, but this limitation would not have been one to stop my grandfather. My brother and I went with him on his golf outings sometimes, and as he went from hole to hole playing terrible wrong-handed golf he mixed in flustered outbursts of frustration with the muttered soundtrack of his inner life, that wide field of musical play that sustained him throughout life’s narrowing tendency toward failure. “Bibby dooby dooby de doo,” he intoned, softly, as he took a moment to rest between his fourth and fifth hapless attempt to propel his ball out of a sand trap. “Ribdoobydooby dooby dee doo,” he muttered, later, while wandering around the woods in search of a ball he would never find.


Clay Carroll

May 10, 2011

Clay Carroll turned 70 last week. In other relentless-march-of-time news, my back hurts. I’ve got a heating pad on it right now, as I did yesterday and the day before, plus I’m popping Advil, which is about as close as I’ll get these days to being able to relate to the section I’m currently reading in Life, Keith Richards’ biography, in which he says, referring to his heyday, “I used drugs like gears.” I nod knowingly, washing down my Advil with tap water and reading on about John Lennon puking in Keith Richards’ bathroom after mixing smack with wine (the bespectacled Beatle was a lightweight, in his host’s estimation). Keith Richards isn’t seventy quite yet, but he’s closing in on it. My mom just turned seventy last month and is plowing along like she could fill in for Ron Wood for a few tour dates if the Stones needed her to. I tried calling her pretty early this past Mother’s Day and she was already out working in the community garden near her house. She called me back a little later, but I was in the grocery store, so she said, “I’m going back out there again right now for the rest of the morning but try calling me around lunchtime.” I did, and she told me, among other things, that she has recently learned how to clog-dance.

Clay Carroll, Clay Kirby, Ken Clay. By extension, Ken Brett, a little. For a while, when life is just getting started, things all kind of blur together into one big related mess. I went to Wrigley Field later in the day on Mother’s Day after calling my mom and popping some more Advil for my old-guy lower back, and there were a lot of mothers there and a lot of little kids, too, the game to them more of an exciting kaleidoscope than it was to me, who snapped most to the upper limits of my lukewarm attention whenever Jay Bruce came to bat because he happens to be on my fantasy baseball team. I’m saying it’s sort of fun when Clay Carroll and Clay Kirby and Ken Clay are all the same guy. Eventually, I figured out that Clay Carroll was a distinct individual, and in fact one of the premier bullpen guys in the National League for a while, and on top of that one of the great subjects of a baseball card, namely this one, the gnarled Southern veteran jammed inside the ludicrous Ye Olde Tyme Taverne garb of the Veeck-as-in-wreck 1970s White Sox. There’s something about the photo that makes it clear that, ridiculous as he looks in his giant lapels, Clay Carroll would be tough to face. He seems like someone who started drinking backwoods moonshine and killing wildlife with a crossbow at the same age when I was still blissfully unaware of the distinct differences between Clay Carroll, Ken Clay, and Clay Kirby (and Ken Brett, a little).

I have good feelings about the days when my life was a kaleidoscope. At the end of my phone call with my mother, I tried to tell her how great she was as a mother, bracing myself for the inevitable argument.

“Oh, god, I was terrible,” my mother said before I was even done with the first sentence.

I can never quite get across what I’m trying to say during these disagreements in which my position is that my mother was a good mother and my mother’s position is roughly that it’s a wonder my brother and I did not end up by our junior high days hooked on airplane glue or shifting for ourselves in a hobo shantytown down by the railyard. Lately I feel more compelled than ever to say that I felt taken care of and safe and loved because, bad back and all, I’m a few weeks away from becoming a parent, if all keeps going okay. Such a thing has made me start thinking about my own parents and how things were from their perspective. It seems like a difficult, daunting thing to have a kid to take care of.  

For example, I just sneezed while writing the previous sentence and a jolting pain went through my back. How am I going to be a father with a back like this? Do I start mainlining Advil? What would Keith Richards do?

Anyway, I’ve got to wrap this up and head off to work, which means getting on a bicycle to ride to where I catch a bus. I wonder how it’ll be on a bike with this back. And how did my mom learn how to clog dance? I don’t even know how to regular dance yet. And how many unrelated sentences can I clog into one paragraph? Will I be able to continue writing when the kid comes? What about Clay Carroll? I imagine my writing will become more disjointed, but let’s pretend it’ll be less like the unrelated eructions of a mentally unstable psyche and more like, I don’t know, free jazz. You know, like everything is related, a kaleidoscope, claycarrollclaykirbykenclay. I like going to baseball games. At the last one I went to, featuring Clay Carroll’s old team, the Reds, I sat next to my wife, who is about seven months pregnant. Late in the game I leaned down and yelled at her bulging stomach, “Hey! How are you liking your first game?”

Leaning down made my back hurt.


Bill Melton

September 1, 2010

My grandma came to this country from central Europe as a young mother in 1920. She raised four children (a fifth child died as an infant) and lived to see those four children have eleven children of their own. I was the last of that latter group, and I didn’t get to know her very well before she passed away, but I certainly felt her love, which was so fierce that it scared me. I preferred as a child to relate to inanimate mass-produced Americana, such as this 1975 Bill Melton card, rather than to a stooped old woman with a thick accent who was always trying to get me to eat her frightening Old World food.

That fierce love allowed her to shepherd her family along through the First World War and the death of a child and immigration to America and her husband’s early passing and the Great Depression and another world war that pulled all three of her sons into the service and virtually emptied the continent she came from of her people. After that war, her children began raising children of their own. I recently saw a picture of my grandma at the bar mitzvah of one of the first grandchildren, my cousin Lewie, and the pride emanating from her, even through all these years, was palpable. She stood near the center of the picture, her chin upraised, Lewie beside her, flanked also by her three sons: my father, my uncle Joe, and my uncle Dave.

Joe lived well into his nineties before passing away a few years ago. In the last two weeks, both my uncle Dave and the bar mitzvah boy, Joe’s son Lewie, passed away, too. Dave’s health had been in decline for a while. He was 87. I hope to find the words to talk some more about him, but I don’t really have them now. Lewie’s death was unexpected. He was 59.

Lewie grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. I only got to know him in the past few years, after moving from the east coast to Chicago. He was a big White Sox fan. He was eight when the White Sox won the pennant in 1959—the perfect age to fall forever in love with a team. He had to wait almost a half a century for his team to get back to the World Series. But the waiting was worth it. He lived to see them win it all.

On Sunday, two days after Lewie’s memorial and the same day as Dave’s memorial back east, I went to see Lewie’s team play. The man who holds the team record for career home runs that Bill Melton held for many years, Frank Thomas, was getting his number retired. Thomas cried when he was given the microphone to speak. He seemed to be overwhelmed with gratitude. I found myself thinking about Lou Gehrig’s famous speech from many years ago, when he uttered perhaps the most famous expression of that feeling we all have at least once in a while, when we are seeing clearly: we’re lucky to be alive.

I learned two days earlier that Lewie had had some serious health problems a few years ago, and when he got through them he was so grateful to be alive and healthy that he began devoting his life to volunteer service. He eventually became the President of the Board of Directors of the Service League at Lutheran General Hospital. The memorial service for him was packed with people who felt lucky to have known him.



June 21, 2010

I got this card through an even-up trade with my friend Pete a few weeks ago. We were walking the length of Victory Boulevard in Staten Island. Some people climb mountains, some jump out of airplanes, some lie on beaches with umbrella-topped drinks in their hands. We walk.

We started walking down long streets in one or another of the five boroughs years ago, before I moved away from New York City. Our first excursion was to walk the length of Metropolitan Avenue from the East River in Brooklyn to its ending point at a busy intersection several miles away in Queens. It was Pete’s idea. He’s a gifted traveler, someone who can look at any map and see adventure. He promoted the idea for a while, often over beers and with a jukebox backing him, using his gift for mythologizing the world to make Metropolitan seem like it would be as fraught with uncertainty and revelations as a foray into the Forbidden Zone. In fact, speaking of the Forbidden Zone, I am fairly certain that on more than one occasion Pete hyped the potential excursion by reenacting and slightly altering the ominous exchange of dialogue near the end of Planet of the Apes, just after the loin-clothed Charlton Heston has trotted off on his horse down the beach.

Pete (as Zira): What will they find out there, Dr. Zaius?

Pete (in the oracular voice of Zaius): [Long pause] Their destiny.

This appealed to me, and I brought to that first walk my dabbling interest in spiritual privation and ritual, attempting to frame the leisure time activity as a vision quest. To that end, I decided to refrain from eating or drinking, like a young Indian brave, and I selected two cards from my shoebox of cards so that we could “bless” the journey. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember the identity of either card. This is why I am writing about Southpaw, of all things: so that life stops slipping through my fingers.) I placed one of the cards in a chain link fence at the start of Metropolitan Avenue and then saved the other card for the end. By the time we got to that end, we’d both received bad haircuts from a gray-haired Italian guy gently edging into senility, and I’d broken down and abandoned my fast and the hope for visions by eating a bagel. I jammed the second baseball card on a lamp post at the intersection where Metropolitan Avenue ended, and Pete announced our accomplishment to a couple guys manning jackhammers nearby. Without missing a beat, one of the hardhats grumbled drily, “Lewis and Clark over here.”

As the years went on, we continued exploring. We walked the length of Bedford Avenue (passing, among other things, the site of Ebbets Field, now just a parking lot with a small plaque), walked the length of Kings Highway, and walked across the Bronx from the Hudson River to City Island. A few miles into the most recent walk, down Victory Boulevard, we stopped at an arcade searching in vain for some miniature golf. We came upon a small sports card store and each bought a pack. A little while later we sat on a guardrail by the side of the road and ate sandwiches. When we were done eating we opened our packs, as if looking for a message inside a meal-ending fortune cookie. I didn’t get any cards of guys on my team, the Red Sox, and Pete didn’t get any cards of guys on his team, the Mets, but I got oft-injured Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran. 

“Trade you,” I said. I held up Beltran.

He didn’t have any Red Sox, so I settled for Southpaw. I don’t have a particular connection to the White Sox mascot, other than that now I live in the city where he plies his trade. He’s about as bland a mascot as you could imagine. But even so, I feel like my shoebox is a little richer now, since Southpaw came to me in a trade with my friend.


(Speaking of mascots, there are a couple of them in the news of late: in Pittsburgh, the dissenting opinions of a Pierogi got squashed; and in New York, remembering the short sad tale of Dandy.)


Chet Lemon

April 19, 2010

A couple months ago I posted some thoughts in conjunction with a 1977 Chet Lemon card about the all-1970s roster I was pitting against the all-era squads of my esteemed competitors in a “media league” in the online Rob Neyer Baseball game. The season, which had been a lot of fun, came to a wrenching end this past weekend: my East Randolph Kerouacs, after maintaining a slim division lead for the majority of the season, tanked down the stretch, losing five of their last six games, including a three-game sweep at the hands of Carson Cistulli‘s cellar dwellers (who had already amassed 99 losses going into the series). Still, we had a chance going into game 162, just one game out of first. If we beat Norm Wamer‘s squad (which had contended all season long and had only just been eliminated), and Jonah Keri’s Montreal McGaffigans lost, the Kerouacs would have moved into a tie for first.

According to the Complete Game Log in the box score for that final game, rain began to fall at the end of the eighth inning with the Kerouacs down 1-0. In the top of the ninth a reliever named Jim Roland came in and retired the first Kerouacs easily, and then, as suggested by the Complete Game Log, sunshine peeked through the October clouds—a last shred of hope, all of it resting on a damp but sun-dappled afro. But hope and light, like life, is brief: 

– Stopped raining
– Gamble struck out

I felt physical pain when I discovered my team’s fate in that terse report. Oh, Oscar Gamble, why hath you forsaken me? (It turns out that a win wouldn’t have helped anyway, as Jonah Keri’s demonstrably superior team won its last game, too, to finish two games in front, but I didn’t know that at the time I discovered my own team’s wilted last effort.) Now that the pain has subsided, I can say that my guys performed decently enough, posting an 85-77 record. Team captain Chet Lemon led the way, the only player to appear in all 162 games. He topped the team in runs scored with 100 and doubles with 37 and tied for second on the team in both RBI and homers. Don Buford would be the only other player who could have a case for team MVP, but Lemon contributed more with his good glove in center field than Buford did while doing a serviceable job at third. (Here are the complete hitting and pitching stats for all my failed gods. Oddly enough, even though my team would seem to be offensively challenged, we led the league in homers and were one of the better all-around run-scoring clubs in a league that played like the 1968 “Year of the Pitcher”; check out the league stats for team batting and team pitching.)

I made a few in-season moves. The two major ones: Bobby Bonds got injured in the second half of the season and was going to be out for 22 games, so I dumped him for Dwight Evans; Terry Forster was a gas can as a reliever so I released him and picked up Bruce Sutter. The first move was at least a push, considering all the games Bonds would have missed had I held onto him, and the second was a marked improvement, but neither move was able to help stop my team’s gradual but relentless decline over the course of the season. I guess it’s fitting. A team of guys from the 1970s would be destined to start out in an Aquarian sunburst of hope and gutter eventually to a Three-Mile Island/Skylab/Hostages-in-Iran sense of rainy, disintegrating defeat. When the season began Oscar Gamble’s afro was in full bloom; when he took my team’s final feckless swing, he surely was sporting no more than a faint echo of his earlier magnificence.


(Note: Though this Chet Lemon card is part of the Topps series being used on this site, by virtue of the 1978 set’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” game, for a greulingly long match pitting Love versus Hate, Lemon’s was one of the cards in that series that had on its back a recap of the “Play Ball” rules instead of a “Play Ball” result, so no update has been made to the ongoing contest.)


Chet Lemon

February 11, 2010

My wife, friends, family, cats, job, hopes, dreams: all these things should probably not expect too much from me over the next couple months, as I will be involved in not one but two imaginary baseball leagues that are already threatening to make a ghost out of me in this world. The second of the two leagues won’t be starting for a couple weeks, and it will heavily involve the 1977 Boston Red Sox and my first addiction (if you don’t count television), Strat-O-Matic, but I’ll talk more about that when it gets underway. Today I want, with your help, to address a pressing issue concerning the team I have in the first league, which has had its draft and which is days away from its first games.

This league is situated in the fevered minds of its players and on the web at Rob Neyer Baseball. Rob invited me to be a part of a “media league” along with the following fellow managers: Craig Calcaterra, Gordon Edes, Jonah Keri, Rany Jazayerli, Bob Keisser, Richard Lally, Norm Wamer, Carson Cistulli, the namesake of the site himself, and two of the site’s guru/owners, Barry Koren and Charles Wolfson. (The latter two handicapped themselves with a lower salary cap than the rest of us, which will make it so much more enjoyable when they beat our asses anyway.)

Speaking as a longtime addict of simulated baseball, I give the game itself high marks in its ability to destroy entire days, and I’m saying that even before the season starts. The player pool is vast and the amount of time that can be spent considering all the variables of team-building seems to be infinite. Partly to limit the variables so as to save my sanity, and partly because I live in the 1970s, and partly because I honestly (albeit unobjectively) believe the 1970s and maybe a little of the 1980s to be the historical peak of baseball, I decided to forego the joys of selecting deadball era guys named Three-Finger or Smokey or members of the Gas House Gang or steroidal juicers or Negro Leaguers or anyone at all who had the misfortune of playing outside the era when I cared the most about the game.

This drafting strategy (which was augmented by an attempt to gather hitters and pitchers who would seem to be fairly well-suited to a ballpark that is good for home runs but not so good for batting average; I went with US Cellular, which I can take public transportation to in case the imaginary scenarios ever spill into the real world, which is the kind of thing all madmen both hope for and dread) raises a couple questions. The first—can a team formed from players from the Cardboard Gods era compete with teams drawing on players from every corner of baseball history?—will be revisited throughout the season here on this site. The second can be answered right now, with input from visitors to this site, who would know:

Who should be the captain of my squad?

The card at the top of this page should let you know where I’m leaning, but I’m willing to put it to a vote. Before presenting the candidates (i.e., my entire roster), a couple words about Chet’s candidacy:

He is one of the better players on my team. I actually wasn’t planning to draft him, but Gordon Edes, damn him, swiped my top choice for my first pick, Jim Wynn, and I had to go back to the drawing board. Lemon offered a slightly cheaper version of the things Wynn would give me. Now that I have him I’m glad I do. From what I read, he played hard all the time, and he did everything well, definitely good things to have in a captain. Also, perhaps more importantly, a captain of my team has to have a sense of what the team is all about, and in this regard only Bill Lee and Oscar Gamble would be better qualified than Chet Lemon, who while not possessing the era-embracing quirks and iconoclasm and imagination of my top lefty starter or the epochal ecliptic Afro of my leftfielder can still definitely call himself a deep traveler in the lands of the 1970s. Chet Lemon wore the lapels of the White Sox, and wore the white hat with the giant “SOX” across the crown, and even for god’s sake wore those shorts the White Sox took the field with one day in 1976. My fellow Americans, let me conclude with this: he was the starting centerfielder on Disco Demolition Night.  

So my vote’s for Chet Lemon, but please don’t let that stop you from making the case for any of the following. (Note: I had to bend my 1975-1981 Cardboard Gods roster-inclusion rules slightly to include leadoff hitter Don Buford and bullpen catcher John Bateman, who both hung it up in 1972, and Carmelo Martinez, who didn’t make it to the majors until 1983.)

Ellie Hendricks, Tim Laudner, and John Bateman

Willie Aikens, Deron Johnson, Ron Oester, Julio Cruz, Dave Concepcion, Jerry Royster, Mike Cubbage, and Don Buford

Oscar Gamble, Chet Lemon, Bobby Bonds, Mike Jorgenson, Carmelo Martinez, and Rick Manning

Rick Reuschel, Bill Lee, Jim Beattie, Mike LaCoss, Luke Walker, Terry Forster, Kevin Saucier, Dale Murray, Warren Brusstar, Tim Stoddard, and, last but never ever least, Dick Pole 


Roberto Hernandez

November 10, 2009

Roberto Hernandez 93

I found this card on the street last week, a day after the end of baseball season. I don’t know why I find more baseball cards than the average person. Probably it’s a combination of my general heightened awareness of baseball cards, which gives me a better chance of identifying a piece of street trash as a card, and my depressive personality, which prompts me to more often than not stare morosely down at the ground as I trudge from here to there. Whatever it is, I always take it as good luck. A day with a baseball card is never all bad, especially if it’s a card that appeared from out of the nowhere of gray daily life.

I pried it up from the sidewalk outside a grimy used car lot out on Western Avenue around the corner from my apartment, brought it home, and studied it a little. It has all of the pitcher’s minor league stats, showing that despite being a first round draft pick, Hernandez had a long road to the majors, not appearing there until he was 27 and not becoming a regular until the following year. I had some sense that Hernandez went on after the appearance of this card to have his moments, but I haven’t been paying attention to baseball closely enough to know his accomplishments. Turns out only three pitchers in the history of baseball—John Franco, Lee Smith, and Dennis Eckersley—have both more saves and more games pitched than Hernandez, and only one of those three, Franco, has a superior ERA+. What does this mean? I don’t know. He stuck around for a long time and was an effective closer and set-up guy. That’s part of what it means. The other part is that there’s a whole world out there that I’m oblivious to. The one thing I pay attention to is baseball, and even my awareness of baseball is limited. If you had asked me who Roberto Hernandez was, I would have been able to correctly guess that at some point several years ago he closed games for the White Sox, but I didn’t know he had more saves than Goose Gossage or Bruce Sutter or that he appeared in more games than Catfish Hunter and Whitey Ford combined.

That’s what always happens when I find a card. The world feels bigger, more unknowable. How did this card fall to the sidewalk on Western Avenue? Who bought this card? Who let it slip through their fingers? What am I letting slip through mine?


Bill Melton in . . . the All-Time Franchise All-Stars

September 4, 2009

Bill Melton 76

I’m going to see Bill Melton’s old team play tonight, a game I’ve had tickets to for months since it’s against my team, the Red Sox. It’ll be my third White Sox game of the summer and eighth or ninth overall. I’m starting to get familiar with the stadium (which is a nice place to see a game so long as you aren’t directly below one of the speakers that boom clips of inane music and ads and electronic clapping sounds every two seconds) and with the White Sox, a team I was and for the most part still am neutral about (and that tonight and for the rest of the weekend I will be virulently against) but that is growing on me in certain ways.

I like the team’s history, specifically the persisting workmanlike quality that seems to have been passed down from generation to generation. They are in that regard the opposite of the other Sox franchise, which except for a dismal lull in the 1920s and early 1930s has sported glittering superstars with gaudy eye-catching numbers, batting titles, Triple Crowns, Cy Young trophies, and even Cy Young himself.

The White Sox, on the other hand, have Beltin’ Bill Melton. As the back of this suitably subdued card points out, “Bill is the all-time leading Homer hitter in White Sox history.” He has since been surpassed by a few others, but for a considerable time Bill Melton was by one significant measure the greatest slugger in franchise history, and he only made the All-Star team once and because of injuries only played for ten years.

The White Sox have, but for one notable exception, always been either just plain bad or, in their sporadic happy moments, a collection of good but not great players. When they won the World Series in 1906, they were known as the Hitless Wonders (team slugging average: .286); when they won the pennant in 1959 they were the Go Go White Sox, a nickname that illustrated their scrappy, slap-hitting, team-oriented style of play; and when they won the World Series in 2005 they did so with a roster devoid, so it seems to me, of a single future Hall of Famer. The only time the franchise departed from script and put together an assemblage of superstars, it backfired horribly, despite the two pennants and a World Series won by the star-studded conglomerate that came to be known as the Black Sox. After that team, which featured All-Time greats such as Joe Jackson and Eddie Collins along with several other well-known premier players (Eddie Cicotte, Happy Felsch, Ray Schalk, and Buck Weaver), was destroyed by a lifetime ban to eight of its members, the White Sox slunk into the shadows for decades, solidifying their persisting identity as a team that does not like to have anyone stand out above the crowd.

It makes picking an All-Time Franchise All-Star team a little different than it would be for a team with a history of boasting marquee stars at each position. We’re not, for example, deciding between Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio when trying to decide on the best centerfielder in White Sox history. But I like that about the White Sox. There’s something populist and human scale about being a franchise that’s been around since the horse and buggy era but that still hasn’t come up with a centerfielder more accomplished than Jim Landis, an outstanding glove man with a cannon arm but hitting stats that are only decent.

Third base has had particularly long periods of complete indistinctness in White Sox history (as pointed out by Bill James in his Historical Abstract in his note about Robin Ventura). From stellar fielder Willie Kamm in the 1920s until the coming of Bill Melton in the late 1960s, they had no one of note. Melton nailed down the all-time franchise spot at third when he became the all-time home run leader (and here’s a trivia question for you, and no peeking: whose team record did Bill Melton break?), but I think I’ve got to go with Robin Ventura as the third baseman on my All-Time White Sox roster, which leaves the team devoid of a representative from the Cardboard God era. This seems wrong, as one thing I’ve always liked about the White Sox is the way they comported themselves during the decade of my childhood, what with their ridiculous huge-collared shirts, and their willingness, for one game at least, to take the field wearing shorts, and their shower in the bleachers for hot games, and above all for Disco Demolition Night. But the White Sox players from the 1970s either didn’t amount to that much or, like Richie Zisk or Oscar Gamble or Chet Lemon, among others, didn’t stick around quite long enough to merit plaques or statues. The White Sox of the 1970s, with Bill Veeck at the controls, were a staggering rabble. The White Sox have always been a rabble.

Anyway, let me know your own choices and/or disagreements over my ballot . . .

C: Carlton Fisk
1B: Paul Konerko
2B: Eddie Collins
SS: Luke Appling
3B: Robin Ventura
LF: Minnie Minoso
CF: Jim Landis
RF: Harold Baines
DH: Frank Thomas
Wild card: (tie) Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio
RSP: Ted Lyons
LSP: Billy Pierce
RP: Bobby Jenks


Don Kessinger

July 21, 2009

Don Kessinger 79A couple notable anniversaries have come up recently that made me think of Don Kessinger and distance. The more recent and much more widely celebrated anniversary occurred yesterday, the fortieth anniversary of the first time humans walked on the moon. For most of human history to that point, the moon had seemed so impossibly distant that it stood as a kind of symbol of the unreachable. As pointed out in an enjoyable post at, the bridging of this distance had the power to stop the baseball world. The most solemn and reverential of the stoppages occurred in the third inning of the second game of a doubleheader between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, when the announcement of the landing was followed by both teams lining the foul lines and bowing their heads in silent prayer. When play resumed, the Cubs went on to complete a sweep of the doubleheader, which increased their division lead over the second place New York Mets to five games. Don Kessinger was the star of the day, knocking in the only run in the first game and collecting three hits and scoring two runs in the nightcap. Read the rest of this entry ?


White Sox, 1980

July 10, 2009

White Sox 80

The word suck, used as a disparagement, used to really have some heft to it. I don’t have a dictionary handy that’s any older than my 2003 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), but I would guess that at a certain point the definition of this sense of the word carried the “usually considered vulgar” tag line. That tag line no longer accompanies the current definition: “to be objectionable or inadequate.” Gone is the implied direct object, a word also ending in the hard “ck” sound that is the unchallenged superstar of vulgarity phonetics. Gone, then, is another little piece of my childhood.

Not that I understood that there was such an implied direct object connected to the word back in the late 1970s when I was a kid. But I knew the word suck meant something beyond just what you did with a straw. For example, though my Free to Be You and Me house was far from being a place where someone who loosed an occasional obscenity would get his mouth washed out with soap, my mom refused to let me buy the article of clothing I most coveted in the world: a pinstriped T-shirt with the word “Yankees” across the chest and below that word, as if scrawled in red spray paint: “SUCK!” It was still a somewhat shocking word, especially to see on a T-shirt, especially if that T-shirt was going to be on your own son. If only I had been a little older, like these guys (scroll down to see the second picture on the page), I would have had the autonomy to express my feelings to the world about what did and did not suck.

Anyway, the word suck had its biggest day thirty years ago Sunday, when it featured heavily in chants from the packed stands throughout the first game of a doubleheader involving some of the fellows seated in the picture shown in this 1980 team card (the obscure figure in the upper right hand corner inset was not on the scene thirty years ago Sunday but was promoted from the club’s triple A managing job a couple weeks later after player/manager Don Kessinger was fired).

I’ve taken a stab at describing the events before on this site, noting Fred Howard’s place in the proceedings, but if anything’s worth more than one look, it’s Disco Demolition Night.

Craig Calcaterra has a great take on it that links to a recent Chicago Tribune column by the event’s central figure, disc jockey Steve Dahl.

Also worth a look is the Baseball Think Factory discussion growing out of the link to Calcaterra’s piece.

The Chicago-based novelist Brian Costello also paints the scene while directing readers to an exhibit of photos from the night the records exploded.

And here’s an interesting consideration of the possible undercurrents of an event featuring a stadium full of white people chanting about something they hate.

Finally, some local news coverage from that night (featuring a young Greg Gumbel, a brief cameo by Gene Siskel, and a lot of shirtless longhaired yahoos):


Ken Henderson

July 10, 2008
The decade in question here at Cardboard Gods may have been the golden age of the switch-hitter. Consider the 1970s all-switch-hitter team:

Ted Simmons, C
Eddie Murray, 1B
Bump Wills, 2B
Larry Bowa, SS
Pete Rose, 3B
Roy White, LF
Ken Henderson, CF
Reggie Smith, RF
Ken Singleton, DH

You’ve got one Hall-of-Famer at first, one would-be Hall-of-Famer at third, a catcher with better numbers than many of the catchers in the Hall of Fame, a gold-glove-winning all-star at shortstop, and three excellent, underrated run-producing machines (Singleton, Smith, White). Some would likely argue that Bump Wills is the most obscure member of this team, but to me he always stood out, mainly because of his name, but also because he was the son of a renowned major leaguer, had a notoriously odd baseball card, and was, during my most impressionable years, considered to have the potential to be an up-and-coming star. And he actually wasn’t bad for a few seasons in the late seventies, which happened to be the same time Ken Henderson, my choice as the least known of the all-1970s switch-hitting team, was bouncing from team to team, making little impact anywhere. The card here shows him just beyond the turning point in his career, when he went from a good young player with an admirably well-rounded game to an aging cigarette-ad fugitive gaping out at the action with a bat dangling limply from his fingers. He wears the first of six uniforms he would don over the next six years, never lasting beyond a season anywhere. He was the most itinerant of the members of the 1970s switch-hitting all-stars, and so in a way he’s the most fitting representative of that decade of often senseless transience.

And since talking about the 1970s without talking about the preceding decade would be like talking about a morning hangover without mentioning the party the night before, it should be mentioned that Ken Henderson in some ways epitomized the 1960s, too. In that earlier epoch he had been brimming with seemingly limitless possibilities, breaking into the major leagues with the Giants in 1965 as a 19-year-old would-be successor to Willie Mays. With that in mind, here’s another list in which Ken Henderson’s name again seems to be the most obscure.

Young San Francisco Giants outfielders, 1970s:

Bobby Bonds
Jack Clark
George Foster
Ken Henderson
Dave Kingman
Garry Maddox
Gary Matthews

In the 1970s, as it became clear that no new utopias were going to spring to life out of sheer visionary ecstasy, and for that matter that no one would ever replace Willie Mays, everyone seemed to suddenly start growing older in bursts. Skin that had long been unblemished suddenly became slacker, creased, faintly greasy. Mustaches were grown, Marlboros lit, aviator shades donned. Throughout the land it became increasingly difficult to tell what people were thinking, in part because of the tinted eyewear, in part because the thinking itself, once so sure of itself, had unraveled into the uncertainty of a switch-hitter who has lost the ability to hit from either side of the plate.


Wayne Nordhagen

July 4, 2008

There’s supposed to be a parade today in Randolph, Vermont. Thirty years ago I marched in a version of it with my teammates, all of us in our green caps and baggy green and gray baseball uniforms. There were floats and brass bands and gleaming fancy antique cars whose horns went aroooga. There were many people lining the streets, practically everyone in the town.

But it’s a small town; you can hear individual voices saying “Yay!” The guy up on stilts, dressed as Uncle Sam, will be someone you know, maybe even an actual uncle.


Yesterday in Randolph hundreds gathered to grieve for Brooke Bennett. Family members, friends, and clergy members took turns speaking to the crowd. One of the speakers was the man who replaced my first little league coach when my first little league coach’s son got too old for little league.

I keep running into my past in this story. Yesterday, articles about Brooke Bennett included quotes from her seventh grade math teacher, who was my seventh grade math teacher in 1979. Today I read what my second little league coach, Reverend Ron Rilling, pastor at Green Mountain Chapel, said to the crowd in Randolph yesterday.

“We gather together as a community to affirm that love is more powerful that hate,” he said, “that faith and hope are better chosen than fear and despair.”


Yesterday an online message board linked to this site, to my story about the son of my first little league coach. The message board thread was entitled “Another angle on the Uncle Pervert story.”

Uncle Pervert.

I guess this is one reason why there are national news vans clogging up the narrow streets and dirt roads of Randolph. The apparent author of the hideous act is a relation. An uncle. We like to believe this is unthinkable.

My wife, a social worker, works with teenagers whose extremely difficult pasts often include being victimized by sexual assault. The majority of these crimes are committed by people within, not outside, the boundaries of the family.


“I remember when I was 13 years old, I went to Spring Training with my uncle Wayne Nordhagen, who played for the Cubs. Just being on the field and being around the guys in the locker room, it gives you so much when you’re a kid.” – Kevin Millar

Kevin Millar’s uncle shares a birthday with Uncle Sam. He’s sixty today. That’s a little younger than the youngest of my five uncles. I thank Wayne Nordhagen for being a good uncle to Kevin Millar, because Millar’s fond words about his uncle have suggested to me a way to try to follow the advice offered yesterday in Randolph by my second little league coach.

Love is more powerful. 

Like Kevin Millar, I grew up with uncles who gave me a lot. My uncles took me to baseball games. My uncles made me laugh. My uncles taught me useless, marvelous skills, such as how to pass a finger through the burning flame of a candle and how to build the perfect plate of bagel and lox and how to body-surf in the Atlantic Ocean. My uncles provided me places to stay when I seemed to have overstayed my welcome everywhere else. My uncles provided and provide to me a host of examples of how to be a good person. My uncles have always helped make me feel that I was loved, that I had a place in this world, a permanent seat at the table. A safe haven.

I know today is supposed to be about Uncle Sam and detonating small explosives, and that there’s another holiday set aside for giving thanks. But this Fourth of July I’m saying a prayer of gratitude and love to my own uncles and all the good uncles of the world.


Brian Downing

January 24, 2008


Wrap Party

(continued, sort of, from Ron Schueler (4))

When I obtained this 1978 card I was 10 years old and as extroverted as I’d ever be. The world was small and warm most of the time, a roaming comfort zone of home and the hippie classroom that I’d been in for a few years and, of course, the little league field, and in that comfort zone I was a chatterbox and a joiner and a doer, all elements of my personality that fell away in years to come as I gradually donned the ashen costume of the apprehensive cipher. At home my brother and I talked so much about baseball that the weary adults of the house eventually decreed a moratorium on all baseball talk at the dinner table; I also talked so much in general that my sometime baseball-talking partner, as he edged into the silence-filled vales of puberty, had to institute his own unofficial policy of threatening glares and occasional arm-punches to get me to shut up. At school I was either talking with my friends or making (no doubt tiresome and unfunny) wisecracks to the teacher or plunging into projects like co-writing and directing a theatrical sequel to Star Wars that we put on for our classmates (I played Darth Vader and got to kill off Princess Leia) or overseeing (or at least pretending to oversee) the staging for a general public audience of the Broadway musical You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.  

The small local paper, which was run by my aunt’s brother Dickie, even published a small write-up about me on the eve of the latter performance. It was a short paragraph in the back pages, wedged in between local notes relating that some village octogenarian or other was recently visited by relatives. I don’t remember the content of the article but recall that it mentioned that I was 10 in the context of a general appreciation for all I was accomplishing at such a young age. Here was a kid bound for big things! It was all sort of downhill from there. I peaked at 10.

The slide from that peak may have begun with the performance itself, which must have been an excruciating, incomprehensible mess to watch. I had hacked the script to bits for a couple ridiculous reasons. First, because I didn’t know how to sing and didn’t like to sing, I got rid of all the songs, just deleted them. A musical without music! Then, upon realizing that no one was going to be able to remember all their lines, I chopped off the entire second half of the play. I guess we stumbled through a few musicless scenes and at the abrupt, inconclusive end all the surely bewildered parents in folding chairs applauded, but the whole experience left me feeling a little shaky. Apprehensive. Like maybe center stage wasn’t the greatest place to be.

I got glasses around that time, big girly-framed plastic jobs that combined with my unruly long curly hair and weakling body to make me a pretty easy target of scorn outside my comfort zones, such as when I walked to the general store to buy baseball cards. I tried in such situations to be as invisible as possible. As the years went by my courting of invisibility increased as all my comfort zones eroded. At home my parents were no longer around much, letting go of their dreams of back-to-the-land self-sufficiency to take regular (and poverty-averting) jobs, and my brother became less and less willing to waste his time with me; and the hippie school tossed me out of its embrace and into regular junior high; and little league ended. The year after little league, I took a small part in the 8th grade play. Maybe I was casting around for something to fill the void. Maybe I was trying to reconnect with my former, outgoing, happier self.

The terror I felt in the hours leading up to the one and only performance of that play were extremely intense, and when the play was over the euphoria I felt was only that I wouldn’t have to go through such an ordeal again, which I didn’t. From that point on, I avoided situations whenever possible in which I would be center stage. The one aberration in this lifelong policy was during the two years when I was an adjunct professor. The terror and dread that preceded every class never really abated during that time, and since then, I haven’t tried to teach again, even though it was, at least sporadically, the most meaningful job I ever had. Surely part of the reason I haven’t is that being in any kind of spotlight scares me. And now I wonder if I’ve grown addicted to invisibility, to retreat.

So I turn today to Brian Downing for a little help. Here he is, in his tinted aviator shades and mesh, the same partially obscured Brut billboard in the background that was in the background of Ron Schueler’s card. Even though the viewer of both cards would assume from the identical backdrop and team name on the cap that Brian Downing and Ron Schueler shared the same moment with a Topps photographer, the two were never teammates. While newly acquired White Sox pitcher Ron Schueler was wrapping up the last two years of his career as a roaming adjunct, Brian Downing, now of the California Angels, was beginning to shuck off the costume of invisibility that had cloaked him throughout his years with the White Sox. It happened gradually. In 1978 he seemed the same innocuous weak-armed part-time backstop he’d always been, then in 1979 he batted .326 and made the all-star team, which seemed like a once in a lifetime aberration over the next two seasons, during which he hit .258 with 11 home runs.

And then, suddenly, a whole new guy. I’m wary of inadvertently copying the great writing Bill James did on this very subject in his New Historical Abstract, but it’s sort of hard to tell the Brian Downing story without marveling Jameslike at the way Brian Downing suddenly transformed himself from the marginal regular-looking guy seen in the card at the top of the page into a bulging specimen worthy of the nickname listed for him on his page at, “The Incredible Hulk.” Anyone looking at his 1978 card and at the stats on the back of the card would have predicted that he’d have vanished from the league by the early 1980s, but instead he spent the entire decade swatting home runs (20 or so every year) and clogging the bases by virtue of his good batting average and ability to both draw walks and get hit by numerous pitches, the latter feat somehow a defining trait in that each of the errant throws, at least in memory, seemed to bounce impotently off his muscle-bound frame like punches off a brick wall.

I think the famous turnaround has been the subject of scrutiny in recent times, these days when nobody can grow a muscle or hit a home run without raising suspicion. But I’m going to leave all that aside and not only give Brian Downing the benefit of the doubt but turn to him, as I turn to all these cards, for strength. In this life song gives way to song unless you edit the songs out, and weakness gives way to weakness unless you find a way to draw on strength from somewhere. I think now of one particularly desperate point in The Catcher in the Rye, when Holden Caulfield is crossing a street in the city and he starts convincing himself that he’s going to disappear before he reaches the other side. He calls out in his mind to his dead younger brother, Allie, the one who used to write poems all over his baseball glove so he’d have something to read in the outfield between pitches.

Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear.