What I Learned From The Pirates

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Actually watching major league ball-games was an insignificant part of a young fan’s activity. Until 1955 no city west of St. Louis even had a major league team, although all of them had fans. I was among the fortunate for whom a “home team” was nearby, allowing at least the possibility of a rare and thrilling view of heroes in the flesh. From the small town of Scottdale, where I passed my grammar school days, it was some sixty miles to Pittsburgh—not a great distance now, but forbidding enough in the early twenties. There weren’t many highways in our area (we had no car in any case), and the railroad schedule allowed for just one train a day to the great city. I recall no more than two occasions when my busy father could spare the time, and maybe the money, to take me and an older brother for a grand day in town: lunch in a real restaurant and then an afternoon at Forbes Field. This particular brother, who willingly practiced the violin and was accordingly regarded by me as odd, must have gone for the lunch, because he didn’t know the name of a single Pirate. Under the impression that three outs made a full inning, he thought that he was seeing an eighteen-inning game, which may have explained why he dozed through so much of it.

Little as the team profited from my attendance over the years, I was at all times busily involved in its affairs. During the season there was foremost the job of keeping myself well posted on the daily game. Until my family moved to Brooklyn in 1923, this activity meant no more than reading the sports pages of the Pittsburgh Gazette the morning after the game. Commercial radio was in its infancy then, and in Scottdale we were never first with anything.

New York—even that part of it known as Bensonhurst—was a far cry from Pennsylvania with fully fourteen dailies on hand, each with its own staff of glittering sportswriters. Most of the afternoon papers ran editions late enough to carry the results of that same afternoon’s games (night games were undreamed of). And with two or three stationery stores in the neighborhood, it was easy to slip out after supper to sneak a look at the scores, often displayed on the front page in type large enough to allow a boy a quick read before he could be shooed away by an irritated shopkeeper. The details could then wait for the next day, a treat to look forward to if the team had won and, if it had not, then serenely to be endured in the knowledge that the next game, with rosy prospects, was only hours away.

In the first few weeks that followed the hysteria of a World Series and the end of another season, baseball was the dark side of the moon. A feeling of emptiness rather than depression occasionally washed over me, especially when I picked up the paper and found not a line about the only sport that mattered. College football prevailed from October on, and except for local high school games football had never quite gotten to me. The calendar ruled the sports world then, and people would no more dream of scrimmaging in June than they would of canoeing in January.

 

Even in the dead of winter, though, there were bits of relief for the baseball junkie. One could pit two teams of baseball cards against each other on the kitchen table in a game that anyone with a pair of dice might have devised. In mine a two or a four was a ball, a one or a three was a strike; on a five or a six the batter got the wood on the ball, leaving it to successive throws to determine whether he flied out, grounded out, or got a hit—and if so, how much of a hit. It is still a good game, and a lot cheaper than the elaborate baseball board games that now sell for twenty dollars or so.

More exciting, from mid-December on, reports began coming in from what the cliché experts of the press invariably called the Hot Stove League. These were the news stories, speculations, and sheer gossip about player trades, holdouts, and other such activities, all of which reached a climax when the baseball club owners gathered for their annual meeting. There was talk, too, of bringing up brilliant rookies from minor league farm clubs, which the majors controlled and intensely scouted for talent drawn from the country’s sandlots, high school fields, and occasionally college campuses.

Reading those springtime sports pages, one might be baffled rather than pleased—even angry, as I was—to see, for example, that the team was dropping Rabbit Maranville—a superior shortstop, I thought, knowing little of his health or spirits. Of course I knew even less of the man whom Barney Dreyfuss, the team’s crafty owner, had brought in to replace him: Glenn Wright, one of baseball’s magnificent shortstops. With the inimitable Pie Traynor at third, opposing batters would for years hardly dare hit a ball to the left side of the Pirate infield.

Neither could I yet know of other prospective greats then on the horizon, heroes to delight the soul, like the Waner boys, “Big Poison” and “Little Poison,” who were destined, like Traynor and Carey, for baseball’s Hall of Fame. In time one learned to accept change—and even revel in the prospect of it.