I was born in a small town in Kansas when Ike was President and the Brooklyn Dodgers were the baseball champions of the world. My dad enjoyed the ’55 Series because he loved underdogs, but especially because he hated the New York Yankees. The Yankees always seemed to win and to dominate the other teams in the American League, of which my dad was a fan. Specifically, he followed the fortunes of the Athletics, who often lost their best players to the Yankees. When I was old enough, he would take me and my three older brothers with him to watch twi-night or weekend double-headers at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, usually when the A’s were playing the dreaded team from the Bronx. I enjoyed the games so much, and being with my father in the crowd surrounded by smells of stale cigar smoke and beer, I never realized how bad a team the A’s really were. I never noticed that they were at the bottom of the standings year after year.
Nevertheless, I loved the A’s and everything about them, and often thought I would have died for them. I loved their red, white, and blue uniforms, and later their Kelly green and gold jumpers with white kangaroo leather shoes. I loved the pennant porch beyond the right field fence where sheep grazed and a battery of foghorns stood ready to announce home runs and show the way to rare Athletics’ victories in the gathering gloom. I loved the idiotic mule that served as the team’s mascot, the absurd sheep that grazed in right field, and the annoying mechanical rabbit that delivered fresh baseballs to the home plate umpire. Never mind that the audacious owner, Charles O. Finley, broke my heart when he moved the Athletics to California. It was because of the A’s–and my Uncle Henry–that I came to love the game of baseball.
On warm summer nights at home while it was still light I would tune my transistor radio to the ball game and grab my outfielder’s glove. Then I would listen to the crackling play-by-play while I bounced a golf ball, swiped from my brother’s leather bag, on the cement patio until it sailed high into the air so that I could attempt to catch it. Sometimes I tried to emulate what Monte Moore, voice of the Athletics, was describing. Usually I pretended I was making sometimes graceful, sometimes spectacular catches of fly balls to the delight of thousands of fans in a packed stadium. When my brother found out what I was doing he would complain to my mother and I would have to give the ball back. Sometimes he would even tease me for playing my silly game with the golf ball. When that happened, I was too embarrassed to defend myself by saying I was honing my baseball skills. I would remind myself that there was someone in my family I was sure would understand my mania for baseball. Uncle Henry was a living legend in the family because he had played minor league baseball. I was comforted by the knowledge that heunderstood, and he would never tease me about serious matters like baseball.
My family lived in a two-story farm house on forty acres just south of the city limits. Though our property was much larger than a typical lot, we lived on a street in a neighborhood in which the homes sat on smaller parcels of land with houses large enough to accommodate families with children. So I grew up with the best of both the city and country worlds: I had plenty of open space with woods, fields, and a creek that snaked through our land, but I also played with loads of kids my age who lived down the street. With my early love of baseball and my secret desire to become a major league player, it was only a matter of time until I realized that we had enough land to build a baseball field on which all the neighborhood kids could play. The time came between my fifth- and sixth-grade years… (to be continued?)