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Excerpt: 'Perfect, Once Removed'


We left early in the morning, with a car full of packed lunches, so that I could get to Chicago in time to see Mantle take batting practice. I sat alone in the backseat as always, reading steadily from my rapidly growing personal baseball library. I brought along several John R. Tunises, several issues of Baseball Digest and the Sporting News, along with The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball (Revised Edition), several player biographies, and my autograph book. A few miles out of Speedway, as green rows of corn blurred by on both sides of US 52, I absorbed myself in an article about the 1946 World Series. When I got to the part about Enos Slaughter scoring from first on a single, I stumbled over a sentence that read, "Slide, you bastard, slide!" As always, I asked about any word I hadn't seen before.

"Mom, what's a bastard?" The car swerved sharply.

"What are you reading?" my mom demanded.

"Baseball Digest." I held up the cover.

"That's not a word for you to worry about, Phil."

"Okay," I said, making a note to look it up as soon as I got home.

The farm towns rushed by in a regular pattern: cornfields, the Lion's Club sign, a gas station, three or four blocks of houses and stores, the town square surrounding a Civil War statue, three or four more blocks of houses and stores, a cemetery, the back of the other Lion's Club sign, and more cornfields. Whenever we'd pass a cemetery, Mom would point out the window and crack her immortal joke:

"How many people are dead there?"

Dad and I would roll our eyes. "I don't know."

"All of them," she'd cackle.

The clouds began to thicken near Lafayette -- our halfway point. I looked out the back as sprinkles plopped on the Plymouth fins and beaded up on the trunk. The sky was an angry purple as we neared Gary. It was pouring when we reached Chicago. The Yankee-White Sox game was rained out. I stopped crying only after my dad sprinted back from a phone booth, my copy of the Sporting News covering his head, to tell us that we were going to meet Don at Chicago's Del Prado Hotel, where the Yankees were staying. We pulled up into the lot and ran through the downpour and in and around the revolving door, and there he was, waiting for us.

Don Larsen was by far the biggest human being I had ever seen. He wore a loose-fitting brown suit with pants whose creases seemed to converge somewhere over my head. After he greeted my dad with a firm handshake and my mom with a warm smile, he looked down at me. I offered him my hand. Instead, he wrapped his arms around me and pulled my head into his stomach.

He seemed glad to see me. He asked me if I would like to meet a few of the Yankees. I could barely answer him.

The New York Yankees were easy to spot: They were the young men scattered about the hotel lobby wearing suits and ties and shiny shoes. They looked as if they had just come back from church and they were waiting around for something to happen.

They looked strange without billed caps -- I had never thought of them as having hair. Don took me around and introduced me.

Johnny Kucks, a pitcher nearly as tall as Don, also gave me a hug.

Whitey Ford bent down to my level and asked me what position I played. "Well, I want to be a pitcher," I stammered. He told me not to try to throw a curve too soon.

"Why not?"

"You're not ready. It'll hurt your arm."

"When will I be ready?"

"Later," he said, as someone else claimed his attention.

Don spotted Yankee manager Casey Stengel entertaining a cluster of baseball writers in the corner of the lobby. Don walked me toward him. "Go over there by yourself," he whispered, pushing me forward. "Go on . . . tell Casey you're my cousin." I walked a few paces, heart hammering, and waited until the wrinkled old man with enormous ears got to the punch line of his story.

When the laughter died down, I stepped in front of him and introduced myself. His eyes widened. "You're Larsen's cousin, eh?" I nodded. The skipper grabbed my arm and pulled me close to his side. "Well, Larsen's a good man, no matter what you read." Reporters chuckled. I felt embarrassed, like a prop. The sportswriters were enjoying this. I had only wanted to meet Stengel, not be in a play. I said the only thing I could think of.

"I just finished reading your biography, Mr. Stengel."

He broke up laughing, as if this was the funniest thing he had ever heard.

"Lies, all lies!" he cackled. "Written by guys like these." Now they were laughing hard. Still clutching me, Casey Stengel swept his free arm around the little knot of reporters.

"Take a good look at these faces, son," he said. "Look at 'em hard. Now let me give you one piece of advice. Whatever you do, don't grow up to be a writer."

Before I made it back to Don, who was talking to my parents, I spotted Mickey Mantle standing by himself at the cigar stand, flipping through a magazine. His head looked the same as it always did in the pictures, with a short blond crew cut, but his body looked different. He was shorter than I imagined -- in fact, most of the Yankees were taller than he -- but something about him was huge. It was his back, mainly, that made his suit coat bulge like that.

I started toward him, but Don spotted me first. He took my autograph book and said, "Wait here." Mantle signed it without looking up from his magazine and handed it back to Don.

Deeply disappointed, I asked Don why I couldn't speak to him, and Larsen said so many people bothered Mantle that it was sort of an unwritten rule on the Yankees to protect his privacy. Don said I could watch him for a while if I didn't bother him. So I stood there out of sight, inspecting the man, trying to figure out what made him so great. You sure couldn't tell by the way he read a magazine.

Mom, Dad, Don, and I sat down for lunch in the hotel restaurant. While I was eating, somebody rubbed my head from behind. I turned around and looked up. It was Yogi Berra. He joined us for a few minutes and asked about my baseball life. All this seemed as if it were a dream, like it was happening to someone else, or not happening at all. For so long I had been told that Don Larsen was my cousin, and that I had this special relationship with the New York Yankees, but in a way until now I hadn't really believed it. Of course it was true, because my parents said it was true, but it still hadn't seemed real. There had always been a slim mathematical chance that they had made the whole thing up to make me feel better. Now there was no denying it. Don Larsen and Yogi Berra were at my table. New York Yankees were standing and sitting all around me, some of them greeting Don as "Froggie" or "Gooney." I was lunching with the best baseball players in the world.

We stayed overnight in Chicago and then headed for Comiskey Park in the morning to take in the next game in the series. The rain had moved out and the air was fresh and clean. Arriving two hours early so I could watch batting practice, we reported to the will call window, where golden people like us with special connections picked up their tickets. Shuffling through turnstiles, we passed into the dark innards of the stadium,where my nostrils exploded with the glory of hot dogs and cigar smoke. We paused to buy a scorecard, found our aisle number, and started up a ramp toward an ever-widening rectangle of brilliant sunlight. I came out of the tunnel, blinked back the light, and stopped.

I was standing in a colossal bowl, looking out at a vast, colorful scene. Thousands and thousands of freshly painted wooden seats gleamed bright up close in the sunlight, giving way to forest colors in the distant shadowy stands. Before me, men with garden hoses were spraying water on the blond infield dirt, turning it instantly to a rich chocolate. A young man pushed a machine on wheels to lay down a perfectly straight stripe of white lime between home plate and third. Freshly clipped outfield grass shone bright emerald. Along the stadium rooftop, the wind stiffened a group of eight evenly spaced pennants, one for each American League team. Far away, the iron-columned stands in left and right field converged upon a tall scoreboard in center field. Above all this was a hard blue sky.

It was so beautiful, I felt like crying.

An usher let me walk down behind the Yankee dugout. A cage was soon rolled out and the Yanks, in gray road uniforms, started taking batting practice. Pitchers jogged lazily in groups of three and four along the outfield wall, chatting all the way. I saw Don's big number 18 in one quartet. A coach was hitting sky-high popups to the catchers with a long skinny bat. Knots of four or five batters took their turns, each taking a few swings and then jumping out of the cage. There was number 14, Skowron. Number 9, Bauer. Yogi, number 8. They were casual, chatty, confident; men who suddenly looked right with caps on their heads and numbers on their backs.

Mickey Mantle stood there waiting his turn, leaning on his bat and taking in the sun, the number 7 stretched tight across his wide back. He watched as others batted, then stepped in. The batting practice pitcher threw, and Mantle uncoiled. When his bat met the ball, it sounded like the crack of a rifle. The ball sped through the air in a long arc and crashed against the empty seats far away. He took several swings right-handed and several lefthanded.

Once he hit the ball completely out of the stadium.

No wonder the writers said he "blasted" balls. There was no better word. Nothing I could practice in the bathroom mirror would ever make that happen. How, I wondered, had he become that strong? Whatever it was, I was sure it had nothing to do with eating vegetables or TMTD or getting a good night's sleep.

Mickey Mantle seemed like he belonged to a different species. After watching batting practice, I felt certain that no two human beings could possibly be more different than Mickey Mantle and me.

After the game, which the Yankees lost, we waited for Don at the players' gate. Cops struggled to hold back the mob, consisting mostly of kids clutching something to sign and looking for Mantle.

The team bus waited at the curb, door open and motor running. Yankee players came out, one by one, dressed in suits again. Most chatted a little with the crowd, and those who stopped to sign were immediately engulfed by fans. Don came out, ever huge, spotted us, and came over to say good-bye. He asked the fans to give us a little room so my parents could take pictures of Don and me against the red brick of Comiskey Park. Kids gawked. I was glad Mom had made me dress up. Right then, Mantle came out, head down, and started for the bus. Kids spilled past the cops to surround him. Mantle wordlessly bulled his way through the crowd. He kept his hands in his pants pockets and never looked up, his thick body brushing aside yearbooks and scorecards and autograph books thrust out for him to sign. He entered the bus without speaking or waving or looking back. I actually felt sorry for him. He didn't look like he was having any fun at all being Mickey Mantle. Don gave me a hug and said warm good-byes to Mom and Dad and made his way to the bus.

I slept all the way home. There would be stories for Herb and the other Giants, and for anyone else I could get to listen, but there would never be a way to describe what this weekend in Chicago had felt like or meant. By a margin of nine or ten games, these had been the best two days of my life.

From Perfect, Once Removed by Phillip Hoose. Reprinted with permission by the publisher.

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Phillip Hoose