MY VERY EARLIEST memory of my Old Man is of him sitting in the kitchen, waiting for supper (they always called it "supper" in the Midwest; "dinner" was something that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had) , reading the sports page and muttering. My mother, hanging over the sink, knew from long experience that it was time to keep her mouth shut. The Old Man was getting his daily dose of bad news. He was a White Sox fan, who grew up on the South Side in the very shadow of Comiskey Park. He had seen it all. How many ball fans can honestly say that they were a fan of the only team ever to actually throw a World Series? My Old Man was only a kid himself at that time, but it scarred him for life, and it was a truly symbolic beginning to a notably disappointment-ridden baseball fan career. He was a fanatic, and a fitting epitaph to his life could well have been:
SOX DROP TWO TO YANKS.
He hated the Yanks, naturally. There was something about the cool, diabolical professionalism of the Bombers that incensed every follower of the White Sox, who throughout my father's entire baseball-watching career had absolutely none of those traits. True, there were occasional highlights, such as the day Luke Appling fouled seventeen consecutive pitches off Eldon Auker, the submariner, and then tripled off the right field wall on the eighteenth. True, he died on third, but you can't win 'em all. In fact, that particular cliché was used in reverse by the White Sox fans: You can't lose 'ern all. Although some seasons they nearly pulled it off.
The names of the White Sox luminaries of my Old Man's day still stick in the back recesses of my memory; names rich and redolent, indeed ripe with White Soxedness: "Banana Nose" Zeke Bonura, "Luscious Luke" Appling, "Iron Mike" Kreevich, "Bullfrog Bill" Dietrich, also known, perhaps more accurately, as "Wild Bill" Dietrich, "Ripper" Radcliff, an outfielder who once prostrated himself in the grass of left field to stop a ground ball and prove to the fans that he could actually keep one from getting to the wall (it took a bad hop at the last minute, skipped right over him, and went into the bullpen for a triple), "Jungle Jim" Rivera, a true primitive who entertained his fans in the bleachers by long, involved arguments with loud-mouthed yahoos who were trying to instruct him in the finer points of outfielding.
The spirit of this roistering crowd of athletes was beautifully epitomized by the time Banana Nose Zeke, a lumbering, good-natured, heavy-hitting first baseman with a fielding range of roughly eight to eleven inches on either side of the bag, one day announced to the truly long-suffering manager (a special hero to the White Sox nuts, Jimmy Dykes) that he couldn't make the road trip to the East Coast because "som'pin's wrong with my back. I got a bad crick in it, or som'pin, and the doctor says I gotta rest for at least the next two weeks." Dykes, always eager to try anything that might, just conceivably might, win a game or two before September, agreed. The team left town without Banana Nose.
Two days later, Dykes unexpectedly reappeared in Chicago. He was called back on business. A group of friends took him out to dinner at a hotel that was famous for its Conga band. Halfway through his steak, who does he spot leading the Conga line, whooping it up and moving better than he ever had around first base but Guess Who?
The next day the newspapers read :
Dykes fines Banana Nose Bonura for Conga Dancing when the player was supposed to have been recovering from injuries. The first baseman stated: "I don't know what he's so sore about. I was just working out the crick in my back."
It was items like this that made the Old Man mutter over his nightly meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
My Old Man would have loved this collection of historic newspaper reports that in some ways are a highly significant social history of most of the 20th Century. There is something so satisfying and fascinating about reading the immediate, on-the-spot stories of long-forgotten ball games that is impossible to explain. Single lines leap out:
Joe DiMaggio, Sensational Rookie Making his big league debut came through with three hits [May 4, 1936],
The first night game of baseball in Brooklyn started in a circus atmosphere Wednesday night and resulted in Johnny Vander Meer's second no-hit game in a week as the Cincinnati Reds won 6-0 [June 16, 1938].
That must have been some night! Practically every page of this magnificent collection says as much about the America of its time as the editorial pages ever did. Branch Rickey's great comment on Jackie Robinson's historic entry into baseball:
"If some players quit, they'll be back after a year or two in a cotton mill,"
says it all. Or take September 23, 1949 when
Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians president, wearing a top hat, drove a horse-drawn hearse in a "pre-game funeral procession." Manager Lou Boudreau and his coaches were pall bearers. They carried their 1948 Pennant flag to the outfield and buried it. The epitaph on the cardboard headstone read "1948 Champs." [They were out of the race in 1949.] While Veeck wiped his eyes as they circled the field, 35,000 fans howled.
They don't make 'em like that any more. They just don't.
They're all here in these pages, alive, slugging, booting ground balls, winning, losing, making predictions, getting fired, going off to war, and even sometimes coming back. It is always Summer in these pages, and the Pennant Races of 1924, 1932, 1941, 1950 still hang in the balance.