The Lament of the Middle-Aged Sports Fan

Dale Kasel

Spectator sports, like therapy sessions, have their ups and downs. For the middle-aged baseball fan, even some of the downs have value. And so, as a public service, I will offer you a few thoughts on why millions of people spend billions of dollars watching something they can’t do and probably never could do very well; something that causes much aggravation and that, by season’s end, leaves most of them disappointed, year after year.

First, the painful fiscal facts. There are thirty Major League Baseball teams. In every season, the fans of 29 of them will observe that they rooted for a team that did not win the World Series. In the 2012 season:

The Fan Cost Index, the total price to take a family of four to a game increased by 2.4 percent to $207.68, according to Team Marketing Report’s exclusive survey.

The Fan Cost Index is created by combining four non-premium tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult-size hats.

I’m thinking the two adult-size hats were included because the alleged adults needed to cover the hole in the head that allowed them to spend over $200 for the privilege of a bad seat and a day shot on fighting the traffic just to watch the home-favorites lose. And remember, I’m a baseball fan!

So what explains this exercise in self-flagellation and taking the fast-track to a life of poverty?

  • Comradery. Most of us find it very easy to talk at least a little to our fellow-fan of the home team, for the simple reason that we know he thinks like us and feels our pain; he experiences the same joys and sorrows as we do. We are bonded just by sitting in adjacent seats. It is a pleasant feeling and people out for a day in the sun usually start that day in a pretty good mood.
  • An Opportunity to Complain. Complaining, unless you are a member of the Tea Party, is seen as being a bad sport here in the USA. We think of ourselves as a “can do” people, who need to be blindly optimistic no matter the circumstances. But sports gives us a socially approved opportunity to vent and we all need some venting. That’s why we purchase air-conditioners and keep the windows open when we drive.
  • The Illusion of Youth. Where else can a 350 pound middle-aged man get away with saying, “That was an easy ground ball. Heck, I could have fielded that.” This, from a man who cannot see his own shoe tops while standing. Really. We all want to think of ourselves in the heady and fit days of our youth, when agility had not yet been replaced by flaccidity and ill-timed flatulence. For $207.68 you get four tickets to a place where people don’t laugh at you when you imply that you are a better man than someone half your age.
  • Distraction. Baseball is a pastime. It takes you away from the fact that your car needs repairs that you can’t afford, your son needs braces on his teeth that you can’t afford, the boss needs work you can’t afford to botch, and your spouse wants you to repair 18 different parts of the house that you can’t afford and have no idea how to fix on your own. A baseball park offers a place of escape, a Never-Land of illusion, a temporary refuge from the steam-roller of life.
  • Identification. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. We are not great heroes and athletes. No one we pass on the street points to us and says, “There goes godlike Achilles! Wow, I wish I could be like him.” But at the ballpark we can identify with wonderful athletes who can do things that we can’t and never could. When they hit home runs, so, in some sense, do we. For our $207.68 we borrow the hero’s prowess and glory in his achievements, at least a little bit. And, should the team actually win a World Series Championship, we hold up the foam finger we bought for even more cash and shout “We’re Number One!” We?
  • Looking for Something Bigger than Ourselves. Nietzsche said “God is dead.” That wasn’t entirely good news. Most of us seem to need something bigger than ourselves to attach to and believe in. We need other fellow-worshippers, too. And so we go to the ballpark, where the faithful at the green cathedral continue to hold on to the belief that, finally, “This will be our year.” That all those who believe in other teams are actually worshipping false gods. That the ballpark is a substitute for a church, a temple, or a mosque. And that the cost of admission is like a donation or a tithe — a small price to pay for the privilege of worship; to see the ballplayers, AKA the priests, perform (we hope) their magic on the field of play and give us reason to “believe” in spite of the fact that the team is 30 games behind the leader in the standings with only 25 games left to play. It is, in other words, a place where a die-hard baseball fan prays for a miracle.
  • Bonding with Our Children. Whether you have a boy or a girl, there is something quite wonderful about watching the game together, teaching them the rules, letting them share your excitement, and recalling for them the time your dad took you to the ball park, and the time that his dad took him to the ballpark, in a never-ending line of shared experience and love.

I have a confession to make. Until I was in my early-60s and suffered a torn meniscus in my left knee, I actually thought I could still play ball passably well. Yes, I was one of those people I’ve just described. Self-deluded. Holding on to a youth that was long past. Rooting for a team (the Chicago Cubs) that still hasn’t won a World Championship since 1908.

We need our illusions, our attachments, our distractions.

Perhaps $207.68 is a better deal than I thought.

The top image is a photo of Dale Kasel in 2007, then an outfielder for the Air Force Academy baseball team. It was taken by an unknown author and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Death Notice: The Great American Pastime

Typical_baseball_game

The Great American Pastime has passed away. I am here to announce it. You won’t find it on the obituary pages, but it is true all the same.

Yes, I know they still play baseball in Chicago, New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco. But, if the pastime lives anywhere, it is away from the great stadiums and the big cities. Indeed, perhaps only in more modest venues might an old-time baseball experience now exist.

But, you say, what am I talking about? The rules haven’t changed. It still takes three strikes for an out and three outs to end each team’s turn at bat. The bases are still 90 feet apart.

You are right, but I’m not talking about the game as it is played on the field. Rather, I mean the game as it is experienced by a fan in the stands.

In the baseball of my youth, the Great American “Pastime” was a leisurely way to “pass the time” on a summer afternoon. The lyrical pulse of the match drew your eyes to the field, except when the beer-man approached or your neighbor asked you a question. A day at the ball park was usually easeful.  Moments of tension fueled by the drama of the contest were framed by many others that allowed you to relax; kind of like the rhythm of the tide, rushing in and then receding, rising and falling.

For much of the game, when nothing remarkable was happening on the field, one heard the low-frequency hum of the fans talking. As the play became animated — only then did the cheers and boos crowd out conversation. Other than that, the auditor heard barking vendors, with an occasional public address announcement about who was at bat; and perhaps the sound of the stadium organ from time to time. It was all relatively peaceful except when something exciting happened on the baseball diamond.

No more.

The fan is no longer safe. He is targeted for an electronic bombardment from the moment he enters the stadium, just as surely as Dresden was targeted for real (and equally unnecessary) bombs during World War II. The acoustic experience is one of non-stop, high volume noise. If it is not the loudspeaker’s musical blast that has replaced a simple stadium organ, it is the repeated announcements:

Jim Jones Jeep Dealership’s sales team is here along with Jim in Section 5. Let’s give them a hand. Now turn your attention to the scoreboard for a quiz on Cubs history. But before you do, check under your seat to see if you have won a Cadillac from Cathy’s Cadillac of Crown Point, Indiana.

Even so, the announcements are clearly insufficient for the fan who requires hyper-stimulation. He needs to keep his eye out for the dance moves of the paid customers that are being broadcast on the scoreboard screen, just in case he wants to exhibit a few of his own. He needs to keep a sharp eye for T-shirts of his favorite team being shot into the seats by stadium employees on the field between innings.

Most importantly, when the “kiss-cam” moment occurs, he must be sure to kiss whomever he is with, so that thousands of others attending the game can vicariously experience the thrill of his five seconds of relative fame as they watch that image on the Jumbotron. Then, when it is over, the “sausage race” begins, and several alleged adults dressed as a hot dog, a bratwurst, a Polish sausage, a chorizo, and an Italian sausage run around from foul-pole to foul-pole to the cheers of the Pavlov-trained fans who root them on. Surely, this is a comment on the extent to which baseball believes you can be easily entertained, and how desperate the “sausages” must be to make a living.

Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx. The photo was probably taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx. The photo was taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Before the Great American Pastime died, it was a game without a clock. You took your time and so did the game. Now watching a major league contest is fueled by the impatience of the audience for stimulation at every moment, useless information at every other moment, and blasting sonics without end. If you do try to bond with your little girl — the cutie you’ve brought to her first game — you just might find yourself hoarse before the end of the day. The most used phrase at your average big-league contest today has changed from “Hey, beer-man” to “What did you say?”

The only good thing about any of this is that you can probably use attendance at a Major League baseball game as a diagnostic tool to find out whether you are ADHD. If you love the multi-pronged assault on your senses, you should immediately call your doctor and get a prescription for Ritalin.

What has happened? I’ll tell you what I think. First, watch all the people in the grandstand whose heads are turning from side to side, from a blinking light to a dancing bear — from one call for their attention to another. But then look at those who tire even of this. And what are many of them doing? They are checking their iPhones, texting, tweeting, reading email, or surfing the web. The baseball moguls have decided that the game is not enough. Clearly, they believe that they must use every opportunity to gain advertising income from people like Jim Jones Jeep and Cathy’s Cadillac of Crown Point while, at the same time, drawing your eyeballs away from your cell phone.

Sausage_race_start

If you were at a baseball game in my youth (aka the 1950s and ’60s) there was one thing you did in addition to watching the contest and talking to your neighbor: you kept a sharp eye on the pretty girls walking by. Nothing captures the grotesque deformation of the current experience of attending a ballgame better than the knowledge that healthy young men in their seats now spend more time looking at their hands (and the cell phone in them) than any anatomical feature of the highly attractive members of the opposite sex who are dressed to be seen.

If you are young enough, you probably think I’m foolish — old and foolish at that. And, if you are closer to my age, you might have hardly noticed the change in the game because it crept up on you and me gradually. But think back and you will not fail to agree with me. My buddies Ron and Jim and Rock and Tom and Jeff and Steve and Cliff will vouch for me.

Once upon a time there was nothing that I found more prospectively enjoyable than the idea of going to a ballgame, no matter how bad the home team was (which, as a Cubs fan, was normally quite bad, indeed).  Now, unfortunately, my emotions are much more mixed. I’ve seen Major League Baseball played in 15 different arenas over a period of almost 60 years. The change has spread everywhere.

Something has been lost here, my friends. And I don’t think we are getting it back.

A fan returning home after a recent baseball game, aka "The Scream" by Edvard Munch.

A fan returning home after a recent baseball game, aka “The Scream” by Edvard Munch.

The top image is of a Typical Baseball Game played in 2005 in San Francisco. It was taken by Imageman and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The third photo was taken by Agne 27 and uploaded to Wikipedia Commons by User Kelly. It is the Beginning of a Sausage Race at Milwaukee’s Miller Park on April 30, 2007.

Every Four Years: How Presidential Politics is Like Baseball

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We keep doing it. We do it every four years, as if we were all born yesterday, with no history books available and no inclination to learn to read them anyway. I’m talking about the crazy world of electing a President of the USA.

The guy in office, of course, has made some bad decisions. He was never President before, so lots of things were learned from scratch and he wasn’t perfect. Not if his name is Bush, not if his name is Clinton, not if his name is Obama. We understandably get angry.

We curse from the stands. “Throw the bum out! I could have done better, for chrissake. There are too many errors. We need a new manager! I paid good money for this ticket, I’ve been a loyal fan of the USA, when am I gonna get my money’s worth? We spend all this money for tickets, and then management keeps throwing it away on crappy personnel and dumb decisions! I’m tired of it!”

There we sit watching and complaining. Beside us is our buddy, who has done a little research. “I hear the team has a new guy in the minor leagues. He is supposed to be a great fielder. You know how much we need to stop making errors. They say he can move equally well to his right and to his left. And the new guy is really unusual because he is able to play all nine positions on the baseball diamond. And he’s great at all of them! If you need a shortstop, he’ll be a shortstop. If you need a pitcher, he’ll be a pitcher. In fact, he is so good on the diamond and has so many different baseball gloves to fit all the positions he can take, that they’ve given him a nickname. They call him “Mitt.” You know, for “baseball mitt,” the name for a baseball glove?”

You know how this works. The team is desperate, we — the fans — demand a change. Surely anybody will be better than what we have. And what happens?

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On his first day at his new job, we all cheer and yell “Go Mitt!”  But our virgin “go-to-guy,” the player who is supposed to be the savior of the team, has never faced Major League pitching before, so he struggles. The flawless, error-free performance we expected doesn’t happen.

Next, we discover that his ability to take every position on the field really doesn’t do us much good, because a ballplayer can only play one position at a time. This makes many of us unhappy, especially those of us in the right-field bleachers, who’d been promised that he would be our guy, the guy who would take a position on the field very close to us. Not that those of us in the left-field bleachers are very happy either, although we alone always had some doubts about “Mitt.”

All in all, things don’t work out as well as we hoped. Pretty soon the stadium echoes with shouts to send Mitt back to the minor leagues. We are still yelling “Go Mitt,” but it sounds more like “Please go — go quickly — Mitt.” Rumor has it that a new savior is coming. He’ll be ready by November, 2016. If only we can be patient, everything will finally turn out just right. Hope springs eternal and we forget that our team, like the Chicago Cubs, hasn’t appeared in the World Series since 1945 and isn’t likely to do so any time soon. Still, the cry goes out: “Wait ’til next year!” Or, 2016 or 2020 or 2024.

Baseball really is a metaphor for life.

This post is dedicated to my friends Sue Leff Ginsburg, Susan and Steve Sidell, Dave Levine, Dan Morrison, as well as Dr. Cindy, TS and MD. The top photo is Mitt Romney in West Des Moines, Iowa courtesy of IowaPolitics.com/ The second image is Myron Noodleman Holding a Large Baseball Glove by Skibo. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Boyhood Heroes and Autograph Stories: Remembering Bill “Moose” Skowron

Moose Skowron

The Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 World Series thanks to the MVP performance of an unheralded 23 year-old pitcher named Johnny Podres. That winter I had a chance to meet him. He was scheduled to make a weekend appearance at the Peter Pan restaurant in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I couldn’t wait.

My dad drove me there and I could see the line in the eatery, all eager young boys, some older than my nine years, some younger. And there he was, seated at a table in front of the long line, observable at a distance through the restaurant’s large pane glass window. A genuine baseball player in the flesh. A real World Series hero.

But there was only one problem.

I couldn’t get myself out of the car. I froze. I was intimidated. My dad did his best to persuade me and I certainly had enough time to muster the courage to go in. Podres wasn’t going anywhere fast. But neither was I. I was fastened to the seat at a time before seat belts.

I cannot tell you what exactly I was afraid of. I don’t remember what I was thinking. All I know was that I was terrified, all too shy, and eventually my dad drove me home.

I was reminded of this story recently when a high school friend asked me if I remembered Johnny Podres appearance at the Peter Pan. He had the courage to go in. In fact, I suspect it simply wasn’t in his nature to even to be scared of it.

Within a very few years, however, I became an eager autograph collector, brazenly approaching my heroes (probably only 10 years or so older than I was at the time) as they emerged from their locker room or outside the ball park, usually Wrigley Field. I nearly got trampled trying to get Willie Mays’ signature. He simply bulled his way through the crowd of boys who were hoping to have a less physical kind of contact. But young men like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo would sign and sign and sign until everyone had a turn and a treasured keepsake.

In the summer of 1960, when I was in eighth grade, my Jamieson School friend Joel and I went to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Yankees. My uncle Sam had gotten us great box seat tickets and we were eager to get some autographs before the game.

We noticed several kids bunched on the stadium side of the infield wall, all getting the popular Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso to sign their scorecards. Soon, Joel and I observed that there seemed to be a man in charge — a man who had a camera hanging by a strap around his neck. We joined in the crowd milling about the pale hose star, even getting into a picture that was taken.

The adult leader didn’t take too long before persuading various other Sox players to come over to the same group of boys about our age, making autograph collecting easier than usual. Normally one had to call to a player from the stands, requesting him to take pen in hand and ink that day’s score book. From that point we did our best to blend in with the others, getting as many autographs as we could.

Curious, I asked one of the boys in the group who they were. It turned out that the kids were there on an excursion from South Bend, Indiana. All of them were newspaper boys who had won the Comiskey Park adventure for doing their deliveries and collections reliably and well. That was why, of course, the photographer/chaperone of the group had taken a picture of all of us with Minnie, for eventual publication in the very same daily paper.

Joel and I wondered how we would get a copy of the photo. “We’ll figure it out,” I said. “Just be sure you don’t say anything to that guy,” as I motioned toward the adult overseer.

We were standing a bit apart from the group, not wanting them to hear our plotting, when the same man called to us, “Hey, you two, come over here!”

At first I wondered if he’d figured out that we didn’t belong. But instead he told us he was going to try to get our photo with Mickey Mantle! We watched with heady anticipation as he talked to the Yankee great and future Hall-of-Famer. But Mantle shrugged him off. He seemed more intent on watching the other Yankees take batting practice and waiting for his own turn to hit.

Next he approached Bill “Moose” Skowron, the Yankee’s heavy-hitting first baseman. I’d always thought that “Moose,” a popular Chicago native who would eventually play for the White Sox, was called by that nickname because he was so powerfully built, unusually square-shouldered and intimidating in physique. But, it turns out that his childhood friends called him “Moose” after Benito Mussolini, who Skowron resembled a bit, especially in the 1930s when the young Skowron started to wear his hair in the crew-cut style that made him look even more like the Italian dictator.

Skowron would end his playing career with 211 regular season home runs and a .293 batting average in eight World Series appearances that led to five World Championships. He was also elected to the American League All-Star team on six occasions.

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The “Moose” walked with our benefactor behind the home plate batting cage toward the place where we were standing — on the stadium side of the barrier to the field. Skowron smiled and said hello, then turned and sat himself on the flat top of the low brick partition as he faced the gigantic center field “exploding” scoreboard that Bill Veeck, the Sox owner, had installed only that year — the first of its kind.

The photographer stood with his back toward that same scoreboard and motioned us to get on either side of the ball player, as close as we could to “Moose” while remaining in the stands. Then the 29 year-old athlete leaned back a bit, put his arms around us and the photo was taken.

Skowron said goodbye and quickly returned to his pre-game routine. But we were in trouble. Joel couldn’t restrain himself and blurted out the question I had feared, “Say, how do we get to see these pictures?”

As the saying goes, if looks could kill two 13 year-olds would have expired behind home plate at Comiskey Park.

“Aren’t you… don’t you belong… you’re newspaper delivery boys, right?”

“Uh, uh, uh…”

“Oh, s**t, f***k, you little a*s h***s, you sons of b*****s.”

I think there might have been another dozen or so swear words, some of which I never heard before and haven’t heard since. By now it is kind of a blur. And so ended any hope of ever getting our hands on a picture of the two of us with Bill Skowron.

Fortunately, my dad was able to track down the South Bend newspaper and did, in fact, find the group photo with Minnie Minoso in which we can be easily recognized. Only one problem. The caption identifies Joel as Steve Carpenter and me as Claude Fitzgerald. Or something like that.

I wrote the above in May, 2011 and for some reason set it aside. But the story was on my mind, and I told it to a recent acquaintance, a neatly bearded, fine older gentleman named Abe. He’d mentioned that he was a friend of the “Moose,” who apparently continues to live in the Chicago area.

Stories are funny things. Sometimes you think a narrative is finished when in fact it isn’t. Something else happens to someone involved in the tale that adds an important twist to it, changing its meaning. So it was with this story.

To my surprise, a few months after I’d related the yarn to Abe, he said that he told the story to “Moose” and asked him if he would sign a photo of himself in his playing days, inscribed to me. With that Abe handed me the image (below) featuring the young “Moose” and a few words to me in his still steady hand. It was an act of unexpected kindness from both of these men, something that made my day.

Thus, the story did not end with my disappointment at the failed opportunity to get my hands on a photo with a baseball hero, but with me receiving a picture after all; one that, because of the way it happened, means more to me than the half-century old version possibly could have.

I guess it just goes to show that (if you are willing to wait 51 years) you can have just about anything you want in life.


I have reposted this essay as a tribute to Bill “Moose” Skowron, whose death was reported today. He was 81.

—-

The top photo is “Moose” in his days with the Yankees. The second photo is of the scoreboard at Old Comiskey Park by Baseball Bugs sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final photo is of  Bill “Moose” Skowron at old Comiskey Park in his days with the White Sox.

A “West Side Story” Story (A.K.A. “The Angry Lady Incident”)

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Being the parent of talented children is a tough job.

Especially when they are performing on stage or on the field of play.

You want them to succeed, you hold your breath as they do their stuff, and are delighted and relieved when the show (or the game) is over. You want to find a balance between identifying completely with their performance and being totally indifferent.

You don’t want to pressure them too much or feel like the fate of the free world hangs in the balance, entirely dependent on a flawless effort.

And you try to remember (and remind them to remember) the quotation of a Hall of Fame basketball coach who said, “If every game is a matter of life and death, you’re going to have a problem: you’re going to die a lot.”

Then there is the question of how much encouragement or discouragement you visit upon your child if he actually wants to make a career in the arts or sports given the long odds of actually being able to make a living.

Two stories about that, the first a joke:

Question: What is the difference between a musician and a Domino’s pizza?

Answer: A Domino’s pizza can feed a family of four!

The other story has to do with Leonard Bernstein, who was the composer of West Side Story, not to mention a famous symphony conductor, pianist, and educator.

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Sam Bernstein, Lenny’s father, came to the USA from Russia, where musicians were held in low esteem. The musicians Bernstein’s father had encountered in his old country were mostly “klezmers,” itinerant Jews who played at weddings and other celebratory occasions, but had a hard time gaining respect and keeping bread on the table. Thus, when Sam’s oldest son displayed an interest in this “profession,” the elder Bernstein did his best to discourage the young man’s pursuit.

Eventually, his son Leonard became world-famous. And, the story is told that a newspaper reporter asked Sam why it was that he hadn’t encouraged his son in the field of music.

The senior Bernstein answered, “How was I supposed to know he would become Leonard Bernstein!”

Then there is the problem of the audience, of which you are a part; and what people say and do while your child is doing his stuff. We all have heard or witnessed parents and fans who go a bit crazy in opposition to each other over the performance of their eight-year-olds. It is worth remembering what happened on occasion when Jackie Robinson became the first black man in the 20th century to integrate organized baseball.

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Before his 1947 debut in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played one season for the Montreal Royals of the International League. The rudeness and racism recalled by his wife Rachel at the time of the team’s April, 1946 appearance in Baltimore is recounted by Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy:

When Jackie appeared on the field, the man sitting behind her shouted, “Here comes that nigger son of a bitch. Let’s give it to him now.” The Baltimore fans unleashed an unending torrent of abuse. All around her people engaged “in the worst kind of name-calling and attacks on Jackie that I had to sit through.” For one of the few times Rachel feared for Jackie’s physical safety. That night as she cried in her hotel room, Rachel thought that perhaps Jackie should withdraw from the integration venture.

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Fortunately, as the proud parent of daughters who have performed, I never had to deal with anything like that. Just the usual twittering, texting, whispering, program rustling, and bracelet jangling, that is the commonly experienced thoughtlessness in auditoriums world-wide.

But on one noteworthy occasion attended by me with my wife, I went beyond an occasional stern look to take on a woman who should have known better than to converse with her neighbor when my youngest child was in a high school production of West Side Story.

The lady was a senior citizen two seats to my right, nicely dressed, who was talking pretty loudly to a friend seated to her right. Because she was turned in her neighbor’s direction most of the time, it was difficult to catch her eye in the hope that “a look” might communicate my wish for her to quiet down. About 20 minutes in to the performance I’d had about enough.

I leaned as far to my right as I could (across the body of my friend Rich who was our guest) and, in one of the few moments when she was looking forward, she noticed me as I said, “Please be quiet!”

It was not said with ferocity, but I’m sure she knew I meant business. And, indeed, she was quieter for the rest of the first half of the performance.

Rich and I had to walk past this woman in the aisle as we began to make our way to the lobby at intermission. To my considerable surprise, as I passed this lady, she actually pushed me into the railing barrier to my left. I turned right to face her.

“Why were you so angry?” she said.

“I wanted to listen to the performance.”

“But I was only talking during the orchestra part, not the singing!” she indignantly continued.

“But I wanted to hear the orchestra. You know, you are not in your living room and this is not TV!”

With that, the encounter ended.

No guns were drawn, no knives displayed, no one put on brass knuckles, and no chains or tire irons were brandished — there was no “rumble” — no example of life imitating art, as in the gang fight that is a central part of the musical we were watching.

And my antagonist and her companion did not return after intermission.

Given that more and more states permit concealed weapons, I suppose I was taking a risk. I can’t recommend that you take on rude audience members, who might retaliate even more forcefully than did the lady in question.

But, it is hard to “tune out” people who create a volume of sound sufficient to compete with the main attraction.

It was another one of those situations in which different people react differently, sometimes dependent on mood, the capacity to tolerate frustration, an evaluation of the importance of the matter, and one’s ability to be assertive or foolhardy — however you happen to label such action.

In the end, I guess I should simply be glad that it wasn’t Baltimore in the 1940s and my adversary didn’t have her own set of family members handy, and a length of rope to hang from the nearest tree.

Rachel Robinson would understand.

The top image is from a 2003 performance of West Side Story given in Brno, Czech Republic by Městské divadlo. It is the work of Jef Kratochvil. The second photo is of Leonard Bernstein in 1945, taken by Fred Palumbo, then a photographer for the World Telegram. The third picture is a 1950 lobby card for The Jackie Robinson Story. The final image is of Rachel Robinson Accepting the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband, deceased baseball star Jackie Robinson on March 2, 2005. From left to right: Nancy Pelosi, President George W. Bush, Mrs. Robinson, and Dennis Hastert. The picture was taken by White House photographer Eric Draper. All photos are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Boyhood Heroes and Autograph Stories: Remembering Bill “Moose” Skowron

Moose Skowron

The Brooklyn Dodgers won the 1955 World Series thanks to the MVP performance of an unheralded 23 year-old pitcher named Johnny Podres. That winter I had a chance to meet him. He was scheduled to make a weekend appearance at the Peter Pan restaurant in West Rogers Park, Chicago. I couldn’t wait.

My dad drove me there and I could see the line in the eatery, all eager young boys, some older than my nine years, some younger. And there he was, seated at a table in front of the long line, observable at a distance through the restaurant’s large pane glass window. A genuine baseball player in the flesh. A real World Series hero.

But there was only one problem.

I couldn’t get myself out of the car. I froze. I was intimidated. My dad did his best to persuade me and I certainly had enough time to muster the courage to go in. Podres wasn’t going anywhere fast. But neither was I. I was fastened to the seat at a time before seat belts.

I cannot tell you what exactly I was afraid of. I don’t remember what I was thinking. All I know was that I was terrified, all too shy, and eventually my dad drove me home.

I was reminded of this story recently when a high school friend asked me if I remembered Johnny Podres appearance at the Peter Pan. He had the courage to go in. In fact, I suspect it simply wasn’t in his nature to even to be scared of it.

Within a very few years, however, I became an eager autograph collector, brazenly approaching my heroes (probably only 10 years or so older than I was at the time) as they emerged from their locker room or outside the ball park, usually Wrigley Field. I nearly got trampled trying to get Willie Mays’s signature. He simply bulled his way through the crowd of boys who were hoping to have a less physical kind of contact. But young men like Ernie Banks and Ron Santo would sign and sign and sign until everyone had a turn and a treasured keepsake.

In the summer of 1960, when I was in eighth grade, my Jamieson School friend Joel and I went to Comiskey Park to see the White Sox play the Yankees. My uncle Sam had gotten us great box seat tickets and we were eager to get some autographs before the game.

We noticed several kids bunched on the stadium side of the infield wall, all getting the popular Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso to sign their scorecards. Soon, Joel and I observed that there seemed to be a man in charge — a man who had a camera hanging by a strap around his neck. We joined in the crowd milling about the pale hose star, even getting into a picture that was taken.

The adult leader didn’t take too long before persuading various other Sox players to come over to the same group of boys about our age, making autograph collecting easier than usual. Normally one had to call to a player from the stands, requesting him to take pen in hand and ink that day’s score book. From that point we did our best to blend in with the others, getting as many autographs as we could.

Curious, I asked one of the boys in the group who they were. It turned out that the kids were there on an excursion from South Bend, Indiana. All of them were newspaper boys who had won the Comiskey Park adventure for doing their deliveries and collections reliably and well. That was why, of course, the photographer/chaperone of the group had taken a picture of all of us with Minnie, for eventual publication in the very same daily paper.

Joel and I wondered how we would get a copy of the photo. “We’ll figure it out,” I said. “Just be sure you don’t say anything to that guy,” as I motioned toward the adult overseer.

We were standing a bit apart from the group, not wanting them to hear our plotting, when the same man called to us, “Hey, you two, come over here!”

At first I wondered if he’d figured out that we didn’t belong. But instead he told us he was going to try to get our photo with Mickey Mantle! We watched with heady anticipation as he talked to the Yankee great and future Hall-of-Famer. But Mantle shrugged him off. He seemed more intent on watching the other Yankees take batting practice and waiting for his own turn to hit.

Next he approached Bill “Moose” Skowron, the Yankee’s heavy-hitting first baseman. I’d always thought that “Moose,” a popular Chicago native who would eventually play for the White Sox, was called by that nickname because he was so powerfully built, unusually square-shouldered and intimidating in physique. But, it turns out that his childhood friends called him “Moose” after Benito Mussolini, who Skowron resembled a bit, especially in the 1930s when the young Skowron started to wear his hair in the crew-cut style that made him look even more like the Italian dictator.

Skowron would end his playing career with 211 regular season home runs and a .293 batting average in eight World Series appearances that led to five World Championships. He was also elected to the American League All-Star team on six occasions.

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b2/Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg/240px-Comiskey_Park_860817.jpg

The “Moose” walked with our benefactor behind the home plate batting cage toward the place where we were standing — on the stadium side of the barrier to the field. Skowron smiled and said hello, then turned and sat himself on the flat top of the low brick partition as he faced the gigantic center field “exploding” scoreboard that Bill Veeck, the Sox owner, had installed only that year — the first of its kind.

The photographer stood with his back toward that same scoreboard and motioned us to get on either side of the ball player, as close as we could to “Moose” while remaining in the stands. Then the 29 year-old athlete leaned back a bit, put his arms around us and the photo was taken.

Skowron said goodbye and quickly returned to his pre-game routine. But we were in trouble. Joel couldn’t restrain himself and blurted out the question I had feared, “Say, how do we get to see these pictures?”

As the saying goes, if looks could kill two 13 year-olds would have expired behind home plate at Comiskey Park.

“Aren’t you… don’t you belong… you’re newspaper delivery boys, right?”

“Uh, uh, uh…”

“Oh, s**t, f***k, you little a*s h***s, you sons of b*****s.”

I think there might have been another dozen or so swear words, some of which I never heard before and haven’t heard since. By now it is kind of a blur. And so ended any hope of ever getting our hands on a picture of the two of us with Bill Skowron.

Fortunately, my dad was able to track down the South Bend newspaper and did, in fact, find the group photo with Minnie Minoso in which we can be easily recognized. Only one problem. The caption identifies Joel as Steve Carpenter and me as Claude Fitzgerald. Or something like that.

I wrote the above in May, 2011 and for some reason set it aside. But the story was on my mind, and I told it to a recent acquaintance, a neatly bearded, fine older gentleman named Abe. He’d mentioned that he was a friend of the “Moose,” who apparently continues to live in the Chicago area.

Stories are funny things. Sometimes you think a narrative is finished when in fact it isn’t. Something else happens to someone involved in the tale that adds an important twist to it, changing its meaning. So it was with this story.

To my surprise, a few months after I’d related the yarn to Abe, he said that he told the story to “Moose” and asked him if he would sign a photo of himself in his playing days, inscribed to me. With that Abe handed me the image (below) featuring the young “Moose” and a few words to me in his still steady hand. It was an act of unexpected kindness from both of these men, something that made my day.

Thus, the story did not end with my disappointment at the failed opportunity to get my hands on a photo with a baseball hero, but with me receiving a picture after all; one that, because of the way it happened, means more to me than the half-century old version possibly could have.

I guess it just goes to show that (if you are willing to wait 51 years) you can have just about anything you want in life.


I have reposted this essay as a tribute to Bill “Moose” Skowron, whose death was reported today. He was 81.

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The top photo is “Moose” in his days with the Yankees. The second photo is of the scoreboard at Old Comiskey Park by Baseball Bugs sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final photo is of  Bill “Moose” Skowron at old Comiskey Park in his days with the White Sox.

Father’s Day (via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago)

This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.

Father's Day Father’s Day can be complicated. Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all. Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine. And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure. But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple. While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in … Read More

via Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About Psychotherapy from Chicago