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Cleveland 1954

by George Sparling

Baseball in October — all about context

I committed Cleveland's baseball team's 25-man rooster and coaches to memory, even before my classmates and I had to memorize Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" Every time I read the box score in the newspaper, each hit listed alongside the player carried extra dimensions. The tiny italicized number, a hit for Bobby Avila: I actually saw a ground ball hit through the middle. Hadn't announcers always said, "The ball had eyes"? Larry Doby stroked a homer: I was the trajectory arcing 400 feet over the left field fence. Al Smith went one for four: I was his calf muscles legging out that single. I imbued each player with personal success stories. Like an artist, I wanted originality, doing it differently every game, but always a piece of art.

I stared at the sports page, an alternate world of the playing field itself. I mentally witnessed Al Rosen's grooved swing, hearing the sound of bat thwacking ball on the sweet spot. I imagined the ball carom down the right field corner, Rosen trotting to third for a triple. After my father, Austin, came home from work in Chicago, he handed me the inky sport section. I then beamed into a separate world, one I chose, rather than the one bequeathed by adults. The heart of the paper: the Cleveland box score.

Cleveland's pitching dominated the league: Early Wynn, Bob Lemmon, Mike Garcia, Art Houtteman, and Bob Feller. I sought no crooked numbers but shutouts for every inning they pitched. I heard Chicago White Sox announcer, Bob Elson, call the games from Comiskey Park of WCFL. The White Sox came in third that year, but resoundingly won the season series with Cleveland. They usually trounced them, belting pitchers around, sending them to the showers early. But Cleveland slaughtered lower division teams that year, picking on weaklings. I hadn't heard about fascist social Darwinism yet.

After Cleveland left Chicago, I scanned the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune: again, Cleveland's pitchers regained their stellar form. Lots of goose eggs, mostly winning. A compulsion gripped me; each well-pitched game calmed me, enveloped me in auras of peace and order. My sense of well-being expanded. In an age before Ritalin, I got high when my pitchers shut them down. "Seek zeros!" wrote Nietzsche.

An envelope was placed beside my bacon and eggs one morning. Austin told me to open it. I pulled our two large silver tickets for Game 4 of the World Series. Regular season tickets were mediocre stubs. These were real beauties, luminescent and sparkling. Dad arranged that I could take a day off from school. Game 4 equaled Thanksgiving and Christmas as a legitimate holiday, only without a sport coat and tie.

We'd sleep in the back of the Ford station wagon on inflatable mattresses. Everything had been prepared for the trip through Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Plenty of hardboiled eggs, peanut butter sandwiches, ham sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise and thick Velveeta cheese. The food and drinks got packed in a Styrofoam ice cooler. We left that Friday morning.

I had the window open, sticking my head out, inhaling negative ions and sucking up oxygen. I was euphoric. Elation and optimism flowed through me: I was higher than Jesus and Buddha combined. Before nightfall, Dad pulled off the road, not into a campground but a grove of trees out of sight from passing vehicles. Peeing, I liked the breeze as it made me tingle before zipping up. We washed our hands on moist washcloths Austin took out of the cooler.

I drank two Cokes, eating potato salad and a sandwich. Dad drank Pabst Blue Ribbon beer from cans. He yelled to scare away raccoons or skunks. I chimed in, giving body language to my whoops. I waved my arms back and forth, up and down, tossing stones into bushes. Dad told me not to do that because it might hurt a possum. I quit, drinking another Coke to sop up my fanaticism.

Suddenly, a guttural belch, the loudest I'd ever heard, came from Austin. It had chords within its syncopated wildness, strong beat weakening, lesser beats gaining strength. That was what beer and liverwurst sandwiches had ordained. No more ordinary suburban belching, only virtuoso ones. Night critters lullabyed me to sleep.

We drove around Cleveland, looking for a decent place for breakfast. Everyone on the streets, through open store fronts, people chatting in loud, early-morning bars, drivers in cars waiting for the light to turn green had one thing in common: The Game. Everyone knew Cleveland would bounce back after losing the first three to the New York Giants. Cleveland set the record for 111 season wins. With so much enthusiastic confidence, how could they lose. Austin had always been a White Sox fan. I invested my emotional capital in any other team. That inevitable father/son tension: thesis/antithesis.

Actually, I chose Cleveland because in 1953 Al Rosen had become my idol. He would've won the Triple Crown had he not missed stepping in first base his last at-bat. Rosen's batting average was .33556 to Mickey Vernon's .33717. That infield single would've made him the leading hitter. I moped in my room when I heard a radio sportscaster explain how ur-hero Rosen lost it. Decades later I read: " ... the universe was certainly not created for us by divine power: it is too full of imperfections." Thank heavens Lucretius gave it perspective. Rosen's inadvertent oversight led me to think that belief was only for fools. The philosopher Charles S. Pierce placed "retroduction" into the lexicon: All men are mortal. Al Rosen is mortal. Therefore, Al Rosen is a man. Baseball's creed: Keep your eyes on the ball. Over a 20-year span I found two $5 bills, a $10, and two $20's in the street. My creed: Be a pragmatic downlooker.

We ate in a bar that served breakfast. I loved the Naugahyde booth, the comfortable feel of artificial leather, its vinyl resin a pleasurable sensation. I never sat on them before. A hopeful sign, Naugahyde. Greasy food was served on huge plates. I felt larger than ever. Nothing but baseball talk. Basebalbaseballbaseball in that Euclid Avenue bar. Men's laughter, kachinging cash register, forks and knives, beer bottles

clinking, Fats Domino's "Ain't That A Shame" playing on the jukebox. I left stuffed with pancakes and Cheerios, full of life.

We quickly joined the magnetic force of fans filling every seat in vast Municipal Stadium. We sat in the upper deck over the third base line. I never say greener grass. The chalk lines dazzled me, their illumination burned my eyes. Al Rosen, a dot below me. I admired the way the home plate umpire majestically swept the plate before the first pitch.

Cleveland lost. Eighty thousand fans shuffled out the stadium. It must've been a miracle that with so many mouths, hardly a sound emanated from us. Austin stopped off the main-traveled road, but there would be no energetic belch. I shat in bushes for the first time in my life. I felt dirty afterward. We arrived home in darkness. In spite of fatigue, I hardly slept.

In November I recited, "O captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done." My first glimpse of irony.

I began watching Jackie Gleason and the "I Love Lucy" show. For my December birthday I got a complete set of the World Book encyclopedia. I looked up Cleveland. The baseball team was cited.

But without a box score it meant nothing.

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Articles in this Issue

Bela Lugosi's Legacy, by Eric Nuzum
Days of Overblown, by Albert E. Martinez
The Chief Mourner, by Brenda Yun
Cleveland 1954, by George Sparling
Those New York City Faces, by Randall Dana
Engraving, by Russell Streur
Theater, by Austin Bunn
Assyriology, by David Damrosch
September 2007


George Sparling graduated from Iowa Wesleyan College, majoring in social science and taking many English courses. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Red Rock Review, Potomac Review, Hunger, Word Riot, Slow Trains, Rattle, Ducts, Thieves Jargon, and the Istanbul Literary Review.

Where loss is found.

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