The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “1970’s”

Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus

A typical street scene in Bridgeport

Image via Wikipedia

In the past, I’ve written posts about growing up playing baseball in the summers of the ‘70’s, and how a certain so-called Beanhead was our arch-nemesis.  I’ve also written about the neighborhood girls who used to tag along, encouraging our immature, dormant hormones to gradually, awkwardly emerge.

But I haven’t yet mentioned Jabbar.

Jabbar, like his more famous basketball contemporary, Kareem-Abdul, was a tall black man involved in athletics.  But our Jabbar was not a player; he was an organizer.

I can’t quite recall how I first encountered this scruffy, bearded (like Walt Chamberlain) gentleman.  But in my mind’s eye I can visualize him, wooden bat in hand, leading a motley parade of boys down the sidewalk along Maplewood Avenue in the slanted September sunshine.

He was always talking, chattering, cajoling, encouraging.  His long legs loped along, pausing periodically, allowing the youthful throng to keep pace.

This puzzling spectacle usually appeared after school, once the boys – black, white, and Hispanic – had a chance to go home, throw their schoolbooks on the kitchen table, and grab their baseball gear.

Without any recollection as to how I ended up being recruited, I soon found myself tagging along near the end of the sweaty procession, pausing only at stop signs and street lights, heading God knew where.

Invariably, Jabbar had already located a field for us to play on.  Sometimes, these fields, unkempt and ill-used, were over on the other side of town.  If Jabbar had abandoned us there, I am quite sure I would have been clueless as to how to find my way home.

But they were actual baseball fields, not just convenient, empty lots.  This was a relative luxury which we had seldom enjoyed in the past.

I was our primary first-baseman.  In fact, I might have been the only thirteen-year old in Bridgeport with an actual first baseman’s mitt, a right-handed glove I still have to this day.

Jabbar always called me “Millahhh,” in something approaching an Economy-class Jamaican lilt.

“Millahhh, go ‘ead an ‘old de runnahhh!” he would call to me authoritatively.  I had little idea what he meant, so I would shuffle my feet back and forth, set my jaw in anticipation of the next play, and hope I wasn’t screwing up too badly.

I never thought of him as our coach, exactly.  In fact, to this day, I have no idea who the hell he was, where he came from, or who was paying him, if anyone.  He was more of an oversized black muse, calling us out to learn to appreciate God’s greatest game.

One late afternoon, spurned homework abandoned indefinitely on a plastic table-cloth, I smoked a triple down the third-base line.  I watched the ball skip along the foul-line, past the third baseman’s glove, out into a dark, distant corner.  I was going for three as soon as I left the batter’s box.

“Millahhh!  Go, Millahhh, GO!”

I reached third base standing up, two other base-runners safely crossing home plate ahead of me. Jabbar was already preoccupied with the next batter.

Here I was, standing on third base on a foreign corner of my dirty old town, feeling like all life required me to do now was to find my way home.

Yet no one I knew or cared about witnessed my fleeting moment of fame.  My little brother, not one to up and join random populist movements, must have stayed home.  Parents, well, I don’t know if my parents ever saw me play a single inning of ball my whole childhood.  Even my best friends, my usual sandlot gang, hadn’t joined this traveling baseball circus.

I was gradually becoming aware, however, of a strange, new feeling; I could revel in a moment like this without requiring the validation of others, even Jabbar. It was a liberating feeling, yet redolent with mystery, like childhood cousins surreptitiously stealing a kiss on a sofa during a sudden summer shower.

I know the ending to this story, and you do, too.  I grew up, leaving my baseball dreams scattered all over Bridgeport’s hard parking lots and filthy fields.

Jabbar was gone.  No one I knew so much as mentioned the sudden disappearance of our personal pied piper.  I don’t recall ever, in the rapture of my youth, stopping to consider what those fleeting moments meant to me, moments stoked in the coal-fire of an enigmatic black man’s burning heart.

I know now.

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 13 – The Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles, at their best, have always been a franchise of blue-collar guys who earn their money.  Never a town of glitz and glamor, it is also a town, though, that has produced its share of characters.

John Waters, perhaps the strangest American film-maker of all time, hails from Baltimore.  Edgar Allen Poe also called Baltimore home while penning some of the most memorable horror tales ever told.

Babe Ruth, of course, was also born and raised in Baltimore, where he got his socio-economic start working in his father’s saloon.

It is hard to imagine Ruth ever having become a star playing in Baltimore.  Boston was a better place for him to ply his trade while his personality and huge appetite for life evolved into gargantuan proportions until only New York could (barely) contain him.

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, though, the Orioles were the American League’s version of Baseball Team as Foundry, producing from a rock-solid work ethic amidst the rough, industrial backdrop that was Baltimore, a series of competitive teams that seemingly always challenged for a title.

In most regards, 1976 was a typical Baltimore Orioles season.  They finished in second place in the competitive A.L. East to the New York Yankees with a solid 88-74 record.  Their defense was, as always, outstanding.  Jim Palmer was their ace.  Brooks Robinson, though clearly near the end of his career, was mentoring a young Doug DeCinces at third base.

Meanwhile, their assembly line lineup included no-nonsense types such as Lee May, Ken Singleton, Paul Blair, Bobby Grich, and… Reggie Jackson.

Did he say Reggie Jackson?

Yes, that Reggie Jackson.

Virtually all of you will remember Reggie as Mr. October while playing for the Yankees in the late ’70’s, or, if you go back a little further, as the cocky young black man on a team composed primarily of strange, mustachioed white guys.  In his last years, he was still piling up Hall of Fame numbers, mostly as a DH for the Angels.

But for one season, 1976, Reggie Jackson was a working-class stiff plying his trade in Mr. Weaver’s factory better known as Memorial Stadium.

1976 was Reggie Jackson’s, of the Orioles, Best Forgotten Season.

At first glance, his statistics that season do not look necessarily all that impressive.  Certainly, he had a couple of better seasons in Oakland, and would surpass all expectations in his Yankee years.  But Reggie Jackson was a key cog in the ’76 Orioles swing-shift.

Reggie hit 27 home runs, which, although not an eye-popping number these days, was good for second place in the A.L. in 1976.  He also drove in 91 runs, despite missing about 25 games with injuries.

His .277 batting average was fairly typical for him, but he led the league in slugging percentage at .502.  His .853 OPS ranked third in the league, and his OPS+ of 155 was the best in the A.L.

Atypically for Reggie, he was also a heady, successful base-stealer that year, swiping 28 bases in just 35 attempts.  His Power-Speed Rating, as defined by Baseball-Reference.com, was 27.5, again the best in the league.

Reggie also finished in the top ten in WAR, RBI’s and Extra Base Hits, again, despite missing nearly a month due to injury.

Interestingly, although he played in 15 All Star Games in his career, he did not make the A.L. All Star Team in ’76, quite possibly one reason why he was anxious to leave Baltimore for New York City’s Broadway atmosphere.

Finally, Reggie even led A.L. right fielders in Range Factor at 2.29.

Still, despite all that productivity, he only finished 16th in A.L. MVP voting in ’76.

Worst of all, there was no Reggie Bar, no loudly cheering fans for whom to doff a cap, and no glamorous night-life to speak of.  Reggie paid his union dues, punched his time card, cleaned out his locker, and said his goodbyes to a city that, like Babe Ruth before him, just could not contain his personality indefinitely.

After the previous season, pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, who had played for one season without having signed a contract with their respective teams,  filed suit before a three-man committee protesting Baseball’s infamous Reserve Clause, a rule which bound a player to his team for as long as that team demanded his services.

In a historic decision, the panel, voted, 2-1 to overturn the Reserve Clause, thereby creating the forerunner of baseball’s current free-agent system.

The Yankees signed free agent Reggie Jackson for a salary in excess of three million dollars.

In 1977, minus Reggie Jackson, the Orioles would improve their record to 97-64, but would again finish in second place to the New York Yankees, Reggie Jackson’s New York Yankees.

Reggie Jackson would become a very wealthy, famous man due to his success in New York City.

But in 1976 at least, Reggie Jackson labored in a working class American city called Baltimore.

Beanhead, and the Sandlot Kids

Home base of baseball field in Třebíč, Czech R...

Image via Wikipedia

Growing up in “The Park City,” Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1970’s, it was surprisingly difficult to actually find a park in which to play baseball.

Sure, there were parks around.  And if you wanted  a hooker, drugs, or a gay encounter in a bath-house, Bridgeport’s many parks offered all of this, and more.  If however, you were an eleven year old boy who just wanted to play some ball, well, good luck my friend.

Usually, the best we could do was an overgrown, abandoned field, or a lightly used parking lot.  One lot in particular, however, became our most consistently available playground.  We called it the Insurance Lot, effectively foreshadowing the dry, corporate major league ballpark names we would  come to despise two decades later.

No one knew why we called it The Insurance Lot, and I’m quite sure none of us ten to twelve-year-old kids could even explain to you just what insurance was, but once applied, the name stuck.

The lot, directly behind my friend Tony’s house, was paved and shaded by a couple of huge elm trees.  It was bordered by an eight foot high wooden fence in the back (home-plate and the backstop.)  A long, copper-wire fence interspersed with high scrub-grass and bushes on the right side represented the right field line, and a 1940’s era two-story wooden building painted red in the front was center field.

The small, fenced in property of an old bald man we kids called “Beanhead,” due to the strange shape of his skull and his olive skin-tone, was left field.  It was a very bad idea to hit the ball into left field.

A pitcher would stand a few feet from the middle of the lot and toss a hard, rubbery sphere on one hop towards home-plate.  When a player hit the ball, he might smoke it down the driveway along the wire fence leading out to Clinton Avenue for at least a double.

Or if he hit a line-drive to straight away center, it would bounce off the red house, and you would often end up with only a single.  If a kid hit it over the second floor windows, however, that was an automatic double.  A roof shot was an automatic homer, but it could also mean the end of the game if the ball got stuck up there somewhere.

An extreme right-handed pull-hitter, though, always faced the danger of depositing the ball into Beanhead’s backyard.

Beanhead, of course, was always home, just waiting for an opportunity to shake his bony fist at us and confiscate yet another baseball.  It was rumored that Beanhead had the largest collection of baseballs in all of southern New England.

We sometimes fantasized about kicking in his small basement window, dropping down into it with a few flashlights, and liberating a boatload of baseballs.  No one, of course, ever had the courage to even climb his fence.

As a result of the ever-present threat posed by Beanhead, most of us kids who hit from the right side of the plate learned to shorten-up our swings, and to angle our body away from that dangerous left field corner.

If the New York Mets ever decide to try to break Jason Bay of his dead-pull hitting tendencies, they might consider the tried and true Beanhead School of Hitting so that Bay could learn to use the whole field.

Eat your heart out, Charlie Lau.

One fine summer afternoon, going on about supper time, my little brother hit a long drive that one-hopped itself up…and over…Beanhead’s four-foot metal fence.  We all waited silently for the inevitable result.

Sure enough, Beanhead, spry old man that he was, came charging down his little back porch in his khaki pants and leather slippers, a gleam of triumph and a flash of anger battling for equal time on his pinched, green face.

In the late afternoon shadows, it seemed to me that his complexion appeared greener than usual, as if he was gradually morphing into an exotic vegetable.

Beanhead hesitated for a moment as he looked around at us, confident that we were all paying attention.  Then he slowly reached down and picked up the ball.  At that moment, my brother, already standing on first base, said something loud enough for all of us to hear.

“I hope he dies.”

Now, even by our de facto Lord of the Flies childhood philosophy of life, this qualified as one shocking statement.

I’m not sure that Beanhead heard it, but if he did, it was the last thing he ever heard any of us say.

We never saw Beanhead again.

About three weeks later, our friend Johnny’s dad told Johnny that Beanhead had died of cancer.  When Johnny told us this during one of our final games of the season, we all looked directly at my little brother.

“Holy smokes,” someone said, “you wished him dead and now he’s dead.”

With that, we broke off the conversation and resumed our game, still not sure how safe it would actually be to hit a ball into Beanhead’s yard.  Playing it safe, no one hit another ball into his yard for the remainder of the summer.

By the following summer, two of my friends had moved away to the suburbs, and our shrunken little group had suddenly outgrown the tiny little insurance lot.  Venturing out now all the way to Tunxis Hill in Fairfield, a thirty minute walk along Kings Highway, we had discovered what the rich kids already knew.  A couple of legitimate baseball diamonds existed, there for the taking.

We never again played in our old home ballpark, The Insurance Lot.  Like Ebbett’s Field, it exists now only in our collective memories.

I imagine, though, that whoever inherited the task of emptying out Beanhead’s basement, attic and closets must have been puzzled by the presence of so many balls of varying color and condition.

But who Beanhead really was, and why he did what he did, are part of the dark mysteries of childhood, a time when the adult world often collides unpleasantly with the uncluttered truth of youth.

A time when the sandlot kids just want to play some damn baseball.

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Gaga with neighborhood girls

Image by enda_001 via Flickr

During the decade of the 1970’s, parents were not yet in the habit of stalking their child’s every activity, video camera in hand.

By and large, our parents lived separate, mysterious lives.  We kids would run out of the house, screen doors slamming behind us, as soon as we’d finish eating breakfast, and we’d drag ourselves inside through the back door come dusk.

Of course, on weekdays there was school.  Ten months out of the year, we tolerated grown-ups teaching us many things we just knew with absolute certainty we’d never use again.  Things like long division, diagramming sentences, and that hideous book,  “Silas Marner.”

And weekends, our parents would occasionally drag us over to an elderly aunt’s house to drink grape juice while watching Mutual of Omaha’s, “Wild Kingdom.”

At that time, it was always clear that, even if you had a sister within our age group, she was, by definition, not invited to play directly with us boys.  We boys set the daily ad hoc agenda.  Girls could tag along at a safe distance if they had nothing better to do, but they were not to interfere with the serious business of baseball.

And, of course, except for the periodic war games we would play (Americans vs. Germans; Seventh Cavalry vs. Indians), we mostly played baseball.

It was rare that the six of us boys who formed the core of our neighborhood group did not have gloves, bats and a couple of baseballs with us wherever we ventured.  Finding an actual place to play usually comprised the most challenging part of our day.  There were no actual baseball parks or little league fields within several square blocks of us, so we would improvise a playground wherever we could, always without express written permission to do so.

Meanwhile, at a safe distance, someone’s little sister, or later, a trio of young Puerto Rican girls, would tail us throughout our wanderings.

I never once saw a girl in our age group actually put on a glove, or lift a bat in those days, even just to try it out.  If softball existed anywhere at all, it was probably in the distant and bizarre suburbs, where logical, discernible street patterns simply did not exist, and no one ever walked.

My slowly evolving interest in the opposite sex could be measured by the degree to which I noticed them in proportion to how far I was able to hit a baseball.  At first, as a seven or eight year old, when slamming a short line drive past the pitcher was all my thin frame could muster, I couldn’t tell you if a female was within shouting distance of our zip code or not.

By the time I was ten or eleven, I enjoyed the smiles and cheers of the girls as I pulled into third base after a bases-clearing triple over the U.P.S truck in what we considered to be right field.

At thirteen, I wanted to know their names, and where they lived.

Well, I kind of knew where they lived, the brown house on the corner of Maplewood and Howard Avenue.  But we’d never crossed that street before.  Everyone over there spoke Spanish, and there was simply no telling how a bunch of skinny white boys would be received, even if we were bold enough to venture onto their property.

Her name, as it turned out, was Ruth.

She was the middle sister of the Puerto Rican trio that used to follow us around Bridgeport.  In all the time she and her sisters trailed us, cheering for home runs, clapping and shouting when the ball skipped its way into an outfield gap, I never once spoke a word to her.  Not even a “See you later,” at the end of a satisfying but exhausting day, the sun a purple-red bruise over distant Stratford.

Then one day, as I was walking along with my gang to one of our favorite haunts, the empty (on Sundays) paved lot of a local insurance company, I was startled to notice that Ruth had fallen in beside me.  Her hands were thrust purposefully into her blue jeans pockets; her white blouse a direct assault on my immature male sensibilities.

She began speaking to me, and I immediately began to feel panic that one of my gang would make fun of me for having a “girlfriend.”  It just wasn’t something I was prepared to be tagged with, even if I really was flattered by her attention.

Ruth asked me a few questions at infrequent intervals about things like how long I’d been playing, what my favorite position was, and why we didn’t go find more kids to play with so we could have two full teams.

I kept my responses short and simple.  Better to show her who was boss.  Mostly, though, we walked side by side in silence.  I glanced over at her a couple of times, feigning interest at a passing car or a beat-up stop sign.  Inwardly, I felt something I’d never experienced before.

I felt validated.

I knew at that moment that although I was still a kid, the days of being primarily mom and dad’s child were rapidly being replaced by an overwhelming  desire to truly become my own person, my own man.

Ruth’s presence filled me out and gave me definition.  The clothes that I wore, the way I walked, my choice of words, now all seemed to come into much clearer focus to me.  They mattered.  I mattered.

The rest of that day is lost to me like the smoke of a birthday candle.

But just a few short weeks later, Ruth, her sisters, and her entire family were mysteriously, and without warning, gone.

Although as kids we weren’t supposed to learn of human tragedy when it hit close to home, the word on the streets was that Ruth’s younger sister had been found suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator, and that the cops suspected foul play.  Indeed, a little while later, a suspect, who it turned out was an adult male friend of the family, had been taken into custody.

The gang and I were suddenly alone, and I felt lonely.  Occasionally, as I stepped to the plate, wooden bat resting comfortably on my  right shoulder, I would steal a glance at the spot where Ruth and her sisters used to sit and watch us play.

At some point, I stopped looking for her, and went back to playing ball for myself, and for my gang.

For me, I’ve loved and followed baseball for over forty years now.  It’s been the one constant in my life that I’ve been able to depend on.

For Ruth and her sisters, all I can offer are these memories I now share with strangers I may never meet.

Thank you girls, once upon a time, for being our fans.

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