- I Never Sang for My Grandfather
I was never close to my grandfather, my mother’s father. He was not a particularly affectionate man or, at least, he never was with me. He seemed stern and forbidding; having a speech impediment, a stammer, did not make him any less off-putting to me as a child. Once, when I was four or five and eating Sunday dinner at my grandparents’ house, he yelled at me because I did not eat all the meat from a chicken leg. He told me I did not know how to eat and proceeded to clean the leg so completely it could have been a fossil bone in a museum. All the older people in my family could suck bones to the marrow, eat apples including the core. He thought I was just some pampered, indulged boy who would not grow up to be much of a man. I was the symbol of the decline of the new generation. I wanted to cry and thought him mean. How was I supposed to know how to eat? Maybe I was not hungry enough. Maybe I did not know, to borrow Elijah Muhammad’s phrase, “How To Eat To Live.”
I knew nothing of the Depression and how it was for him to feed his large family, how precious food was, how he was caught stealing food from a local store which caused him no end of embarrassment because he was a proud man and was deeply ashamed he had to stoop to stuffing sausages in his pockets. The Jewish store owner let him off with just a warning and even let him keep some of the sausages. He liked my grandfather because my grandfather was known as a hard worker. He was good at fixing things, which was how he got his misshapen thumb. It got caught in something, or hit by a hammer. I cannot quite remember that story. I remember that he was a hard worker and hard walker. I learned how to walk fast by walking with him on several occasions. He was also devout. When I was a teenager, I found some letters he wrote back to his family when he was away visiting the “old country,” the Bahamas, and was surprised at how religious they were.
Of course, because I was a child and had no perception of age, he seemed terribly old to me. Even though he was only in his fifties and sixties when I was a child and teen, he might as well had been 1,000 years old. To a child, an adult of fifty-five or sixty seems to have lived forever. So, I always felt a bit uneasy around my grandfather until I became an adult and realized how small he was. He was much shorter than I, a wiry man, yet as a child he seemed so big. It is an odd but inevitable fact that we know our parents and grandparents as adults, but we know nothing about them before we existed. They, on the other hand, know us from birth, as children, as growing things. The imbalance in that relationship is the essence of the tension between what it means to be child and what it means to be an adult.
My grandfather and I had two things in common: We were both biologically related and emotionally attached (in decidedly different ways) to my mother, and we both loved baseball. I am not sure why he liked the game so or how he learned about it, having been born in a country where baseball is virtually unknown. But he had a great passion for it, living and dying for the Philadelphia Phillies. (No one else in my family liked the Phillies. They were the team that gave Jackie Robinson an especially hard time. My mother hated them until the day she died, in 2018.) He did not engage it in any way recreationally. We, grandson and grandfather, did not play catch together or hit each other fungoes. He did not grow up playing stickball, softball, hardball with other kids on tiny diamonds sequestered on urban playgrounds as I did. He was right: I was so pampered that I had no real idea how poor my family was. I worked as a kid all right but to buy baseball gloves and bats and caps and comic books, not to support my family as he had to do as a boy. That is why I had not learned how to eat like a poor person, or as a person who knew what food meant. I ate as if I could afford to waste things, or as if my mother did not mind if I did.
It is an odd but inevitable fact that we know our parents and grandparents as adults, but we know nothing about them before we existed. They, on the other hand, know us from birth, as children, as growing things. The imbalance in that relationship is the essence of the tension between what it means to be child and what it means to be an adult.
Yes, my grandfather took me to Connie Mack Stadium (Shibe Park as he, the old-timer, called it) to see a game but not as often as one might think. In fact, I remember going with him only once in my boyhood. (I went again as an adult but that is a story for another time.) He took me to a twi-night doubleheader, the Phillies against the Los Angeles Dodgers in June 1963, as I recall. (He still called them the Brooklyn Dodgers. He talked as if Jackie Robinson and Don Newcomb still played for them.) I was eleven years old and vibrating with anticipation that I would see a doubleheader and that I would go to see Major League Baseball at night.
Sandy Koufax pitched the first game and won. He won 25 games that year and both the Cy Young and the Most Valuable Player Awards. I was excited to see him pitch, more excited to see than to see any other player. The Phillies finished above .500 that season, a considerable feat at the time for a perennially bad team. By comparison, in 1961, they lost 107 games and at one point, 23 in a row. They were 87-75 in 1963, respectable. As the poem goes, “there is no joy in Mudville,” and there was never any joy in Philadelphia during the baseball season for my entire boyhood and adolescence. If the Phillies were not just plain bad, they were good enough to break your heart. Nineteen sixty-three was the only time I ever saw the Dodgers play in person until I moved to St. Louis, at the age of twenty-nine, and began my career as a watcher of Cardinals games. Yes, 1963 was a good year until November.
It was not the first Phillies game I ever attended. I had seen five or six day games in the previous two years before going to this doubleheader. I had been a few times with friends, a couple of times with my school, once with a day camp. I am not sure how it came about that my grandfather took me. We sat in the bleachers and hardly spoke during the game. We might talk about a particular play but that was about it. We simply watched. We never talked much about baseball; we knew only that we both loved it dearly. He wanted me to have a good time, I suppose. He bought me a ballpark hot dog (which, at twenty-five cents each, were expensive). He normally would have had us bring our meal, baloney sandwiches in a sack, because he was a frugal man. He even bought me a glossy Phillies yearbook that cost the astronomical sum of two dollars. I could not believe he would buy me such a treat. I kept the book for many years and am sorry that I do not have it now.
For me, to see a ballgame was something like liberation from the prison of parochial geography. I wanted exposure, even as a boy, believing there was something better in the world than the corner of it I inhabited.
We traveled to the game on the Broad Street subway, as we lived in South Philadelphia and Connie Mack Stadium was in North Philadelphia, a long, long ways away from us. I had walked the distance with friends (probably more than ten miles roundtrip) but it was tiring and stressful, particularly tiring because it was so stressful, for we feared greatly being attacked by the gang boys in North Philly, who took no prisoners and offered no mercy. South Philly had bad gangs; North Philly had worse ones. It was not a good thing to stray that far from your neighborhood, to stray from your neighborhood at all, really. But how would I ever see my beloved game in person if I stayed trapped in my neighborhood? For me, to see a ballgame was something like liberation from the prison of parochial geography. I wanted exposure, even as a boy, believing there was something better in the world than the corner of it I inhabited. I did not want to be some provincial poor person who thought “the block” was a cosmos. Maybe I was destined not to eat like a poor person. I could never learn the knack.
My grandfather’s taking me to the ballpark was his way of saying that he did not want to me to eat like a poor person either, and he did not want me to be ashamed of or “hung up” about not being able to. The one thing he told me at the games was I could do more with my life than be a laborer as he was. The young are given more and expected to do more. Here was an innocence so pure that a child might be frightened by it, if they only fully realized the ardency of it. So I was immensely grateful to my grandfather for taking me to the doubleheader. With my grandfather, I felt safe, as if I was sure that this stern, gruff man would not let anything happen to me, that he could protect me from the bloodlust of the world. He was an adult, after all, and he knew the way. He knew how to eat in the way that people who knew the harsh world did. The North Philly boys would not touch me now because I was with my grandfather. Here was an innocence so pure that an adult might be frightened by it, if they realized the ardency of it. As someone once told me, nothing beats faith except more of it.
Because of my love of baseball, my daughters have always thought that I would have preferred having sons or at least one son. Their belief is that I wanted someone to play catch with, to watch play Little League, to go to Cardinals games with. I never made any attempt to play catch with them when they were little, although I would sometimes talk to them about it. (They may remember this differently.) They were not athletically inclined, so Little League of any sort was out of the question. But it did happen that I took them separately and together to Cardinals games when they were girls. They watched the games with nearly immaculate indifference. Although they know about the game, that is to say, know fairly much what is happening during a baseball game, the sport never interested them. They thought it boring, which in some respects it might be, especially, as I am told, if one never played it as a child, although, of course, any sport can be boring to the uninitiated. (While in college, I attended a professional hockey game for the first time and fell asleep. This could not have happened because the game lacked action. It was because for me at that time that sport was illegible.) I did not wish for boys. Because I grew up in a family of a widowed mother and two sisters, I felt comfortable enough being around women. I was relieved to have girls.
As children, they mostly enjoyed going to the games to eat the food and, after they reached a certain age, to wander around the stadium looking for adventure or anything that seemed more interesting than the game itself. My youngest daughter, Rosalind, was especially fond of the food. But she also had more endurance than her sister, and would insist upon staying for an entire game. I did not like to stay for the entire game when I was with either of them because I wanted to go home at what I thought was a safe hour for them. “What’s it matter if we leave early,” Rosalind would say, “it’s still dark.” But for me night always makes things more precarious the later it gets.
The last time I saw the Cardinals with my oldest daughter, Linnet, was the last game of the 2004 World Series. It was all rather strange, elegiac, not simply because the Cardinals lost and the Red Sox broke their “curse,” not because there was something “predestined” about the game itself, as if our fate was apparent and no one could stop it, but because my daughter was now an independent adult, twenty-five years old. It would not be long after this that she would marry and start a family. There was something about the whole evening that felt, for lack of a better term, terminal. Perhaps there is just something strange for me to see baseball played at night. Night is always the end of everything as you know it. My daughter engaged the game seriously and we watched it carefully, even though we spoke of many other things that night. I cannot remember what they were. We ate nothing during the game. The Cardinals fans were nice, allowing the Red Sox fans who were there (Busch Stadium seemed half-filled with them) their moment of celebration at game’s end. The Red Sox fans were nice, politely asking all the Cardinals fans how much they wanted for their ticket stubs. I think my daughter remembers the game fondly. We had a good time.
- “I Cover the Waterfront”
It was Linnet’s idea that I take my grandson, Willie, to a Cardinals game. He was six at the time (he turned seven a month after we went), and I thought he was too young to be remotely attentive. (I was nine when I went to my first game.) I hate bored, restless children at ballgames. Inevitably, I have always found myself sitting in front of one who is kicking the back of my seat as if the kid were trying to beat me, Daddy, eight to the bar. But Linnet, I suppose, wanted to provide me with the son I never had and offered up her second-born to be trained to be my baseball companion. She is a planner that way. At any rate, she bought the tickets, got Willie a Paul Goldschmidt T-shirt and Cardinals cap, and reminded him for weeks that he was going to a baseball game with his grandfather.
I pick him up from school nearly every day, so I was aware of his excitement. His passion was unstoppable, uncontainable. He wanted a batting helmet. I told him that was a bit premature; he needed to be actually playing baseball to warrant it. I did buy him a foam bat and ball and gave him an old, peeling Daryl Strawberry glove that I once used when I played in an adult league. I found myself pitching to him every day after school. He never wanted to play catch; the difficulty there was compounded by the fact that he is left-handed but I gave him a right-hander’s glove. He had to wear the glove on the same hand that he used to throw the ball. Besides, he loved hitting much more than throwing or catching. This went on for several weeks, what might be called prepping for the game, learning the rules (he would still be confused about which team the pitcher played for), watching the game on television with his mother, and reading books about the Cardinals. He even told his teacher that his grandfather was taking him to a baseball game. I was not sure this was a good idea, but it was my bounden duty. On that fateful day in August when the Milwaukee Brewers came to town, he was ready. And so we stormed the beaches of Busch Stadium.
Willie liked everything. The proof of that was that he did not complain despite the lengthy walk it was to get to our seats nor how fast I was dragging him along. We must have covered three-quarters of the stadium. I felt as if I were walking from South Philly to Connie Mack Stadium again.
If it had not been for Willie, I would never have gotten into the park to see the game. I had stupidly brought a backpack with him, loaded with towels and bottles of water. Busch Stadium has banned them but I had forgotten. I was at the security checkpoint in a complete quandary about what to do. I could not carry the contents of the backpack in my hands. Just as I was about to depart from the line and figure something out, the man at the metal detector told me to wait a minute. Then he said, “It’s all right. My boss said you can come in.” His boss was a blonde woman who thought Willie was adorable, all decked out in Cardinals red. “Is this your first game?” she asked him. “Are you ready to root the Cards to a win?” Willie just looked at his shoes. He can be shy that way with people he does not know, but he is not a shy kid, if you get my drift. “He is so cute,” she continued. “Enjoy the game.” I was going to enjoy it more now that I did not have to throw away the backpack. “If I am ever stopped by the police,” I pondered as we walked to our seats, “I sure hope you are with me, Willie.” Rarely are black men arrayed in such innocence. It reminded me of how I was treated when I was in public with my daughters when they were little.
Willie liked everything. The proof of that was that he did not complain despite the lengthy walk it was to get to our seats nor how fast I was dragging him along. We must have covered three-quarters of the stadium. I felt as if I were walking from South Philly to Connie Mack Stadium again. Eventually, we made it. Everything was exciting to him: the crowd, all the concessions stands, the green expanse of the field, our seats (so near the gates of heaven, as it were, I thought I could hear St. Peter calling names of the chosen), the noise, the sheer volume of sound. Who were the people on the field before the game started? Why did strange people who did not look like pitchers keep getting on the mound to throw a ball? He wanted three things: to catch a foul ball, to meet Fredbird, and to eat ballpark food. We accomplished only one, but that, with such gusto, that it might have compensated for the other two. He ate a large pretzel, a jumbo hot dog and large fries, a bag of cotton candy, and a bowl of ice cream. He washed all of this down with two and a-half 16-ounce bottles of water. He eats like a poor person, everything on his plate, nothing wasted, everything appreciated. He is the slowest eater in the world but he eats with great precision. He eats with deliberation, not desperation. He knows how to eat. I ate and drank nothing, fasting like the pampered person I am, able to take food for granted.
He patiently watched the game, asked questions when he was confused, mostly about what team the pitcher played for, how come some batter was out, how many outs are there, how come that batter walked to first base, what is a foul ball, what is the difference between a run and a homerun, where do the players go when they leave the field, do players live at the ballpark? I try to answer all these questions as accurately as I can, but in a way I hope he can understand. Occasionally, I succeed.
I am so old that he wonders if people played baseball when I was a boy. I tell him, of course.
“Did they have cars when you were a boy?” he asks.
“Yes,” I answer. “But I used to see horse-drawn carriages on the streets too,” which was true, but which I say mostly to tease him, to lead him on.
“Do you remember Ancient Rome?” he asks.
“Vaguely,” I reply, “I was very little then.”
His interest in old times is a bit unusual for a child so young, which is why I call him the History Kid. He says I am very, very old and know all of history, having somehow lived through all the ages of mankind.
“You said you played baseball when you were a boy. So they had baseball a long time ago. Did they play baseball in Ancient Egypt?” he poses.
“No,” I say, “The game is not that old.”
“But it’s older than you?” he probes.
“Yes, it is older than I am,” I grin.
He does not want to leave but I tell him tomorrow is a school day and that we cannot stay to see the entire game. He wants to come back to see a game through to the end. We leave after five innings. He is excited that we took the Metro Link to the game and that we will take it home. It is the first time he was ever on it. At every stop on the way to the game, he asks where we are or “Are we downtown yet?” When he sees the Arch, he shouts, “We’re downtown now!” I tell him it is good to be downtown. It is the best part of any city. I always loved downtown Philadelphia when I was a boy. I remember walking the length and breadth of downtown Philly on many occasions growing up, thrilled by every block of it. I am glad the Cardinals play downtown.
His interest in old times is a bit unusual for a child so young, which is why I call him the History Kid. He says I am very, very old and know all of history, having somehow lived through all the ages of mankind.
Another reason for leaving early is the approach of bad weather. Thunderstorms are coming. We almost beat them. The lightning is furious while we are on the train, and when we disembark the thunder barks savagely as large drops of rain begin to fall. Normally, Willie hates the rain, hates thunderstorms, hates getting wet. But he holds my hand and calmly walks beside me. The sky cracks, doom is falling. Night is always the end of everything as you know it.
“Are you afraid, Willie?” I ask with a bit of concern.
“No,” he answers, “I’m with my BFF.”
The rain comes down in sheets by the time we reach the car. It is like the kind of rain that falls in film noir, the brutal rain of an unsafe world that falls equally on the righteous and the unrighteous. We are somewhat wet, not too bad. But by the time we walk up to his front door, we are fairly soaked.
“Did you have a good time, Willie?” I ask him before leaving.
“Yes,” he replies, “I had a good time, BFF.”
As an old man, you are always tempted to give youngsters advice, a bad temptation, futile and self-aggrandizing. I might have told Willie that night not to grow up and be a pampered book reader, but rather learn to do something useful with your hands. The best I can say to him is that Augustinian line I used to hear in church:
“Be, then, what you see
And receive who you are”
That will pass muster. That is all right. It is better than nothing, which means it is better than most advice which is worse than nothing. As I drive home, I think about a song Billie Holiday once sang, “I Cover the Waterfront” from the 1933 movie of the same name. It is one of those noir-type songs that you might think about on a bad night. But this is not a bad night except for the rain. I think that the faith Willie had in me to protect him from anything untoward, even from being hurt by the elements, mirrors the faith I had in my grandfather to protect me from the street gangs when he took me to a game over fifty years ago. It is as if the adult says to the child, “Don’t worry. I cover the waterfront. I know about these things and how to keep you safe.” I like that thought very much. You can feel justified with a thought like that. On nights like these, I can take comfort in the fact that Willie thinks I cover the waterfront.