Chapter 1: “Ball”
The brain of a baseball fanatic consists of ten basic structures, each with unique responsibilities: medulla (breathing, heartbeat), pons (dreaming), reticular formation (brain’s sentinel), thalamus (sensory information), cerebellum (bodily movements, equilibrium), hippocampus (long-term storage of information), amygdala (aggression, sexual behavior), hypothalamus (internal equilibrium), cerebral cortex (higher cognitive and emotional functions). And, perhaps most important, the little-known triviata minor, a tiny compartment that stores information of no seemingly earthly value, like Ted Lepcio’s lifetime slugging percentage, what Don Mueller and Donn Clendenon had in common, Bucky Dent’s real name, and who pinch-ran for midget Eddie Gaedel.
Baseball nut Seth Stein slouches in his La-Z-Boy and looks right into the man’s eyes.
The man stares back at him with a look that is vacant and listless, gazing at a point six inches above Seth’s head, toward a place a zillion miles in the distance.
The man’s secondhand face is wizened and sunken and tan, like a battered old catcher’s mitt whose pocket has been broken in and darkened through countless innings of abuse.
The man looks terribly bored, which is understandable, since he has been dead now for thirty-three years. He is staring out at Seth from within his baseball card, and his name is Alpha Brazle.
Seth has been studying the picture album of Papa Sol’s old baseball cards for nearly an hour. When he reaches Brazle’s card, his mind wanders to the first time his grandfather had ever shown it to him.
“Now, Setharoo, this is ol’ Al Brazle,” Solomon Stein rhapsodizes to his six-year-old grandson, nourishing the baseball passion he has already bequeathed to Seth via the DNA helix. “Nicknamed Alfie or sometimes Cotton. Began his career late in life, at nine and twenty years, as I recall. Pretty fair southpaw, though. Not as good as Grove or Gomez or Hubbell or Ford or Spahn or Koufax or Carlton, of course. But pretty darn fair.”
Seth snaps out of it, eyes the card again. A Bowman 1953 beaut. Number 140. Born Loyal, Oklahoma. Died Grand Junction, Colorado. Baseball fanatic Seth Stein recites it by heart, like a catechism. Lifetime record of 97-64. Played all ten years of his career with the same team, the Cardinals. Not like today’s million-dollar, free-agent players, Seth thinks, with more than a tinge of melancholy.
He riffles through a few more pages of the album, comes across Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Murry Dickson’s card, stops and cogitates. Good ol’ Murry. Always loved the fact that his parents left out the a in his first name. The Tom Edison of the mound, they used to call him, because he loved to experiment out there. Stan Musial once cracked that he wouldn’t have given his mother anything good to hit. Won twenty in ’51, then lost twenty-one in ’52. Unreal. Best thing about him was that during the off-season, he was a carpenter, just like Papa Sol.
Seth Stein pauses to give his triviata minor a rest. He turns the page, removes a Ray Jablonski Topps card from its four rococo cardboard pasties (one for each corner) that are attached with LePage’s Gripspreader Mucilage Glue and have been clinging miraculously to the album page since well before he was born. He sniffs the back of the card, aspirating the nearly faded aroma of pink bubble gum powder like Ferdinand the Bull inhaling a flower’s fragrance deeply, lustily. The magical smell is still there after all these decades.
Seth returns Ray to his final resting place and flips through more pages, taking affectionate ganders at Coot Veal and Cot Deal, Duane Pillette and Howie Pollett, Turk Lown, Sam Jethroe, Herm Wehmeier, Bud Podbielan, Roy Smalley, Johnny Klippstein, Johnny Wyrostek, Matt Batts (Matt Batts!), Dave Jolly, Virgil Jester (what a pair of clowns), Solly Hemus, Wayne Terwilliger, Ned Garver (how’d he ever win twenty games for the ’51 Browns, who lost 102?), Gus Zernial, Al Zarilla, Reno Bertoia, Granny Hamner, Dee Fondy, Eddie Yost (“the Walking Man”), Eddie Waitkus (shot in a hotel room with a rifle by a deranged female fan), Vinegar Bend Mizell.
All these gentlemen are fossils frozen in time, ossified in their fake poses. The shell-shocked Brazle poses goofily with arms above head, ball in glove and left hand gripping it, preparing for the curve he will never throw. Boston Braves utility man Sibby Sisti assumes a silly, stiff crouch, with left gloved hand on left knee and bare right hand on right knee, as if to conduct some bizarre self-examination of his patellae. Philadelphia Athletics first sacker Ferris Fain smiles straight ahead as he stretches out his right gloved hand to reach, perilously, for a ball coming from a totally different direction from where the camera apparently is.
Seth closes the album and his eyes. The rectangular 3-1/2” x 2-1/2” cardboard surfaces with frozen men peering out are mirrors to his soul, reflecting who he was, who he is, who he will become.
He is thinking about these frozen men, not as ballplayers, but as human beings. What ever became of them? After their fifteen minutes of fame, what did they make of their lives? Did they go downhill from there or find peace of mind and happiness?
He is thinking about what these players were like when they reached the age of thirty-three, like he himself just did today, October 19, 2006. (Baseball historian Seth Stein notes that an astounding percentage of these men actually retired at this very age, or thereabouts.) Did these guys end up accomplishing in other ways? Or did they proceed to fall from memorable icons on baseball cards to forgettable ne’er-do-wells? Did they become a U.S. senator, like Jim Bunning, or a disgruntled, paranoid night watchman who died in misery, like Carl Furillo?
He is thinking about where he is now in his own life, approaching a midpoint marker going back to the Bible (Psalms 90:10). Nel mezzo del cammin, as Dante put it, smack in the middle of our seventy-year journey.
Like the men in the cards, his life has had a past, a present, and a future. He is thinking about all he has accomplished: a Ph.D. at age twenty-four, his appointment to the Harvard faculty, the five published books. And all he has endured: the failed marriage to and painful divorce from the petulant Julie, the heart disease and recent quadruple bypass surgery, the loss of his parents early on, the loss of his Papa Sol. He is thinking about all he is involved with now: the book he is writing, the stimulating freshman seminar he’s teaching, spending time with his beloved Grandma Elsie, watching his son, Sammy, grow up to be a man, his stupendous girlfriend, Kate.
Most of all, Seth is thinking about what will become of him. About the ponderous issues of mortality and achievement and relationships. Will he live to see Sammy grow up and get married and make him a grandfather? Will he finish writing the book? Will he even get to watch another World Series? Will he dare to try marriage again? But these questions are sardines compared to this whale of an enigma: Will he ever be able to figure out the mystery of his Papa Sol’s sudden disappearance, two years ago, from the face of the earth?
Chapter 1: “Ball”
In his study, Seth tosses his yellow-and-navy parka and trusty Red Sox cap on the floor and pours himself a generous Balvenie. Rocks (three), twist, half splash of soda. Just like Papa Sol had taught him after his high school graduation. An essential rite of passage, this Scotch thing. Sol’s drink of preference, then Seth’s. One of many treasured batons passed on from grandfather to grandson.
Nothing like a Balvenie before dinner to excite the palate. To prepare the appetite. Mostly, to unjangle the nerves and calm the psyche. Been a long day for Seth, between a tight morning squash match he’d lost to best pal Gordon Stewart (15-13 in the mind-numbing fifth), all that work on the final structuring of his book and the gestation of that nettlesome opening chapter “In Search of Lost Time,” the minor quarrel he’d had with sweetheart Kate, the bittersweet visit with Elsie.
Oozing into his chocolate-colored Naugahyde La-Z-Boy, he takes his first sip of the single-malt elixir he has grown to relish, ever since Sol had introduced him to it and educated him about its vast superiority to “ordinary” Scotch whisky. Ah, that first sip! Producing rapture on the approximate order of that first prebreakfast sip of joe and that first postdinner puff on a Cohiba Esplendidos (another baton passed to him by Papa Sol).
As the Balvenie slides down his throat, both shocking and soothing his system, he squeezes his lips together tight until they disappear completely, exposing his top six front teeth, and scrunches up both cheeks until they hurt—just the way Bogie does whenever he has a belt onscreen.
The study is so Seth: Tornado would best describe it. Squash racquets and sneakers here, guitar there (a Martin 000-28EC), in every cranny pages filled with names, places, dates, data—typed and with copious marginal notes that are handwritten in red uni-ball. Word puzzle books, thesauri, dictionaries, foreign dictionaries, dictionaries of slang and of etymology and of synonyms and of cultural literacy. But mostly history books, some his own and some withdrawn from Widener Memorial Library, wall to wall and floor to ceiling: thrown pell-mell on shelves between cinder blocks, piled up in untidy stacks on the floor, strewn in random clumps across his large Solomon Stein-built cherry desk.
Spread on the surface of a small oak table in one corner of the study is a chaotic yet artful still life of baseball bric-a-brac that would have made Cézanne mighty proud. Encyclopedias, old yearbooks and game programs, yellowed newspaper clippings. A Rawlings PM1 glove that had been Papa Sol’s in the fifties. A black-and-white photo of Bobby Thomson’s famous home run from the deciding ’51 pennant game, the ball frozen in midflight, inside a simple black metal frame. A group photo of the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox. And the most special bric of all, an old baseball encased in Plexiglas, the one Papa Sol caught off the bat of Giants second baseman Davey Williams on June 28, 1954. Charity game against the Bosox. Leo Kiely on the mound vs. the Giants’ Paul Giel. The home run hitting contest between the Say Hey Kid and the Splendid Splinter before the first pitch. A game Papa Sol recounted to Seth frequently at bedtime, and especially how he plucked Davey’s foul out of thin air with his strong carpenter’s right hand.
The pungent odor that pervades the room and makes it uniquely Seth’s suggests somewhere between a library and a locker room.
He takes a second lingering sip of his Balvenie and examines first the package Papa Sol has left for him, then the yellowed envelope. Feels slightly catatonic, not from the Scotch, but from the shock of being face-to-face with the two bequests. As if his grandfather were right there with him once more, poised to speak.
A third sip, and he is finally in the frame of mind to open the envelope. Slowly and with care. After all, this is History, the past brought to life. In an instant, Sol will be speaking to him from a place and a time that are not here and not now.
Seth withdraws from the envelope a yellowed page. The words on it are written neatly, in Papa Sol’s virile hand, stacked in irregular lines that look, curiously, like the right half of Vulcan’s anvil and read like a vers libre poem. He enunciates the lyrical words, one at a time and aloud, chanting them as they trip, one after the other, off his tongue:
My dearest Sylvan one,
My spirit hears nothing if not ditties of no tone.
My forehead burns, my tongue is parched.
Can a soul ever return from the silent streets of a little town?
Your legacy is in the Attic.
That is all you need to know.
With all my love, Your Papa Sol.
P.S. What will you do after the ball?
Seth reads the note again, even more deliberately. Then a third time. He takes another sip, cradling his chin between left thumb and forefinger.
Reading it once more, appreciating the beauty of the words but still clueless as to their meaning, Seth searches for answers, line by line.
Why “Sylvan”? Why the capital S ? Why compare me to a forest?
Why the negativity? (Papa Sol was generally so upbeat.) “Ditties of no tone”?
Was Papa Sol very sick, without anyone’s knowing it? Stranded on a desert island?
He always lived in a city—New York, San Francisco, Boston. So why the reference to the “little town”? Did he ever spend time in one?
Legacy? In the Attic? Gotta go look in Grandma’s attic in the morning…
“All you need to know”? Why the throwaway line?
“After the ball”?
Papa Sol used to fall asleep in his favorite easy chair, holding some volume of poetry or another against his chest, Seth recalls. True, he was in fact a poet, in the way he lived life and in his carpentry. Used to call himself “the Bard of Wood.” Maybe that explains the form of the note. But why such dense poetic language? Why the secrecy? Did Papa Sol, as he often used to do, want to push me to the limit, to egg me on, to encourage me to figure things out for myself, to struggle through difficulty in order to attain goals? Per aspera ad astra, Papa Sol used to spout. “To the stars through adversity.”
Sol’s note also awakens within Seth the cherished memory of those challenging word games his grandfather used to play with him and that he grew to love: poetry writing, puzzles, etymological searches, secret codes, palindromes and anagrams, linguistic brainteasers.
An ache fills Seth’s head, a dull pounding, the relentless hammer in the old Anacin commercial. Conflicting feelings of resentment at Sol’s disappearance and love for his lost mentor swirl around and through his cerebral creases.
But back to the note. Reminds him of the Latin passages he used to have to translate in high school, from Vergil or Ovid perhaps, the sense of which always seemed obfuscated at first, by the strangeness of the words and the weird syntax. But he always managed to figure out the meaning, by dint of perseverance and the use of both his left and right brains.
Seth is feeling bone weary, the Balvenie is beginning to take effect, his desire to decode Papa Sol’s cryptic note is being trumped by his curiosity to discover the contents of the package.
Gingerly, he opens the brown paper wrapping.
Emerging from it, like Venus rising from the sea foam and every bit as lovely, is a square wooden box.
Seth caresses its sensuous surface with his fingertips, as if the wood were the soft, warm belly of Aphrodite herself. The box is dark brown, probably some kind of oak, perhaps mahogany. It is, beyond a doubt, a Solomon Stein. You could always recognize one by its intricate floral patterns and by the distinctive delicacy of the craftsmanship.
The image of Papa Sol’s hands appears before Seth’s eyes. With most people, you tend to remember a facial characteristic—hair or eyes or nose or lips or smile, maybe a subtle physical deformity. With Sol, it was the hands. They always reminded Seth of the hands of Michelangelo’s David. Powerful and slightly too large for his body, yet delicate and expressive. Strange, Seth never actually saw his grandfather in the act of chiseling or gouging or filing. One of Sol’s peculiar idiosyncrasies. But he could imagine how those mighty hands were capable of fashioning delicate objects of such extraordinary splendor.
Superseding Sol’s hands is the vision of a statue of the lovely Pandora—the one from the Greek mythology book Papa Sol used to read to him—clad in toga and sandals, and holding in her hands, chest high, her infamous box.
What would Sol’s box unleash?
The moment has arrived, and Seth opens the wooden box with caution. The hinged top concludes its 180-degree backward trajectory, revealing a round pale yellow leather object, nestled in its custom-made, green-felt niche. It is a baseball.
Happily, Seth has a drink nearby.
He takes a languorous sip of Balvenie, considers the ball. Why did Sol leave him a baseball? Why this particular one? Did the note have anything to do with it? The P.S.?
He scours the ball for clues. First thing he notices is the stamped writing, faded and barely legible:
Ford C. Frick Pres.
Then, under the crimson herringbone stitching:
THE CUSHIONED CORK CENT
The letters that are missing at the end of these last three lines—which he assumes to be “ER,” “ADA,” and “NG”—have become part of a palimpsest, as they are obscured by a nasty one-inch-long, one-half-inch-thick blackish scuff mark, draped horizontally across the surface of the baseball, the ball’s personal badge of honor spreading itself out like some proud eye patch announcing, “I have suffered.” The scuff mark, Seth presumes, is the result of violent contact with a bat. Very violent, he deduces, as on closer inspection, he observes a number of tiny shreds of leather that have grafted themselves onto the ebony laceration, like scar tissue coalescing to cover over a wound.
The ball looks to be pure horsehide, but to be certain of its authenticity, he counts the stitches. Yep, 108 of those red beauties, consistent with MLB standards.
Okay, so Papa Sol obtained a ball that was hit very hard at a National League game. He must’ve gotten more than a few in his time, so why leave me this one?
He has seen hundreds of baseballs, no, probably thousands, up close. Balls Sol and he had had catches with, balls Sol had hit fungo to him with, balls he’d hit and pitched and fielded with his pals in Little League, balls he’d seen during BP at Candlestick and Fenway. But this one seems special, for some reason, and not just because it was left to him by Papa Sol. Just something about it.
Seth puts on his historian’s Sherlock Holmes cap and invokes his encyclopedic reservoir of baseball knowledge. Let’s see, Ford Frick was president of the NL from…1935 to 1951, during which he became commissioner of Major League Baseball and ceded his NL presidency to…Warren Giles. Ergo, Papa Sol had to have been between the ages of seven and twenty-three (he was born in 1928) when he somehow acquired the hard-hit baseball at some National League game.
Okay, so exactly where and when and how did he acquire it?
Seth is stuck, unable to deduce anymore. From the trying day, the Balvenie, and now this.
He finishes his drink, sucks an ice cube into his mouth, chomps on it, takes another gander at the ball. So much to absorb. First the note, then the ball. What does it all mean? How Papa Sol loved baseball! How he passed on his passion to me! Papa Sol, I miss you! So why the hell did you leave this ball for me?
Seth touches the ball for the first time, rotates it with his fingertips, allows it to settle in his palm, and the room begins to spin, nearly imperceptibly at first. Is it the Balvenie? He looks even more intently at the ball, as though by staring it down, he could somehow unlock the secret it holds, could listen to what Sol is trying to tell him from some different, distant place and time.
The spinning accelerates. Can’t be the Balvenie. Only had one.
What is this, a dream? A nightmare? A hallucination? A tale straight out of Poe? H. G. Wells? Kafka?
Faster and faster the room turns, clockwise. Seth takes a deep, self-preserving ujjai breath, tries to hang on. Sheesh. Am I having a stroke? Another coronary infarction?
He takes his pulse, it seems normal. Phew.
The rotation of the spinning tightens, narrows, and Seth feels like he is going down—could it be?—the rabbit hole. Curiouser and curiouser.
No, it is more like being in the eye of a tornado: calm inside, swirling outside. He hears a strain of music within the turbulent vortex, the same music that is playing while Dorothy is being transported via tornado to Oz. Dah-de-lah-de-lah. But he didn’t get bumped on the head, like Dorothy did. And he didn’t munch on a madeleine infused in linden tea, either, like Marcel in Proust’s opus. So what was the genesis of this upheaval?
Could it be…Papa Sol’s baseball?
In the midst of the chaos, Seth is no longer feeling panic, but a sudden calm. The calm after the storm.
Another musical riff starts up, this time, yes, it’s from the Beatles’ tour de force “A Day in the Life.” He knows the song by heart, has studied its place in History. Even knows that this riff, the one that starts low and builds higher and higher and higher in intensity and volume and octaves, occurs twice during the song—between 1:54 and 2:16, then between 3:59 and 4:19.
As the music—itself sounding like a swirling twister—intensifies, building to a fever pitch, so accordingly does the maelstrom’s velocity, but oddly the calm inside, where Seth is, remains constant.
Without warning, all around the inside perimeter of the cylinder, rotating counterclockwise past Seth’s eyes one by one, like a spectacular, larger-than-life slide show, are people—figures from History!—and places, too, from the past.
Good God, there’s the invention of the wheel! And Hammurabi and his Code of Laws in Mesopotamia! And Stonehenge being built and King Tut being buried at Thebes and Moses’ exodus from Egypt and Alexander the Great and the Great Wall of China and Jesus’ crucifixion…
First the panic, then the calm, now the ecstasy. Seth is beside himself with joy: He’s not sure what’s going on, or why, or why him, but surrounded by History itself, he is filled with an inebriating sensation he’s never known.
There’s Mohammed with the Koran and William the Conqueror at Hastings and the signing of the Magna Carta and Genghis Khan invading China and Columbus setting out on his voyage and Michelangelo on his Sistine scaffold and Martin Luther at Wittenberg and Galileo with his telescope and the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock and Louis XIV at Versailles and Ben Franklin with his bifocals and the signing of the Declaration of Independence…
It dawns on him that these people and places from History are appearing in chronological order. From the beginning of a human presence on earth to, well, there’s Napoleon at Waterloo, so the tour is at least taking him up to 1815.
Nope, even further. There’s Edison with his bulb and Bell with his phone and the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk…
The Beatles’ riff is about to conclude orgasmically in its final burst of a chord.
…and Chancellor Hitler speechifying and the crumbling battleships at Pearl Harbor and the atomic bomb mushrooming at Hiroshima and Gandhi’s assassination…
And the music intensifies even more, almost unbearably now, then ends abruptly, in that rousing, raucous, brash, clashing, strident, high-pitched, piercing, trumpety climax. And the tornado decelerates and grinds to a halt. And Seth is deposited gently on the ground. And he looks around, gawking, his jaw dropped in disbelief.
It is no longer 2006.
Chapter 2: “Miracle?”
At the other end of the dissolve, Seth Stein sits on a stiff, narrow green wooden seat. He rubs his eyes again, begins to regain his focus. All around him is still hazy but becoming clearer by the second. Now he can see much better. There.
Picture Sylvester the Cat in love. Picture that cartoon heart of his beating four feet out of his chest, that swollen, pulsating, vermilion heart, umbilically connected to his body and miraculously suspended in midair, ba-booming like a kettle drum for the newfound object of his feline affection. Such is the manic fibrillation of Seth’s coronary muscle.
His head, to the contrary, is executing a very steady, very controlled, very slow, very wide shot, all in one take, panning from left to right and covering the entire 180 degrees of which his neck is capable. At each juncture of the pan, his brain registers data he is witnessing for the first time but that he knows intimately nonetheless, gleaned from a wondrous fairy tale Papa Sol had recited to him, in exquisite detail and with frightful frequency, over the years.
There’s the left-field bull pen just below…the 447-foot sign in left-center…the nook in dead center, an unthinkable 485 feet away from home plate, and the two bleacher sections and the clubhouse building in between and the Chesterfield sign, yes, with the words ALWAYS BUY CHESTERFIELD and, above them, A HIT! inside a smoke ring coming from the end of a cigarette and the square Longines clock with the flagpole above…the 440-foot sign in right-center…the two-tiered grandstands in right…the pack of Chesterfields and the scoreboard and the 258-foot sign at the right-field line…all that space in foul territory…the huge horseshoe-shaped stands behind home plate…the pack of Chesterfields and the scoreboard and the 279-foot sign at the left-field line… the two-tiered grandstands in left…
Here sits Seth, on a green wooden seat in the upper deck of the left-field grandstands, above the visiting bull pen in the Mecca of New York Giants baseball fans and Papa Sol’s beloved rooting home field. The old bathtub, the odd-shaped horseshoe, the rickety, asymmetrical, funky, weirdly constructed object of Jints fans’ adoration. Between Coogan’s Bluff and the Harlem River, at 155th Street and Eighth Avenue, in the Bronx, New York. Where the fans sit far away from the action, the bull pens are in play, foul territory is too voluminous, the foul lines are too near, and center field too far. “The Parthenon it ain’t,” Papa Sol used to say.
The Polo Grounds!
So far, this panorama has accounted for 179 degrees of the pan. At degree number 180, the head stops. The final frame of the shot, now an extreme close-up, captures the spectator sitting next to Seth in the stands, in the seat to his immediate right.
It is Papa Sol.
Seth’s eyes are glued to twenty-three-year-old Solomon Stein, whose eyes are glued to the playing field.
“I love you, Papa Sol,” he blurts, touching his grandfather on the shoulder, squeezing it, hoping that this time, somehow, Sol might hear and see and feel him.
Seth is letting it sink in, every morsel of it, including, now, his Papa Sol by his side. On Sol’s lap is today’s unopened paper, a New York Herald Tribune. The date underneath the masthead catches Seth’s eye: October 3, 1951.
October 3, 1951. A date drilled into him by fanatical New York Giants baseball fan Solomon Stein. Seth knows the date by heart, like the back of his hand. Knows it like he knows October 19, 1973, the day he was born. Like he knows June 10, 2003, the day he first laid eyes on his darling Kate. Like he knows July 4, 1776, and December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001, and all those other crucial dates embedded in the library stacks of his brain.
October 3, 1951. One of the immutable, indelible days in American history. A day of great moment, the day of the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff, of the Shot Heard ’Round the World, of the Giants’ miracle comeback and last-ditch victory over the Dodgers, of the Ultimate Game in the ultimate game of the ’51 pennant playoffs, of the great Russ Hodges, announcing on the radio, hoarsely propelling, in a four-part, four-gun salute to triumph and destiny, the unforgettable “The Giants Win the Pennant!” into the all-time annals of our National Pastime and our Historical Consciousness.
Now that Seth thinks of it, he has never personally witnessed a real, live historical event, not until now. And this one’s a doozy. He’s only heard about this game, boy, has he heard about it.
And now he’s here.
How many times had Papa Sol, his own personal baseball mentor, recounted to him this made-for-Hollywood movie, in CinemaScope and Technicolor? Told him about how significant this game was, about the bitter Giants-Dodgers rivalry, about Leo the Lip leaving the hated Dodgers in ’48 to replace the Giants’ beloved skip Mel Ott, about the nail-biting, gut-wrenching ’51 pennant race between these two teams from the same city who despised each other, about Leo bringing Willie Mays up from Minny and sticking with the green rookie despite his 1-for-27 start and switching Irvin and Lockman in left field and first base and switching Thomson from center to third when Willie joined the club, about the Giants being behind the Dodgers by a laughable thirteen and a half games on August 11 with a mere forty-four to play and then winning sixteen in a row and thirty-seven of their final forty-four and catching the Dodgers with one to play and then, to force a playoff, the Dodgers themselves had to come from behind 6-1 against the Phillies on the last day of the season (Robby’s homer off Robin Roberts winning it in the fourteenth), about Bobby Thomson homering off Ralph Branca to win the first playoff game 3-1 and the Jints getting drubbed in the second 10-0 and the glorious, magnificent rubber game…
And then there’s all the trivia Papa Sol had spoon-fed to him concerning the ninth inning of the final game: Hartung pinch-running for Mueller, Mays being on deck when Bobby hit the big one, Lou Jorda umping behind the plate…
Seth glances at the big scoreboard to his right:
Bottom of the seventh. Seth knows all the numbers by heart and fills in the final two and a half innings in his mind’s eye:
No suspense for him, no emotional buildup. No matter, either, because he is here.
Seth Stein sits pensively in his little green wooden seat, next to his Papa Sol, on this particular October afternoon, and it is just sinking in. Here he is, watching not a baseball game, but a classic. He is watching it not as a spectator, but as a historian. For this is History, pure and simple. He knows it, knows it in his bones, in his gut. Knows how fortunate he is to be here, seeing the greatest, most important game in the history of American, no, of international sports, of all time, and to be not just seeing it, but to be seeing it in retrospect, in perspective, and in progress, all at once.
He smiles as he thinks of the old sports apothegm “Hindsight is twenty-twenty.” Because he knows that of all the people in this stadium today, he alone can see clearly into the past, and indeed, in this bottom of the seventh inning, into the future. Because he knows that he is the only human being here, including the 34,320 paid spectators, who has the ability to predict the outcome of this game. Because he knows that through all the ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, the hope and despair, the rallying and falling behind, the silences and roars, the suspended breathing and exhalations of relief, the cheering and jeering, he is the only one here today capable of seeing it all as History.
It’s almost enough to make you feel giddy.
The fans are finishing their seventh-inning stretches, hunkering back down to the deadly serious business of rooting, and here come the Dodgers spilling onto the field. They leap out of the visitors’ dugout, all but their tiring fireballer, Don Newcombe, who trudges. They are facing Seth, all nine of them, exposing to him the fronts of their uniforms with the word DODGERS emblazoned on their chests, blue script letters on a gray background, letters only, before they started putting the numbers in red just below. But Seth doesn’t need crib notes or a program: He knows all the numbers by heart. There’s Billy Cox 3 and Pee Wee Reese 1 and Jackie Robinson 42 and Gil Hodges 14, around the horn in the infield. And in the outfield, there’s Andy Pafko 22 (he’ll become 48 next year, but no matter) and Duke Snider 4 and Carl Furillo 6, left to right. And here comes the battery, Newk 36 and Roy Campanella 39, nope, that’s right, Campy’s hurt today, so it’s Rube Walker 10.
Seth is struck by the whiteness of the players, noting that there are only two African Americans on the Dodgers’ starting nine. Two. Newcombe and Robinson, that’s it. Well, Campy usually catches, but when Newk’s not on the mound, it’d still be two. Matter of fact, now that he thinks of it, the Giants also have only two black starters, Mays and Irvin. How long it took baseball to become an equal opportunity employer. But how long it took all of society to get with the program. After all, it’s only 1951, and America isn’t color-blind and has yet to see the likes of Chuck Berry and Rosa Parks and Althea Gibson and Malcolm X and MLK.
Hodges is tossing grounders to his infielders, and in the outfield they’re playing catch, and Big Newk is, almost against his will, taking his eight warm-up pitches.
Seth pans around the ballpark again and drinks it all in, a bee sucking pollen from a jasmine tree. He can feel the zeitgeist: the spirit, the vibration, the nervousness not just of a crowd of people, but of an entire era. All the battle-weary, Commie-fearing, suspicious uptightness of postwar America, of Korean War America, of an America consumed by the rantings of Joe McCarthy the madman and a president in disfavor and the Rosenbergs sentenced to die for espionage and the Russian nuclear test on September 24, a mere nine days ago. By osmosis and instinct, he can feel the collective weltschmerz of it all, the paranoia and the fear.
He can feel all this, feel it in the marrow of his historian’s bones. Can feel an America searching for heroes in these dire times. They are not finding one in their president, Harry S., the simple man from the Show-Me State who’s an honest, direct, no bullshit kinda guy, the hero and savior of the Big War for dropping the Big One. But now Truman’s in disfavor, what with firing poor old MacArthur, the seventy-one-year-old five-star general, and backing down from McCarthy and now the calls for impeachment and all. And so these fans, every one of them, are looking for someone else to uplift them and give them a reason to cheer, and it sure won’t be Florence Chadwick, who just swam the English Channel to France in an incredible sixteen hours twenty-two minutes, because she’s a woman, don’t you know, and it’s a little too early for that, and Seth alone knows who, today, that hero will be. And he is feeling it all now and tasting History happening and savoring it and smelling it and seeing it unfold before his very eyes and knowing that being here is, well, a whole different ball game.
Chapter 3: “Inches”
It is 1962.
Seth knows it is, because he is in a kitchen on one of whose walls hangs an Official 1962 San Francisco Giants Calendar. The exposed page features a color photo of Giants manager Alvin Dark sporting a stupid-ass grin, his arm around the waist of one of his star pitchers, Juan Marichal. On the bottom half of the page is the month of October.
Alone in the immaculate kitchen, Seth also knows that he is in Sol and Elsie’s Berkeley home, the one they moved into in ’58 to be with the Giants, the one he moved into in ’76 to be with them.
He instantly recognizes this room where he spent so many magical hours during his formative years. And the homey, old-fashioned look, rather spiffy in its time: pink stove, pastel blue cabinets, pine paneling, Formica counters, turquoise electric skillet, manual juicer, venetian blinds.
He crosses the kitchen to the bay window, peers out.
Seth recollects how breathtaking the view was, and still is. He’s way up in the hills, the sky is clear and black and gorgeous. He gazes out at the glorious San Francisco Bay, first at Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge, then pans counterclockwise, to the twinkling lights of the city, and there’s Coit Tower and the Bay Bridge and, to his immediate left, the UC Berkeley campus with the Campanile—
“Goddam Jints!” Solomon Stein spews from an adjacent room.
“Sweetie, it’s just a game,” Elsie says, in a lame effort to console.
With no caution, Seth leaves the kitchen, confident in the knowledge that he is once again invisible and inaudible.
In the living room, he sees thirty-four-year-old Papa Sol, thirty-three-year-old Grandma Elfie, and the devilishly handsome fourteen-year-old barefoot lad with the long mop, that must be…
In the background, a stereo system receiver plays a Del Shannon LP.
Papa Sol has sprouted a beard since Seth’s visit to the younger version of the carpenter, but the eleven years between visits have treated his grandfather kindly. Not a trace of gray, not an ounce heavier, not a wrinkle on his face.
“Just a game? Maybe for you, Else, but the Jints and I, we go back a long ways.”
“You tell ’er, Pop,” Seth’s father goads. The lad is wearing a Willie Mays T-shirt, a black Giants baseball cap with orange interlocking SF on the front, and frayed jeans with impressive holes on each knee.
“Goddam Giants,” Sol grumbles. “It’s the World Series, against the Yanks, two games apiece, the big fifth game, tied 2-2 into the eighth, Jack Sanford’s pitching for us, he’s gone seven and a third with ten Ks, just sailing along, and pitching against Ralph Terry, who’s oh-for-four lifetime in Series decisions. And what does ol’ Jack do? Throws a gopher ball, a three-run job, to Tommy Tresh, a damn rookie! So now we’re down in the Series 3-2, in a hole. Goddam Giants! Damn Yankees!”
“I know, honey pie,” Elsie consoles. “But think of it this way. Look at what this country is going through now, what with the Cold War and all that racial trouble. And you’re worrying about the Giants losing a ball game?”
Del Shannon is singing “Runaway,” and Seth is feeling like one. Like he has run away from home to visit a strange, faraway land. The strangest part of which is the vision, right here and right now in this Berkeley living room, of the father he barely remembers, the dad he never got to know, the pop he never had the chance to bond with. Seth can’t take his eyes off this fourteen-year-old kid of whose loins he is the product, this adolescent who gave him life, started him off in the right direction, and then was snuffed out just like that by a goddam faulty airplane engine, robbing him of the joy of seeing his only child grow up and flourish.
An exquisite shiver, starting from Seth’s nape, traverses the length of his spine and doesn’t stop until it reaches the tips of all ten toes.
Simon Stein is seated in his rocking chair, facing Papa Sol on the couch.
“Okay, Simaroo, you ready?”
Sol’s son nods.
“Okay then, here goes…”
Solomon Stein looks at Seth’s father intently, and the tension builds through his silence. And then: “Chuck!”
Simon leaps forward out of his chair, propelled by passion. He assumes Chuck Hiller’s compressed stance in the batter’s box and then, with his imaginary bat, pretends to lay down a perfect drag bunt. Then back to his chair to await further instructions.
“Orlando!” Sol barks.
The fourteen-year-old lunges forward, coils up as Orlando Cepeda would, and explodes into the first sacker’s powerful swing, eyes gleaming with ferocity. Then back to his chair.
Seth’s mouth is crowbarred open by the thrill of seeing his dad perform this baseball pantomime, the same family tradition Sol continued with Seth during his formative and adolescent years.
Grandma Elfie beams in the background.
The pace quickens, Papa Sol’s rapid-fire commands propelling Simon Stein out of his chair and into a succession of baseball silent movie clips, then back again to the chair.
Simon crouches in Tom Haller’s catching position.
Simon mimics Willie McCovey’s august and imposing left-handed batter’s stance.
“No, the other Willie!”
Simon giggles, then, his back to Sol, reproduces to perfection Willie Mays’s miracle, behind-the-back catch against Vic Wertz in the ’54 Series vs. Cleveland.
Seth is taking all this History in, his fond memories of the same madcap exercise he used to perform for Papa Sol reconstituting themselves. The parallel between him and Simon Stein fills his heart as he watches the father he never knew sharing the same passion for baseball he knows so well.
Jim Davenport leaps to snare a ball at the hot corner.
Shortstop Pagan ranges to his right, backhands a grounder deep in the hole, throws to Cepeda for the out.
Righty pitcher Sanford delivers a corker.
Lefty pitcher O’Dell (or Pierce, take your pick) paints the corner.
Seth can’t help himself and joins in on the action, his invisible body shadowing Simon’s physical one from behind, his movements replicating those of his father, as if the two were performing some weird baseball version of that virtuoso dance number between Gene Kelly and Jerry the Mouse in the 1945 film Anchors Aweigh.
Two Juan Marichals show off their famous high leg kicks.
A pair of Don Larsens execute their no-windup deliveries.
Stu Miller and his twin brother are blown off the mound.
Sol gives up, Elsie breaks up, Simon cracks up, Seth wells up.
Del Shannon is singing “Hats Off to Larry” on the stereo. Sol perks up, picks up his cap from the couch, winks at his son, and he and Simon do a vaudeville shtick Sol has concocted, a spirited dance step featuring the removal and violent shaking of their Giants caps. Chortling hysterically, the two hoofers disappear into the kitchen.
The same routine he used to do with me, Seth thinks, his face flushed.
When father and son return to the living room, Sol has something important to impart.
“Now, Simaroo, I want to talk to you about hatred.”
“Elsie,” Sol says, with a sweet sternness. “The boy needs to hear this.”
A winking Papa Sol speaks in his familiar loving, mock-serious voice.
“Well, son, you know I would never teach you to hate another human being, right?”
“’Course not, Dad,” Simon says.
“And you know that there’s a strict rule around this house: ‘Love thy neighbor.’ Right?”
“Right!” Simon agrees, winking at his mom.
“Well, Simaroo, that’s still the rule, but every rule has an exception, and I’m gonna tell you right now what that exception is.”
“And what might that be?” Simon, playing along, asks with mock innocence.
“The exception to ‘Love thy neighbor’ is…It’s okay to hate the Yankees! ”
Simon smiles, but not quite as broadly as his son.
“Now, let me make it perfectly clear that this is altogether different from hating a single person, which is not a good thing. On the contrary, this is about hating a team, the baddest, awfulest, terriblest, disgustingest team that ever lived. It’s about hating a team that has tortured, taunted, teased, and tormented our beloved Giants for lo these many years. Why, they beat us in the last four World Series they played us, in ’23, ’36, ’37, and ’51. And the one in ’23 was the very first of the nineteen they’ve won. The last time we beat them was all the way back in ’22, which was forty years ago! Even the Dodgers (we hate them, too!) beat those Yanks in the ’55 Series, just to rub our noses in it. And now, we’re playing those hated Yankees again in the Series, and they’re up three games to two and we simply cannot allow them to beat us again!”
Papa Sol is spent from his mock vituperation but continues on, requiring an exclamation point to terminate his little fatherly diatribe.
“So, Simon, my son, repeat after me: ‘I hate the Yankees, I hate the Yankees….’”
Simon joins in the chorus, in this baseball rite of passage, and is officially endoctrinated into the OSYHAA, the Official Stein Yankee-Hating Association of America.