MY FAVORITE THINGS OF 2002: PART V
Baseball Brethren: Jesse Glasberg and Bob Backus
One of the most fascinating aspects of Baseball is the dichotomy between the game’s inherent loneliness, its solitude, and the sense of fraternization, and togetherness that it promotes. For every David Cone, there is a Dave Kingman.
This doesn’t just apply to the players. Think about how much time the average fan spends absorbing the game alone, whether reading the box scores in the morning paper, or day dreaming about their favorite team as they drift off to sleep at night. For some this is enough, but for most of us, the sense of participating, and sharing our feelings about the game is simply irresistible.
I’m a loquacious bastard by nature, so I use baseball as a way to meet people. It’s a safe topic, especially for men. I’m not into cars or carpentry, so if it’s not books, painting, or records, I find that sports is the ideal social lubricant.
Like most things I enjoy, baseball has a rich oral tradition. Tom Boswell addressed this phenomenon in his article, “This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day,” from his collection “How Life Imitates the World Series:”
Conversation is the blood of baseball. It flows through the game, an invigorating system of anecdotes
Ride the bush-league buses with the Reading Phillies or the Spokane Brewers or the Chattanooga Lookouts, and suddenly it is easy to understand why a major league dugout is a place of such addictive conversational pleasures. In the world of the minor leaguer, which is split between short hours of athletic adventure and long hours of idleness, talk becomes a staple of sanity
This rich verbal tradition-the way the game has taken on the ambiance of the frontier campfire or the farmer’s cracker-barrel stove and moved it into the dugout-is what marks baseball so distinctively, not only among our games, but among all our endeavors
This passion for language and the telling detail is what makes baseball the writer’s game.
In his book, “Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games,” A. Bartlett Giamatti, describes the insatiable gregariousness baseball fans posses. The scene is the lobby of the Marriott Pavilion Hotel in St. Louis, during the 1987 NL Playoffs between the San Francisco Giants and the Cards:
The sound is a high, constant hum, a vast buzz of a million bees, the sound almost palpable and, for hours, never varying in pitch or intensity as anecdote vies with anecdote or joke or gossip or monologue or rude ribbing, so reminiscent of the clubhouse. It is the sound of tip and critique and prediction and second-guessing, of nasty crack and generous assessment, of memory cutting across memory, supplementing and correcting and coloring the tale, all the crosscutting, overlapping, salty, blunt, nostalgic, sweet conversation about only one subject-Baseball.
Here is the oft-told tale that is the game is told again. It is told always in the present tense, in a paratactic style that reflects the game’s seamless, cumulative character, each event linked to the last and creating the context for the next-a style almost Biblical in its continuity and instinct for typology. It is told in a tone at once elegiac, sharply etched, inclusive of all nuance. Baseball people have the keenest eyes for the telling detail I have ever known.
One evening, early last May, I was in the Lincoln Center area on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and had some time to kill. I gravitated to everybody’s favorite loitering spot: Barnes and Noble. When I got to the baseball display on the third floor, I noticed an old-timer dressed in a navy blue suit, wearing a navy blue Kangol, leafing through “The Bill James Historical Abstract.” He looked a like cross between the great sports writer, Shirley Povich and Uncle Junior from “The Sopranos.”
Must be picking up the book for his grandson, I thought. But after a few moments, I figured he was reading it for himself, so I started up a conversation. Much to my surprise, not only was he a bonafide fan, but he liked Bill James to boot.
I licked my chops and peppered him with questions for the better part of half an hour.
He introduced himself as “Jesse” but didn’t offer a last name. He must have been in his early 70s. Jesse had been a season ticket holder with the Yankees from 1976 through the early 1990s, “When George jacked up the prices too much for me to bear.” He has also been a season ticket holder for the Mets since 1973.
These are some of the observations he shared with me:
Tom Seaver was the toughest pitcher he ever watched, but Koufax, at his height, was the best he ever saw.
Watching Jackie Robinson running the bases was the most memorable part of his baseball upbringing. “It wasn’t that he was the fastest, but having been a track star and a football star, he was able to change directions better than anyone I ever saw. He would get out of virtually 50% of the run-downs he got in, he was that strong and quick.”
Willie Mays had a powerful arm, but it wasn’t as accurate as Clemente’s or Furillo’s. But overall, Mays was the most complete player he’d ever seen.
Larry Doby was overrated. Minnie Minoso was better.
The DH was a curious, even appealing idea, but it failed, and he prefered the National League game.
Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda were two of the best managers he’d seen, but nobody was better than Jimmy Leyland.
Bobby Valentine is bright, but rash.
“What about Zimmer?” I asked.
“Zimmer is just plain nuts I’ll always give a guy like Torre credit, though. He was a Giants fan who was from Brooklyn. When I was growing up, Giants fans were the older guys. The Giants were the first great New York team, the McGraw teams, Me Ott, you know. So if a kid in the 1940s or 50s was a Giants fan, it was most likely because his father or his uncle had been a Giants fan. To be a Giants fan in Brooklyn? That was saying something. I’ve always appreciated Torre for that. Just like how I don’t appreciate Giuliani for being a Yankee fan. He grew up in Staten Island. Everybody was a Yankee fan. The Yankees were always winning. How hard is that?”
I asked Jesse how the game has changed for him over the years.
“It used to be more fun. There was less player movement. You got to know the guys. Get attached to them, even though there were still plenty of trades. I guess I feel like I know the 1941 Dodgers roster better than the current Mets team, and I go to the games.”
Jess chuckled in disbelief. “Can you imagine? A utility man is a millionaire these days.”
When I exhausted my queries, the conversation died down a little. As it turned out, Jesse was going the opera, across the street at the Met. We strolled outside together, and swapped Phil Rizzuto-Announcing stories. We were standing in front of the fountains at Lincoln Center when I said goodbye. But something seemed off. It looked as if he wanted to say something.
Finally, he goes, “Well, maybe we should exchange numbers and maybe we’ll go to a game sometime.”
Three weeks later I got a call from Jesse, and we eventually went to a Mets game.
It was a reasonably cool day, for the middle of the summer. The Twins were in town to play the Mets. Tori Hunter hit a line-drive home run to left center. I remember the crisp sound of the crack; the ball zipped over the fence in a hurry.
Jesse brought his 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers Yearbook to show me. We picked up where we had left off at Barnes and Noble. As fate would have it, the fellow who sat next to us was a season-ticket holder as well, and joined in our meandering conversations. He had just one seat at Shea, but season tickets at Yankee Stadium and Tampa Bay as well.
Here we were, three virtual strangers, brought together by a mutual appreciation for the game. Jesse grew up in the 40s, Bob in the 60s, and I came of age in the 1980s. This is as close to Sandy Koufax and Leo Durocher as I’m ever going to get, so I asked tons of questions, and did a lot of listening.
We had a great time and didn’t mind that the Mets got spanked.
By the time the game was over, our new friend, Bob, had offered to send me any tickets he would not be using for the remainder of the season. Would you believe, he ended up sending me tickets for a good half a dozen games?
Bob and I exchanged e-mails during the course of the remainder of the season, which were enlightening and funny.
Let me share just two:
I can’t recall if I already told you, but I was a Red Sox fan from 1961-1969, which for me was 5th grade through first year of college. The Yankee team of Mantle and Maris I greatly admired, but I grew up on the CT-MA border and rooted for the Red Sox. From 61 though 66, they were a second division team and they finished wither last or next to last in 66 under the forgettable Billy Herman. The Sox pennant drive in 67 was to me a greater surprise than the Mets of 69 because you knew the Mets were developing an incredible pitching staff. The Sox had one star, Jim Lonborg, and a bunch of journeymen who had the best years of their lives that season. Plus the Mets had to contend with one great team in the Cubs, while the Sox were facing four (Twins-65 pennant winner, Orioles-66 World Champion, Tigers-68 World Champions, and the White Sox, who had the best pitching in the league) that year.
The key to the Red Sox success was the way Dick Williams destroyed the country club atmosphere the Sox had through his tough guy stance. Dick Williams was kind of a cross between Bobby Valentine and Bobby Knight. He had Valentine’s way of being sarcastic and also brilliant in terms of lineups and strategy. But he could explode with anger and passion, like Knight. The coaches and managers I most admire have been that type; I respect the people who push to be their best. I guess my all time favorite manager was Gil Hodges and Dick Williams would be second.
Most players [on the Sox] hated Williams, but they played hard and won the pennant. My father lost a three year battle with melanoma in October, 1967 and the Sox pennant drive certainly helped me deal with the last four months, which were pretty awful. Also the Red Sox attendance had fallen to under a million in 66, so this 67 team created a tremendous resurgence of baseball interest in New England that has never gone away since.
Lonborg ruined his career in a skiing accident that winter and the Sox were no longer pennant threats. Crybaby Yaz could not deal with Williams’ ways when they were not winning pennants and [owner, Tom] Yawkey could not deal with Yaz being mad at him, so two years after the greatest managing job I had ever seen, Dick was fired. And I swore I would never root for the Red Sox again until Tom Yawkey died. And when he finally died, I still hated him so I kept rooting against them. Dick went on to win pennants with Oakland and San Diego; both teams were bad before he got thee and he taught them how to win. The players on the A’s actually liked him because they were pretty tough themselves and totally focused on winning. After they won the 73 World Series, Williams tried to leave the A’s to manage the Yankees but Charlie Finley wouldn’t let him, so Dick quit and sat out a while. And the Yankees hired Bill Virdon, one of the worst managers in baseball history, but that’s another story.
Williams was like Bobby Knight in that people either loved him or hated him. I loved them both. Truthfully my nature is to be somewhat like them. I guess that is why I admired Hodges the most because he could command respect and fear without yelling at or being sarcastic with people.
Thanks for listening. I probably have not though about Dick in 10 years or so. By the way there is a great book called “Red Sox Century” that I skimmed in a bookstore a couple years ago. It really covered that period of Red Sox history well, especially how Yaz was able to manipulate Yawkey into firing Williams. To be replaced by the dullest manager I ever heard of, Eddie Kasko.
Later, I wrote Bob, and told him of my bigotry toward Red Sox fans and New Englanders in general. The tension of the Yankees-Sox summer had me boiling over, but Bob set me straight:
New Englanders are provincial, but many New Yorkers act as though nothing that happens outside of NYC has any importance. That pessimism you spoke of is kind of a game. It is like me to have any hope of avoiding a strike because of some silly Calvinistic idea that it would hurt less if I were expecting the strike. And lets fact it, with 84 years since a world title and the memory of ’86 still alive, who can blame them for not being too hopeful. Many sociologists have written papers about different theories on how it will affect NE when the Sox finally win a title. There will be initial euphoria, but then there may be depression. The fans will miss having something to hate as passionately as they do the Yanks. Not too many sports fans get to think of the other team as its fans as the Devil Incarnate.
A couple of other things. You should draw no thoughts about New England from southern Connecticut residents. There is a reason why they call it the Tri-state area. CT from Hartford west and South has no connection to New England mores and values. It sees itself as a suburb of NY and see Mainers as boobs (as do I).
I have spent considerable time in New York, Ohio, Florida and Texas. I would agree we are more racist than New York, but much less so than Florida, Ohio and Texas. But my friend, whether you like it or not, most people in this country agree with John Rocker, they just don’t want to admit it.
From one inquiring mind to another,
Lifetime President (and only known member) of the 1918 Club.
All of this, just because I opened my mouth and started talking. I hope to run into both Jesse and Bob this coming season. When I do, I’ll let them know you said “hi.”
I’ll be damned if Baseball isn’t the game that keeps giving.