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Baseball, Spring, Halcyon Days, Elysian Fields.

by Robin L. ye

It's April, and Baseball season has arrived.  I don't  follow the big leagues anymore, but I have fond memories of games,  ballparks,  and summer afternoons (and evenings).

I don't like big league baseball anymore.  It's not the huge player salaries. After all, with all the money in baseball, the players are the ones who deserve it: you don't go to see the owners.  It is the big money itself that turns me off. There is too much money in baseball and other sports.  And maybe it's not even the money per se.  Maybe it's what it says about social priorities.  The gap between rich and poor is growing.  Cities with tumbled down housing and rotting streets, broken down sewers, decrepit  water systems, under-funded transit, and declining revenues somehow find the money to build new baseball stadia to replace perfectly good structures (some less than forty years old) to accommodate corporate playpens called sky boxes.  Ticket prices exclude most of the people living in these cities, and this has made baseball, the people's game, a game with a place for all sizes of players and where the managers dress like the players, into a spectacle for the elite available only at the remove of television or radio for most everyone else.

I still love baseball, though.  Even though a rotator cuff injury has ended the days of even a game of catch for me, I love thinking back on the days when I could throw and chase fly balls. And, I remember the days when I lived in cities or at least, metropolitan areas, and big league baseball was close by.  Especially, I remember days at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where I saw more games than anywhere else. I have never been to a minor league game, and I hope that I will go to one someday, but I have been to games in the park, whether it was watching Puerto Rican men in Chicago, in an atmosphere of Spanish, or Acadian men in Edmundston, New Brunswick, speaking to one another in fluent French or English, or little kids in various places, or my old high school's team, getting great and sage coaching from Coach Odlivak those many years ago.

I think my first big league game was either at Wrigley Field in about 1956, during our yearly visit to family in Chicago, or maybe at Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, at about the same time, as we lived in the Kansas City area in those days. I can remember being scared by the sudden burst of crowd noise that comes when something exciting happens.  I also remember the outings with cousins, uncles, my dad, and my grandfather to Wrigley Field when we would visit Chicago.  We usually located ourselves in the left field bleachers.  The scene was always full of colour.  We managed always to go on brilliant summer days.  The Cubs' white uniforms were unnaturally white, laundered in ways unknown to mortals.  The sea of fans in white shirtsleeves, and as time went on, in a rainbow of colours was framed by the red brick of the walls and the shadows of the grandstands.  Then there was the expanse of green, with the criss-crossing rows made by the lawn mower.  That much manicured grass without trees or structures was not to be found anywhere else, and was a marvel.

This marvel was to be seen in variations in other ballparks.  One such was Briggs, later Tigers Stadium in Detroit.  My dad would take me to games there, and I think I saw my first night game there.  Night games there and at Comiskey Park (the old one, not the current counterfeit) had a magic that was different from day games.  The lights made the field look like a gem, a gigantic emerald. It also served to remove the park from its surroundings.  All you could see was the dark sky above and maybe a few lights from downtown.  It was like floating in space on a huge, open-air spaceship.

Mostly, we sat in the grandstands or the bleachers (at Wrigley Field, where bleacher seats exist in abundance).  My first box seat experience was at the one and only game (a double header) I ever saw at Candlestick Park.  These were also the last two ballgames my dad saw before he died. The Cubs split with the Giants, by the way, and Willie McCovey hit a prodigious triple (I know now that that was much rarer than a homer from him), though Glenn Hobbie pitched a fine game giving the Cubs there end.  Box seats, some years later would be my preference at Wrigley Field. In the seventies, they were still from $3.50 to $4.00, but then, the bleachers only went up to a dollar in the late sixties.

I had lost a day-to-day interest in baseball during my first couple of years of high school. From grade seven till grade ten I would usually go out to Wrigley Field once a year with my cousin, but that stopped when I moved away from the two-flat on Carmen Avenue, where I  enjoyed listening to night games as I fell asleep.  I think I listened as much for the sound of the broadcast as for the goings on in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia.  My interest revived with a vengeance in 1968.  It was beginning then that I consolidated all my old memories of games and players past and some still present into something like real knowledge of the game.  Not, perhaps, since the summer of 1958, when my younger sister and I were staying with my maternal grandparents in Chicago (in the same two-flat I'd live in, myself by 1963), and my grandfather was bestowing the odd quarter and half dollar on me which was instantly converted at the corner store into baseball cards (the gum dutifully shared with my sister, as per ancient custom) did I have this intense an interest in baseball.  My best friend at the time  ('68) was a long-time fan and somewhat older than I and took it upon himself to increase my knowledge.  As time went on, I became more interested in the history of the big leagues (I had always been to some extent, from books I had and from my dad's stories of players he'd seen).  As well, in 1968, most of the players I'd known from my young boyhood (I was 17 by this time) were still playing:  Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline---even the hated (by all of us living west of the Bronx and north of Oklahoma) Mickey Mantle was still hanging on.  Many others from that greatest of eras, the fifties, faces from my old baseball cards, still played by then.

So one way or the other, baseball moved from background to foreground in my life.  I loved tuning in games, and going down to the ballpark, sometimes with a friend, often alone.  Periods of unemployment or not being in some sort of college left the odd weekday available for a Cub home game.  After Leo Durocher's mistreatment of several favourites, I rooted against the Cubs as often as not.  I got to see the big-hitting Cincinnati and Pittsburgh teams of those days beating up the Cubs and looking sad whenever they had to leave Wrigley Field.  I'd sometimes wait until after games to watch and talk to players as they came out to their busses.   I started researching a labour history of big league baseball, never to have time or resources to finish it (still have notes and references, though).  When I lived on Irving Park and Clarendon, I would walk to the ballpark by way of short block called Alta Vista Terrace,  that quiet evocation of London's Mayfair tucked away  between Byron and Grace.  The quiet walk was a welcome respite from the noise of game and the street sounds on Clark Street or Addison.

In the late seventies, I moved to Northern California.  It was Giants country, but it was still the National League, and I always enjoyed the late-morning Cub games.  When I worked on a survey crew, my chief (and only other crew member) Mike liked to break for lunch when the ballgame came on. The Giants played a day game every Wednesday when home, and, of course, when they played in Chicago, there were always day games.  Lunch was early when his Giants were in Chicago.  Also, he contrived the work in such a way as to see to it that he was with the truck (and therefore, with the radio) at those times.

When, by 1979 I moved to where I am now, I became a more avid Tiger fan. Living in Royal Oak, Michigan in my childhood meant that I heard a lot of Ernie Harwell.  It was great to hear him again when I moved to Michigan's Copper Country. I heard the Jack Morris no-hitter in 1984, and heard most of the games during that championship  season.  When I went away to Waterloo, Ontario for grad school, I still heard the Tigers, who have very loyal fans in southwestern Ontario, though by the time you get to Waterloo, the Tiger fans are thinning out and the Blue Jay fans are taking over.  The man who took care of the residence hall I lived in used to have the Tigers tuned in on the radio in the laundry room. I'd be back home summers for more Tiger games. 

We then moved to Saskatoon to finish seminary.  On the way there, we would tune in WJR as best we could to hear Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey, once in North Dakota (Bottineau) and once on the rim of the Qu'appelle Valley in southern Saskatchewan.

My first couple of churches were in Michigan and northern Ohio.  The Tigers were easy to find there.  But, at about that time the Great Controversy came. The idiot owner of the Tigers fired Ernie Harwell. Tom Monaghan was the owner of Domino's Pizza, and all over Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, Domino's franchises were being effectively boycotted in protest.  It wasn't hurting Monaghan, but it was doing damage to franchise owners.  I heard that Ernie, himself asked for the boycott to be stopped, on account of what it was doing to the individual franchises. We stopped listening to the Tigers.

And, we stopped listening to baseball, and I stopped following it.  It seemed that big league baseball's very nature was exposed in all of this, and it wasn't much fun to look on anymore.  Traditions were being scrapped.  Interleague play during the regular season was starting, and there was yet more mindless expansion.   Another thing that did it for me was the introduction of the softball uniform into baseball: baseball uniforms with no socks showing.  It looks stupid and uncomfortable.

Not watching or listening to baseball is not so bad.  I still have lots of memories.  I think the last time I saw a big league game was in the Spring of 1977: twenty-eight years ago.  A long time.  When I rediscovered baseball in 1968, twenty-eight years before that would have been 1940, or three wars and a lifetime before, back when baseball was a whites-only game, and scarcely anyone played night games, and a year before the great streak of Joe DiMaggio.  1968 is thirty-seven years ago.  From 1968, thirty-seven years back would have been 1931, back in the era of Ruth and Gerhig, and before the hey-day of Dizzy Dean. No, games and plays and catches and hits are still in my memory. It's still a world of old parks, short pants, day games; green grass, sunny afternoons, and cheap tickets. 

Robin L. ye is a composer, performer, and writer, and the founder of Torcroft Press.

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