From “The Crowd Sounds Happy” (due out May 6th)
By Nicholas Dawidoff
I acquired a clock radio of my own. It was a Realistic Chronomatic 9 model, low-built and squared-off at the corners like a shoe box, with a faux-oak plastic cabinet, chrome and clear-plastic control dials, and rounded hour and minute hands that in the dark were backlit a dim lunar orange. These features had aspirations toward sleekness, but only a few months of ownership made clear that my radio was drab in the way the design ideas dominating mainstream consumer electronics in the mid-1970s were all drab. It was a look that was somehow between looks, one in which everything resembled everything else and nothing so much as the dashboard on the clumsy, rowboat-like LTD station wagons Ford was then producing. But if I stared at my Chronomatic 9 long enough, in the right mood it could seem, if not beautiful, almost handsome. My attachment to what came out of the clock radio quickly grew so intense I wanted an appearance to match.
What I was listening to in my room were Boston Red Sox baseball games. I hadn’t been able to get the Boston games on my old transistor, and to discover now that reception was possible on the Chronomatic 9 was joy. By game time I would have spread my homework along my bed, distributing the books and papers lengthwise, so that when I positioned myself on the floor, knees to the rug, chest pressed against the edge of the mattress, head bent over my books, to Sally and my mother passing behind me, it must have looked as though I was supplicating myself to physics and Lord Jim. The radio was to my left, on the night table, and, as I worked, the team broadcaster, Ned Martin, said, “Welcome to Fenway Park in Boston,” and right then a part of me zoomed down the I-91 highway entrance ramp and lifted out of New Haven. Martin and his commentating partner would discuss the game to come, building the anticipation until Martin cried, “Here come the Red Sox!” As he introduced the players position by position—”Jim Rice left field, Fred Lynn center field”—it was like having the cast of characters read aloud to you from the beginning of a Russian novel. All quieted as the crowd rose to listen while an organist played the National Anthem, and I stood too, put my hand to my heart, and with no flag in the room to gaze upon, instead stared fixedly at a red, white, and blue book spine on my shelf for the duration of the song. My mother began to come in and watch me standing there in still, patriotic tribute. At first I wished she would just leave me alone, but over time I began to like her observance of my observance, and when the door didn’t open, I’d reach toward the radio and raise the volume to let her know she was missing the Anthem.
Early in the game, sometimes the reception would be erratic, clogged with static, and I’d have to jiggle the tuning knob, making such minute adjustments my hand trembled. It often helped if I stood near the radio in a certain position, invariably contorted, with one arm akimbo, another limb up in the air, a palm hovering inches over the speaker, trying to maintain position, barely breathing, as the sputtering details came out of the Chronomatic 9. Then the evening progressed, and the connection grew pure. Some nights when the Red Sox weren’t playing, around the fifth inning, I could even begin to pick up broadcasts from Philadelphia or Baltimore or Pittsburgh. That had the appeal of combining the pleasures of baseball with the exploring of distant, unknown places. Between the Red Sox and me it was about something more.
After the Anthem, I was back on my knees as Martin told of the pitcher throwing his warm-up tosses—if it was Mike Torrez, he was “the big right-hander from Topeka, Kansas.” Then, finally, the game began, and when the home team pitcher threw his first strike of the day, the crowd let out a roar as though they’d vaguely doubted he would ever find his mark, and I, who’d definitely had that worry— pitching was the team’s perpetual weakness—felt a gust of wellbeing.
Ned Martin had a crisp, old-fashioned way of speaking, favoring phrases such as “harkening back” and “his batter’s box ablutions” to embellish a cadenced flow of precise vocabulary he unfurled with exquisite enunciation: to hear him turn through all five syllables when describing the “auxiliary” scoreboard was almost as satisfying as his renditions of gaudy names of opponents like the Brewers’ outfielder Sixto Lezcano, John Wockenfuss of the Tigers, and Paul Thormodsgard, who won eleven games for the Twins in his rookie year of 1977, and then only one more ever after. Martin took pleasure in embedding literary quotations in his commentary, once borrowing from Wordsworth’s “The Excursion,” for instance, to say this about the intelligent catcher Elston Howard: “Wisdom is oftentimes nearer when we stoop than when we soar.” There was such a variety of different verbs, nouns, and metaphors used by Martin to convey a baseball in motion and a crowd in rapture that I got an impression of him as someone who prepared for his job by sitting in the hotel lobby during road trips, rereading Modern Library classics. It was a more leisurely and picturesque account than is favored today, and from this melodious man I learned a lot about the diligent labors of Red Sox groundskeeper Joe Mooney, what the wind currents were doing to the center field flag, the interplay of glare and shadow and the jagged dimensions of the lawn that made right field such a challenging position to master in Fenway Park. The outfield positioning seemed invariably to be “a step toward” right or left, and, when an inside fastball came close to a batter, it never failed to “straighten him up.” In truly dramatic moments Martin fell back on brevity. “He’s got it!” was his first response to difficult catches. When he was really impressed, Martin paused and then said simply, “Mercy!”
In those days, there was no cable television, no Internet, baseball had yet to become a field of broad statistical inquiry, and personal information about the players, including their salaries, remained mostly unknown to the public. And because I had no television or newspaper, I experienced the disembodied Red Sox only through the disembodied voice of Martin, which made it easy to believe they were the valorous figures we both wanted them to be. If initially he was formal with their names, as the game proceeded his references grew much more familiar. Rick Burleson was “Rooster” or “Burly,” we knew George Scott as “The Boomer,” Tom Burgmeier became “Burgy,” Bill Campbell was “Soup” to us, while in a bit of policy inversion tailored to emphasize the heroic stature of the team’s mightiest batsman, coming up now was “Jim Ed Rice the Gentleman from South Carolina.” The descriptions of their feats on the field were buttressed from time to time with a detail of biography that, because it was all we got, seemed somehow comprehensive, the telling fact, such as the small-town New England boyhood of “New Hampshire’s own Pudge Fisk” or third baseman “Butch” Hobson’s elbow full of “floating” bone chips that at any time might, without warning, “lock up” on the stoical ex-Alabama football player, even during throws. From time to time Martin actually summoned the phrase “his deeds.” In the gently partisan hue of all this, I recall no instance when a Red Sox player gloated or otherwise forgot his manners, except under extreme enemy provocation, and each Bostonian seemed to have a more abiding interest than the next in “community service.” Martin enjoyed talking about rookies, got us excited about their youthful, seemingly limitless futures, which made it possible to think we might have them forever. Former Red Sox players traded to opposing teams from then on received the appellation “Old Friend” before he said their names. (This helped me to get over the loss of the players; I always wanted them to remain Red Sox forever.) Even we, “The Fenway Faithful,” were cited for loyalty. I could never quite decide whether in Martin’s view winning at baseball was a reward for just behavior or if just behavior was its own reward.
The months of baseball were a quest that took me to distant settings like Illinois and California and introduced formidable foes such as the Baltimore Orioles with their pair of pitchers named Martinez, Dennis and Tippy, and their couplet of batting lineup pests, Rich Dauer and Al Bumbry—the latter actually known as “The Bumblebee.” The entire American League landscape was populated with fascinating characters. The Tigers had a base-stealing champion named Ron LeFlore who’d done time in prison for armed robbery. Later, fully reformed, he became, of all things, an umpire. In 1976, Detroit’s best pitcher was a native New Englander named Mark “The Bird” Fidrych who talked volubly to the baseball on the mound and convinced it to win him nineteen games. The next year the ball abruptly ceased to listen. A Milwaukee pitcher named “Moose” Haas weighed 180 pounds, while the Rangers infielder “Bump” Wills was 175. “Beautiful” Royals Stadium was decorated with sparkling fountains. Municipal Stadium in Rust Belt Cleveland could have fifteen thousand fans inside and still seem empty as an abandoned factory mill. You hadn’t experienced heat until you visited Arlington, Texas, in July. At the end of the season, when word was passed along of the small towns in distant states the players were now returning to for an off-season of hunting, fishing, or work in the family business, I could see Martin someday telling how every winter I went back to New Haven to read again The Glory of Their Times and My Ántonia.
Listening was ecstasy, it was bliss, and it was more: a fanaticism so consuming that all other sounds faded away. I ate sunflower seeds during the games, and I could get so absorbed in a close contest that I went through entire sacks of seeds at high speed, my hand a blur as it moved from the bowl of fresh seeds, to my mouth, and then to the bowl for spent shells, which got so full that eventually the huge saliva-dampened brown pile toppled over the rim spilling along my blue quilt, soaking it with wet, brackish blotches that I noticed only after the Red Sox were safe. I never would have said that I could influence what happened to the Red Sox, though, in fact, with my many compulsions I behaved as if, by some magnetic force, I could affect outcomes. When a rally began, I often froze in position, holding my breath, fearing even to twitch lest it ruin the promising momentum. Convinced that God would not look well upon pagan acts, when I discovered my legs or fingers crossed during a crucial moment, I hurriedly uncrossed them. I believed that Red Sox success was a reward for good character, a conviction that without question did improve my everyday behavior. To assist the Red Sox during close competitions, I went out of my way to be helpful to my mother, kind to my sister, to put the toilet seat back down after I used it, to take out the garbage when it wasn’t my turn, and I made silent bargains about what I’d do if matters went the Red Sox way. No matter what the outcome, it never would have occurred to me not to follow through, to fail to keep up my end, because did not real disaster thrive on such invitations? Those were my happiest points in the broadcast, not when the hoped-for event had come to pass, but before, when it might, I reviewing all the experiences that could happen, all the possibilities. It seemed to me then that baseball could grow time, that its endlessly digressive nature made it not so much immediate as an activity in dialogue with immediacy. Each game might, in theory, continue forever—until it didn’t. Naturally, I wanted the Red Sox to win, but, if I could have wished for anything, it would have been for this game that was played at a lifelike, real-time pace to last and last, to go ahead and become life, for it never to end and send me back into my room again, back to the world’s deficiencies.
By now I’d gone to a second game at Fenway Park, and afterward had begun thinking back on that ﬁrst time I’d been with my mother. There could not have been a more banal and disappointing game and yet now I wanted to ennoble it, for it to carry a memorable significance equal to my feelings for the Red Sox. It began to occur to me that the team’s old brick ballpark was the special part.
How I had loved to be there. Fenway Park was out of another time, so different from modern Shea Stadium, so different from anywhere else. I thought of Fenway the way I did the Worthington Hooker schoolyard, all the weirdly girdered porches and overhangs, the asymmetrical green walls and corners encircling the field in strange, viridian crenellations of high, low, near, far, everything built to the dimensions of an earlier version of the city that was still imposing distinctiveness and unpredictability on all the games played there, and on all the people who came to see the games. I think now about the way I, who then always favored such regularity in my personal environments, was so drawn to these eccentric public contours, these skewed proportions, and I see the stark demarcation between desire and need, the love for the surprising patterns of the past and the wariness of present deviations.
At Fenway I was less guarded, more receptive than usual in many ways to the timbre of sounds, to the play of light and sky, to degrees of breeze and temperature, the smell of food, the foam-whiteness of the bases surrounded on all sides by very dark earth and very green grass. I sat in the center of the city with the feeling that I was far removed from it. The world at ballpark vantage felt explicit. Everything was more than itself, especially the heroic ballplayers: Yastrzemski, Burleson, and even Andy Hassler.
Poor Hassler! I followed his career closely. Despite all the incantatory forecasting about his left arm, despite the easy mastery he’d displayed that first Fenway day my mother and I had seen him, he never did become a great pitcher, though for many years he seemed so much to embody the part that he continued to water expectations. After he’d failed first with the Angels and then the Kansas City Royals, in 1978 he briefly joined the Red Sox, still faintly shining with promise. Less than a year later, his record at one win and two losses, they gladly parted with him. Hassler became almost a law of physics to me—that something can never be more than it truly is no matter how much you want it to be so.
Other boys had favorite players, and I couldn’t ever figure out why I never did. I revered all the Red Sox, and yet my feelings had neglected to deepen into the particular commitment I was seeking. I had no idea what that might constitute other than my conviction that he existed. Just as some adults searching for a spouse or a new house or even a dress can come to feel overwhelmed by the belief that the ideal for them must lie somewhere in the big haystack of the world, but that everything they are likely to encounter will represent some form of compromise, what pulled at me was the notion that there was a ballplayer perfectly suited to me out there if only I could find him.
One night I had a dream in which all of the Red Sox players were spread along the foul line at Fenway Park and we fans were permitted to line up in front of one of them for an autograph. Most of the fans chose the famous players, with thousands of people waiting to get a signature from Carl Yastrzemski or Carlton Fisk. I chose a reserve player positioned way out in right field, and because nobody else stood in front of him, there was time for him to talk to me. The dream was so vivid that I thought about it often. I wanted something more personal from the players, something absolute.
I scarcely knew the Red Sox at all. The faint silhouettes limned by Ned Martin meant that beyond their play, they were blank to me, had no tangible inner qualities. That situation had advantages. There was nothing to stop me from filling them in myself, seeing them with the same mysteriously resilient clarity of perception in which in my mind I saw places I’d heard about but had never been to, images that, once formed, I retained for years, such as my Minnesota: dark green and hoar-frosted with a lot of cabinlike structures surrounded by pines. In my imagination the ballplayers were strong and friendly and kind and benevolent and much given to easy laughter, and I interacted with them, by which I mean that I half thought I could bring them into my room and learn from these men how to live by listening to their games. Because they were so skilled at baseball, I had the idea that the Red Sox knew all the important things, had mastered life, had secrets to tell me about existence that nobody else could. That I was close to them, in turn, made it easier for me to disclose to the Red Sox the emotions that in the rest of my life were not easily expressed. To me, in a small apartment I lived in with women, the Red Sox became the men in my house. There was a game every day, and that schedule created a mutual constancy of commitment. I did not feel fully alive until I had gone off to be with them and hear whatever story they had for me that night. There on my knees, I poured myself out to them, loving them as though they were one with me. When it was time to be under the covers, I set the “sleep” switch on thirty minutes and allowed these Red Sox players to be, with a little help from Ned Martin, the ones putting me to bed every night—the present but nonexistent men I wanted around me to make up for the absent but existing father whom I no longer wanted at all, except in ways that he could not be.