The Braves, Baseball, and Me

          A black and white photograph hangs to the left and above my desk. It defines an era of my childhood. Two men in old baseball uniforms–stirrups, baggy pants, no names on the jersey–are walking with their backs to the camera in a narrow, concrete passageway with harsh ceiling lights. “41” is on the left and “44” on the right. The caption to this picture, which I reproduced from a book, said it was Eddie Matthews and Henry Aaron’s last trip off the field as Milwaukee Braves from County Stadium. The team would soon move to Atlanta. The Milwaukee Braves would no longer exist.

          The Milwaukee Braves were my childhood team. Our radio, as were our neighbors’, was tuned to their games. I could walk down the street on a warm evening with everyone’s windows open and not miss a pitch. I knew not just the lineup but idiosyncrasies of the players.  (I did not know as much as some did. At one of our family’s yearly outings to a game, two young women sat in front of us. One said to the other, “Root for Frank Torre.”  Torre was the backup first baseman who sometimes came in as a defensive replacement, hardly the one with a large fan following. The woman went on, “He’s the only one who is single.”)

          I learned early that the mythic figures on the ball field were actually human. At my first major league game—Cardinals versus Braves—the youth group of which I was a part was in the right field bleachers where there was a low fence that we could stand next to. There he was—Stan Musial.  I had heard his name on the radio a gazillion times. I knew that he was a baseball god, and I guess I expected a god-like figure or at least someone as heroic-looking as the good guy in a cowboy movie. But as I stood a few yards away from him, my boyish eyes saw an old man in need of a shave. (It was low-scoring game, and I remember Musial hit a home run in the tenth inning to win the game. I have never tried to look for the box score in case my memory is wrong.) 

Baseball players were mortals and, as mortal, often failed. I heard a story that at a dinner honoring Stan Musial after he retired, Joe Garagiola said, “Stan was an all-time great. He batted .333 and got two thousand hits. (Pause.) Wait a minute. What are we doing honoring a man who made out four thousand times?” I learned that even the best made mistakes, and that all players made errors, struck out at inopportune times, gave up home run pitches.

          Individuals failed, and so did teams. Of course, the fan of any sports franchise learns that the season generally ends without winning the championship, but still some disappointments are larger than others. That was true for Milwaukee Braves fans. In a four year stretch of my childhood, the Braves finished one game out of first, won a world series, blew a world series, and ended up tied for the pennant but lost in a playoff.  Had a few outcomes been different in this stretch, the Braves would be remembered as the dominant team of an era, one of the all-time great teams. Instead, those clubs, the teams of my youth, are mostly forgotten by anybody who was not a fan.

These are lessons any sports fan learns. Players often fail; teams seldom win championships. These lessons remain with me and seem to speak to more of life than just sports. But the Braves also gave me a false lesson, one that was situated in that era of my boyhood. The Braves presented me an overly optimistic picture of race in the country.

Major league baseball had been integrated a few years before the Braves moved to Milwaukee. The team arrived just as the United States Supreme Court held that segregation of public schools violated the Constitution. I am not sure when I heard about Brown v. Board of Education, but to this third grader, integration was an abstract issue since my town–fifty miles north of Milwaukee–was all white. Even so, I and seemingly everyone I knew, were adamant anti-segregationists.

It took a while to realize that the whole country did not feel as we did. I think I came to that realization during the Little Rock school crisis. The hate on the faces screaming at that brave little girl in her simple dress filled me with fear and disgust. But I naïvely thought that such hatred could not last for long, and I thought that because of the Milwaukee Braves. How could you not want Henry Aaron–in my ten-year old (yet carefully considered) opinion probably the greatest ever to play the game–to be in your neighborhood, in your school, in your home? Maybe there were some problems with integration, but baseball seemed to indicate that the hatred would soon disappear. After all, that’s what happened on the ball field. That Lew Burdette was white and Billy Bruton was Black was not an issue. What mattered was whether the Braves won. And, of course, I saw that the Braves all worked together for that goal. Surely these teammates were not concerned about race. If that could happen on the ball field, surely it would soon happen everywhere. Right?

(continued September 2)

Let It Snowball (continued)

Once I had learned the skill of snowball making, I went on to the art of throwing one. This was aided by the family dog, Tippy (this terrier-mix had all dark fur except for the very end of her tail, which was white.  Get it? The tip of her tail was white = Tippy. The siblings and I thought it was quite clever.) This mutt loved the snow. If she saw snow when the back door opened, she bounded into the drifts that were twice her height. Only her head and back were visible as up and down Tippy went. She loved chasing sticks in the summer, and she loved chasing snowballs in the winter. She seemed to like each activity equally even though there was a great difference. I would frisbee a stick when there was no snow on the ground, and she would run after it and pick it up. She might run around with it for a bit, but soon she would come back to me, stick proudly in mouth. Sometimes she would drop it but more often stand just out of easy reach with a look that said, “Come on, dummy. See if you can grab that stick in my mouth.” I’d make a motion, and she would dart back. But either because I made an especially quick movement or, more likely, she let me, soon I would have a part of the stick not in her mouth. Now her look said, “Come on, dummy. See if you get it away from me.” The tugging war began, and the eight-year-old boy was seldom successful with brute force. Instead, I learned, and she did not (or she pretended not to), that if I lessened how forcefully I pulled, she lessened her pressure on the stick, and then a pull as rapidly as I could, got it away. And then she stood, partly looking at me and partly at the yard, indicating “Come on, dummy. Throw it again.”

Tippy invariably returned the thrown sticks; she never returned a snowball, but she chased them just as diligently. I would throw the snowball in the backyard. She would bound after it, find where the ball landed, and put her muzzle into the snow blanket. She would attempt to pick up the thrown object, but the ball no longer existed after it was chomped on. It metamorphosed back from snowball to mere snow.

Even though there was nothing to return, she returned and stood in front with the look, “Come on, dummy. Throw me another one.” And I would. I never outlasted her. She could be literally shaking from the cold, but she did not want to come in if there was a chance that I would toss another snowball.

For an eight-year-old boy, this was a time to practice throwing in preparation for my major league career that I knew awaited. First, of course, came throwing it as far as I could, but without clear demarcations in the yard it was hard to tell how much I was improving, although I never doubted that I was. Then, I would find a spot that I knew I could throw to and see how close I could come to landing the next snowball there. Then, even though it was not appropriate preparation for the National League, I would see how high I could throw it. That was for my own amusement. Tippy would lose sight of the high-thrown ball and look to see where it landed. If she did see it plop, she was off to chomp through it. Sometimes, she did not see where it landed, and she would turn to me with the look, “What the hell.” And, of course, there was the ever-fun fake throw where I did all of the throwing motion except for letting go of the ball. Tippy took a few steps in the direction of the anticipated flight, and then turned and said, “Oh, that’s very funny. Now throw it.” (This was minor preparation for my Milwaukee Braves career. I planned on playing shortstop where the fake throw would seldom be used, but I might on occasion fill in as pitcher, and I was practicing for that fake throw to third with the quick whirl to first base to see if the runner there fell for the charade. I have seen pitchers do this many, many times. Only once have I seen it work, and the runner looked more embarrassed than Tippy did after tussling with a skunk.)

(continued January 27)