Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Home and the World Series

It's fascinating what impact place imprints upon us.

I was born in Washington DC at World Series time in 1945[1]. Only the faintest echo of memory remains from going to that town's Griffith Stadium with my father and brother to watch the hapless Senators. But baseball became my favorite game, and the Senators my favorite team. I can still remember much of their starting lineup, names like Eddie Yost, Mickey Vernon, Pete Runnels, and Jackie Jensen.

My love of baseball fueled my early love of language. I read the sports pages avidly, listened to games on the radio, and fell in love with the sounds of ballplayers’ names. 

I had no clue back then that a man's name could be an indicator of his ethnicity. Hell, I didn't know what ethnicity was, or race either for that matter. I was just a child in mid-century America, an innocent in an era which many people — not just the current GOP nominee — likely use as a reference point for a time when America was Great, Good and Ruler of the Free World.

I was only obliquely conscious of what it meant to be a Negro. I rooted for Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson without even knowing why; it was just something in the air. I certainly wasn't conscious that the Senators were all white because that's what their owner insisted upon. I was not to learn for decades that the leadoff hitter with the keen batting eye, 3B Eddie Yost, sold his house because a black man moved into his neighborhood. I didn't even understand that Washington was a segregated southern town until sometime after Brown vs. Board of Education. All I really knew was that ball players had really cool-sounding names like Chico Carrasquel and Sandy Consuegra [KON-sue-A-gruh].

By the time the Brown decision came down in May of 1954 we had moved to Cleveland where my father had been called to pastor one of the city's oldest black churches. It was in fact the only nonwhite Congregational church in the whole state. I was beginning to learn about race and ethnicity by then, courtesy of living adjacent to the Cultural Gardens and being in third grade class with those white Central European-American kids whose families were on the tail end of white flight from our middle class Glenville neighborhood.

Without even knowing it I quickly became a fan of the Cleveland’s sports teams, the Indians, the Browns, and even the Barons, a minor league hockey team reportedly so good they were looked upon as the NHL’s seventh team. It was easy to identify with the Browns and the Indians. Not only were both teams regular winners; several of the players lived in my neighborhood — Bill Willis, Marion Motley, and Dave Pope, to name a few.

My first full season in town, 1954, the Indians won 111 games, then a major league record, and featured one of the best pitching staffs ever, with all time greats Bob Feller and Hal Newhouser still fabulous but limited to spot starts and bullpen duty, respectively, behind a Big Three of Bob Lemon, Early Wynn and Mike Garcia.

The Indians' historic record and tremendous pitching, which included the remarkable duo of Don Mossi and Ray Narleski, made them prohibitive favorites to beat the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series, even though the Giants had the already incomparable Willie Mays. But Mays’s incredible Game 1 catch and Dusty Rhodes’ cheap 10th inning home run kicked off a four-game sweep by the Giants that has yet to be exorcised in Cleveland’s collective sports brain.

These memories come flooding back as Cleveland prepares to take on the Chicago Cubs tonight in the 2016 World Series opener here in town. Were I younger, richer, hardier, or more devoted, I might have forked over a few hundred dollars to sit in the bleachers on a chilly night and cheer on the hometown representatives. They are certainly worthy American League Champions, featuring a budding superstar in the infectious shortstop Francisco Lindor, the amazing Swiss Army knife relief pitcher, Andrew Miller [his superlative skill belies his incredibly pedestrian name], old school dirt eaters like Jason Kipnis and Mike Napoli, and the irrepressible Jose Ramirez.

They face off tonight against a team that has even more incompetence in its history than the Indians. The Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908; when they last appeared in one — 1945 — there were no black players in the major league baseball.

But these Cubs are big favorites to win this Series. They have more talent at virtually every position. They field with historic precision, have a deep starting rotation, several bona fide sluggers, and a closer who regularly throws 102 mph.

By contrast, the Indians one undeniable advantage is in being baseball’s best team on the basepaths. Of course, they will first need to reach base safely to unleash this talent. This skill hardly seems enough to overcome the Cubs’ multiple advantages.

New York Giants fans likely felt the same way about their underdog team in 1954. 

But I have observed a few lessons about professional sports over more than six decades. As in life, talent matters, but so do character and attitude, qualities this Cleveland squad has in abundance. And the best team does not always win, especially in a short series. So don’t be too surprised if this continues to be Cleveland’s year, and the Billy Goat bleats once more.

• • •#• • •

[1] The Chicago Cubs won Game 6 of the Series that day in extra innings, but would go on to lose Game 7 to the Detroit Tigers. Incidentally, 1945 was the year that gave rise to the Curse of the Billy Goat, which, hopefully, like me, has yet to complete its course.

No comments: