Not being much of a sports fan I wouldn’t expect to blog about sports, but if I did I imagine it would be about baseball. Not contemporary baseball, I don’t follow it, though we usually do watch the World Series each year providing one of the two teams is one I recognize from my youth. A few years back both teams sounded like bowling leagues to me and I skipped it. I dream about a San Francisco versus New York series.
When I was a kid, even though I grew up in Philadelphia, my teams were the Giants and the Cardinals. The Giants because San Francisco seemed a galaxy away and because of all the great players of the 60s, the sluggers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, and the pitcher Juan Marichal, whose wind up included a high kick never seen in the majors before or since. Every kid in the neighborhood seemed to try it at least once. Most of us simply fell over backwards.
I loved the Cards because of Stan Musial. The magic of compound interest being what it is, had I a dollar for every time someone called me “Stan the Man” as I was growing up I could probably afford a major league franchise of my own today. I also loved the Cards for the white and red of the uniforms and my first memory of watching a World Series on a color television in the appliance department of the big department store across from my house. We would go over, most series games were day games back then, and stand there watching a field of twenty or more color console sets, all tuned to the series, and each one with the color saturation turned up to eleven. The impossibly white and scarlet red against the impossibly green grass of the outfield and tan brown dirt of the infield was like a great abstract painting awash in pure affect.
In 1957 Roy Sievers was an outfielder for the 8th place Washington Senators but, as one of three players to receive over 200 votes that year, managed to come in third behind Mickey Mantle and Ted Willams for the American League Most Valuable Player award. His batting average was .301 and he hit a career high 42 home runs, 114 RBIs and 172 hits. It was his best of his 17 seasons as a major league ballplayer. But it is not what I remember. In 1964 he hit 8 home runs and it is one of those that is framed in my memory.
The home of the Philadelphia Athletics and named for Ben Schibe, a major stockholder and sporting goods manufacturer, Shibe Park opened in April of 1909. In 1953 I was born and the stadium’s name was officially changed to Connie Mack Stadium. I believe those events are unrelated.
In 1964 Roy Sievers was the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies. Most games were still played in the afternoons and my friends and I would sometimes hop on a bus and a train and buy the cheap “obstructed view” seats in the upper deck of the ballpark. Ballparks of this era had vertical iron girders set throughout the stadium and the seats directly behind one of these could be had for under a dollar.
When I think about baseball the earliest and clearest memory I have is like a perfect color snapshot in my head. I can call it up anytime; I’ve been able to do that as long as I can remember. I’m doing it now.
It is a sunny day. The sky is clear and blue and dotted with a few puffy white clouds. The outfield is below me, that perfect green. The fence is covered with advertisements; the scoreboard perched on top. I’m sitting up high in left field. The left side of my photograph is filled with an old dark iron girder, peppered with rivets. The arms of the people in the seats below me are all raised.
There. In the air. Round and white. Still rising in a perfect arc from home plate. The impossible object.
Think about it. A small round ball traveling at just under 100 miles an hour from sixty feet, six inches, away must be struck with a round stick. And, as hard as that alone sounds, it has to be struck just so. Struck too high and the ball will hit the ground and lose its energy and roll weakly back to the pitcher’s mound. Hit too low and the ball will fly straight up with no points awarded for how high that might be.
But hit it just so…. The gravitational pull of the Earth is helpless to stop it. Sometimes, at the maximum point of its rise, you feel it wouldn’t be a surprise if it burst suddenly into flames and exploded.
What a thing that must be. I can almost close my eyes and imagine what that might feel like, but I know from the thousands of things I have imagined before that have completely surprised me when I experienced them (from escargot to sex) that I only imagine what it is like to imagine what it must be like.
But I digress.
Anyday now, almost certainly by the time you read this, the Philadelphia Phillies will have passed a milestone no other team in baseball or any other sport has reached: They will have lost 10,000 games.
Unlike the Cubs or the Red Sox (both of whom you might imagine would have arrived here first) the Phillies have no appealing underdog tragedy or “curse” to blame for their lot. The Phillies do not lose with “style.” They do not lose with grace. They just lose. They’ve ended the season better than .500 less than 50 times in their 124 year history. In 1883 they played their first season and ended with a record of 17 wins and 81 losses. Ten years later they won 52 and lost 100. Between 1918 and 1948 the Phillies managed to finish only once above .500. Philadelphia’s long and wretched history of race relations is mirrored in the fact that the Phillies remained all white by design for ten full years after Jackie Robinson’s debut in the majors.
This brings us to the season that eclipses all other losing seasons in baseball, and maybe all sport. In 1964, bolstered by the arrival of Dick Allen who would win Rookie of the Year honors, the Phils came into the home stretch in first place, needing only one win in the final ten games to secure the pennant. They lost ten games in a row and the Cardinals came up from behind to win the pennant. In 1980, their 98th season, the Phillies finally won their first World Series, but even that accomplishment was muted by the 1964 season.
Back in the mid 1980s when I was in grad school I worked at a record store in Athens, Ohio, and one of the two friends I made working there was Edwin Hill, another OU student. We were both fans of the band Steely Dan who once sang, "They got a name for the winners in the world / I want a name when I lose."
Edwin was a much bigger baseball fan than I was and when we parted ways I gave him a present that I would imagine he still has today. Two box seat tickets to the 1964 World Series, game one, at Connie Mack Stadium. Tickets to the series that never was. Those tickets ought to be taken out and prominently displayed the day the Phils reach 10,000.