In just a few more days, in two weeks to be exact, pitchers and catchers report for spring training. It is a place where the grass is green, the sun is out and the weather is warm. In the years past, it was a time when the players who had been off working at other jobs for the winter would get themselves back into shape. Yes. Players in the ’50s and ’60s actually had to have jobs to support their families during the winter as their pay was not what it is today and the financial support of a second, off-season job, was necessary. Today’s ballplayer, has stayed in shape or gotten into shape for the past couple of months to arrive at spring training ready to get into the groove for the coming season. No second jobs for today’s ballplayer as they, at a minimum for one season, make more than most families earn in several years. Tweeners, those who are good Triple A players but not quite good enough to make it in the Bigs for a sustained period, make good money. For that good fortune, thanks should go to Curt Flood.
My first recollection of a player at a spring training camp was Bill Skowron, the big, burley first baseman for the New York Yankees. I remember a picture of him in The Sporting News when that magazine was the bible of baseball. That’s the only sport it really talked about. The ‘hot stove league’ must have been invented by The Sporting News. And that one year, in the middle of winter, at the drug store magazine rack, there was this picture of Skowron leaning into the camera and reaching for a bunch of bats in the on-deck circle.
‘Have you paid for that copy?’, the owner of the pharmacy asked. ‘Can’t read it unless you are at the counter and drinking a Coke or Malt’, he’d explain for the 800th time. So you would go over to the far end of the counter, take a seat on that round red cushioned plastic circle on top of a pedestal that swiveled, and order a Cherry Coke for a nickel. You then had the pleasure of being able to read The Sporting News without paying for it as long as there weren’t customers waiting to do the same thing. ‘Don’t spill on it if you’re not buying it’, he would always say as he walked away giving you a straw for your drink.
Why was it the memory of Skowron that I associated with spring training? He was a football player from Purdue and a punter on their teams. Wisconsin had been playing Purdue forever and that is probably why the association occurred. But for many of those days in February, it was cold…sometimes bitterly cold. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a chance to escape and go down to spring training where it was sunny and warm.
There are several things wrong with that last thought. First, it was a dream. And dreams end when you wake up. Second, as a kid, you don’t control your travels. Like most, I was stuck in the snow and cold until it melted away and became that messy, dirty mush on a pewter grey day that seemed to last forever. Grabbing a bat at that time of the year in the cold basement was foreign. It felt big and heavy. Your swing even was labored. Everything was tight. The glove was stiff and the ball a bit slippery. It just had to get warmer. Third, a kid doesn’t chart his ‘spring break’. During these times you yearned for that comfortable warm corner with The Sporting News to read in order to fill your mind with all of the baseball minutia that one could possibly stuff into your head. After all, there was no telling what break you would get to answer that all important question about … ‘Who was a former football player from Purdue who now stars for the New York Yankees?’…for one million dollars and a trip to spring training. You and only you knew that the break was just around the corner. You see, to be a baseball fan, you are always in a season of hope. That is especially true if you are a Cubbies fan. My next door neighbor was one such labored fan. Each winter he would talk about how great the Cubs would be this coming season. Each spring he would trade every card in his possession for a Cub player. He was my baseball card ‘Bank’. I could trade him Dee Fondy for Mickey. Talk about a season of hope. For a Cub fan it is a lifetime of hope.
In The Sporting News you would read about what was happening or could happen or should happen if this guy was traded to that team for that other player. This was the magic of imagination. With one simple copy of TSN, you literally had the world in your hands. Then, as if magic happened, on a Saturday in March, with the weather still crummy and you would swear that you would run out of cardboard for that hole in your shoe before the snow fully melted, an actual broadcast of a game was on radio. They said it was sunny and warm and fans in the stands were in their tee-shirts. The melodic voice of Earl Gillespie along with his sidekick, Blaine Walsh, brought the Milwaukee Braves into the home back up in the cold, wintry north. ‘Miller High Life and Clark…Bring You Out To The Park’ the opening jingle rang out. At first, you thought it was a mistake and you should run to your mother and tell her about the hallucinations you were having. Surely she would rush you to a hospital and summon Dr. Maurman to save you. It was certainly that dreaded disease, baseball fever that Dr. Maurman always warned your Mom about. ‘That child is going to have to be watched’, he would have said if he were actually in this dream. ‘Baseball fever is nothing to laugh at. It is a disease that affects the nervous system of young boys who read The Sporting News too much.’
The only saving grace what that The Sporting News was not banned and placed on the Legion of Decency list. For once I was safe from Sister Ramegia’s uncanny see-all/know all elastic arms of the law. This was a nun in a wheel chair that would actually ‘chase you down’ if she wanted to speak with you. Hell. She was on wheels.
But I digress. The Sporting News was everything to a real fan. It brought us all the nuance we thought only we knew. It was our hidden treasure trove of information that would save the world from destruction and….
‘Wake Up! You’re day dreaming again. Were you thinking about baseball again’, she would say, as your Mom was all-knowing. ‘You can’t let baseball rule your life or you will be destined to write about it.’
Yikes! Mom….cut that out. I’m all grown up now and you are still invading my consciousness when it comes to baseball. No. I’m not reading The Sporting News. You know why? It doesn’t do just baseball anymore. It hardly ever does baseball anymore. And besides, I’m just thinking that my birthday is only a few days away and that is the time when spring training begins.’
She responded in my head, ‘I suppose you would like to go and see them play. Don’t worry. Before you know it they will be back up north and you can listen to them all you want. And besides, Bill Skowron has just been traded to the Dodgers’.
On Wednesday, February 5, 2014
When he first came up he played in left field. A few feet away, I saw him move gracefully along the outfield grass, never over extended. Always in complete control. He will always be a part of the Milwaukee community. Today he is 80. Here’s to having many, many more, Hank.