More than any other of the games that command the attention of the dedicated sports fan, baseball is a game of memory.
Memories of dads playing catch with kids, the mental image of walking up a ball park ramp for the first or the hundredth time and taking in the sight and smell of the green field, the endless records that record the history and detail of thousands of contests – all are a part of the individual recollections of so many hours spent in the magical spell of the great game.
No matter how long you play, watch, read about or reflect on baseball, you will never have it mastered. You can never exhaust the infinite prospect that you will find and enjoy something fresh and new.
Today, I know, I’ll find something fresh and new in the oldest and maybe the sweetest ballpark currently in use in the Cactus League, Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The home Oakland A’s entertain the boys of spring from Seattle this afternoon and for me it will be the unofficial start of another sweet season of memory. You can’t go to a ballpark without remembering. In a way, it may be the best part of baseball.
My baseball mentor, my dad, established this spring-time ritual of baseball memory. About this time every year he would start to recall: Mickey Cochrane, his favorite, the great A’s and Tigers catcher; Connie Mack, the manager who wore a suit and tie in the dugout; Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, Dizzy and Daffy, and Mickey Owen’s tragically dropped third strike.
Growing up in western Nebraska, I’m sure my dad never set foot in the old ballpark in Brooklyn, but it came home to him nevertheless in a hundred scratchy and distant radio broadcasts. He didn’t have to physically be there to know the place and I know the feeling.
I never saw the great Duke Snider play – he died a few days ago at 84 – but after reading the memories of his Dodger teammate, pitcher Ralph Branca, I can almost see him roaming center field in old and long gone Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Branca’s memories are the memories of a baseball fan.
As a general rule this Giants fan doesn’t waste much baseball admiration on a Dodger, but I make an exception for that old Brooklyn bunch – Campanella, Reese, Erskine, Hodges, Robinson and, of course, the Duke of Flatbush. They were something special. They live in our baseball memories.
Branca offered a warm and wonderful tribute to his old teammate over the weekend and it was all about memory.
“I still see Duke as a young man,” Branca wrote in the New York Times, “I see him out there in center field, racing past the ads for Van Heusen shirts and Gem razors, while executing a brilliant running catch. I see him at the plate, crushing Robin Roberts’s fastball and sending it soaring high over that crazy right-field wall at Ebbets Field. I see him rounding the bases. I see him smiling. I feel the joy of his sweet, happy soul.”
There may be no crying in baseball, but there is poetry in the memories. Great humor, too.
Greg Goossen, who also died recently, inspired a great deal of humor during his lackluster and memorable baseball career. In his too-short but very full life, the one-time catcher also promoted big-time boxing, did a stint as a private detective and served as Gene Hackman’s movie stand-in. Goossen, in what must be close to a record, if not a guaranteed laugh line, played for 37 different teams in the minor, Mexican and Major Leagues.
Goossen remarkably lead the team in hitting during the one season of the short-lived Seattle Pilots and told an interviewer he would have played his whole career in Seattle. Teammate Tommy Davis, himself well-traveled, piped up with, “You did!”
Goossen figured prominently in Jim Bouton’s baseball classic Ball Four where Bouton recounted that he and Goossen once played against each other in an International League game. Goossen was behind the plate when a hitter rolled a bunt back toward the pitcher. “First base, first base,” Goossen yelled. Ignoring those instructions the pitcher wheeled and threw to second with all runners safe.
Goossen, ticked that his simple directions had been ignored, moved back behind the plate while Bouton yelled from the opposing team dugout, “Goose, he had to consider the source.”
The Duke and the Goose, Branca and Bouton and all the rest will be there at Phoenix Muni today. That’s the way this game is played with balls and strikes, hits and ground outs…and memories. It’ll be great.