Baseball is not just a sport. It is an integral part of what America is built upon. It is a gathering…an event. It is a pastime. Most important, it is a community.
Years ago, sitting with my Grandparents where, in their usual seats at a Braves game in old Milwaukee County Stadium, a phenomena of life was created as it became a safe zone. The people who sat around them had faces that were well-known to me. In front of Grandma, was Mrs Pauling; in front of my Grandfather was Tom, Mrs. Pauling’s husband. Next to my Grandfather were George and Betty Thompson. Behind them was Billy Franzen, who owned a big Chevy dealership on the South side and studying for his PhD in women. Next to him was Billy J., who owned the 1500 Club on Lincoln. Don and Mary Jane sat behind George and Betty. Kaye and Big Bill sat behind us. Good thing because Big Bill a former Marquette basketball player would have blocked our view. ‘Smokin Stein’ Kaczmarski and one of his family members sat behind my Grandparents. Tony and Dorothy Shiro usually sat where I was sitting, but on this day as they were kind enough to give Grandma the tickets for when we visited, it was our hallowed ground, for my brother and me.
Sitting on the end of the row, my favorite seat in the whole wide world, also meant that one was, among other things, the passer of food and drink to the rest of your row. And you got to know each and every vendor who supplied them. There was Bob the Beer Guy (only Miller sold in this ballpark, thank you very much), Lefty the hot dog vender who would toss dogs like footballs with perfect spirals with mustard packs following on the same flight behind it until you said ‘no more’. And of course, Snooky, the beleaguered Cubs fan who was forced to wear a Braves cap while peddling Coke. And they got to know who you were, as they were the invaluable key to our safe zone, making sure you were alright and making sure you knew where you were at all times in the Stadium. This was the community of Section 16.
Baseball is best as a community event. Season ticket holders have made this happen for years and many more years at a stadium near you, made up the core of the cloistered village. This community was built upon hard-working people from all walks of life, workers who built their lives from the ground up and who went to the games to leave every problem in life behind them. This was a mental-free zone where you could concentrate on only one thing…the thrill of being at the ball park with all of its sights and smells that will free you forever. That, along with your new-found friends who lived in this community gave solace to this little piece of sanity. There was the smell of the hops and mustard, Secret Stadium Sauce and the bratwurst, hamburgers and dogs on the grill. The popcorn popping, the smell upon the opening of the fresh salty flavor in the cracking of another bag of peanuts. There are probably more peanuts eaten at a ballgame than at any other single time or event in your life, unless you worked for Planters. And of course, there was the unforgettable overwhelming aroma of that stinky cigar that ‘Smoking Stein’ smoked which was ever-present when the wind blew from South to North. Never buy a LaPalina no matter how much you like CBS. I am convinced that this is another solid reason why he single-handedly is responsible for the boost in sales of Advair in Milwaukee today. All of this rolled into one identified where you were… smack in the middle within the community of the game.
There were the arguments, of course. Was that ump really blind? Was Mathews better than Mantle? Simple stats flew through the air like paper in the wind. No WARP here. We dealt in real stuff…runs, hits, wins, loses, home runs, BA’s, RBIs (not RBI. We were not politically correct at that time.), double, triples, strike outs and balls. No OPS or OPS+ or IBBs, RAR, oWAR, dWAR, oRAR nor XYZs. No Rtot or Rdrs’ either. While stats are the conjunctions of the game, the pitching and hitting are the train within this community. While hitting is for show, pitching was for all the dough. And Milwaukee had the pitching.
The announcers were like big brothers or the best uncles in our lives. They were the stars the stars looked up to. Earle and Blaine led the other important box car in our community’s train, Miller High Life & Clark took us out to the park. Later Kent got in there too. And who could forget, looking up at the press box and seeing the likes of Harry, Bob, Mel, Jack or Vinny. These were our unmet friends…our buddies that brought us those ‘inside’ bits of information which we could recite the next day to our friends in an attempt to impress them with our knowledge of the game. You relished these tiny morsels of inside info. It was the foundation, along with the info on the back of the Topps, in how you would be graded on the ladder of baseball standing in your life.
While all of these reflect yesterday, today there are few who can weave the magic lexer any better than Mr. Sculley. The other day, during one of the epic Dodger/Giants games (now put on your earphones. Beats or ear buds and really listen in the voice of Vin), he said: ’Now coming to the plate, is Nori Aoki…the pest. And the reason why he is a pest is that he is always challenging the pitcher and the opposing team. Did you know, that when he comes up for the first time facing the starting pitcher of the other team, he is batting .257. But when he comes up for the second time against the same pitcher, he is hitting about 100 points higher. And if he faces that starting pitcher for the third time in the game, he is hitting over .400.’ Ye Gads! With information like that I could have had a career writing the backs of the Topps cards.
These types of words were the essence of conversation the community passed along to one another throughout the game. For most in the community, the baseball game on the radio was the constant in their lives. It was way more than white noise. When Earle said that it was time for the 7th Inning stretch, just after he caught another foul ball in his fishing net, Billy would get up and turn around to face the entire stands in his tee-shirt with the big ‘bow tie’ logo on the front. It simply would not be a game unless Billy did that. You actually knew these folks so well. For instance, my brother Mike still remembers our Grandmother asking where the Paulings were during a game, and Betty, three seats away, amazingly answered, ‘Tom and Lona are at their grand daughter, Mary Ann’s, baptism.’ And the game went on. Now the community was officially informed by the town crier. And for the rest of the game, mumblings about what Mary Ann looked like filtered in and out while the box score was being kept. In the margin of that program against the Dodgers, there was a notation…not of the official attendance but of the simple note: ‘MaryAnn’. There was always talk about Billy F. and his latest girl friend from Rosary or was it St. Mary’s College? The question centered around when he would bring her to the game so we could all give him a standing ovation for his courage in asking her out without crashing down the light poll on South 20th Street. This was the community. When my Grandfather missed a game because of his induction into the Fourth Degree of the Knights of Columbus, the next game both Betty and Lona had brought cookies and a cake for my Grandmother to take home for those evenings when my Grandfather would be at Knights meetings when the Braves were out-of-town.
Baseball is, yes, a game. But in America it is so much more than that. This community, this family, cares and shares and lives on well past the sale date. In fact, when you go back to the ball park today, to see those same seats in the new stadium where ever you are, you look for those folks, who have all passed along with Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daffy, Lawrence and Mae and Dizzy and Warren. But if you look real hard, there is Billy standing up during the 7th inning stretch, turning around to the crowd, puffing out his chest and wearing a tee-shirt with a ‘bow tie’ logo on the front. Yes. Next to him is that girl from Rosary or was it St. Mary’s? ‘And if you’re not here it’s a shame…’
And the answer to the first question is ‘Yes’.