Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Long Season

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, March 21, 2007:
Exhibition games in Florida or Arizona are not exactly a rite of spring but a harbinger: the magical mid-February date on which pitchers and catchers report reminds us in the north that somewhere else in America it is warm, that soon we will see the crocus.

It is not necessary to take a trip to feel the stirrings of renewal, but all of my friends in the baseball business had been to spring training many times and viewed it as a delightful perk of office. Most of my fan friends, too, periodically arranged a winter holiday around a Grapefruit League or Cactus League game. Until last year, though, I had never been to a spring training game and only went then because I had been invited to give the keynote address at a conference in Tucson, Arizona, sponsored by the academic baseball journal NINE.

At the turn of this year, staring at a sixtieth birthday, I surprised myself by registering as a conferee, with no task commissioned, no expenses reimbursed, totally on my own hook. I knew that I would be coming off a hard couple of months as I was scheduled to deliver, in the days before the NINE conference opened, a new book and a new scholarly journal of my own, called BASE BALL. I saw the conference as an opportunity to renew old acquaintances, take in a few games, rest and recuperate. For five days, nothing to do! I even looked forward to the transcontinental flight, with its layovers and inevitable delays, as a chance to read.

To others my choice for onflight reading—Francis Willughby’s Book of Games: A Seventeenth Century Treatise on Sports, Games, and Pastimes—might seem like a chore, but to me it was a thriller, with fresh insights on nearly every page. Created in the early 1670s as The Book of Plaies, the manuscript had never been printed prior to its issue in 2003, when it was renamed by its modern-day editors to deter librarians from cataloging it with dramaturgy. I will have more to say about this another day but for now let me just say that I learned more about early baseball from this book, in which the game is never mentioned, than any other.

The Clarion Hotel was the conference site, located just 10 minutes from Tucson Electric Field (home to the Diamondbacks and White Sox) and 15 minutes from Hy Corbett Field (home to the Rockies). As airport hotels go, it was perfectly nice and, with the NINE group rate, astoundingly cheap. There was a ballroom, a conference room, a pool, and a bar masquerading as a restaurant. Heaven, in short, except for the acoustic-tiled ceilings. Checking in late Wednesday, I looked forward especially to Saturday evening’s keynote address by old friend Bob Creamer, the incomparable biographer of Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel. I was less sanguine about the prospects for the 30 research presentations, but I would do my best to stick with most of them.

According to its official description, NINE “studies all historical aspects of baseball, centering on the societal and cultural implications of the game wherever in the world it is played. The journal features articles, essays, book reviews, biographies, oral history, and short fiction pieces.” It had been created by Bill Kirwin of the University of Calgary (Edmonton) in 1993 and he had been editor of the journal and organizer of the conference ever since. This year he issued the opening welcome on Thursday evening by announcing, in an admirably matter-of-fact way, that he was handing the reins of the publication over to Trey Strecker of Ball State University because he had an inoperable brain cancer. Though he was still able to walk about a bit, he did not stray far from his wife and his wheelchair.

Most of the conferees, myself included, had eased into the fall of our lives. For Bill Kirwin it was suddenly winter, with the shock of his announcement compounded by its spring-training setting. But he was in such fine spirits that after an opening presentation of surpassing irrelevance the attendees headed off to the “social mixer,” where they updated each other on forthcoming books and articles (Lee Lowenfish showed off his massive new Branch Rickey biography). We old boys swapped reminiscences of those no longer with us—the writer Charles Einstein, the ballplayers Lew Burdette and Hank Bauer, the photographer Hy Peskin (“he always smelled of aftershave,” recalled Creamer, who like Peskin had been an original Sports Illustrated staffer back in 1954).

The following day, after some morning presentations, we made our way to Tucson Electric (with a Son Volt CD aptly blasting in the car), with the 10,000 foot San Catalina Mountains in the background making for a lunar landscape like that of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. On the previous day, early conference arrivers had seen Sammy Sosa continue his drive for a roster spot with the Texas Rangers. Today’s game between Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox would be dominated not by an oldtimer struggling to come back but by the record-setting 95-degree heat. Despite liberal doses of suntan oil and beer, my pals and I said “Uncle” before the sixth inning (and after seeing the ageless Minnie Minoso greeting fans in the shaded vendor arcade).

The blistering heat did not quit for the next day’s NINE excursion, to Hy Corbett Field. The Tucson Mountains loomed behind its right field fence, over which the Rockies sent homer after homer as they mauled the Giants. For this game we baked on aluminum bleachers for three innings, lacking only sour cream and chives before heading out with the score 8-0. Such behavior would be heresy for a baseball lifer in the regular season (except in Los Angeles) but here, with guys wearing numbers in the 60s and 70s, our sense of decency eroded—or fried. We headed back to the air conditioned comfort of the hotel bar.

We had already begun to hear some fine presentations and more would be mixed in among the dross. Karl Lindholm talked about “Pitching’s Moonlight Graham: Frank ‘Socko’ Worm”—a fellow whose one-third of an inning pitched for the Dodgers in 1944 defined his life. James E. Brunson III opened my eyes to an unfamiliar part of black baseball history with “‘Colored’ Champions: Henry Bridgewwater’s St. Louis Black Stockings, 1881-1889.” Jean Ardell spoke movingly about Organized Baseball’s first woman pitcher in “Life after Baseball: Whatever Happened to Lefthander Ila Jane Borders?” New NINE editor Trey Strecker discussed Heywood Broun’s 1923 novel The Sun Field, in which the author’s wife, Ruth Hale, was featured as a thinly veiled character (the two both figured large in their son Heywood Hale Broun’s memoir Whose Little Boy Are You?). Academicians vying for fashion props reported ploddingly on matters of race, gender, and class, but two undergrads—Mina Makarious of Harvard and Kim LaGuardia of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse—both gave promise of having a good deal more to contribute as they progressed beyond their own spring training.

At unscheduled moments we drove south into the desert, just short of the Mexican border; we lunched at El Charro Cafe, a Tucson institution since 1922; and we imbibed at the Tap Room of the Hotel Congress, so skillfully remodeled that you’d think it hadn’t been touched since its founding in 1919. Back at the hotel we struggled to make ourselves heard over the TVs blaring Final Four basketball contests; only in our archaic world did March Madness refer to baseball. Yet on Saturday morning the hotel courtyard was dominated by Little Leaguers in uniform, warming up for a late-morning playoff game; and on Saturday evening, after Creamer’s fine talk on “Barry and the Babe,” the conferees walked out of the banquet hall into a lobby filled with teenagers and family celebrating a girl’s Quinceañera, or 15th Birthday. A cross between a Sweet 16 and a debutante’s coming out, the celebration united old and young guests in a coming- of-age gala.

All during the days of the conference, and everywhere we happened to go, the young had vied for their place in the sun with the old. And those of us who are headed west, toward the sunset, were glad of it.

--John Thorn


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