Peanuts and Cracker Jacks

CHARLESTON—The Atlanta Braves game plays on the radio. I’m listening on an alarm-clock radio that sits on my hotel nightstand.

Our cheap room overlooks the not-so-snazzy outskirts of the Holy City. This is not one of your slick hotels. This is the kind of place that smells like fifty-year-old Pall Malls and has a wobbly toilet.

We just got into town, but I never miss a game if I can help it. And when I close my eyes, I can see the game, even though it’s happening on a radio.

I wanted to be a baseball writer as a kid. There was an old man in our neighborhood who was an actual sportswriter. The white-haired old salt was the real deal. He carried a portable typewriter to ballgames. He sat in press boxes. He tapped out five-hundred word columns like a regular Red Smith. It was unbearably cool.

The old man could fully appreciate the game in ways that only old men can. He’d covered the Bronx Bombers, the Brooklyn “Bums” in ‘55, and the Milwaukee Braves when they signed a young guy named Hank. He’d shaken hands with Koufax, watched Mantle and Maris duke it out in ‘61, and he was present for Jackie’s funeral.

But alas, I never even came close to being a sportswriter. All I can do is listen by radio.

The sound of the crowd sounds like static. This year Major League Baseball is using fake crowd noise on broadcasts since COVID-19 prohibits fans from attending games. Which means that the Boys of Summer are traveling the nation to play in empty stadiums. This is eerie when you think about it.

But the canned crowd sounds aren’t so bad since baseball doesn’t work without crowds. And if you don’t believe me, sing the first verse of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

I was never in any danger of being an actual baseball writer. For one thing, you have to be a great lyricist to make baseball sound romantic. I’m not. Oh, sure, I love the game as much as the next hick, but no matter how hard I try I can’t make it sound like poetry.

The closest I ever came to being a real bat-and-ball chronicler was when I got hired by a little publication to write about the history of Georgia baseball.

Man alive. It was the greatest gig of my life. I was over the moon. I toured Grayson Stadium in Savannah—built during the Coolidge administration. I did interviews with old-timers. I spoke to an elderly Chatham County man who had seen Satchel Paige, Walter Johnson, and the Babe.

I wrote my articles and by some weird turn of events I got fired before the columns never saw the light of day.

Oh, well. You live and learn. I learned that I am just a fan. It helps to know what you truly are.

I freely admit that I am just a middle-aged guy writing about a child’s game. My hair is thinning, and I have crow’s feet, but I still tune in to broadcasts with the same slack-jawed wonder of a boy.

Because it’s not a sport to me, it’s a way of thinking. It’s a ballet performed on grass. It’s a game where losers can actually win. Where underdogs surprise you. A game that looks beautiful on the radio.

My father taught me to enjoy radio games. When I was a boy he would listen to them, sipping non-fundamentalist beverages, closing his eyes during the late innings. Those beautiful hazel eyes that I will never see again.

He also taught me how to fill out a scorecard. Which is a lost art among young men. I haven’t used a scorecard in ages.

Though years ago I was at a minor league game in Montgomery where I met an eighty-year-old woman who used a scorecard. She wore a large sunhat, and had a voice like a Greek Revival home. In the fifth inning she asked if I had a pocket knife to sharpen her pencil.

We became friends immediately, and she went on to tell me about her father. Everyone talks about their daddy during a baseball game.

She said, “Daddy wanted a boy, but he got me instead, so he did boy stuff with me, baseball was our thing.”

She loved the game more than most men I’ve known. And she loved her Montgomery Biscuits. Before she and I parted ways—I’ll never forget this—she asked, “So what do you do for a living?”

I told her I was a writer. Her face lit up. She asked me to put my name on her scorecard so she could look me up. So I did, and I wrote down my email address, too. We stayed in touch until she died.

I wish she could have seen Major League Baseball make its triumphant return this year, amidst a deadly pandemic and a virus-ridden world. She would have gotten a kick out of it all.

Because old-timers know that baseball always comes back. There’s just something about it.

It’s a game that defies naysayers. It teaches a kid to cheer instead of complain. And to ignore impossible odds. A game that, for a brief moment in time, transforms me. All of a sudden I’m no longer a middle-aged man, overlooking the cityscape of Charleston from a dingy motel room. I am a child, seated on the lap of my late father, eyes closed, watching a boy’s game on the radio.

A game that only an old soul can fully appreciate.

14 comments

  1. Deborah Blount - July 29, 2020 7:51 am

    You remind me of my grandmother. She never missed a Braves game. She was born in 1914 and believed baseball was Americana in the physical form. She had a niece that married a minor league ball player with the Lookouts and could talk baseball with the best of it’s fans. She was 90 when she died. I sat with her and played the Braves baseball game on the radio for her. She was in a coma, but I believe she was at that game in her mind.
    Baseball makes kids of all of us. We definitely need that right now.

    Reply
  2. Jane - July 29, 2020 11:33 am

    Welcome to Charleston old Fellow baseball-lover- next game come out to the end of folly beach near the Morris Island lighthouse where the only sounds are dolphin blowholes and a myriad of bird sounds that make me look around for a crying baby. I’m standing here (turtle patrol does loggerhead nests) right NOW reading your post. Enjoy Charleston – you probably know that you could stay a month and still never finish a bucket list.

    Reply
  3. Jo Ann - July 29, 2020 12:44 pm

    My husband is a huge (!!!) baseball fan. I’m sorry to say he roots for the Baltimore Orioles (every year, fans say “maybe this year they’ll be good!”) Anyway, he was so excited to watch the first games over the weekend. The Orioles won 2 out of 3 from Boston. Then, this week’s first games were cancelled because of the virus. Sadness reigned. We both hope they can continue to play. Yes, it’s just a game & has no real significance, but it lifts the spirits of so many people.

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  4. Ginger - July 29, 2020 1:53 pm

    If you still have those old columns on the history of Georgia baseball, pull them out and let’s hear them. As an old baseball fan and writers’ fan, I would love to read them. Got a new TV in Feb. for the express purpose of really seeing the baseball games (and not having to get up out of my recliner and walk to the TV to see the box scores). Finally, I am watching the Braves, not quite the same as those in-person game; but still there’s finally something worth watching on TV..

    Reply
  5. Gayla Warner - July 29, 2020 1:53 pm

    “A game that looks beautiful on the radio.”
    You ARE a great lyricist. You make baseball sound romantic. You make it sound like poetry. I believe you are in danger of being an actual baseball writer.

    Reply
  6. cronkitesue - July 29, 2020 2:39 pm

    Did you read Paul Hemphill’s book Long Gone about the old Alabama-west Florida league and the role played by the Graceville Oilers?

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  7. Linda Moon - July 29, 2020 4:41 pm

    CHARLESTON. Well, there you go. You had me there….in that Holy City. I can see it with my eyes closed. Sometimes things, maybe even baseball, can be better heard and not seen so that we can create our own imagery. I’ve “seen” your father through your words and eyes, Chronicler. I imagine I sure would have liked him. And next time you go to Charleston, stay at one of those Greek Revival homes that are now Inns!

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  8. Susan Smith - July 29, 2020 6:41 pm

    I, too, learned to love baseball sitting beside my father on the side porch often in the dark listening to the radio. Boston Red Sox!

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  9. MAM - July 29, 2020 8:42 pm

    I bet you would have made a good sportswriter, except from what I’ve seen from you, you are entirely too creative. Sportswriting seems rote and formulaic to me when I very rarely read it. But keep your columns coming!!!

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  10. Anne Godwin - July 29, 2020 9:24 pm

    Have you seen the movie Frequency? If not, look it up. It’s about a fireman who connects with his Dad who died 30 years earlier. Wish I had one of those short-wave radios. I also wish I had your ability to remember. My Dad died by suicide when I was 8. I’m 70 now and have so few memories of him. Keep writing the good stuff! Hope you make plans to come to the Mobile area again. Soon. When all the fear is gone.

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  11. Nancy M - July 30, 2020 4:14 am

    You do make baseball sound like poetry! This whole column, especially the 15th paragraph. Pure poetry!

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  12. Nancy M - July 30, 2020 4:21 am

    I agree with Ginger. I hope you still have those old columns. I’d like to read them.

    We have a minor league stadium in Mobile named for Mr. Hank.

    Reply
  13. Elaine STROFF - July 30, 2020 1:18 pm

    Loved this column on baseball. I was a Daddy’s girl. I, too, had a Dad that loved baseball. I grew up going to Babe Ruth games, American Legion Games and helping my Dad with his Little League team. He was a Reds fan so we drive to Atlanta every time the Reds came to town! I grew up with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Sparky Anderson and Joe Morgan. When those greats left the game, my Dad became a Braves fan. We added a baseball to his casket when he died. Thanks for a wonderful column today.

    Reply
  14. jimmybpool - August 5, 2020 12:42 am

    Ray, people will come, Ray.
    They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.
    “Of course, we won’t mind if you look around,” you’ll say. “It’s only twenty dollars per person.” They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they lack.
    And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in shirt-sleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game, and it’ll be as if they’d dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.
    People will come, Ray.
    The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball.
    America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.
    This field, this game — it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.
    Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.

    Reply

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