In the Hills – Excerpt 2

I was first, then Cathleen and then baby Johnny. It only took a few years to have the three of us, but it changed life in ways mom and dad couldn’t really explain to us, although they tried. That change, or rather changes, that came into their world when we the world. The way they tell it they were very poor and very happy before I was born – romantically living paycheck to paycheck, eating canned peaches and stale bread and peanut butter and saltine crackers the couple of days leading up to the next payday and then after cashing that check they’d buy more of the same anticipating poverty again the next week. They were never ashamed or embarrassed to inform me and then Cathleen and me and then Johnny, Cathleen and me that their happiest days were before me and before us. It wasn’t me or us that made them less happy they told us. It was some unspecified, incalculable ratio of paucity and happiness; sometimes told as one-in-spite-of-the-other and at other times as a we-didn’t-know-any-better-but-that’s-still-okay-because-we-love-you-all kind of fairytale.

They also never tired of reciting the inventory of all their earthly possessions in great detail, which was easily done in light of the number of their possessions. They owned a folding table and three folding chairs that didn’t match as their kitchenette, a very, very old sofa with a back cushion missing and the folding chairs doubled as living room furniture, a double bed and a couple of crates covered with old curtain fabric as night stands for their bedroom suite. Add towels, everyday dishes, hand-me-down flatware, pots, pans and kitchen towels from my dad’s mom’s kitchen and they could cook food when they had enough money to buy food to cook. It never sounded like they bought fresh food, but I’m sure they did – like some hamburger or a can of vegetables or even a potato they shared in a romantic dinner-for-one-eaten-by-two moment they never forgot to rehearse for a table of five with more leftovers than they had for a month before me, before us, as they insisted on reminding us on many occasions.

Before mom became a Mom she was Mary and she was a typist in a secretarial pool. Three years of what we’d call high school education for a poor girl on the south side of Chicago meant typing, grammar and home economics classes. She claimed she only owned two dresses and wore one then the other and then the first one again, rotating the order the next week – that’s what she always told us but we didn’t believe it. And she met my dad while working at the law firm when he was clerking. He was in his second year, didn’t have a penny to his name, lived with his mom, and fell in love with a seventeen year old girl with a 22 inch waist accentuated (according to a photo of her) by a full skirt and tight sweater. He didn’t stand a chance. They had  cheap dates of free concerts in park, visits to museums, the zoo, parades, walks along the lake and anything else free the city of Chicago had to offer. They ate meals at the school’s cafeteria or at one of their family’s homes. “Mary, I have nothing to offer you but my love; will you marry me?” They were standing by the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Like Shedd himself sort of. John Shedd started as a poor clerk in Marshall Field’s store and worked his way up to the top and became president and chairman when Field died – from poverty to riches and a story told through hard work for forty years. Shedd bought into Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” hook-line-and-sinker. He put up millions to build his fish tank and then died before it opened but after he paid for it. His own wife – his very own Mary – stood on the lake front and cut the ribbon for him. This made it something romantic and couples just happened to favor this spot for their proposals.

The aquarium was something huge and romantic and totally unrealistic. It took a million gallons of saltwater brought by train from Key West, Florida to fill the tank in this first permanent inland saltwater aquarium. And when did all this happen? Well right at the start of the Great Depression, that’s when! When everyone was dirt poor in Chicago (except Shedd obviously) he built that one damn huge tank of water that sat right there on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was as extravagant as it was ironic. And to top it off, literally, was its Beaux Arts design. That was a style used for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and everyone was so impressed by the Greek and Roman synthesis became a way of making Chicago “the Paris of the Prairie.” That’s why young couples went there to do romantic things, including propose marriage like dad did. They’d stand right there where John’s widow Mary cut the ribbon and promise to tie the knot.

It was a cool spring evening – a Friday they said – in May of 1951 when dad proposed. (Make no little plans.) He didn’t even have a ring to offer her, just a promise that he would always love her no matter what. He said he wanted them to spend the rest of their lives together, to have a family and it didn’t matter that they were poor. Mom told us all this more than once and it was the best story she told. She said “Yes” and now she was 44 weeks pregnant sweating through eighteen hours of labor and dad was pacing in the waiting room wondering how he was going to pay for me.


Calling B.S., Gun Violence and Blameworthy Voyeurism

Two tragic events played out in front of our eyes this week – overwhelming old and new media alike with the most profound depth of pain and pathos, both with chilling effect.

In a scuffle with a fleeing suspect, a Chicago police commander, Paul Bauer, was killed – shot six times as he wrestled to detain the man.

Pallbearers place Chicago Police Cmdr. Paul Bauer’s casket into the hearse after the funeral at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2018. Cmdr. Bauer was shot to death Tuesday outside the Thompson Center, where he had confronted a man who was fleeing other officers. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bauer just happened to be nearby when he heard a call for officers to aid in a pursuit. He wasn’t a beat cop, he just happened to be nearby. And when Bauer encountered the suspect, his life was ended in a hail of gunfire – six shots in a shadowy stairwell.

Then came the wave of anecdotes and story, one on another, demanding sadness, eliciting sympathy and encouraging pride and indignation. He was beloved, a cops’ cop, a 31-year veteran of the force, devoted man of faith, father to an adoring teen daughter, and just 53 years old. He had a version of movie star looks in the photo shared by all media. If anyone was worthy, it was Commander Bauer.

And days later it seemed like the whole city mourned as first-responders of all stripes lined city streets, in uniform, saluting a fallen comrade. The pageantry was televised, the governor and mayor spoke, and the older you were the more involved you were in the story.

Onlookers chimed-in with sentiments like, “There are not many things which unite this city, but a good man like Bauer might just do that.” It seemed that the city’s sentiment was an obvious reason to televise Commander Bauer’s funeral for several hours – we need something to save us and we can’t let this good man die in vain.

Cook County Jail inmates applaud the appearance of Commander Bauer’s alleged killer

In stark contrast to this display, a video surfaced of the Bauer’s suspected killer arriving at Cook County Jail being greeted with a smattering of applause from several inmates. They were quickly singled-out and swiftly transported to a downstate facility, and promises were made by prosecutors this video would used at sentencing to demonstrate the wanton disregard for the law and human life – especially those who dared to mock the killing of Commander Bauer.

And in the funeral mass for Bauer, a homily argued his life wasn’t given, it was taken – taken by a four-time convicted felon, taken by someone who should not have possessed a firearm, taken by someone who should not have been allowed to be free. A good reverend even compared Bauer’s killer to a leper in a vain attempt to approach the ‘what would Jesus say’ type of rhetoric: “[This killer is like a leper in Jesus’ day,] he should have been segregated from society long  before the shooting. Jesus had compassion for lepers, but they were still kept from the public during biblical times.”

And about the Commander, “He encountered the leprosy of our society: one who did spend time away from the camp … in prison … in isolation because of a violent past. One who should have never have been out in society, but who was due to a broken system, a system that Paul [Bauer] himself very publicly and loudly spoke out against.”

A lot of should not’s and ought not’s – the thoughts and prayers of our hand-wringing culture on full display.

As this was unfolding in Chicago, teens – survivors of the Parkland, Florida high school shooting and killing of 17 – were voicing their own tragic stories and adding their own indignation at the indolence of national politicians. Chicago endured homilies and eulogies from politicians who have failed to stem the tide of gun violence, as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High took their turns at the microphone as the nation watched and listened and prayed for children to lead us.

“This isn’t about the GOP. This isn’t about Democrats. This is about us creating a badge of shame for any politicians who are accepting money from the NRA and using us as collateral.” But since the great majority of recipients of NRA money are Republicans this doesn’t ring true, does it? It IS about the GOP when talking federal regulations and the 2nd Amendment and the NRA – even if we’re told by a sincere teen grieving the loss of classmates it is not. And it isn’t about the lack of NRA money in Chicago somehow alleviating our problem with gun violence. NRA supporters elsewhere mock Chicago at times like this – so many gun laws… so many gun deaths… (they can taste the irony).

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” another teen asserted, and added proof this impossible assertion is possible with “I found out today there’s a website….”

Yes, the teen spoke of what they’d learned that morning as they searched online for ‘school shootings’ and ‘mass shootings’ and ‘gun laws’ and everyone born before Google secretly mocked their newfound knowledge and the wisdom accumulated an hour or two ago – online. That’s another breach in our collective angst over so-called senseless violence – newfound knowledge that’s tweetable is more virulent, more compelling, and more provoking than the accumulated wisdom serving as a mask for inaction. But there is a sense to this senseless violence – we’d just prefer to watch.

And another student’s “We call B.S.” is now a rallying-cry for indignation at the indolence of parents and politicians who promise something and deliver nothing. For a generation of world-changers, their parents’ and politicians’ hollow words should be an embarrassment – as hollow as the phrase ‘it is what it is.’

But ‘It is what it is’ is the new religion of passive-aggressiveness or acceptance or Niebuhr’s serenity prayer of wisdom to accept the things I can’t change, or the ‘all politics is local’ of areas where NRA membership is a civic duty. ‘It is what it is’ has become the watchword of generational compliance – in Chicago in particular where the best fashion is hand-wringing and angst-fueled political rhetoric that keeps electing an irredeemable political class and appointing those who warn of economic bankruptcy of police-shooting settlements in the name of cultural bankruptcy, and single-party politics with no accountability and majority-minority unemployment, and no lack of churches and community centers who are doing much more than offering their thoughts and prayers like the rest of us watching funerals and protests on a Saturday.

In Chicago we’re told gun violence is a cultural problem with a racist hint hiding politely under the skin of these recriminations. Criminal justice reform and gun control laws are given little voice, while the brazen ‘it is what it is’ is met with sympathetic political slogans of ‘we’re doing the best we can’ and even ‘this must stop’ assertions and thoughts and prayers.

‘This must stop’ is as hollow as the teen’s last mass shooting avowal. It won’t stop. This won’t be the last mass shooting. And as ‘it is what it is’ voyeurs offer their thoughts and prayers, our city will continue to die – one thought and prayer at a time.

This is a very public fight of ‘it is what is’ versus ‘enough is enough’ – and which will prevail depends on more than sloganeering.

CHICAGO, IL – Police investigate the scene of a quadruple homicide on the city’s Southside on December 17, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Three people were found shot to death inside a home in the Fernwood neighborhood, another 2 were found shot outside the home, one of those deceased. Chicago has had more than 750 homicides in 2016. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Our culture of death is alive and well in the poorest, most under-served neighborhoods of Chicago and likened to a contagion – as predictable as an infectious disease spreading among those with compromised immune systems, and just as deadly. Blighted and ignored by those elected to lead and provide – those entrusted with the power to zone and TIF creatively not just in Uptown and on Michigan Avenue but in Englewood and Austin and Lawndale as well. If you want to do business in Wrigleyville, maybe you should do business in Austin too?!

My apparent complaint is that Chicago’s hundreds of annual gun deaths and thousands of shootings don’t rise to the same level of anger and anxiety as a single mass shooting in a Florida high school. And those students found it safe (and the national media as well) to vent and protest in Parkland. They wouldn’t feel that safety (or receive that attention) to vent and protest in Chicago. Who will have the nerve to tell us righteous indignation doesn’t save lives?

While others focus on assigning blame, I’ll add to that the multiplier of blameworthy voyeurism. It’s all we can do if ‘it is what it is’ is our new national religion of thoughts and prayers.

Two tragedies – two pageants, and too much equivocation – that’s the lesson of Saturday’s eulogies. And we are all just voyeurs.

Sunday, February 18, 2018 – looking out my window at the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.

Keeping a bag packed…

Keep a Bag Packed

Some days it just isn’t worth trying
but I do
because that’s how Dad told me to,
it won’t make sense when you do
he’d say
but trying is its own reward one day,
that, and keep a bag packed always
he did,
but never said he was going away
until it was too late for me to say
not to,
but that’s between me and you.

Baseball, America, Vietnam, and the best 1967 ever…

danny_boySelection from Danny Boy (a novel that will see the light of day… eventually)

A Summer Season (Chapter 5)

Take me out to the ball game; take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks; I don’t care if I ever get back. Cause it’s root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame. For its one, two, three strikes you’re out, at the old ballgame.

My first year of ‘upper field’ baseball in The Hills meant that I had left T-ball behind, left gym shoes for cleats; now I could lead-off base, steal bases, and spit without reprimand. ‘Lower field’ baseball was for eight, nine and ten-year-olds; eight-year-olds used a T-ball stand, nine-year-olds used coaches to pitch to own teams, and ten-year-olds got to pitch but only for one inning (and ten-year-olds couldn’t pitch anyway). The ‘lower field’ was actually lower, settled just beyond the parking lot and adjacent to the public grade school where I went to kindergarten, and nestled into a natural backdrop behind home plate that formed an amphitheatre setting. But ‘upper field’ baseball was literally up from ‘lower field,’ the diamond set opposite ‘lower field’ and was well equipped with bleachers on the third base side, large cage as a back stop, and it had a home run fence (‘lower field’ had no fence; the long, uncut grass slowed any balls hit to the outfield where the coaches stationed the truly uncoordinated little leaguers—which was most of them). ‘Upper field’ also had a hillside viewing area that was set back from along first base that became my ‘spot’ where I would tell girls to meet me when I was in high school and see if I could get beyond first base, so to speak. And ‘upper field’ also had a snack shack that we always just called ‘the shack’ and it was the best part about ‘upper field’ and made little league less little.

My favorite beverage served at ‘the shack’ was a ‘suicide’ which was simply equal parts of the four soft drinks the fountain machine held—usually root beer, cola, orange, and lemon-lime. If a kid asked the volunteer lady in ‘the shack’ for a suicide these days they would call the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or 911. No one ever committed suicide in The Hills, not that we ever knew. And I don’t really know why they called the concoction by the name, but it was a unique taste, sort of a sarsaparilla or overly-sweet island drink type of flavor–it was exotic. Suicides were 10¢ for a 6-ounce paper cup that we hung onto to arrange in the hurricane fencing behind home plate to spell out our team name. No ice in the soft drinks at ‘the shack,’ just Dixie cups filled to the brim, by our mothers who were assigned games according to their children’s game schedules. That meant that our opponents’ mother’s were standing right beside our mothers, distributing treats and sometimes watching their young boys exercise their first public displays at manhood and mortal combat against each other. It was like training for the real world of grown-ups, except with clearly defined rules and umpires who were four times as old as we were. In between innings we would dash to ‘the shack’ if our mother happened to be there and see if we could coax a little treat. I would ask my mom, ‘Did you see my walk?’ or ‘Did you see me stop that ground ball?’ (none of us really got ‘hits’ yet, mostly walks, but Ed Reilly actually had a batting average that he followed – he hit everything thrown at him and no one could field worth a darn, so he had a 1.000 average for two games until a kid accidentally caught a line drive ruined Ed’s perfect season). Base runners were tagged-out after committing immature base running errors when the ball just happened to be in someone’s mitt nearby; that, or we struck-out before we were walked. Just about all I got were walks, so my mom would respond, ‘Did you get a walk again? That’s great! Do you want something to eat?’ And she would buy me a suicide and a box of Milk Duds or a Slow Poke as treats for taking a base-on-balls.

Speaking of which, playing ‘upper field’ little league also meant that we were required to start wearing a ‘cup’–at first an odd feeling, sort of a mixture of pride and uncertainty because my balls didn’t feel anything yet. When we picked up our uniforms at the coach’s house we were issued a cup and the apparatus that held it in place (I didn’t like the jock-strap feeling—too much like a thong feeling with something crawling up my ass—so I first tried to wear the cup under my briefs but it chaffed me so badly I could barely walk in from third base after the first inning). ‘What’s wrong Danny?’ ‘My cup is really killing me, Mr. Harvey’ (he was the assistant coach). ‘Why?’ ‘Well, I don’t think I put it on right.’ ‘How can you put on a cup the wrong way?’ It was easy really, but it just never occurred to me or Mr. Harvey. ‘Just take it out and play without it for the rest of the game. And don’t tell anyone.’ So I pulled it out, right there on the bench with everyone’s parents looking at my back. Then I put it right on my wind-breaker at the end of the bench in the heap of stuff we all brought to the game. By the end of the game it had fallen into the dirt, and I almost forgot it. I slipped it into my mitt and folded it inside until I got home (like it was a girlie magazine I was hiding from my parents). Next week I tried to wear it between two pairs of tightie-whities and tested it by running around the house before we left for the game. It slipped up to my belly and it wouldn’t stay in place, so I had to give up and wear the jock strap (it must have been dreamed up by a woman upset over having to wear sanitary napkin belts every month, I figure). But I didn’t wear anything else and the uniform was made of wool so my butt itched and I spent half the game scratching myself (little did I realize how much like a big league ball player I must have looked).

The uniform was gray with black pin-stripes (everyone’s uniform was this color, just the hat and socks were different colors—ours were red but our team was named the Cubs, and the team called the Red Sox actually wore yellow socks and hats, go figure…). Being a suburban Chicago little league and having the team name of one of the hometown clubs was like being on their farm club, except our team sponsor was a grocery store rather than a chewing gum company (but Gallagher’s, the sponsoring grocery store, did sell Wrigley’s gum). We worshipped the Cubs, watched every game they played when we weren’t playing our own, and we even went to a couple that year, to the ‘friendly confines,’ wearing our uniforms (but not the cleats) and carrying our mitts to catch foul balls (or to just look cool). I never got a foul ball myself, but during batting practice before a double-header one June Sunday Don Kessinger hit a slicing foul ball down the third base line (he was a switch-hitter taking batting practice on the left side, which he really needed because he batted only .231 in ’67) and it came screaming into our section. My mitt was tucked beside me as I balanced a hot dog, bag of peanuts and a Coke on my lap, but my dad hopped up and started for the ball, trying to intercept the trajectory of the missile like a veteran infielder. But the ball sank, hard and hit a little six or seven-year-old boy on his bare leg (he was foolish enough to wear shorts instead of his wool baseball uniform to the game). It’ll smacked against his bare skin and bounced lazily into my dad’s hands, leaving a genuinely bright red welt on his thigh. Without hesitating, my dad handed the ball—a genuine Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs, Don Kessinger, batting practice, foul ball—to the crying kid. He sobbed a thanks and I sat there in shock, absolute shock. My mind screamed, ‘No, that’s our ball! Don’t give it to the little kid! Hey! Stop! Don’t!’ But it was too late and now I’m glad I just sat mute (maybe the half-hot dog in my mouth was providential). We didn’t get another foul ball that day, or any other day we saw a Cubs’ game and I kind of wish the ball had hit me in the leg instead.

I had the ‘67 team memorized, we all did—Kessinger (short stop), Glenn Beckert (second), Billy Williams (left field), Ron Santo (third), Ernie (Mr. Cub) Banks (first), and a couple of outfielders, Adolfo Phillips (who manager Leo Durocher called ‘another Willie Mays’ but we were sure Durocher was wrong when Phillips dropped a fly ball and three runs scored a week after opening day but then he hit a home run and a triple in that same game and the Cubs won), and there was a guy named Ted Savage who nobody remembered, and the catcher Randy Hundley who everyone remembered, he was nick-named ‘the Rebel’ and people waved the Confederate flag when he was at bat. The Cubs’ season opened on a cold Tuesday, April 11 and they beat the Phillies, 4-2 (Mark Taylor, the kid who sat next to me and along the wall in 6th grade had a transistor radio with one of those tiny earpieces and he listened to the first inning of the game until Mr. Roberts caught him and took it away from him). We ran home that day to watch what was left of the game on WGN, channel nine and I sat with my mom until the very last out. Fergie Jenkins got the win (he went 20-13 with a 2.8 and was an All-Star in ’67).

Baseball Opening Day in The Hills was Saturday, May 20th for ‘upper field’ teams, after only one week of practice because the fields were too wet and mushy. We played the second game that afternoon, after the morning parade through town, led by one of our two fire engines and one of three police cruisers, each team marched in uniform (some guys even wore their cups) and a car from their sponsor in front of them. Mr. Gallagher and his wife sat in the backseat of a black convertible with a 2×3 poster told everyone that the Cubs were sponsored by ‘Your friendly neighborhood grocer….’ The fumes from the exhaust made Dicky Beggs dizzy, but he was walking right behind the convertible and we were off to the side to avoid the oily smoke. Dicky Beggs was also the kid who slid into every base when he ran, even first base. In our second game he got a hold of a pitch and in some fluke he drove a line drive between a stunned second and first baseman (they didn’t even flinch as the ball sailed past them) and deep into right field. By the time the right fielder realized everyone was yelling his name to run after the ball, Dicky had slid into first, gotten himself up and was closer to second mincing his steps to prepare for his second slide on the same hit. Dicky wound up on third after another slide and with Mr. Harvey yelling at him, ‘Stop sliding! Get up! Run!’ The ball wound up at first base and Dicky was exhausted and his uniform was covered in dust and dirt (that’s another part of the uniform thing that our mom’s didn’t care much for, ‘Mom, I need my uniform for Saturday’s game,’ we would say on Friday night). After the next three batters were walked we had the lead in the bottom of the first inning (but we lost the game 17-14).

But we won our first game and I walked twice, struck-out swinging once, and stopped three ground balls playing third base (‘Good stop Danny, way to keep ‘em to a single’—no one every thought I was suppose to actually stop a ground ball hit to third and throw the runner out all the way over at first—it only happened twice that I remembered and both times a pitcher was playing third so he had one of the only arms on the team). But nobody at my house was talking about my two walks and no errors but no put-outs at dinner that Saturday because the Cubs beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 20-3; Phillips had 6 R.B.I.’s, Glenn Beckert hit an inside-the-park home run, Randy Hundley hit a grand slam, and even Ted Savage stole home. It got so bad that it was comical and Don Drysdale waved a white handkerchief from the dug-out in the seventh inning. Ken Holtzman won his fifth game with no losses on his way to his perfect season–that’s right, a perfect season, 9-0, nine wins, no losses, none, not one. Yes, out of eleven starts he won nine; he left after the Brooklyn game in May for six months of active duty in the Army and returned later in the season to pitch when he received weekend passes. Not only did he have a perfect season, but he served his country too. He was a lefty, only 21, Jewish and so people called him the ‘new Koufax’ which my dad thought was a bit generous, even after he pitched two no-hitters for the Cubs, and the first one was without a strike-out. They actually pitched against each other in ‘66, which was Koufax’s last season, and Holtzman beat him after taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning for a 2-1 win. Of course he didn’t win the pennant with the Cubs (the Cubs don’t win pennants, they were just supposed to be the Cubs), but he was traded to the Oakland ‘A’s’ and won three World Series’ in a row and was traded back to the Cubs for a season when he had nothing left in his arm but memories.

Since I never got to pitch in ‘67 I wasn’t much interested in the Cubs’ pitching rotation, but I liked Ken Holtzman and Fergie Jenkins (Bill Hands came out of the bullpen that year and I liked him too). When I trotted onto the field to play short stop I became Kessinger, or second base made me Beckert (and I would try to emulate his quirky high elbow in my own batting stance), third made me Santo, and a trip to left field meant I was ‘sweet-swinging’ Billy Williams. But nobody on our team hit a home run that year, except for a couple of inside-the-park, two or three error fiascos, but Don Kessinger didn’t hit any home runs in ’67 either (remember, he only hit .231). ‘Mr. Cub,’ Ernie Banks was our big-hitter and hit twenty-three homers and was third behind Billy Williams’s twenty-eight and Ron Santo’s thirty-one round-trippers (He batted .300 and almost got to 100 R.B.I.’s but fell short at 98—we sat through the end of the season hoping he would reach the holy trinity of .300, 30 homers and 100 R.B.I.’s, but no such luck). Phillips would show-up every once-in-a-while, like the game my family went to on June 11 – the game I almost got Kessinger’s foul ball during batting practice that my dad gave away. The Mets were in town, it was a double-header and the Cubs won both, and Phillips hit one home run in the first game and three in-a-row in the second game. Besides the hot dog, peanuts and Coke I had another round of the same in-between the games–it was a great day and I fell asleep on the ride home, my clothes smelled like Wrigley Field with a mix of cigar and cigarette smoke, beer, hot dogs and a drip of mustard on my gray uniform.

In July Williams, Santo and Hundley all hit homers in the first inning against the Braves, a couple of Braves did the same–that was a great day, but the problem for the Cubs was that it was a great day for the Braves also. That’s the way it is in baseball. You play to win, but you win by playing. Back in July, 1939 (it was the fourth of July), all the Yankees were on the field, surrounding Lou Gehrig on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day, and everybody knew something was wrong with Gehrig. He was hitting just .143 after a month of the season, he was weak, and he took himself out of the lineup in early May. He never played another baseball game, but because he was the team captain he still carried the lineup card out to home plate at every game. And then Gehrig said his famous speech.

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans. Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure I’m lucky. When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

He was so lucky he got his disease named after him. The team gave him a trophy too…he was that lucky…

We’ve been to the wars together;
We took our foes as they came;
And always you were the leader,
And ever you played the game.
Idol of cheering millions,
Records are yours by sheaves;
Iron of frame they hailed you
Decked you with laurel leaves.
But higher than that we hold you,
We who have known you best;
Knowing the way you came through
Every human test.
Let this be a silent token
Of lasting Friendship’s gleam,
And all that we’ve left unspoken;
Your Pals of the Yankees Team.

Lou Gehrig played and won; he played and got sick; he played and died, but he played and that was his moral victory.

It might be easier to celebrate the moral victories of life when you are a Yankee because the Yankees always win so it doesn’t take much to be moral when you also win every year. That’s why when Grantland Rice said ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,’ the owners of the Angels, Gene Autry said, ‘Well, Grantland Rice can go to hell as far as I’m concerned.’ I don’t know if Grantland Rice went to hell, but when Babe Ruth died Grantland Rice wrote Ruth a eulogy,

Game Called. Across the field of play
the dusk has come, the hour is late.
The fight is done and lost or won,
the player files out through the gate.
The tumult dies, the cheer is hushed,
the stands are bare, the park is still.
But through the night there shines the light,
home beyond the silent ill.

Game Called. Where in the golden light
the bugle rolled the reveille.
The shadows creep where night falls deep,
and taps has called the end of play.
The game is done, the score is in,
the final cheer and jeer have passed.
But in the night, beyond the fight,
the player finds his rest at last.

Game Called. Upon the field of life
the darkness gathers far and wide,
the dream is done, the score is spun
that stands forever in the guide.
Nor victory, nor yet defeat
is chalked against the players name.
But down the roll, the final scroll,
shows only how he played the game.

You see, even Yankees die

The Cubs had their moral victories, finished with 87 wins and 74 losses, finished third, but couldn’t best the eventual World Series Champion Cardinals (8 losses to 5 victories in the Cubs-Cardinals series). It was a good season, especially for the Cubs because winning and losing is a relative thing for Cubs fans and nobody expected the Cubs to win outright—like what we all saw was going on in Vietnam, we had developed a different definition of victory. Almost seven-hundred thousand North Vietnamese died, eventually sixty-thousand Americans, but they won when the U.S. got tired of winning every significant offensive and went home (read: didn’t retreat). When he was fighting with the French in the late 40s, Ho Chi Minh said, ‘You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.’ Later a communist commander said victory against the Americans wasn’t measured in their deaths, but in ‘the traffic in homebound American coffins.’ President Johnson didn’t want to overthrow the North Vietnamese government, he just wanted to thwart their goal of a reunified Vietnam—he wanted to frustrate their ‘sacred cause,’ but all he did was frustrate us. One of his generals challenged a North Vietnamese general after the war with the jibe, ‘You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ and got the answer, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.’ It was the ‘body bag’ and ‘body count’ that defeated the spirit of America–maybe the rest of America needed to learn the hard lessons of being Cubs’ fans.

Being Cubs’ fans was more moral than being just baseball fans. We knew what it was like to win and lose, we knew that there was life and there was baseball and that life wasn’t baseball and baseball wasn’t life. They never competed, they never had to; it was never about either/or and it wasn’t as simple as both/and. We knew something that didn’t make sense to the people who lived in Mudville, we knew more, it seemed, than Ernest Thayer (but when he wrote Casey at the Bat back in 1888 maybe there wasn’t much to life so baseball was all they had, who knows).

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.

And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d pit up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Johnny safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
’That ain’t my style,’ said Casey. ‘Strike one,’ the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
’Kill him! Kill the umpire!’ shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shown;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, ‘Strike two.’

‘Fraud!’ cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

We learned Casey at the Bat in school because the teachers thought we’d actually want to learn poetry when it was about baseball because, as Ms. Martin said, ‘That’s all you boys do is play baseball.’ But that wasn’t all we did, and baseball didn’t make us want to learn poetry. We learned poetry because we had to, because our teachers told us to, but we played baseball because we wanted to, like we were Cubs’ fans–because we wanted to be.

Some people didn’t get it, like Grantland Rice (the guy who said the line about it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game) who couldn’t stand losing so much that it bothered him that Mudville was joyless and so he wrote Casey’s Revenge. Ms. Martin tried to get us to learn that one too, but we were so lost after Casey at the Bat that she gave up.

There were saddened hearts in Mudville for a week or even more;
There were muttered oaths and curses- every fan in town was sore.
’Just think,’ said one, ‘how soft it looked with Casey at the bat,
And then to think he’d go and spring a bush league trick like that!’

And it was too depressing, according to Grantland Rice for Casey to stay struck-out, like it was too depressing for some Americans to see body bags coming home, soldiers dying in rice paddies, and the Vietnamese embarrassing us all on the CBS evening news. Rice said that it was wrong to leave Casey with the nickname ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ just like it would be wrong to most people for America to have the reputation that we lost the war in Vietnam.

All his past fame was forgotten- he was now a hopeless ‘shine.’
They called him ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ from the mayor down the line;
And as he came to bat each day his bosom heaved a sigh,
While a look of hopeless fury shone in mighty Casey’s eye.

He pondered in the days gone by that he had been their king,
That when he strolled up to the plate they made the welkin ring;
But now his nerve had vanished, for when he heard them hoot
He ‘fanned’ or ‘popped out’ daily, like some minor league recruit.

He soon began to sulk and loaf, his batting eye went lame;
No home runs on the score card now were chalked against his name;
The fans without exception gave the manager no peace,
For one and all kept clamoring for Casey’s quick release.

The Mudville squad began to slump, the team was in the air;
Their playing went from bad to worse – nobody seemed to care.
‘Back to the woods with Casey!’ was the cry from Rooters’ Row.
‘Get some one who can hit the ball, and let that big dub go!’

The lane is long, some one has said, that never turns again,
And Fate, though fickle, often gives another chance to men;
And Casey smiled; his rugged face no longer wore a frown-
The pitcher who had started all the trouble came to town.

All Mudville had assembled – ten thousand fans had come
To see the twirler who had put big Casey on the bum;
And when he stepped into the box, the multitude went wild;
He doffed his cap in proud disdain, but Casey only smiled.

‘Play ball!’ the umpire’s voice rang out, and then the game began.
But in that throng of thousands there was not a single fan
Who thought that Mudville had a chance, and with the setting sun
Their hopes sank low- the rival team was leading ‘four to one.’

The last half of the ninth came round, with no change in the score;
But when the first man up hit safe, the crowd began to roar;
The din increased, the echo of ten thousand shouts was heard
When the pitcher hit the second and gave ‘four balls’ to the third.

Three men on base – nobody out – three runs to tie the game!
A triple meant the highest niche in Mudville’s hall of fame;
But here the rally ended and the gloom was deep as night,
When the fourth one ‘fouled to catcher’ and the fifth ‘flew out to right.’

A dismal groan in chorus came; a scowl was on each face
When Casey walked up, bat in hand, and slowly took his place;
His bloodshot eyes in fury gleamed, his teeth were clenched in hate;
He gave his cap a vicious hook and pounded on the plate.

But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day;
They hissed and groaned and hooted as they clamored: ‘Strike him out!’
But Casey gave no outward sign that he had heard this shout.

The pitcher smiled and cut one loose – across the plate it sped;
Another hiss, another groan. ‘Strike one!’ the umpire said.
Zip! Like a shot the second curve broke just below the knee.
‘Strike two!’ the umpire roared aloud; but Casey made no plea.

No roasting for the umpire now – his was an easy lot;
But here the pitcher whirled again- was that a rifle shot?
A whack, a crack, and out through the space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky, a speck against the blue.

Above the fence in center field in rapid whirling flight
The sphere sailed on – the blot grew dim and then was lost to sight.
Ten thousand hats were thrown in air, ten thousand threw a fit,
But no one ever found the ball that mighty Casey hit.

O, somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun,
And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun!
And somewhere over blighted lives there hangs a heavy pall,
But Mudville hearts are happy now, for Casey hit the ball.

You see, Casey hit the ball and instead of Mudville being dark and depressed any longer, now the rest of the world may be joyless, somewhere, like in Vietnam. It was a ‘just wait ‘til next year,’ type of stuff, but Grantland Rice didn’t understand that it wasn’t about revenge, it was about living and dying–today.

We watched the Cubs games on WGN and the evening news on CBS, we saw helicopters carrying wounded or dead soldiers away from battlefields, body bags and flag draped caskets flown to domestic airfields and we watched the Cubs lose seven-in-a-row just when they had moved into second place. The Cubs weren’t going to win their division, we knew that, but that wasn’t really the point of playing baseball for the Cubs and their fans. General Westmoreland called Vietnam ‘the war of attrition,’ they took a hill, a village, a city and then they would give it up, move back (but not retreat), and then go after the same hill, village or city. The U.S. won the same battles two, three or even four times, but lost the war, so to speak. They were supposed to wear down the North Vietnamese. When the Cubs lost to the Cardinals on Sunday, June 4 in St. Louis they slipped below .500, dropped to fifth place (7 ½ games out of first), but ruined Curt Flood’s record string of 568 catches without an error (it took him 277 games without an error to get there, obviously a record)–the Cardinals won that day, but their center fielder went home melancholic. And the roller coaster of the ’67 season saw the Cubs go from 8 ½ games out of first, all the way back to first place less than one month later (for two whole games), they hung around in second place for a week, dropped to four games out and then charged back into first place in two weeks only to drop to 9 games out in the next two weeks where they stayed until they managed to slip to 10, then 10 ½, then 11, 12, and then their mid-August of 12 ½ games out of first place topped only by the week they were 14 ½ games behind the Cardinals (they ended the season at an even 14 games out).

Vietnam would be called ‘Johnson’s War’ and with good reason–he started it on August 5, 1964 and then elevated frustration-as-a-form-of-warring to a national policy that permanently scarred the three-hundred thousand soldiers wounded right along with the entire country. Half the wounded were hospitalized, and the other half bled just enough to get a band-aid and another clip for their M-16. Most of the sixty-thousand killed were white, most of them Protestant, and most of them about twenty-three years old, so it seemed perfectly fitting that a son-of-a-bitch white Texan Protestant like LBJ should be the one to nickel-and-dime them into their graves. And since most of the boys killed in ‘Johnson’s War’ were lower-middle class boys, it was only fitting that Johnson’s other war, the one on poverty, would try to increase this segment of the population being devastated by his first war. What were Johnson’s advisory campaigns and counter-offensives were the war to everyone else, what began as ten-thousand, then twenty-thousand troops conducting the Advisory Campaign in 1962 became Johnson’s counter-offensive force of over five-hundred-fifty thousand troops in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. It was his war.

For the North Vietnamese it wasn’t ‘Johnson’s War’ but a two-thousand year old struggle to unify Vietnam, to ‘liberate the fatherland,’ a sacred cause that made an enemy out of the Chinese, then the French, then the so-called allies of the South Vietnamese–namely, the U.S. (a pissing-contest that Johnson thought he could win, but while he was pissing against a brick-wall, the Vietnamese were cutting off his Texas pecker). Johnson told us he was bombing the crap out of North Vietnam, he called it Operation Rolling Thunder–a line he got from a hymn entitled, ‘How Great Thou Art.’ (‘O Lord my God; when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made, I see the start, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power thro’out the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee; How great Thou art, how great Thou art!’) And the air strikes took place daily (almost) from early 1965 to the election in November, 1968, eight-hundred tons of bombs and missiles and rockets each and every day. Johnson wanted to make sure they knew he was God, but it didn’t work. Johnson tried to prove to the South Vietnamese that he was their best friend, but the Buddhist monks in the South thought he was a devil–they paraded, went on hunger strikes and were tear-gassed by U.S. advised units in Saigon and Danang. Then the monks and nuns shocked everyone by setting themselves on fire in public places in protest to the U.S. initiatives—like the newsreel shown on NBC accompanied by the warning, ‘what you are about to see is shocking, graphic, and not suitable for young children or sensitive viewers.’ A Buddhist nun, somewhere between my mom’s age and her mother’s walked into a garden setting near a temple, sat in a lotus position and a ‘friend’ doused her with gasoline. The nun lit a match herself and, poof!, she was a ball of flame. The friend nearby squirted her with peppermint oil to counteract the smell of burning flesh. Her burned remains are what NBC showed, with a reporter’s voice describing the event itself, as people knelt around her charred shell, she was sitting with her hands folded as if her dead body was praying, and those gathered were crying out to Buddha to ease her suffering. My dad just shook his head and looked away as the television image panned the crowd surrounding the nun and the reporter’s voice intoned again, after capturing the cries of the praying crowd, ‘this Buddhist nun left a letter addressed to President Johnson,’ but he didn’t say that she wrote of her objections to Johnson’s support of the Saigon political regime. President Johnson called it all ‘tragic and unnecessary,’ but obviously the burned nun didn’t think it was unnecessary; tragic, yes, but not unnecessary.

Funny thing was we just heard what was on the news each and every evening, in the newspapers in the mornings, and prayed about it every Sunday in church. We didn’t talk about it at baseball practice, we didn’t pause for ‘a moment of silence’ to honor our boys fighting in rice paddies on the other side of the world before our games. Bills and letters arriving at our house didn’t discuss the war, but it turns out that President Johnson wrote a nice letter to Ho Chi Minh in February of ’67; it said…

Dear Mr. President:

I am writing to you in the hope that the conflict in Vietnam can be brought to an end. That conflict has already taken a heavy toll–in lives lost, in wounds inflicted, in property destroyed, and in simple human misery. If we fail to find a just and peaceful solution, history will judge us harshly.

Therefore, I believe that we both have a heavy obligation to seek earnestly the path to peace. It is in response to that obligation that I am writing directly to you.

We have tried over the past several years, in a variety of ways and through a number of channels, to convey to you and your colleagues our desire to achieve a peaceful settlement. For whatever reasons, these efforts have not achieved any results. . . .

Then LBJ said he didn’t trust Ho Chi Minh, and the U.S. wouldn’t stop bombing them, and then, once again for effect, that he didn’t trust Ho Chi Minh so any unconditional guarantees for peace negotiations. But if Ho backed-off from the South then Johnson would stop dropping bombs. And then he said

The important thing is to end a conflict that has brought burdens to both our peoples, and above all to the people of South Vietnam. If you have any thoughts about the actions I propose, it would be most important that I receive them as soon as possible.


Lyndon B. Johnson

Guess what, it didn’t work. Ho said that the aggression of the United States Government was a ‘war of aggression in South Vietnam,’ trying to turn it ‘into a neo-colony and an American military base.’ Hardly; if he knew Johnson like we knew Johnson. But what he said next was troubling, according to my dad,

The United States Government has committed war crimes, crimes against peace and against humanity. In South Vietnam a half-million American soldiers and soldiers from the satellite countries have resorted to the most inhumane arms and the most barbarous methods of warfare, such as napalm, chemicals, and poison gases in order to massacre our fellow countrymen, destroy the crops, and wipe out the villages. In North Vietnam thousands of American planes have rained down hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs, destroying cities, villages, mills, roads, bridges, dikes, dams and even churches, pagodas, hospitals, and schools. In your message you appear to deplore the suffering and the destruction in Vietnam. Permit me to ask you: Who perpetrated these monstrous crimes? It was the American soldiers and the soldiers of           the satellite countries. The United States Government is entirely responsible for the extremely grave situation in Vietnam. . . .

It was all our fault, Ho said. We started it, we shouldn’t have, and the way we fight is also horrible and unjust and miserable. Ho’s letter finished

The Vietnamese people will never give way to force, it will never accept conversation under the clear threat of bombs.

Our cause is absolutely just. It is desirable that the Government of the United States act in conformity to reason.


Ho Chi Minh

So much for the effort; the exchange was more like a ‘Dear John’ letters than ‘Please, let’s stop killing each other’ types of letters. But we didn’t hear much about LBJ’s and HCM’s poor correspondence, only that ‘the North Vietnamese leadership had rejected all reasonable efforts to meet to discuss a peaceful end to the military action,’ as NBC reported.

The only stories we heard of death in Vietnam were generalizations, body-bag counts (there were always more Vietnamese killed than U.S. marines so we were supposed to feel good about the ratios), troop depletion, and the numeric strength of over half-a-million U.S. soldiers in the region. It was as if we were spared any personal accounts of the killing because of the impersonal nature of Operation Rolling Thunder, until Dicky Beggs’ older brother, Roger, came home after being wounded in the leg, his left leg. He showed up at one of our ‘upper field’ games, walking up the incline with a cane and sitting himself on the hillside behind our bench. He was dressed in jeans, a t-shirt with a green camouflage jacket with BEGGS on the pocket label. Nobody sat near him, but Dicky turned around and waved and Roger waved back. ‘He’s talking more these days, about how he got hurt and all,’ Dicky told me between the second and third inning, ‘and he spends a lot of time in his old room.’ I saw the room last year when Dicky went in there to get a model train that we could play with. It was all clean and the door was always closed; the wallpaper had trains on it, the drapes matched the wallpaper, and the shelves over the desk had trains and knick-knacks on them, like baseballs, a mitt, a trophy with a baseball batter posed, and a red cap with an ‘H’ on the front (it was an ‘upper field’ cap, same as our caps). We won the game (Dicky walked twice, stole second, and made two put-outs at second base when he cut-off runners in-between first and second base after fielding ground balls; I walked once, struck-out twice, but nobody hit in my direction at short-stop). ‘Good game, guys,’ Roger said as we sat with him. The next game was going to start and he wanted to stay and watch a little of it. I looked at his leg and it looked just fine, and he caught me starring. ‘It hurts all the time,’ he told me.

He was wounded in something called Operation Junction City, in March the year before–the biggest search-and-destroy mission in the war. ‘We flooded the Cambodian border looking for V.C. and when we got spread out they started knocking the shit out of us. It got so freaky that we just started shooting all around, there was no line, no us-versus-them…. My buddy was killed by a woman in a rice paddy–she shot him and he drowned in a puddle of mud.’ Roger was watching the field as the home team was tossing around a ball, the first baseman throwing grounders to the infielders, the pitcher warming-up with the catcher, and the outfielders trying to throw to each other. ‘Man, these guys are little,’ he said, as if distracted, so I took advantage and asked, ‘Now who was fighting who in Vietnam?’ ‘What the hell’ you mean?’ Roger snapped. ‘I mean,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand all the Cambodian-thing, and the Vietnamese-thing, and the Viet Cong-thing, and the French and then us–I mean the U.S. and all.’ It was like our version of Abbot and Costello’s ‘Who’s On First,’ except in southeast Asia.

Abbott: Alright, now whaddya want?

Costello: Now look, I’m the head of the sports department. I gotta know the baseball players’ names. Do you know the guys’ names?

Abbott: Oh sure.

Costello: So you go ahead and tell me some of their names….

Abbott: Goofy, huh? Now let’s see. We have on the bags – we have Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.

Costello: That’s what I wanna find out.

Abbott: I say Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third –

Costello: You know the fellows’ names?

Abbott: Certainly!

Costello: Well then who’s on first?

Abbott: Yes!

Costello: I mean the fellow’s name!

Abbott: Who!

Costello: The guy on first!

Abbott: Who!

Costello: The first baseman!

Abbott: Who!

Costello: The guy playing first!

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: Now whaddya askin’ me for?

Abbott: I’m telling you: Who is on first.

Costello: Well, I’m asking YOU who’s on first!

Abbott: That’s the man’s name.

Costello: That’s who’s name?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Well go ahead and tell me.

Abbott: Who.

Costello: The guy on first.

Abbott: Who!

Costello: The first baseman.

Abbott: Who is on first!

Costello: Have you got a contract with the first baseman?

Abbott: Absolutely.

Costello: Who signs the contract?

Abbott: Well, naturally!

Costello: When you pay off the first baseman every month, who gets the money?

Abbott: Every dollar. Why not? The man’s entitled to it.

Costello: Who is?

Abbott: Yes. Sometimes his wife comes down and collects it.

Costello: Who’s wife?

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: All I’m tryin’ to find out is what’s the guy’s name on first base.

Abbott: Oh, no – wait a minute, don’t switch ‘em around. What is on second base….

Then there’s why (left field), because (center field), tomorrow (pitching), today (catching), and when you finally get it you don’t get it because you get it.

Costello: Now suppose that I’m catching, Tomorrow’s pitching on my team and their heavy hitter gets up.

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Tomorrow throws the ball. The batter bunts the ball. When he bunts the ball, me being a good catcher, I wanna throw the guy out at first base. So I pick up the ball and throw it to who?

Abbott: Now that’s the first thing you’ve said right.

Costello: I don’t even know what I’m talkin’ about!

Abbott: Well, that’s all you have to do.

Costello: Is to throw the ball to first base.

Abbott: Yes.

Costello: Now who’s got it?

Abbott: Naturally!

Costello: If I throw the ball to first base, somebody’s gotta catch it. Now who caught it?

Abbott: Naturally!

Costello: Who caught it?

Abbott: Naturally.

Costello: Who?

Abbott: Naturally!

Costello: Naturally.

Then Roger was back in Vietnam, in the middle of Operation Junction City, and he said, ‘Next day I shot a woman running away from us across a rice paddy. She wouldn’t stop and I thought of my friend and I shot her and she drowned.’ he paused, and then said, ‘It really didn’t bother me.’ I asked, ‘You don’t care that you shot a woman, in the back?’ And Roger said, ‘I don’t give a darn,’ (I don’t give a darn is the shortstop). And without a moment’s hesitation Roger asked Dicky, ‘What you drinking?’ and Dicky said, ‘A suicide…we always get suicides after our games.’ Roger remembered suicides and ‘upper field’ games, and ‘the shack,’ and he just wanted to watch a little more of the game before he drove us home.

Between the third and fourth innings he blurted out, ‘One day during a fire-fight, I heard the cries of the Vietnamese wounded, and I understood them, I actually could tell they were crying for their moms, or wives, or girlfriends, just like we did when we got shot.’ ‘Did you cry when you got shot,’ I asked and Dicky looked horrified that I would even suggest that his big brother would cry, but Roger didn’t hesitate, ‘Fuck, yes, I cried. For mom, and Jean’–she was his childhood sweetheart who was in college in Champagne at the University of Illinois studying literature, but they hadn’t seen each other since Roger came home. She ended her school year by organizing a peace march on campus and wanted to go to California for the summer with a bunch of her friends–she hadn’t wanted to talk to Roger, Dicky told me–kinda like they broke up or something. Roger was in the First Infantry Division and Operation Junction City took place in something called War Zone C. The paratroopers jumped into Zone C and Roger’s unit followed and they controlled it for a few months and then pulled out into Cambodia and the communists returned to the area. ‘Did you win?’ I asked. ‘Hell no, we didn’t win. We would take over an area, secure it, the Captain would get an order over the radio and we would be ordered to move-out,’ Roger said and then he said no more. There were almost three-thousand Viet Cong killed and less than three-hundred of us, but 1,576 wounded and Roger was one of them. We sat with him through the end of the game, but Dicky asked if we could leave after the fifth inning because the home team was way ahead, but Roger said, ‘It’s not over ‘til it’s over,’ so we stayed but the visiting team still lost and then walked toward the parking lot. He hopped into the Chevy Nova (yellow with white vinyl interior), tossed his cane on the seat and drove us home.

We had our own annual war, a cross-town affair, our ‘sacred cause’ of unification each year when the north-siders (the Cubs) played the south-siders (the White Sox) in the Boys’ Benefit Game–a charity, doesn’t-count-in-the-won-loss-column-game, but means-a-whole-hell-of-a-lot-to-us-game. The game was at Comiskey Park, the enemy’s territory for Cubs fans. One perk of being on an ‘upper field’ team was that we got to attend the annual game. We rode on a school bus–all of us in our team uniforms carrying our gloves, dads went with (and my dad was the ‘upper field’ Cubs coach so he was there, but I sat with Dicky Beggs and Martin Jacobi and my dad sat with Mr. Harvey). We walked up the zigzagging ramps, pausing on the fourth to listen to my dad’s story of a friend, a young guy, who died right on this ramp two years ago; he had a heart attack at age thirty-nine, ‘Guess you never know,’ he added before heading on to the next ramp without another word about it. We were all Cubs’ fans, especially since we were the ‘upper field’ Cubs and we, I mean they won 7-2, which made us all proud and happy but the Sox had a great season and spent most of the season–June, July and August–in first place in their division but ended-up in fourth place in the American league. The Boys’ Benefit Game in ‘67 was territory gained against the Sox, in their own stadium, but it couldn’t be held. As Cubs fans we knew that it was the battle we must enjoy, not whether we would eventually win the whole thing, therefore we were well equipped to understand what was going on in Vietnam.

To be specific, we were used to gaining a momentary advantage and just as quickly surrendering the same in Chicago. We endured the blitzkrieg of a record snowfall that started before dawn on January 26, ‘67 and ended three days later–over two feet and a strong wind that made drifts across the city and suburbs. We dug and shoveled and dug (the wind erased our hard work) and it snowed again and again for the next two weeks so there was no place to move the snow except to push it around. And it was cold, very cold, so even though we didn’t have school for a few days it wasn’t like a vacation. We were heroic, matching the best that a late Chicago winter had thrown at us in a century; mom expressed her pride, the neighbors their gratitude for shoveling their sidewalks–our efforts were celebrated with a homecoming of a fireside seat, hot chocolate, warm soup for dinner, and a cozy spot beside parents to watch television in the evening. Dad stayed home with us and we did nothing except shovel snow, watch TV, and shovel snow. So many older people were home from work the next week and they had nothing to do but shovel their snow that about sixty of them died of heart attacks. All the snow melted a few weeks later in a thaw.

Winter cold and snow–this is the dominant season of Chicago, briefly interrupted by summer heat and humidity, introduced by two weeks of beautiful spring and concluded with half-weeks of crisp autumn days (always called ‘fall’ in Chicago because every leaf dropped on our lawns almost overnight). There are billions and billions of leaves, common and hardwood trees shedding their plumage, sugars cured to hues of yellow, red, orange and brown, fluttering through crisp breezes on the open spaces of mowed lawns and neatly edged sidewalks. We gathered these like we shoveled snow, each day more fell and covered yesterday’s hard labor, winds blowing leaf-drifts across the lawns that held the musty odors stirred from the dirt by our raking. We dove into the mounds of damp leaves, jumped up, threw them up and at each other, then raked them together again until we burned them along the curbs and the smoke was thick from the dampness and the few dry leaves flashed with flames. We stood as close as possible, the smoke rising up bodies, our arms, surrounding our heads. We stood in the smoke, inhaling like a smoker the thick fumes and our eyes burned and clothes reeked as we ran to our homes having been called to dinner or just home for the night. My clothes smoldered, but my nostrils were seared with smoke so I was immune, and everyone smelled me at the dinner table, ‘Go, change your clothes, young man.’ ‘Why? They’re clean.’ And they were clean to the eye, but not the nose. The smell, that smell of burning leaves, now outlawed for air-quality concerns, is one of the odorous memories of childhood absent from today. In rash moments of nostalgia I find myself trying to gather just a small, ceremonial altar of hardwood leaves to sacrifice–nervous that I will be found-out and fined for defoliation misuse or polluting the ecosphere (but I think the real fear is that children will catch a whiff of this–the burning of true leaves in the ceremony of autumn, and they will be forever converted, forever captured by the forbidden bouquet). The season passes faster than the leaves can be raked and it is just plain cold, frosted and dormancy–our true, first season–once again rules our lives.

We were as accustomed to the extremes of winter and summer as we were to victory and defeat…we lived in the Chicago-area—we were the second-city, the city of broad shoulders, the windy city, hog-butcher to the world, all of which meant we stank and the wind made sure everyone knew we stank. When Chicago was incorporated in 1833 it had only 350 residents and it was just a little piece of land. It got its name from some obscure Indian word that means either ‘strong’ or ‘great,’ or ‘onion’ or ‘skunk’ which actually all mean the same thing because the smell of an onion or skunk is strong or great (in terms of odor, that is). We were strong and smelly, we could take the harsh truth of winter and war, but we could barely stand Picasso’s ‘gift to the city’–his fifty-foot high, 160 ton, thing in Civic Center Plaza. It was unveiled on my mom’s birthday, August 15 when she turned 33 and I thought she was old but pretty, nothing like Pablo’s ugly vulture-lady. He didn’t charge the City for his artistry and that’s why it was his ‘gift’ (he probably realized he couldn’t charge for that thing). In the newspaper the next day said art critics complimented the City’s ‘vigor and vision’ and ‘one of the most magnificent windfalls in [the City’s] history.’ But at least we didn’t have riots in the city like Detroit, New York City, and Birmingham, Alabama. We just had the big-bird-lady-thing and we should have rioted about that but we didn’t. We were Chicagoans, we were Cubs fans, and we were used to such things. It wasn’t that the world was ending in 1967 (except for those who died shoveling snow), but there was a coup in Greece and King Constantine II was deposed, China exploded a hydrogen bomb that scared everyone who wasn’t a communist, and there was the Six-Day War between Israel and every Arab in the neighborhood (but Israel kicked everyone’s butts and took over a whole lot of land as a bonus, while we whittled away in frustration in North Vietnamese). We heard about all these things in The Hills, we prayed about the world in church, studied current events in social studies in school and survived a long and uneventful winter.

Besides the war in Vietnam, Johnson was famous for his Great Society dream, from a speech in 1964, about ‘prosperity, abundance and liberty for all.’ It was a vast civil-rights vision for the majority white population that kept the country running, making money and servicing the minorities who disrupted the social order because of their irrational frustration. Whites worked, worked hard, and minorities and war protestors ‘sat-in,’ ‘boycotted,’ and otherwise lazily lived irresponsible lives (that’s the way my parents’ friends talked, and my dad just nodded, not saying yes or no, just listening). But President Johnson had a plan for whites to share their great wealth, re-distribute it—a kind of never-never land, a place where goodness and purity exist and good-and-evil are clear and distinct (unlike LBJ’s and HCM’s incommensurable characterizations of the Vietnamese war).

The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial     injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. But that is just the beginning. The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community. It is a place where man can renew contact with nature. It is a place which honors creation for its own sake and for what is adds to the understanding of the race. It is a place where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.

The Great Society was quite a place, but it turned out to be a place that Vietnam got in the way of, and the real world of war and bombing there and protests and riots here deflated the dream world of the Society. President Johnson had had enough and decided that the free world was better without him as its leader (maybe he realized he didn’t have a map to get us to that place). So on March 31, ‘68, he announced he was quitting. Quitting?! You don’t quit, you play-on, you walk-it-off, like when we got hit with a pitch while waiting for a cream-puff to swing at or taking another walk, ‘You’re fine, Danny; walk-it-off…you’ll be okay.’ He appeared, shoulders slumped, eyes drooping, hands large and heavy holding papers in front of him,

Good evening, my fellow Americans:

Tonight I want to speak to you of peace in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. No other question so preoccupies our people. No other dream so absorbs the 250 million human beings who live in that part of the world. No other goal motivates American policy in Southeast Asia.

Yea, yea; he tried and tried; the Commies were evil, godless people who refused to listen to reason, and frustrated the good intentions of LBJs Great Society in North America (‘to build a great society, a place where the meaning of man’s life matches the marvels of man’s labors’) by the Great Quagmire in Southeast Asia—we didn’t understand the global interconnectedness, how frustration as a policy of good on the other side of the globe could lead to such a destructive frustration in our neighborhoods.

The Communists…are trying to make 1968 the year of decision in South Vietnam–the year that brings, if not final victory or defeat, at least a turning point in the struggle. If they do mount another round of heavy attacks, they will not succeed in destroying the fighting power of South Vietnam and its allies. But tragically, this is also clear: Many men–on both sides of the struggle–will be lost. A nation that has already suffered 20 years of warfare will suffer once again. Armies on both sides will take new casualties. And the war will go on. There is no need for this to be so.

Those words, ‘There is no need for this to be so,’ echoed in our ears. No need? Then why the hell are we fighting and dying? Kids, college students, insolents and hippies (as some of my parents friends called them) said the same thing daily, ‘There is no need for this to be so,’ but now our President was saying the same thing–There is no need for this to be so.’

We are prepared to move immediately toward peace through negotiations. So, tonight, in the hope that this action will lead to early talks, I am taking the first step to deescalate the conflict. We are reducing–substantially reducing–the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once. Tonight, I have ordered our aircraft and our naval vessels to make no attacks on North Vietnam, except in the area north of the demilitarized zone where the continuing enemy buildup directly threatens allied forward positions and where the movements of their troops and supplies are clearly related to that threat. The area in which we are stopping our attacks includes almost 90 percent of North Vietnam’s population, and most of its territory. Thus there will be no attacks around the principal populated areas, or in the food-producing areas of North Vietnam.

That’s a unilateral act of de-escalation, sort of; we’re gonna stop bombing everyone in your country and only bomb the bad guys (did that mean we were bombing innocent people for three years in Operation Rolling Thunder?). It was still up to Ho to do the right thing

I call upon President Ho Chi Minh to respond positively, and favorably, to this new step toward peace. But if peace does not come now through negotiations, it will come when Hanoi understands that our common resolve is unshakable, and our common strength is invincible. Tonight, we and the other allied nations are contributing 600,000 fighting men to assist 700,000 South Vietnamese troops in defending their little country.

How quaint, ‘their little country’; how overwhelming, ‘600,000 fighting men to assist 700,000 South Vietnamese troops’—a million-and-a-half fighting-men. Then he said how much it would cost us, the Great Society: $2.5 billion in ‘68, $2.6 billion in ‘69, and the Great Society was supposed to invigorate the economic life of the poor and marginalized in the U.S., but it turned out to be an elusive place, and he wouldn’t be its President and he tried to guarantee that a united Vietnam wouldn’t be that place either.

We have no intention of widening this war. But the United States will never accept a fake solution to this long and arduous struggle and call it peace. No one can foretell the precise terms of an eventual settlement. Our objective in South Vietnam has never been the annihilation of the enemy. It was been to bring about a recognition in Hanoi that its objective–taking over the South by force–could not be achieved…. One day, my fellow citizens, there will be peace in Southeast Asia.

Yes, one day there will be peace; one day, but not today, and not with America until after LBJ died of a heart attack at his ranch in 1973. It was like LBJ wanted us to feel sorry for him, sorry that his Great Society dream went sour, sorry that he had to suffer so greatly his ‘fate and responsibility to be Commander-in-Chief.’ He complained, ‘I have lived–daily and nightly–with the cost of this war. I know the pain that it has inflicted. I know, perhaps better than anyone, the misgivings it has aroused.’ Johnson, everyone was saying, was almost paranoid about his dissenters; I guess it was easier to take a bullet in the gut or have a leg blown-off by a mine than to the Commander-in-Chief. It was so hard on LBJ, so difficult, so painful, so troubling, so cruel, that he quit–he just plain quit and walked away, back to Texas.

Finally, my fellow Americans, let me say this:

With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.

But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong, a confident, and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace–and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause–whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require.

Thank you for listening.

Good night and God bless all of you.

But you don’t quit; do the boys fighting in Vietnam get to quit? We don’t quit, there is no ‘slaughter rule’ in ‘upper field’ little league, so when we were winning our fourth game, against the White Sox (who ironically wore orange socks and caps), and the score was 23-2 in the third inning, and I came to bat for the second time in the same inning and took another walk that forced home run number 24, they didn’t quit even though there was no way they were going to win. At our ‘at-bat’ in the second inning coach/dad told each of us to just ‘take’ the pitches and the White Sox went through their infield, shuffling short-stop to pitcher, pitcher to second, second to short-stop. We just kept taking walks, forcing home runs, and resting our bats on our shoulders under strict orders not to swing away. When we reached 30 runs, my dad told us to swing at everything (‘take batting practice,’ was how he said it). The inning ended with two batters and we went from bases loaded, nobody out, to a double-play off a weak infield hit from Johnny O’Donnell and my base running mistake that got me and Dicky Beggs forced out standing near second base at the same time. Coach (dad) took Ed Reilly from pitching and put him at third base and told Steven Reilly (Ed’s brother) to come in from center field to pitch (Ed wasn’t happy, and Steven was clueless, as usual–they were twins but one of them had to be adopted, we figured). After the fourth inning the score was 30-18 and Steven Reilly was still pitching—throwing four pitches to walk each successive batter (he groaned toward the end of the inning when he threw a strike because it meant that he would have to throw another ball to get through the batter). Nobody was swinging, and everyone was getting on base, walking to the next bag, and crossing home plate with an enthusiastic jump as if to accentuate another futile run. But when it got close (within 12 runs) we all started to wonder how long coach/dad would let Steven Reilly pitch. Parents knew what was happening, but nobody grumbled. Mrs. Reilly was in ‘the shack’ with my mom and a mom of someone on the White Sox and they were actually watching the game, nobody was buying ‘suicides’ or Good ‘n Plenty or Milk Duds, and the inning ended with an inadvertent put-out and my dad congratulating Steven, ‘Good pitching, hard work; thanks Steven.’ Steve said, ‘Man, my arm is tired,’ and he shook it like he was Ken Holtzman’s young brother. Ed Reilly, his real brother, just sulked in and sat dejectedly at the end of the bench. Coach (dad) strictly ordered each and every batter to ‘swing away, at every pitch’ and the fifth inning was over in five batters, no runs scored. After we went through three pitchers in the top of the sixth inning the game ended with our victory, 20-14, so we didn’t bat as the home team in the bottom of the sixth (that’s all the innings we played in ‘upper field’ baseball). We were so tired from the first four innings that we hardly celebrated; somewhat unsure about what had just happened. Steven Reilly got a suicide and two treats from his mother in ‘the shack’ and Ed just got a suicide from his mom.

Having your very own dad as your coach had its advantages, like you were never late for practice because you are always with the coach, but you had to carry the bat-bag or the ball-bag along with your own mitt from the coach’s car which doubled as your family’s sedan. I batted fifth, usually, but that meant nothing. Ed Reilly always batted first, his brother Steven always batted last. We switched among tiers, the first was pitchers and catchers (great arms, good gloves), the second was infielders (good arms, okay gloves), and third was outfielders (they brought their gloves to games, when they remembered to show up themselves). At home, in between our twice-a-week practices, dad and I would play catch in the front yard, every day. We started about fifteen feet apart and dad would slowly back-up to encourage my arm to try a line-drive throw as if from short stop; then he’d back up some more and I’d pretend to be Ron Santo at third and toss a balloon throw toward dad. We played to-and-from the house until one of my third base throws sailed over dad’s head and broke a small windowpane for a living room window. I thought I was in big trouble, but dad said it was okay, ‘My fault, I backed up too close to the house, Danny. Don’t worry, I’ll talk to mom.’ It wasn’t like special practice sessions with the coach did me much good as a baseball player; they made me into the son of my dad, and I was the one who got a hug from his coach after scoring a run. Nobody worried about nepotism because baseball was pure, unspoiled by escalating salaries and binding arbitration; and we never, ever went on strike; we never stopped, even for a war in Vietnam; we never quit like the President; we never argued with the umpires (it wasn’t allowed by my dad or any coach); we always left errors on the field like runners left on base; we always left our troubles outside the field but the game always went home with us to rehearse daily; and we, my dad and I, always had at least a quiet ten minutes with each other, every day, tossing the old family baseball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth in our front yard, no words, just the sound of ball hitting mitt, snapping when a forceful throw met the mitt’s pocket.

Having a throw with dad was better than riding in a car together, even better than the Saturday morning trips to the hardware store, almost as good as a Cubs game, and always better than church. Most boys who played baseball for their dads would probably agree that Saturday afternoon games, and especially ‘upper field’ games, were more sacred than church. Some syrupy sophists like to wax on eloquently about how baseball is a metaphor for life, that the baseball diamond is the holy-of-holies or the mythic sacred space that all humans deep-down crave, that baseball is magical and all who play, as well as those who watch, are saved in the redemptive drama that is baseball. When you’re eleven its baseball; maybe when you get old and miss something about life it becomes a metaphor, but calling it a metaphor doesn’t make it sacred or special or salvific—it just shows how little about baseball, especially ‘upper field’ little league baseball, people understand. It’s like everyone looses something, or is told that they lost something that they must find or rediscover—the baby boomer ailment of trying to figure out life through sports and/or movies. So W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, Field of Dreams fills both requirements. Ray Kinsella was a jerk with his dad, his dad, John, died; then Ray hears voices, builds a baseball field in his corn, everyone of the dearly departed in baseball history show up to play or watch; Ray almost looses his farm, but then miraculously doesn’t, and his dad is there and they ‘have a throw.’ Ray thought he had to build the field for the redemption of Shoeless Joe, his dad’s disgraced but beloved hero who was banned from baseball after the Black Sox incident, but then Ray finds forgiveness for being an asshole to his dad…end of story, baseball is the medium for holding all the parts of life together. The 60s radical in the story, Terrance Mann is sitting in the bleachers, reading the Baseball Encyclopedia—the holy book of baseball’s stories and history, stands and says ‘The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good, and what could be good again.’ For the pure love of the game, that’s what it’s about (damn the profit mongers, the bankers, the upward mobility and hunger for more that separate us from our past; bless the forgotten, those who never realized their dreams, who need forgiveness). When novelists and moviemakers try to tell the story it usually gets ruined by some argument, disagreement, rupture, or father-son discord–everyone makes mistakes, sometimes big mistakes, but baseball becomes the medium of reconciliation. You ‘have a throw’ with your own son (if he isn’t off playing soccer), go back to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs (lose), sit with a dying father in front of a television watching a game, one last time, or just go and sitting on the hillside at ‘upper field’ watching other people re-enact what made so much of my childhood with my dad so much of my childhood. Baseball means a lot, and it is a wonderful medium for a relationship, even a troubled relationship, but dad and I just played baseball–it was never ruined by loses, or wins, never uglied with arguments, or fights, it was always pure, always just baseball. ‘Upper field’ was the place but we can’t go back, can’t recapture what’s lost because it isn’t lost.

I ended the ‘67 season with six hits, three of them doubles, about twelve bases on errors or fielders’ choice, three dozen stolen bases and as many walks. Our team finished the season 5-5, we lost in our first playoff game against the White Sox, and my dad threw the team a party at our house the next afternoon, a Sunday. It was a good season. Dad made his manager’s speech at the end of the party, ‘You had a good season, fellas; you played hard, and had fun. Mr. Harvey and I really enjoyed coaching you this season. There are more hot dogs, so have another one.’ The fields, both upper and lower, were quiet now, the bleachers were empty, the hillside was quiet, the shack was closed-up for the year, boards nailed over the windows and padlocks on the doors. Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks, I don’t care if I ever get back. Cause it’s root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame. For its one, two, three strikes you’re out, at the old ballgame.

Mighty Casey and Poetry and War…

mighty-casey-advancingBorn and raised a Chicago Cubs fan was more a way-of-being-in-the-world than just liking a team. We knew what it was like to win and lose, and mostly what it was like to lose. We knew that there was life and there was baseball and that life wasn’t baseball and baseball wasn’t life. They never competed in my young world, they never had to; it was never an either/or and it wasn’t as simple as both/and.

We knew something that didn’t make sense to the people of Mudville; we knew it more, it seemed, than Ernest Thayer, author of Casey at the Bat (1888). Maybe there wasn’t much to life back in 1888 so baseball was all they had; who knows.

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d pit up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

So Blake and Flynn batted before Casey, and no one expected them to get on base, let alone on second and third; two outs, two on and Casey was up.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

With swagger and his intimidating routine, Casey was recognized by everyone. With his bat ready, the pitcher threw and Casey watched as the umpire called a strike – strike one. The crowd yelled insults (blaming the umpire as Casey waited for his pitch). Casey readied for the next pitch and took another strike – strike two.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

We learned Casey at the Bat in school because the teachers thought we’d actually want to learn poetry if it was about baseball. Why? Because, as Ms. Martin said, “That’s all you boys do is play baseball.” But that wasn’t all we did, and baseball didn’t make us want to learn poetry. We learned poetry because we had to, because our teachers told us to, but we played baseball because we wanted to, like we were Cubs’ fans – because we wanted to be.

Some people didn’t get it, like Grantland Rice (the guy who said the line about it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game) who couldn’t stand losing so much that it bothered him that Mudville was joyless. So, he wrote Casey’s Revenge. Ms. Martin tried to get us to learn that one too, but we were so lost after Casey at the Bat that she gave up.

There were saddened hearts in Mudville for a week or even more;
There were muttered oaths and curses- every fan in town was sore.
’Just think,’ said one, ‘how soft it looked with Casey at the bat,
And then to think he’d go and spring a bush league trick like that!’ 

And it was too depressing, according to Grantland Rice, for Casey to stay struck-out, like it was too depressing for some Americans to see body bags coming home, soldiers dying in rice paddies, and the Vietnamese embarrassing us all on the CBS evening news. Rice said that it was wrong to leave Casey with the nickname ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ just like it would be wrong to most people for America to have the reputation that we lost the war in Vietnam. Instead he thought we needed a ‘wait-til-next-year’ revenge story.

All his past fame was forgotten- he was now a hopeless ‘shine.’
They called him ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ from the mayor down the line;
And as he came to bat each day his bosom heaved a sigh,
While a look of hopeless fury shone in mighty Casey’s eye.

This time a crowd of 10,000 (twice the number of Thayer’s crowd) gathered for redemption; the tragic loss, and Casey’s demise from last season were a year behind Mudville. Casey and Mudville would have their day.

All Mudville had assembled – ten thousand fans had come
To see the twirler who had put big Casey on the bum;
And when he stepped into the box, the multitude went wild;
He doffed his cap in proud disdain, but Casey only smiled.

But soon the game turned sour, and in the bottom of the ninth the hometown was losing four to one. The first batter hit a single, the second was hit, the third walked on four balls. Bases loaded, nobody out. But just as soon as hope visited Mudville, it left as the next two batters flew out.

But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day;
They hissed and groaned and hooted as they clamored: ‘Strike him out!’
But Casey gave no outward sign that he had heard this shout.

You know what happened next – one strike, then a second on Casey. Everyone expected Casey to duplicate his strike-out from last season; no hope of redemption from Mudville greeted Casey at the bat this year.

No roasting for the umpire now – his was an easy lot;
But here the pitcher whirled again- was that a rifle shot?
A whack, a crack, and out through the space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky, a speck against the blue.

And just that soon Casey hit a grand slam – the ball flew so far it was never found, and Mudville was saved – hats in the air, everyone cheered in disbelief.

O, somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun,
And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun!
And somewhere over blighted lives there hangs a heavy pall,
But Mudville hearts are happy now, for Casey hit the ball.

Casey is the hero in Grantland’s reversion, and instead of Mudville being dark and depressed, now the rest of the world may be joyless, somewhere, like in Vietnam, but not Mudville. It was more than a wait-til-next-year inspiration story – Grantland Rice just didn’t understand that it wasn’t about redemption, about winning, it was about the living and dying no matter what. It was about that… and baseball.