We usually think of origin stories as the province of fictional superheroes or the real-life super rich. It could be an ordinary boy bitten by a radioactive spider or arriving on earth as refugees from an annihilated planet. Perhaps we think of a nearly destitute J.K. Rowling toiling away at her first novel in a coffee shop, or Jeff Bezos creating an empire from scratch on a computer in his living room. Yet many of us who came from humble origins and went on to live simple, unremarkable lives also have a narrative that informs who we became. Mine happened in third grade.
I am a husband, a father, and a teacher. To these three descriptors of my identity I would add one more, just slightly less central. I am a baseball fan.
I am not one of the true obsessives who grew up playing Strat-O-Matic and graduated to planning his whole calendar around the SABR conference or spending countless hours with multiple fantasy leagues (two is my limit). But I have been a fantasy league commissioner since 1992, and the majority of text messages that my adult son and I exchange have some connection to the top Atlanta Braves prospects for the coming year. I also get to sleep most nights not by counting sheep, but by silently reciting World Series winners backward from 1970.
Baseball, its present and its past, is deeply ingrained in my outlook on life. My bookshelf is 70% baseball, 30% history and politics.
Baseball on the field was part of my youth, first as a fourth-rate Little League catcher and then as a minor league batboy for the Class A Lynchburg Mets.
Family vacations have often included trips to Baltimore or Atlanta for games. My son’s youth and high school games with me as spectator, coach, or scorekeeper were part of the rhythm of our family life for over a decade. Our baseball bond defines our relationship.
As the immortal lyric of David Byrne plaintively asks, “well, how did I get here?”
In 1971, when I was in third grade at Garland-Rodes Elementary School, I found a book in the library that piqued my interest. Its chapters told tales of the greatest World Series exploits in the years from 1905 to 1963.
I have no idea why the book caught my attention. I don’t remember ever having interest in baseball prior to that moment. I must have had some awareness of the game, but I don’t have any idea how much I knew at the time. My only recollection of watching a baseball game was coming home from second grade in the fall of 1969 and watching a few minutes of the Mets-Orioles World Series, which seemed to be a big deal to others in the house for some reason. The rise of the Amazin’ Mets from baseball’s basement to its New York penthouse was enough of a cultural event to penetrate even our otherwise sports-free household.
I suppose I should thank a schoolmate and neighbor from three doors down for my lifelong interest in the game. He saw that I was interested in the book, so he went and checked it out himself in an odd act of third grade churlishness. Then he renewed the book for another week so that I couldn’t have it. When I finally got my hands on it, the impression was profound.
From a distance of several decades, the next two years of my life seem astonishingly focused on one pursuit. I’m sure that there were other things that happened to me and my family, but I don’t remember much that didn’t involve reading about baseball, playing baseball, watching baseball on an ancient black and white television (I didn’t get to see the Oakland A’s fully resplendent in their green and gold until 1973), and going to baseball games.
I had little help or direction in this maniacal pursuit of mine, though my parents aided and abetted where they could. My father, a theater professor and director who didn’t know a fastball from a masked ball, never played catch with me, but he took me to buy my first baseball glove at the Western Auto store at a nearby shopping center. In the most perfect summation of his character, he once took me to a minor league game during which he sat in the stands memorizing his lines in the Latin language script of a play he was soon to perform in in an ancient abbey in France. His simultaneous dedication to supporting his child’s passion while pursuing his own was never more evident.
My mother actually tried playing catch with me once. It ended badly. My perfect throw across the front yard eluded her glove, but not her nose. Much flowing of blood ensued, and she felt terrible for years about how terrible I felt about the incident.
My mother’s skill at retrieving lost baseballs often kept my friends and me from having our frequent games of catch abruptly ended. The tall, thick hedge that provided a backstop at one end of the front yard, preventing errant throws from reaching the street, was also a baseball magnet. Two or three of us could poke fruitlessly around that hedge for a half an hour in search of a ball, but Mom could seemingly use that maternal radar to find it every time. Well, maybe not every time.
One wild toss cleared the hedge, rolled into the street toward the intersection, and into a storm drain. Recovering that ball was beyond even her considerable capabilities. As the mom most likely to come up with a ridiculous pun, she declared that the ball had committed sewercide.
My eldest brother, 10 years my senior, was a baseball fan. He, however, was no help during those early formative years of my fandom as he was away from home, engaged in all manner of early 1970s shenanigans. He and our middle brother made it up to me in my early teens by taking me on several very memorable (this is a whole separate essay) trips to Baltimore to see the Yankees play the Orioles.
In fairly short order I joined the local Little League for several lackluster seasons, wrote a baseball column for a mimeographed fourth grade class newspaper, and spent countless dimes buying Slurpees from the neighborhood 7-11 to create an impressive collection of plastic baseball cups. The best part of this collection, still in my basement, is that I have a Willie Mays cup from 1972 with a Giants cap, and another from 1973 with a Mets cap.
I was also first in line each year at that same 7-11 to buy the Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook. I would spend hours studying the Players’ Targets section, a listing of career leaderboards in various statistical categories. There I followed Hank Aaron and Mays in their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s fabled home run record.
During that period I was taken, or delivered to, dozens of Lynchburg Twins minor league games. City Stadium was my stale-popcorn-and-cigar-smoke-scented home away from home for years. The game program included a guess-the-final-score contest that netted the lucky winners a case of quart bottles of Coca-Cola, a prize that I took home several times after predicting a 5-3 final in every entry. While I never won the guess-the-attendance contest, I did win $115 in a home run inning drawing. All that was required was to have your entry chosen during the designated inning and have your player hit a circuit blast on your behalf. Randy Bass, later a celebrated power hitter for the Hanshin Tigers of the Japanese Central League and a state senator in Oklahoma, won it for me with a towering shot on Easter Sunday in 1974.
The high point of that period came in the winter of 1973-74 when Aaron, still my greatest baseball hero, sat on home run No. 713 in the Great Chase. I wrote him a letter in which I expressed my admiration, decried the racist attacks that he had suffered, and very politely requested an autograph. The signed photograph that I received in reply is still on a shelf in my home and is undoubtedly my most cherished possession.
So, about that first book…
To this day, I remember that the first two chapters were about Sandy Koufax striking out 15 batters in 1963, a World Series record at the time, and Christy Mathewson’s three shutout wins in the 1905 series. That chapter was called “Three Shutouts for Matty.” I had no idea what a shutout was, or who Matty was, but somehow it stuck. I learned names that I had never heard before, like Connie Mack (why was there a man named Connie?) and Casey Stengel. I learned what a perfect game was, and why a “big inning” was a big deal. Pepper Martin’s domination of the 1931 series, Bill Bevens’ near no-hitter in 1947, and The Catch by Willie in 1954 are now indelibly imprinted on my memory.
This collection of thrilling tales got stuck in my head one night while lying in bed, but I couldn’t remember the title of the book. I Googled the phrase “three shutouts for Matty” and eventually landed on the book I was remembering. It was Greatest World Series Thrillers by Ray Robinson, published in 1965, part of a series of youth titles from Random House called Little League Library. I found it on eBay and ordered it, and my childhood arrived in the mail a few days later.
Baseball delights, confounds, inspires, and frustrates. It forges connections within families and communities, and between generations. I don’t know how many baseball fans first engaged with the sport as I did, through books rather than by playing or watching games. Unlike my own self-directed experience, my son grew up watching the Braves on television, wearing child-sized Chipper Jones jerseys, smacking plastic balls around the basement, and going to major league games from the age of four. He eventually became a fine high school player and a master of fantasy baseball. His origin story is radically different from my own.
I am forever grateful for the world that Ray Robinson opened for me in that slim volume of baseball lore. Thanks, Matty, for those three shutouts in chapter two.