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Or has time re-written every line?

One of the highlights of my recent trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was when my father and I saw the statues of famous fans, and my father said “That’s Hilda Chester!” and I said “Oh, right, the cowbell lady” and he said “I remember her. She used to sell peanuts at the racetrack.” My father had never been to the Hall of Fame, and had wanted to go for sixty-something years, and he was not disappointed.

It will not, I think, entirely come as a surprise to Gentle Readers that my father collects baseball books, specifically books about the Giants. One thing he had his eye out for, as we wandered through the memorabilia shops that line the Main Street of Cooperstown, New York, was a book about the Giants to add to his collection. Book collecting of that kind, of course, has been less interesting lately; even though he isn’t on the internet himself, when a book comes out about the Giants he is likely to hear about it, and then he can pass along the title and author to his local Borders and wait for them to produce it for him. While we were in the bookstore at the NBHFM itself, I spotted a book called Victory Faust, pointed it out to him, and he purchased it, very pleased with his success. When we wandered in to the Giamatti Research Center, we wound up chatting with a fellow there and mentioning the purchase, and he said “Oh, Gabe’s book. Would you like him to sign it?” Well, yes, that would be nice. So we waited for him to get back from his lunch, and then had what turned in to an hour long chat with Gabriel Schechter, author of the book, Jeopardy! champ and (it turns out) blogger.

Now, having read that far, this note turns out to be about a note that Mr. Schechter wrote over at Never Too Much Baseball called Remembrance of Games Past. In it, he writes about people asking him (in his capacity as researcher at the NBHFM) to find the box score for the first game they ever saw. The problem as you can imagine, is that not only do those people not recall the date, the things they do recall (the final score, the starting pitcher, who hit a home run) are often not true. They use Retrosheet these days, and can narrow it down pretty well, often to the point where the fan can pick one and be happy. Mr. Schachter then talks about his own memories of his first game, and how it doesn’t correspond to any game that was actually played. It’s a great little essay about reference library work and human memory. And baseball, of course.

I don’t have any way of knowing my first major-league game; it may well have been while I was a babe in arms. I have used retrosheet to look things up, often discovering that a game I thought was against the Braves was actually against the Reds, or that there is no way that I could actually remember a particular thing that I think I remember that happened when I was three. Or maybe I did. Our family used to go to a few games a year out in California, and there are memories from those trips that I know I invented to match family stories of them, but I don’t know which memories are real and which I made up.

My Perfect Non-Reader has, in her Box of Things to Keep, the box score from her first game, so she’ll presumably never have that question. On the other hand, she won’t remember it. I suspect the next major-league game we see will be the one she remembers; I doubt it will be this summer, but maybe next year. I wonder what she’ll remember from it. I definitely remember my Giants from 1976, but there aren’t any players from 1975 that I really remember seeing that weren’t also on the team the next year, so I suspect that 1976 is as far back as I remember. But what do I remember?

Johnny Lee Lemaster, ineffectually waving at balls as they went past him. Darrell Evans, but I remember him at third base; he went back to third when Willie McCovey came back to play first in 1977. Strangely, I have only the vaguest memories of Willie McCovey, and none at all of him at first base; the first-baseman I remember seeing at the bag is Mike Ivie, who didn’t come to the Giants until 1978. I remember Chris Speier at second, I remember John Montefusco and Ed Halicki and Bob Knepper. And Gary Lavelle, of course. I couldn’t tell you who I got to see pitch in person and who I heard on the radio and who I watched on television, but I remember their names and I remember liking John Montefusco more than he deserved, and Bob Knepper evidently less. I can’t say that I remember any events, any home runs or shut-outs or dramatic finishes, not from those years. Later, in the 1980s, there are things I remember. I believe I was at this game, for instance, when I was fourteen. But my memories of all those games I attended when I was eight or eleven are of taking off my shirt to tan in the hot sun, learning to keep score neatly enough to be allowed to write it in my Dad’s book, being amazed at the size of the JumboTron (which always had a few burnt-out bulbs making a hole in the image), the smell of sunscreen and peanuts, and of slowly learning to follow the game on the field, learning to watch the fielders rather than the ball, learning to guess when the runner would go, learning to fill the time in between pitches with baseball rather than with a demand for tasty treats.

In the Hall itself, my father looked at the plaques for players that he had seen, starting in the post-war years, really, and going on into the present (he has partial season tickets at the used-to-BOB). But when Gabe Schechter asked him about going to the Polo Grounds, what he wanted to talk about was his uncle starting the game in a fine suit, and as the sun came around to beat down on those right-field seats, the man would take off the jacket, and then the vest, and the shirt, and finally the undershirt and watch the rest of the game stripped to the waist.

One thing that’s great about people: Gabe Schechter finds them a box score and prints it out. What leaves his hand is a piece of paper, but what the fellow gets is the smell of peanuts or the feel of the little pencils, the sound of the elevated train or the companionship of a half-naked uncle. And even when the piece of paper says that the home run or game-saving catch or three-hit game never happened, the memories are still there.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

This brief essay does a great job of evoking the feeling of a visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown for someone with a deep and personal relationship with baseball! It's interesting the difference between a museum devoted to the celebration of one aspect of what could technically be called "contemporary popular culture" and, say, a museum of art or of natural history, which are the two types of museums that I usually think of when I hear the word "museum." And most of that difference has to do with memory: the visit is about seeing embodiments--in the form of monuments and memorabilia--of things you remember, or of things that you have learned about as part of your life, of historical events you have committed to memory, even though you didn't experience them yourself.

Given how much of "contemporary popular culture" is viewed as (and is designed to be) disposable, to be "in" for a while and then discarded for the next "in" thing, I find the cultivation of baseball history (and to a lesser extent, of sports history in general) to be a fine thing: there's more dignity in the sport, somehow, despite the incessant tawdriness of the professional sports industry. Hollywood's Walk of Fame and things like the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame have something of the same flavor, especially, I would guess, the Rock 'n' Roll HoF because someone who has been going to concerts all her or his life can look back on the chances he or she had to see this or that performer.

But your experience suggests that these memories really serve as a framework for more personal memories of who you went to the game with, or the concert with, and that those memories are deeper and more permanent than the frame of significance provided by the game, which is half-invented, anyway. That works for me. I am not very nostalgic for "the past," but I miss my old friends a lot, now that I don't see them but every few years, if that.



My father said that he was impressed with the way they maintained a sense of dignity without losing sight of the idea that it was, after all, just a game. I think there's a sense in which these Halls of Fame do honor of individuals with tremendous skills in largely unimportant events, but which we imbued with significance in our own lives, and that's where the dignity comes in.

Thanks,
-V.


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