Excerpt: Best Seat in the House
1: My Father's Daughter
"Two tickets to a Cleveland Indians game," the announcer was saying on the Saturday-morning radio show on WSPD in Toledo, Ohio, "for the person who knows the answer to this trivia question."
All six of us were at the kitchen table on a typically chaotic, noisy Saturday morning in late May of 1969. I had my head buried in the newspaper, poring over the baseball standings. I don't think my parents or my siblings heard the question, but I did.
"Who were the two pitchers involved in the only double no-hitter in baseball history?" the man on the radio asked.
"I know the answer to that," I said, as much to myself as to anyone else. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
It was in one of the baseball books I was reading. Having just turned eleven, I already was smitten with baseball, with our minor-league Mud Hens and with all the major-league teams surrounding us: the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, the Tigers in Detroit, the Indians in Cleveland, the Reds in Cincinnati. Unlike so many children in other parts of the country, I didn't have to pick one team to cheer for. I had a half dozen in my big Midwestern backyard. But those weren't the only teams I followed. When I tried to fall asleep at night, I didn't count sheep. I recited World Series teams, going backward from 1968, until I didn't know them anymore.
My father turned to look at me.
"You want to call in?" Dad asked.
I shook my head no. I pictured a sports fan, a man, already at his phone somewhere else in Toledo, dialing in, answering correctly, winning the tickets.
We listened for a few moments.
"We still don't have any callers," the radio announcer said.
Dad looked at me and smiled. I pushed my chair away from the table and walked to the phone. I still thought I would be too late. I picked up the phone and looked at my father, then my mother. They nodded approvingly without saying a word. I dialed the number.
A man answered at the radio station. I recognized his voice. It was the announcer. Everyone in the kitchen fell silent. Mom reached for the kitchen radio and twisted the knob to turn down the sound so I wouldn't get distracted, then ran to their bedroom to listen.
"So," the announcer asked, "you know the answer?"
"Yes," I said in the firmest eleven-year-old voice I could muster. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
"Oh, we've got a young fan here," the announcer chuckled. "And what teams did they play for?"
He was adding another question, right then, on the air. It wasn't a problem. I knew the answer.
"The Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs," I replied.
"You're right! You win the tickets! What's your name?"
"Christine Brennan," I said.
"Oh," the announcer said. "You're a girl."
My first press box was in our family room, ten feet from the television. Every Saturday morning during baseball season, I pulled Mom's manual Olympia typewriter off a closet shelf, set it on a small table, and typed up a three-or four-paragraph preview of the NBC "Major League Game of the Week." My brother, Jim, who was four years younger than I was, would do research, looking up statistics in the Toledo Blade sports section. He was very thorough for a seven-year-old, giving me all the information I asked for. We wrote about the starting pitchers, about who was hitting well, about what to expect in the game. My stories had a circulation of six -- five not counting me: my father, a former high school tackle and shot putter who once had a tryout with the Chicago Bears; my mother; and my siblings. There were four Brennan children; I was born in May of 1958, my sister Kate in November of 1959, Jim in June of 1962, and my sister Amy in August of 1967.
Those little stories flew off my fingertips. I had read hundreds of articles about baseball in the Blade, the Toledo Times, and the Detroit Free Press. I also had some previous writing experience. My parents gave me a diary for Christmas of 1968. It had a blue and green floral print on the cover and a lock that I never used. My first entry, on January 1, 1969, was typical of what I believed my diary should be: "Woke up late after staying up last night to wait for the New Year. After lunch, went to the Sports Arena to ice skate. After that, watched the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl. In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State won over USC, 27-16. In the Orange Bowl, Penn State won over Kansas, 15-14."
I sounded like a stringer for the Associated Press.
Barely a day went by when I did not report in my diary the score of a University of Toledo Rockets basketball game, or an NFL play-off game, or, when spring came, the score of a Toledo Mud Hens or a Detroit Tigers game or the Saturday "Game of the Week." My entries also covered the daily activities of a girl turning eleven: memorizing spelling words, going to classes at the Toledo Museum of Art, skating on someone's frozen backyard.
My entry for February 28 was particularly memorable: "Today I begged my Dad to try to get tickets for the Rockets' game tomorrow against Miami (O.). It is Steve Mix's last game. Daddy will try to get tickets."
Steve Mix was the first big sports superstar I idolized. He was the University of Toledo basketball team's six-seven, 220-pound center. With his broad shoulders and tree-trunk arms, Mix lumbered through the key and under the basket like a giant, and we loved him for it.
"The Mixmaster!" Dad would yell, his deep voice booming above the crowd, as Mix grabbed a rebound and threw his elbows side to side, churning like a blender to protect the ball. I would look up and smile at my father, a big block of a man at six feet and two hundred pounds, with a quarter-inch crew cut and black-rimmed glasses.
And when Mix laid in a basket, rolling it off his fingertips as he blew through the lane "like a freight train," as Dad said, we cheered mightily.
The Rockets won the Mid-American Conference championship in the 1966-67 season, going 23-2 and making the NCAA Tournament, which was quite a feat because only twenty-three teams qualified for the tournament that year. Mix and his teammates cut down the net after they clinched their spot in the tournament, and the next morning, I was stunned to see it hanging off a kitchen cabinet in the home of one of my friends whose father was a University of Toledo professor with connections to the team. We were living in the well-manicured middle-class enclave of Old Orchard in West Toledo, just across busy Bancroft Street from the university. The old Field House where the basketball team played -- no one called it the men's team because there was no women's team that we knew of back then -- was a five-minute walk from our home. Dad and I had gone to a few games that season, but not the one that clinched the title. Instead, I listened to every minute of that crucial game on the radio. Seeing that net the next day made it real to me.
We went to a few games the next year, Dad and I, and on occasion, Kate and Jim. We went to several more the next, which was the 1968-69 season. Mix was a senior that season, and the March 1 game was Toledo's last, our final chance to see him play. My father did find two tickets -- he bought them from a student -- and we joined the crush of spectators streaming into the Field House. The building held just four thousand fans. It was hard to say if the more remarkable quality about the old barn of a gym was the heat or the acoustics. Let's call it a tie. It was the hottest, loudest place I had ever been.
Dad and I found our seats in the last row, just under the ceiling at the top of the student section. We were a long way from the court. "But we're here!" Dad said, turning to me with a big smile. "That's the important thing. We can smell it."
We could smell, see, and hear every second of Mix's finale. I don't remember how many points he scored. I do remember breathing in every moment of the event as if it were pure oxygen. I kept looking around the gym, taking mental pictures of every significant moment. I could feel my heart racing. This was, I would later come to understand, the adrenaline rush of the big event: so many people gathered in one place, and us with them, for a grand, two-hour high-wire act. Nothing that happened within the confines of the usual routine of my young life could match this. Nothing even came close.
When the horn sounded near the end of the game, which Toledo lost, 70-65, Dad nudged me and motioned for me to look toward the Toledo bench.
"They're taking him out," Dad said.
Steve Mix was walking slowly toward the Rockets bench down on the floor many rows below us. Coach Bob Nichols shook his hand. His teammates patted him on the back. Someone handed him a towel. Mix sat down hard.
"And thus a great career comes to an end," Dad said.
I looked at Dad. I tried to blink back my tears. Dad smiled at me. I thought I saw a tear forming in his eye too.
Dad introduced me to sports when I was only four, during the 1962 World Series between the New York Yankees and the San Francisco Giants. While watching the first game of the series on our black-and-white television, I made a pronouncement that Mom recorded in my baby book: "Yogi Bear is going to catch. When he gets the ball, he'll steal it, as he does the picnic baskets."
The next summer, I used one of Dad's old gloves when we first played catch in our backyard. Dad immediately taught me how to throw the baseball properly, firing it from behind my right ear without the slightest hint of the motion that has come to be known as "throwing like a girl." I don't remember hearing anyone use those words until late in elementary school; certainly my father or mother never used them. Nor did the boys I played ball with every spring and summer day in our neighborhood. I was the only girl who regularly played with them -- and I threw like they did.
Then something wonderful happened. As my eighth birthday approached, I asked for my own baseball mitt. Dad went to a sporting goods store and bought a light brown, perfectly smooth, pristine Rawlings glove. Written in script on the palm of the glove was the name Tony Cloninger, with a drawing of a man throwing a baseball. Imprinted nearby were these words: "The Finest in the Field!"
I didn't know who Tony Cloninger was, so I checked the sports section to find out. He was a right-handed pitcher for the Atlanta Braves who was to gain fame later that year, 1966, for hitting two grand slams in one game against the San Francisco Giants. Unfortunately, I never saw him play in person or on TV. Cloninger existed only in newspaper photos, on baseball cards, in the box scores, and in the palm of my glove.
When Dad gave me the glove, I held it to my face and inhaled deeply. All the boys did that with their gloves, so I did it too. My glove smelled new and fresh and natural. This was the scent of baseball. I used my new mitt every day that summer, playing with the boys in the neighborhood in the morning and afternoon, then with my father when he came home from work in the evening and it stayed light until after nine o'clock.
I took to sports naturally when I was a little girl because I never really was little. My mother said I was born size 6X and kept right on growing. I was the only Brownie Scout, Mom said, who outgrew her dress in the second grade, when at the age of seven, I was already four and a half feet tall and weighed more than seventy pounds. By the time I was nine, I was five feet tall and one hundred pounds. What was bad for Brownies, however, was good for sports. While the boys were ambivalent or downright inhospitable to most girls who wanted to play with them, they specifically asked me to join them, and sometimes picked me first when we chose up sides.
With my dark brown hair cut in the simplest of pageboys, I was the tomboy of the neighborhood. I broke my arm falling out of a tree when I was seven. That same year, I asked for G.I. Joe, not Barbie, for Christmas -- and that's what Santa brought. While Kate was innately drawn to Mom's side at the stove, I obliviously walked by them -- Mom, Kate, and the stove -- as if they were invisible on my way outside to play catch.
Because I played with the boys all day, I wanted to look like they did, so I wore baggy T-shirts and grass-stained shorts and pedal pushers. When we went swimming in the pool that Mom and Dad had had built in our backyard, I often swam topless. Not that it mattered, not at that age. I was five or six at the time. If the boys could swim topless, I said to Mom and Dad, why couldn't I? They smiled and told me it was just fine. I was seven or eight when I switched to a girl's bathing suit. This required no family intervention; it just happened like most things do when parents don't push their children, by my mother buying me a girl's suit and my one day putting it on.
In those days, I was clamoring for as much from sports as I could get. I kept asking for more trips to the backyard to play catch with Dad, kept hoping for more visits to the University of Toledo for a basketball or football game, kept wanting more time in front of the television or beside the radio with my father to understand the games better. I desperately wanted to learn to keep score of baseball games, to understand the sport's strange numbering system -- the catcher was 2, the shortstop was 6, the center fielder, 8.
Dad wasn't pushing me to do this. I was asking, and Dad happily obliged. I wondered years later if Dad thought of me as his first son, and he laughed and shook his head. "No, you wanted to play sports and learn about sports, and you were a happy child, so your mother and I thought that was just fine. We wanted you to do what you wanted to do."
If Dad wasn't home, I turned to my best friend, David Hansen. David was my first running mate -- a triplet with a brother, Douglas, and a sister, Laurie. We became such good friends that they labeled me "the Fourth Triplet," a title I believe I hold for life. They all called me Christy back then. I would later become Chris or Christine to everyone else, but not to the Hansens, and especially not to David. Nearly forty years later, when I talk to David, I'm still Christy Brennan, which is fine with me. David and I spent our summer days trading baseball cards, fiddling with his transistor radio dial trying to tune in the Chicago Cubs from two hundred miles away, and racing around the block on our new bikes. One day we got the great idea to attach a rope to the collar of the Hansens' large boxer, McDuff, so he could drag us around the block on our skateboards as if we were waterskiing. There were more skinned knees in the neighborhood that summer than any year before or since.
David Hansen and I had just about everything in common. Our mothers always wondered if we would eventually get married. (We did not.) David was ten months older, but we were the same height as kids, perfectly compatible for playing sports all day long. My first sleepover, when I was seven, was not at a girl's house, but at David's. We slept in sleeping bags in the Hansens' basement. It didn't take me long to get there: we lived two doors apart on Barrington Drive in Old Orchard. David and his siblings and I and mine played in our neighborhood Monday through Friday, then went to art classes together at the museum Saturday mornings and to church Sunday mornings. I sometimes missed a Sunday, but the triplets never did. They couldn't. Their father was our minister at Christ Presbyterian Church.
There was only one boy in the neighborhood taller than I was back then, Clifford Siegel. Clifford was the triplets' age, a year ahead of me in school, and he lived with his grandparents just a few doors down from our home. One day, he stood on the sidewalk, refusing to move as I barreled toward him on my bicycle.
"You better move!" I yelled.
"I dare you to hit me!" Clifford yelled back.
I flew off my bike one way, Clifford flew another way. But we both bounced up, dusted ourselves off, and within an hour were meeting up with the other kids at Goddard Field, a grassy expanse two blocks from our homes, playing baseball once again. If we weren't pretending we were Mickey Mantle when we were up to bat, we were Al Kaline, the great Detroit Tiger. Other days, we played kickball, or running bases, or tag, or someone brought a kite and we ran so fast we sometimes fell trying to coax it off the ground. Goddard Field was right across Bancroft Street from the University of Toledo's soaring, limestone Gothic clock tower. We told time by the black hands on that clock; when the hour hand reached six, we dashed those two blocks home for dinner, often to meet again in an hour or so to ride bikes or play another sport, assuming that Dad wasn't home yet and ready to play catch with me.
Professional baseball turned one hundred in the spring of 1969; I turned eleven. We watched the weekly games on TV, but mostly, baseball came into our home through the radio. Dad already had taught me every last detail of how to keep score; then, just in time for the Toledo Mud Hens season, he bought me a ringed, blue baseball score book. I would plug in a radio on the end table beside the sofa in our living room, then close the doors to our family room and kitchen, where everyone else was doing chores, homework, or watching TV. There I'd sit, night after night, by myself, listening to the Mud Hens on WCWA 1230 AM. I had my pencil and the score book on my lap and my well-worn copy of the Blade's special Mud Hens pullout section, with all the players' pictures and biographies, at my side. Occasionally I switched to the Detroit Tigers game on the radio, but even though they had won the World Series the year before, I preferred the Mud Hens, who were the Tigers' Triple-A, International League farm club. They were ours.
I listened to those games from places that felt far away, cities like Syracuse and Rochester and Richmond. I pictured what the stadiums might look like, heard the sounds coming from them through the radio -- one day I was sure I heard a hot dog vendor's yell -- and, for that night, I wished I could be there. Dad soon let me in on a little secret: many of the Hens' road games were re-creations. The crowd noise and crack of the bat were produced in a studio, he said, and the announcer simply was reading the play-by-play coming over a ticker. Alas, the hot dog vendor probably never existed. I was surprised by Dad's news, but hardly crushed. I began to listen more intently to see if I could tell the difference between a real away game and a re-created one. The big giveaway was the sound of the crowd noise; after an inning in which it sounded the same no matter who was up to bat or what the batter did, junior sleuth that I was, I knew it was fake.
My mind wandered those evenings sitting on the sofa by myself. I never knew what the other team's players looked like. I didn't know what color their uniforms were. There was no way to know if the radio announcer didn't mention it; the local TV stations never went on the road with the Mud Hens, so there were no game highlights to be seen. It was still a full decade before the launch of ESPN, even longer before the arrival of local sports cable stations. I had to rely on the stories and black-and-white photos in the newspaper to tell me what the game must have looked like. That, and my imagination. Years later, a sportswriting colleague told me that he had the same problem. When his favorite major-leaguer was traded, he wrote to ask him a simple question: "What number are you wearing with your new team?"
The newspaper sports section then became my guide, and many days, I grew impatient waiting for it. We subscribed to the afternoon Blade, and it arrived around 4 P.M., sometimes 4:30. So eager was I to start in on the box scores and the wire reports of the previous night's major-league games that I sometimes stood quietly in our foyer, waiting for the thunk on the doorstep.
Even after listening to the entire Mud Hens game the previous night, I devoured the newspaper stories the next day. I realized I actually was more interested in reading about a game after I had spent the night listening to it. Even at this early age, I was intrigued to see how the writers described it, what they chose to emphasize. I pored over the box scores and analyzed the International League standings to see who had gained a game or who had fallen back. I did the same for the Tigers and the other major-league teams, but I spent the most time on the Mud Hens.
A few years later, the television show M*A*S*H and its nutty Corporal Klinger, played by Toledoan Jamie Farr, introduced the nation to the Mud Hens. People came to realize then what I was understanding in the 1960s, that our Mud Hens were the very essence of minor-league ball. They had been around forever and had a colorful history. Dad told me the great Casey Stengel even had been Toledo's manager in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back in the late 1800s, the team had been alternately known as the Blue Stockings, the Toledos (the Toledo Toledos?), the Maumees (for the river that runs through town), and the Swamp Angels. For a while, their stadium was located in marshland inhabited by ducklike birds. Amused by these creatures that occasionally joined them in the outfield, opposing players began calling them "mud hens." In 1896, this became the team's permanent nickname. What a godsend this would become a century later when merchandisers inherited the earth and people wanted offbeat souvenirs like hats with a hen on them.
The man who brought the Mud Hens to life for me in our living room every night in 1969 was Frank Gilhooley, a local sportscaster with a rich, jolly voice. He was the Hens' radio play-by-play man. There was a language to sports, and I began to learn it from him. One night, Gilhooley mentioned "the hot corner." I didn't know what that was. I waited for him to use the term again, to see if I could figure it out, but before he did, Dad walked into the living room.
"What's the hot corner, Dad?"
If this question surprised him, coming out of the blue as it did, he didn't miss a beat. "That's another term for third base."
I thought about that for a moment.
"Because the ball can come off the bat of a hitter really fast down there at third?"
"Exactly," Dad replied.
Another time, Gilhooley talked about a double play going 6-4-3, and, because Dad had taught me how to keep score, I knew that meant the play went from the shortstop to the second baseman to the first baseman.
One night, Gilhooley announced a contest to name an all-time Mud Hens roster, position by position. A couple of weeks later, he took time away from calling the game to read one submission.
As he read the names, I listened very carefully: "Tom Timmermann. Ike Brown. Bob Christian. Don Pepper . . ."
Every name he read was a player who had been with the team that year or the year before, when the Hens won the International League pennant. Brown and Timmermann were playing in the game I was listening to that night.
As the list was being read over the air, my father walked into the room. He stopped and stood over me, listening intently with me as Gilhooley finished.
"Must be from a young fan," Gilhooley said to his listeners.
I could hear a smile in his voice.
"But there's no name on it," he said, "so we'll never know who sent it in."
I don't remember what Gilhooley said next, although I do know he chuckled. I looked straight ahead. My father started to leave the room.
My voice stopped him.
"That was me."
As I thought about it years later, I didn't put my name on that piece of paper because, at eleven, I thought voting for an all-star team was the same as voting in an election. I thought you were supposed to remain anonymous. I remember feeling embarrassed until Dad looked down at me and smiled.
"You know that was yours," he said softly. "That's all that matters."
From that moment on, I put my name on anything I ever wrote.
As for my all-time Hens, they didn't fare too badly.
Pitcher Tom Timmermann and infielder Ike Brown were called up by the Detroit Tigers on the same day later that season. They both played their first major-league game on the road, in Yankee Stadium. Timmermann, who was six-foot-four and wore thick, black-framed glasses, played for Detroit and Cleveland for parts of six seasons. In 1970, he had twenty-seven saves as a relief pitcher for Detroit and was named Tiger of the Year. Brown, who always seemed to be laughing on his way out of the dugout, played for the Tigers for portions of six seasons.
Outfielder Bob Christian led the Mud Hens in hitting in 1968 with a .317 average. He was in his early twenties, but every picture I saw of him made him look younger. He had a sweet smile. Christian played parts of three seasons in the majors with Detroit and the Chicago White Sox, and I followed him in the box scores. But in February 1974, I opened the paper and was shocked to read that he had died of leukemia. He was just twenty-eight.
I found out about Don Pepper many years later. While covering a golf tournament, I stopped LPGA star Dottie Pepper to ask if she was related to the Hens' old first baseman.
"Related?" she said. "I'm his daughter."
I soon asked Dad if I could see the Hens in person, if we could go to some games. Dad said yes, and he bought season tickets along the first-base line.
There was no better ballpark for a child to become introduced to baseball than the old Lucas County Recreation Center in Maumee, Ohio, a suburb just south of Toledo. That's where the Mud Hens played until they moved to a new downtown ballpark in 2002. The old stadium was a former horse-racing track, with one long grandstand that was parallel to the third-base line, augmented by a set of bleachers, put in for baseball, that hugged the first-base line.
This odd setup caused the players' clubhouse to be separated from the stadium. To get to the locker room, players from both teams had to walk through a public corridor. That meant they had to walk by us, so this became a gold mine for autographs. The first time we went to the park, we noticed other children gathering behind the first-base bleachers, so we asked Dad if we too could go to the area between the stadium and the clubhouse when the game ended. Dad thought it was a great idea. First came one player, then another, then it was a parade, a steady stream of ballplayers, their spikes clicking on the concrete as they came toward us. With our Bic ballpoint pens poised and ready, we raced around like ants, asking the players to sign our programs, our mitts, even the free bats we received on Bat Day.
This was so exciting to me, to meet the players, even for just a few seconds. We not only got to see the Mud Hens up close, but also stars on other teams. I knew all of their names from the radio broadcasts; some of them, like Ralph Garr, Bobby Grich, and Al Bumbry, went on to become well-known major-leaguers. But we focused our efforts mostly on the Hens. It is for this reason that, almost every game we went to, it seemed, I ended up with big Tom Timmermann's autograph -- on my glove, on a baseball, on the game program. I figured I had more Tom Timmermanns than anyone on the planet. When the last player had finally shaken loose to open the clubhouse door, we then came together -- Kate, Jim, the Hansen triplets, and I -- and compared notes, like children after a night of trick-or-treating.
In 1969, Dad also started taking us to a major-league game or two every year in Detroit, which was just an hour's drive away. The year before, 1968, had been a big year for the Tigers. They won the American League pennant, then the World Series in seven games over the St. Louis Cardinals. We didn't go to any games that year, but I listened to many on the radio, and all of us kids knew the words to "Go Get 'Em, Tigers" so well that we can sing them to this day.
We were not big Indians fans -- Cleveland was twice as far away as Detroit -- although Dad did try to take me to a game in the summer of 1969 with the tickets I won in the radio contest. We got halfway there when a hose broke in the engine of Dad's car and we had to pull over. By the time the car was fixed, the game was nearly over in Cleveland, so we turned around and headed home. I was so disappointed that day, but Dad grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye and promised me we would try again, and we did, later in the season. My free tickets were good only for the game we missed, so Dad bought us two more to watch the Indians play the Chicago White Sox. As we sat among rows and rows of empty seats in Cleveland's seventy-six-thousand-seat Municipal Stadium, a picture of which should have been placed next to the word cavernous in the dictionary, Dad smiled and put his arm around my shoulders. "You deserve to be here. You got that question right. We're here because of you." I beamed.
Usually, we went up to Detroit when the White Sox were in town. My father and mother were born on the South Side of Chicago and didn't move to Toledo until a few months before I was born. During one twi-night doubleheader in 1971, Dad bought each of us a White Sox batting helmet at the concession stand. For this one night, we cheered against the Tigers and for Dad's South Side Sox. The Tigers fans behind us in our upper-deck seats got a kick out of the gaggle of kids sitting in front of them -- Kate, Jim, and me, as well as the three Hansens, whose mother was from Chicago -- each wearing a hard, plastic Chicago helmet. Every time Detroit scored, a woman rapped each of us on the top of our helmets and teased us about being from Chicago.
"Should we tell her we're from Toledo, Dad?" I asked softly.
"No," Dad replied mischievously, in an exaggerated whisper. "Let's keep her guessing."
There was nothing wrong with making people think you were from Chicago, Dad told me later. Dad liked the White Sox, but he actually lived and died with the Cubbies, as he called them. It wasn't easy to cheer for the Chicago Cubs, Dad told me in 1969. He said the same thing in 1979, 1989, and 1999. But the Cubs were his favorites, and had been since his childhood. Although he was a Southsider, he actually grew up cheering for the North Side Cubs because his father never forgave Shoeless Joe Jackson and the White Sox for throwing the 1919 World Series.
Dad's favorite player was the Cubs' Ernie Banks, whose career was winding down in 1969. Dad always said Banks was the greatest ballplayer never to make it to the World Series. He told me how smoothly and fluidly Banks played the game, and when I finally got the chance to see the Cubs on one of those Saturday TV games in 1969, I realized what Dad loved about Banks, how he held the bat so effortlessly, moving his fingers over it as if he were holding a flute. "Let's play two," Ernie loved to say, and Dad enjoyed quoting him, sometimes bellowing out the words as he drove a car full of children to another game. Dad loved the man's spirit. "Now, that," Dad would say, "is a ballplayer."
In hindsight, the 1969 season was probably the wrong one to pick to start rooting for the Cubs. Dad was ecstatic that they were in first place in June, but as a seasoned Cubs fan, he also was wary. And if he was, so was I. In late June, I had to take a weeklong break from baseball and go to camp with Kate in the Irish Hills of southeastern Michigan. Most kids look forward to going to summer camp, but I was of two minds on this. I was excited to go, but I hated to miss a day, much less a whole week, of the baseball season. Dad knew how anxious I was, so he wrote to me three times (and to Kate three times as well), while Mom wrote two letters to each of us. With each letter to me, Dad sent the entire Toledo Times sports section, folded up.
On June 25, 1969, he wrote:
Well, the Hens dropped another one and Ike Brown finally got shut out. At least our Cubs won another one but look out for those Mets, they are hot.
Did you know that General Custer made his famous "Last Stand" 93 years ago today?
It is bright and sunny today -- I hope you and Katie are swimming.
Love and kisses, Daddy
Dad was right. The Mets were hot. This was 1969, after all. They were so hot that they became known as the "Miracle Mets."
But the fact is, we were growing up as American League kids. Jim and I watched the Tigers every chance we had on their telecasts into the Toledo market, and we listened every night we could to the legendary Ernie Harwell call their games on "The Great Voice of the Great Lakes," Detroit's WJR radio, 760 AM. The Tigers' road games emanated from even farther-flung cities than the Mud Hens' did, places that intrigued me even more, ballparks in big cities I dreamed of visiting someday. But it wasn't just the Tigers. There were games going on all over the country, and I wanted to know the score of each one. I was the kind of child who always stayed busy, who didn't want to go to sleep because I didn't want to miss anything. And here was a world in which every day, many times a day, there was another first pitch. In baseball, there always was something going on.
The Tigers' road swings out west were by far the most enchanting. I had never heard of something important just starting when I was going to sleep. This was exciting to me, and comforting. I wasn't any more afraid of the dark than your average child, but I wasn't any less afraid of it either. The truck that trundled by at 2 A.M. on a busy street near our house always provided a reassuring message that people were still awake and doing something productive as I slept. I felt the same way when the Tigers were on a West Coast swing, which meant their games from Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum or the Big A in Anaheim began at 10:30 or 11 P.M.
In his bedroom across the hall, Jim usually fell asleep first while listening to Ernie Harwell; I sometimes would go into his room to turn off his clock radio, then walk into my room and turn mine on before nodding off myself. Mom or Dad came up later to turn off my radio. Harwell must have lulled to sleep countless children night after night in the Great Lakes states in those glorious baseball seasons in the late sixties and early seventies.
I went to sleep thinking of baseball, and I woke up thinking of baseball. I memorized the numbers that mattered: Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six-game hitting streak. "That's the only record that won't fall in baseball," Dad said of DiMaggio's feat. "No one will ever do that again."
Dad maintained a reverence for the record, but not for the team for which DiMaggio played. When I told Dad that I felt sorry for the New York Yankees because they had had a few poor seasons in the late 1960s, Dad did not suppress the urge to give me another baseball history lesson, right then and there: "Don't ever feel sorry for the New York Yankees!"
I became absurdly superstitious watching games of the teams I liked, often refusing to get up from a chair for as long as an hour if things were going well. If I crossed my legs and the Tigers hit a home run, my legs stayed crossed. Kate and Jim and even Amy, who was just a little girl, were in on this too, helping in their own way, in their own seats. During the 1972 American League play-offs, the Tigers faced Oakland and things weren't going well as the A's were headed to the first of their three consecutive world championships. I told my siblings I was going to stand on the stone hearth of our fireplace to see if that helped.
The Tigers scored. So on the hearth I stayed. For the next two innings, I couldn't move, hoping more Detroit runs would come. They didn't, the Tigers lost, and I finally stepped down onto the carpet.
There was one other way we connected to baseball back then -- by buying, collecting, and trading baseball cards. Topps baseball cards were stacked by the cash register at Ace Drug on Bancroft Street, packaged with a hard stick of pink bubble gum, and available for a nickel a pack. Trading these cards was a very serious matter. Our philosophy was to unload any doubles we accumulated; sometimes we even ended up with three of a kind and really had to wheel and deal with siblings and friends. Kate joined in and accumulated so many Larry Dierkers over the course of one summer -- she must have had a half dozen cards featuring the Houston Astros pitcher -- that she shrieked in delight when she one day opened a pack and found it Dierker-less. A prized possession became a misprinted Jim Bunning card that read "Im Bunning." For a few days, until I showed the card to Dad, we thought his name really might be Im.
Baseball cards were the currency of our sports passion, but after a few years, we were not content to simply covet, trade, and hoard them. We started to send them away to be autographed. I sent cards to two dozen players, including Brooks Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ferguson Jenkins, Johnny Bench, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Gibson, and even Ted Williams when he was managing the Washington Senators in 1969. Each one came back autographed, some in envelopes that I swore were addressed by the player himself.
I sent cards to Aaron twice; one was his 1969 Topps card, the other the All-Time Home Run Leaders card, which came out at the beginning of the 1973 season. Babe Ruth still was first on this card with his 714 homers. Aaron was second with 673 and Willie Mays third with 654. I had this card, which Aaron signed in blue ballpoint, stashed in my bedroom desk the night in 1974 that he broke Ruth's home-run record. His historic 715th home run in Atlanta was caught on the fly in the bullpen beyond the outfield fence by a Braves relief pitcher named Tom House. I also had House's autograph on several baseballs and programs in my room. Before he went up to the major leagues, he played for the minor-league Richmond Braves and came to Toledo to play the Mud Hens on several occasions.
I kept my baseball cards in a shoe box -- except for the autographed ones, which I stored in that desk drawer. Much of the rest of the sports memorabilia I was collecting -- pictures, programs, ticket stubs -- went into scrapbooks. I spent rainy summer days cutting out articles and pictures from my Sports Illustrated magazines and glueing them in. I had asked Mom and Dad for a subscription to SI for my tenth birthday; the magazine started coming that spring. Years later, several sportswriter friends and I were discussing one of our rites of passage: What was on the cover of your first SI? For me, it was Don Drysdale and his consecutive scoreless innings streak. I still remember the line of 0's across the top of the magazine, nine innings' worth, a testament to Drysdale's perfection.
My first scrapbook was devoted almost entirely to those SI clippings and souvenirs, page after page of Cubs and White Sox and Tigers memorabilia. But in their midst, on one page by itself, I glued a colorful brochure for the forklift truck business Dad started, the Brennan Industrial Truck Company. The brochure featured a photo of Dad smiling at his desk and another of him and four coworkers posing at the wheel of forklift trucks, Dad in a business suit. Page after page of my sports heroes -- and then there was my Dad.
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