The Gospel Truth

The Eyes of Memory | April 1, 2014

Memories have always been extremely important to both professional baseball players and their millions of fans throughout its long and variegated history.

To me baseball has always been the human game because it rightfully focused more on the players and not as much on their statistics.

Most baseball players, especially old ball players, thrive on telling stories, based on their long memories.

The more baseball transforms to a Sabermetrician mode of Moneyball, the less attractive it will become to fans like me.

I think this underscores the idea behind Roger Kahn’s historic 1972 book, The Boys of Summer.

Two of the Boys of Summer

What made Kahn’s book so enduring was that it did not focus as much on the individual playing careers of many of the 1952-53 Brooklyn Dodgers, a team that had teased its fans with pennants, only to falter to the hated New York Yankees in the October Classic.

To the contrary Kahn took the high road and looked at the players after the cheering had died down and they were left with declining health, old age and even ensuing death.

Kahn underscored this in his lyrical title, a phrase lifted from Dylan Thomas’ poem of I See the Boys of SummerI see them in their ruin.

Kahn had stripped the players, especially Jackie Robinson, Clem Labine, Duke Snider and Carl Erskine of their uniforms, pretenses and defenses.

Dylan Thomas photo.jpg

Knew about tragic ruin

He showed them in their pure humanity with Robinson’s illnesses, Erskine’s handicapped son, Labine’s war-handicapped son and Snider’s ruinous business dealings.

To most of us this was a new and troubling side of players whom we had seen mostly in terms of home runs and box scores.

The ideas in Kahn’s book were reinforced for me years later at a card convention.  I was walking among the crowd and I spied an old man sauntering about.

He was bald, round-shoulders with a protruding stomach.  He was Enos Slaughter, the old Cardinal great, known for his mad dash from first base in the 1946 World Series.

To me he looked just like a little old man…like any other man of his generation I could see walking on any street in America.

I thought, so this is what happens to old ball players.

This reminds me of something Joe Garagiola told me when I interviewed on the set of his failed attempt to launch a pilot game show in 1974.

Sometimes the joke was on him!

His producer had quipped that Joe had shot down more pilots than the Luftwaffe in WW II.

Saw the funny side of the game

Joe had great stories

Joe said that the people who had the hardest time in seeking a new profession were shepherds Vikings and old ball players.

I think there is an inherent wisdom in that because all players knew that their ticket would have to be punched sometime for them to get off the field.

I think that point is one of the underlying beauties of the St. Louis Browns Fan Club, which I started with Harmony Lineback in 1984.

Over these past 29 years I have seen so many of these players–Ned Garver, Billy Jennings, Don Lenhardt, Ed Mickelson and so many others in their tragic ruin.  For most it has been the slow but steady decline or what a gal at the Mid-County Y had said to me after our workout class many years ago, the ravages of age.

Featured Speaker at First Dinner in 1985

I have seen it in its persistent sap the strength, cloud the vision and wobble the step of what were once hardy, muscular athletes.  The inevitable scythe of death has cut down all but 27 of our Brownie players of the 796, who wore the colors since 1902.

For most of these surviving few their memories are all they have left.

It was this thought that prompted me to write my play, The Last Memory of an old Brownie Fan in 2007.   My mother had died of Alzheimer’s in 2001.

Playwrite with the "Brownie fan"

Playwright with the “Brownie fan”

Since then I have been deeply concerned about losing my own memory, which has been key to my joie de vivre.  After a certain age our memories are really all we have left.

The play served as a cathartic metaphor for the similarities between baseball and the game of life.

Fortunately while their bodies have suffered their often painful and inevitable declines, the Browns Fan Club has given many of them a chance to renew old acquaintances but more importantly to relive their memories, entertain the fans, new and old with their innumerable stories of gags, games, and fights.

Absent cameras, writers with pen and pad, our many events have created a speaker-friendly environment where players can freely and without inhibition tell their stories, and their personal histories in for all of us to vicariously experience what they have kept alive in the mystic chords of their baseball memories.

In reflecting on all these years, I need only give one example to illustrate what I mean.

Babe Martin, who admittedly had a short-lived career, spent a lot of time in spring training, sitting on the bench or warming pitchers up in the bullpen.  He hobnobbed with Ted Williams and other luminaries of the game.

At on luncheon he starting talking about his friendship with old Teddy Ballgame.   I remember looking at his eyes.  They weren’t focused on me or anyone else in the 110 people in attendance.

He looked over all of us…straight into space…trying to picture the frozen images of his memory from 60 years in the past.

It was as if he had suspended his mind, his feelings and emotions on the precipice of eternity and was viewing his life from the outside.  His eyes saw something that only he could see.

Could see it in his eyes

His frozen moment in time transcended time and space and has become part of my memory trace and will be frozen in my own mind so that I can tune it in with clarity of detail anytime I want to.

That reality lives and breathes in the memories of all the millions of fans who have penetrated the mystique of a game played by boys in the hot summer’s day and now night.

And in the powerful words of Carson the rigid head butler on the immensely popular BBC production, Downton Abbey, the business of life is about the acquisition of memories and in the end that is all we have.

Tn-500 jimcarter

Memories are all we are left with

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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