Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Let's Play Two
Now when I was a kid, baseball was different. I'm not ancient, so you'll be relieved to know there'll be no talk of stickball in a Brooklyn street or Ty Cobb's sharpened spikes. The players we admired on our playing cards are coaches now, not dead. And the playing cards we had were worthless, and the gum was precious, thank God, so we enjoyed them, and flipped them for Face up/Facedown on the bus seats on the way to school, or lined them up against the old brick wall in the playground and played Knockdown. And we gave shopping bags and shoe boxes filled with them to our cousins and younger brothers when we came of age, and laugh when we think of the fortune just one of those cards commands from memorabilia freaks now.
We did not have uniforms. We played with baseballs that looked much older than us, and cracked wooden bats with electrical tape holding them together, and had to mow the field before we could play on it. There were never enough of us, so we pitched to our own team members, and right field was an out. Period. And more often than not, right field went unmowed, too. We played in jeans and canvas sneakers, and a hole in the knee of your pants wasn't yet stylish, it was a calamity when you had to face your mother, who knew what they cost. And we played until we heard our mothers yell our names for the second time, like a town crier, and hurried home to a scolding for tarrying, and dinner.
All of that is gone now, like so many things, changed by time, and prosperity, and other things. Our mothers thought nothing of turning us out of doors at daylight in the summer, though we were but small, because forty years ago, someone who would hurt a child would have more problems in this world than registering at the police station, and paying their lawyers. And we mowed the grass ourselves, with a mower that shot gravel out the unbaffled chute at our confederates, and we could barely reach up to the handle to push it, and we didn't maim ourselves, and sue anybody, that I recall. And we settled the rules first and our disputes later among ourselves without the guiding hand of our parents, except what little sense they had managed to get into our heads, and rarely resorted to knuckles. Funny that. We had it sorted out in 1965, when we were but children, but forty years later we assault the umpires at our children's games. Something was there, and has slipped away, I think.
I remember lots of things about that little diamond, carved out of the trees as an afterthought by the developer of our little neighborhood, long before the word "developer" became an epithet hurled at conservation committee meetings by people who live in houses made by a "builder." The builder and the developer look identical to the unaided eye, but people who already have a house have a different perspective, and thesaurus, than those that need one.
And I remember Cookie. Now, our children should be collecting Cookie's rookie trading cards, to put them through college when they sell them on ebay, and not community college either. But it was not to be. Because Cookie, although the greatest baseball player I ever saw, didn't want to be a professional ballplayer. He wanted to be a barber.
Now that last sentence clanged to the floor at your house, and you thought: He's kidding, or he's nuts. Well, I'm not kidding, anyhow. Cookie wouldn't have it if it was offered.
Now, Cookie was a little older than us, and that brought out the Paul Bunyan side of it a little I'm sure. Remember when you thought your father could lift a car, or paint the house by having you hold the brush while he moved the house up and down? Later you found out he was just another middle aged guy that emitted an audible gasp every time he sat down. Well, I'm sure that entered into it a little, that perspective from down where the little kids are, looking at big Cookie, but that wasn't all of it. He really was a wonder, I think.
Cookie would show up when we had been playing all day, and to this day I don't know his last name, or where he came from, or where he went to after he was done. But every time he came, we stopped whatever we were doing, and Cookie put on a Ruthian barnstorming exhibition. The biggest kid among us would pitch to Cookie, and the rest of us would scatter into the woods beyond the field, and wait for the balls to rain down on us. Because Cookie was a machine for hitting home runs. If the pitcher would wince during his delivery, human nature being what it is, knowing the ball might be coming back those 60' 6" in a big hurry- he'd maybe sail the ball wide and three feet off the plate. It didn't matter. Cookie would step on the plate, and lean over, and flick his wrists, and it would rain down into the woods, every time.
And with Cookie, right field was in play for once, after a fashion. We'd grow tired of fishing our precious baseballs out of the oaks and poison ivy in center field, and beseech Cookie for a real show, and he'd get up lefty, his switch hitting a revelation to us, and hit it out over the unmowed grass. Right field had no natural end, so the balls would roll when they hit, like cannonballs that had missed their fortress, but occasionally Cookie would clear the whole distance, and hit the pavement at the foot of the road that entered the field. And we'd ululate like madmen, and didn't care our precious baseball was no longer round. We adored him.
Cookie even sort of looked the part, if I recall correctly. The major leagues were filled with midwestern farmboy looking lummoxes like Mantle and Killebrew back then, and Cookie had the rangy frame, reddish blond stubble head, loping strides and laconic demeanor of our icons.
But with glasses. But not coke bottle glasses. Those wouldn't have brought a billboard into focus for Cookie. Cookie had the sort of glasses that seemed like the windows on a deep sea submarine. It was disorienting just to look at him, and if the barbering trade didn't fly, I imagine mesmerism would have been a cakewalk for him.
And perhaps Cookie knew what we, in our innocence, did not; that his eyesight would forever make him an also-ran, and it was best not to dream overmuch and better to make use of your gifts to amuse your neighbors and spice your life than to try to squeeze every drop of mammon from them. Maybe. But I really think that Cookie didn't care if he became what was to us an exalted thing: A big league ballplayer. He wasn't interested. He wanted to be a barber, and that was that.
I recall reading a story about Eisenhower when he was young and a cadet at West Point, and not yet the general who beat the Axis armies or the President who presided over my birth, though perhaps he did not notice it. He was no longer a "plebe" then, and was allowed to order the newcomers around, and haze them, as he had been hazed the year before. And for amusement, he picked out a goofy looking recruit, and made him stand at attention in front of his peers, and lambasted him, for no good reason, simply because it was expected of him. And he wrote in his memoirs, that he always remembered, to his shame, that as a capstone to his string of abuse, he asked the plebe what he did in his civilian life before he entered West Point, because he seemed such a numbskull that he couldn't be more than a barber. And the man, showing no emotion, but feeling some, no doubt, answered that he was indeed a barber in his short pre-military working life.
Eisenhower wrote that he had never known real shame before that, and he remembered that moment for the rest of his life, when he had disparaged the honest toil and effort of his fellow man. And he said he owed that man a great debt, though he couldn't remember his name, and he never again wanted to look down his nose on any man.
Cookie, if you're listening. I'm sure you're a terrific barber.