Baseball Defined the Best of America
by Andy Joppa
I need a break from politics. Don’t we all. It’s difficult to conceive of how so many people could be involved with something that, at best is purposeless, and at worst is destructive. I also need to escape from my nightmares about the American culture. A culture that has gone from being a five star “filet mignon,” to a “fast food takeout” … from street vendors. Instead, I wanted to write about the only thing that really matters…has ever really mattered …baseball, and the “Boys of Summer” (I was friends with the author of that book…Roger Kahn). As I write, baseball has gone into a player lockout. If it isn’t resolved, I’ll have a difficult time imagining a summer without America’s game. Some things I write for myself…this is one of them. If you’re interested join me.
Having come of age in New York in the 50’s, life was perfect. It was all about Willie (Mays), Mickey (Mantle) and the Duke (Snider). If those names don’t immediately prompt tears of emotional remembrance, then you’re either not old enough or your younger days were spent in less meaningful pursuits…like rooting for the Red Sox. My hero…my reason to wake up in the morning …my reason to listen to a radio or read a newspaper was…THE MICK (with a capital T for The) …Mickey Mantle. My sister, born in 1958, was named Michelle…right, we called her Miki.
Mick was easily the greatest human that ever lived, or so I thought at the time. My entire existence was defined by waiting for Mick to power a 500-foot homerun as the most powerful man in baseball, or lay down a two strike drag bunt as the fastest man in baseball, all the while playing the game with osteomyelitis. I didn’t know that’s what he had back then…we all thought he just had bad knees. But if Mick had a good day…I had a good day. My friends and I didn’t say hello…we would ask…” What Mick do last night?” We all loved The Mick…we ran like The Mick…we talked like The Mick…we all wanted to be like The Mick. We didn’t know he was an alcoholic. It was that affliction that eventually killed him in 1996. But then, life was simple. It was perfect.
Even at the time…I thought it was perfect. I’d rush out of the house early on each summer morning…and buy a copy of The News, The Mirror, The Journal American and The Herald Tribune. Why? To read, of course, about The Mick. Most times I’d actually read the rest of the paper. In an indirect way, Mickey was my stimulus to learning many other things.
I was able to offer him a tribute of a sort after his death in 1996…the same year ex-Yankee announcer Mel Allen died. A good friend of mine was the organizer of the Yankee victory parade down the Canyon of Champions in NYC. This followed their defeat of the Braves in 6 games. During the planning, he asked me to stop at his house and help him think about this. I suggested a flyover (I was thinking jets) for The Mick and Allen at some point during the parade. As I sat on the victory platform at city hall after the parade itself (right behind Joe D. I might mention), two helicopters flew low and slow over city hall. I looked at my friend who was sitting with Rudy Giuliani and he pointed at me and mouthed silently…” That was for you.” Easily one of my proudest moments. I had authored the final honor for THE MICK. It still gives me chills to think about it.
Back as a kid, if I had a glove, bat and a ball I wasn’t poor (Maybe a pair of Ked high tops). I had everything I needed. My “entre” into life was the Little League. As a 10-year-old I think I cried more on the field than I’ve ever done elsewhere. I cried if I did something good…or if I made an error or struck out. I was learning how to cope with success but…. more so, failure. Before the Little League, my family made me feel as if I was the living incarnation of the Buddha…perhaps the second coming of the Christ child. The Little League taught me… I wasn’t. So, at 10, I had plenty of failure “coping” skills that had to be learned. By 12, however, I was the league superstar…I hit .578, had a 5 and 0 pitching record, and led the league in homeruns as the smallest 12-year-old. I learned I could do almost anything if I stuck with it and gave it all I had.
I also learned to cope with disappointment when Brian M. hit .579 and beat me out for the best batting average by one point. I harbored resentments against Joey N., who, on my last at bat during the season, didn’t tag up from third and score on my fly ball. If he had, I would have won the batting crown. Joey became one of my best friends in High School and was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known…I forgave him…how big of me. But I was learning how not to be petty and childish. I felt horrible when Joey passed away in our senior year. Over sixty years later I still feel badly about ever harboring a bad thought about this great kid…great person.
There are a few other stories from my Little League days…I’ll tell just one more. One of my good friends on another team was Dougie L. Dougie was black, although I wasn’t aware of it at that time…he was Dougie. He didn’t have a glove but, nevertheless, was a fine ballplayer. When I left the field, I would leave my glove out there for him to use. It never crossed my mind that Dougie was poorer than I was, which seemed impossible…but was probably true. He was the happiest most upbeat guy I ever met and went on to become a successful and fine man. Thinking back on Doug, I can understand that nothing was going to stop this kid…and nothing did. We kept in touch for a while but haven’t for many years. I wonder how he’s doing.
Baseball was where I incubated. It is where I learned most of my early lessons about life. Somehow, and maybe I’m biased, but I don’t think you learn those lessons playing video games. All that mattered was could you play baseball. Race, ethnic groups, religion had no role to play and were not even part of our awareness. Just…could you play the game? We were so “unwoke” that we just thought of Jackie Robinson as great ball player. He could really play the game. Elsewhere in life that has remained all that mattered to me…” can you play the game?” The “games” changed and became more serious, but the logic stayed with me. I’ll hire you if “you can play the game.” If you can’t then “vaya con dios.”
I played ball in college and in organized leagues during the summer for most of the sixties, till I went into the service and, eventually, played ball even in Vietnam. At first, it was only beer ball, but it was always better than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. We had a base softball team and went on many trips in our friendly C-47’s, to Bien Hoa, Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, and a lot of other places I can no longer spell. Playing ball let us know that life went on and it was always better to do something than sitting around counting the seconds till you went home. Nothing makes the time go slower than staring at a clock and watching the second hand go round.
When I got out of the service, I played open age Rec Ball in Yonkers. There were a lot of great players…many ex-minor leaguers and college guys. My team was called the Sluggers…I always thought that was remarkably creative. We won the league four years in a row with me catching behind the plate. I always liked catching because you were involved with every play and you were the defensive field manager. I still like that…that is, being involved with every play and managing the defense.
When I started teaching, I used baseball to teach many things…especially geometry and statistics. I explained that statistics and probability were the heart of the game and gave it its continuity. That geometrically the game was perfect. Ninety feet from home to first. An average speed grounder, hit by a batter with average running speed, to a shortstop with an average arm…the throw would beat him by one stride…perfect.
This year, with a lockout, baseball may lose one of its defining characteristics…that is, this year’s number against prior year’s numbers. This year’s performance against prior year’s performance. Baseball was always far more than who won or lost that season. It was also whether someone would drive in 150 runs…or someone would win 30 games on the mound…or someone would steal a hundred bases…or someone would hit more homers than Barry Bonds. History matters in baseball.
The game was always far more than who won the world series…few remember who won what and when. Every true baseball fan, however, remembers that Rogers Hornsby hit .424 and Babe Ruth hit 60 HRs, only to have that broken by Maris who hit 61 in ’61. Baseball is stats, geometry, continuity and a culture. Even today when I watch a baseball movie drama, I can tell if they know the game by the way they talk…their inability to do that, has ruined many baseball movies for me. The best I saw was, “For the Love of The Game” filmed at Yankee Stadium…they knew baseball.
One more quick story. Umpire Rich Garcia was in that movie. He had made the notoriously bad call allowing a Jeter homerun in the first game of playoffs with the Orioles in 96’. A friend of mine worked for the Yankees. He got me an autograph from Garcia. It reads, “Andy, I made that call for you…Rich Garcia.” What did I do with that?
Well, I got that out of my system. If you’re still here…thank you. As you read this essay, I hope it flashed through your mind that we’ve lost something; something that defined America at its best. If you want more “baseball” let me know. For example, you might want to hear of the time I tried to teach baseball to a woman from Bangladesh whose sons were in the little league. She tried to teach me about cricket. Neither of us was successful. Now that’s a story.