- Historic Sites
Visions Of My Father
You can rise fast and far in America, but sometimes the cost of the journey is hard to tally
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
As you may have noticed, in this skiing vision of my father he is no longer ugly. His appearance is based on a photograph that sits on my bedroom bureau. He is wearing his crisp highnecked lieutenant’s uniform. A Sam Browne belt gleams on his chest. He stares into the camera, serious and proud. He is a handsome man.
That transformation is linked to another vision of my father that I used to have on Grove Street in Jersey City, site of the town’s most important building, the huge copper-domed BeauxArts City Hall. In 1909, when he was twenty-one years old, my father walked into a second-floor dentist’s office opposite City Hall. He sat down in the chair and pointed to his crooked teeth. “FHiIl them out,” he said.
“All of them?” the dentist said.
“All of them,” my father said.
It took about four hours and cost $200. My father had to go to bed for the rest of the day, the pain was so acute. He spent another $250 for a set of good false teeth. Within a week he looked in the mirror and saw a handsome man.
Whenever I walked past City Hall in Jersey City and looked across the street at the site of the dentist’s office, which was long gone, my mouth hurt. I felt my father’s pain. I admired his guts. I wondered if I could do something so daring. My father had done nothing less than change himself from an ugly lower-class Irish-American—a mick—to a man with good looks that belonged to no particular group. The price he paid in pain and money was unquestionably worth it.
There is something profoundly American about this transaction. An aura of wonder, even myth, surrounds this vision of my father. Yet it happened.
Another vision of my father is intimately linked to a baseball field called the Happy Nines. I played on it when I was a boy. He had played on it forty years before I did. It lay at the foot of a railroad embankment and ran out in a wide oval between switching yards on the third-base side and a street of decrepit one-family houses on the firstbase side. The outfield was deep for an amateur park—at least 350 feet.
The 1890s were the Irish-American era in baseball. John McGraw of the Baltimore Orioles, Ed Delahanty of the Philadelphia Phillies, and Bill Joyce of the New York Giants were setting records and making headlines. An ambitious kid dreamed of joining them on Olympus—the major leagues. You could make as much as five thousand dollars a year! Show girls like Lillian Russell hung on your arm.
The passion for baseball was so great among my father and his friends that they would start playing in early March. Often they would have to shovel snow off the Happy Nines. They got in four or five innings before school started. My father switched to selling evening papers in New York so he could take part in these games.
Their gloves were cheap and small. To get a better grip on the ball, they cut out the centers of the pockets, leaving nothing but bare flesh. When they winged the ball around the infield on a freezing March day, the pain was exquisite. Sometimes, playing on a cold April day at the Happy Nines, I felt vaguely ashamed of my big well-padded glove when I remembered this story.
Often a figure in black would stand in the early-morning light beyond the outfield, watching the boys of 1900 play. This was Msgr. Thomas Meehan, the pastor of All Saints Parish. He was a huge, big-bellied man who dominated the life of the parish and the ward for forty years. When my father graduated from the eighth grade in 1901, Meehan called him into the rectory and asked him what he was going to do.
“Become a ballplayer,” my father said.
“No, you’re not,” Meehan said. “We’ve got enough tramp Irish athletes. I’ve watched you play. You’re a good fielder, but you can’t hit a curve. You’re going to business school.”
My father spent the next year in business school, learning shorthand and typing and bookkeeping, skills he never used. Instead he got a job in a factory painting faces on watches. When he was twenty, he switched to selling watches, and later, insurance. Meanwhile, he went on playing baseball on various semiprofessional teams in and around Jersey City.
My father always played third base. I often had a vision of him at third on the Happy Nines, crouched low, yelling pepper to the pitcher. “Strike the bum out. He can’t hit the size of his hat!”
The batter slashes a wicked shot down the third-base line. My father does not even blink. He takes it in the chest, picks it up for the long throw, and gets him by a step.
At other times I saw him at the plate. He is in another crouch, wagging his bat. The bases are loaded, the count is three and two. The pitcher throws a curve. My father swings and misses. Monsignor Meehan was right.
My father was thirty-one when he got out of the Army in 1919. Too old to keep playing baseball, he became an umpire. He said he did it to make extra money, but I think there was another reason.