August 30, 2014

The Greatest Baseball Fan I Know

March 23, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

I met John Russell during the summer of 2003, my first as a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame library. I was stationed at the downstairs desk, the library’s public area where scholars and fans alike congregate to explore and share baseball history. Some visitors make appointments; some make annual pilgrimages (like another great fan, Toronto’s Rudy Gafur, who didn’t miss an Induction Weekend for a couple of decades); some drift in without seeming to know where they are or what they’ll miss if they don’t take the trouble to ask someone what they shouldn’t miss; and some purposely arrive unannounced.

John Russell is the king of the last category. He entered the library one afternoon, walked purposely to the Reference desk, and waited patiently until I finished assisting another visitor. As I recall, he said something along the lines of, “Well, I’ve made it. I didn’t want to come to Cooperstown until I felt entitled to the privilege.” There might have been something about completing a quest, but one thing was clear: this was one of the proudest moments of his life. That alone caught my interest, and before he left the library that day I had learned quite a bit about him. I have learned much more during the steady correspondence we have maintained ever since as well as time spent together on his second Cooperstown trip several years later.

World War II was a grim time for England, and one of the few sources of hope was the presence of American soldiers at bases all over the country which might be saved only by them. For relaxation, the Americans, naturally, played baseball. So it was that a young English lad named John Russell saw the game being played on his native soil. The game intrigued and attracted him during his limited exposure to it. When the war ended, the exit of American soldiers left young John without anyplace to watch baseball being played.

In fact, he went nearly half a century without seeing a ballgame. During that time, he grew up, turned his active fandom toward football, and enjoyed a successful career as a taxation consultant. He also maintained his interest in baseball, listening to it on Armed Forces Radio whenever he could. For many years that consisted solely of the World Series. That became tougher after Bowie Kuhn sold out to television and began the transformation of the World Series into prime-time fodder in the early 1970s. In 1971, as a student in London, I listened to the World Series on Armed Forces Radio–with thenight games starting around 2 AM. You have to be dedicated to stick so closely to a game you only glimpsed as a child.

When John retired in the early 1990s, he determined to put his savings to good use. He hatched a plan to see every major league team’s ballpark. This alone would be a more ambitious plan than most rabid American fans would care to undertake. I’ve been to about 25 parks in my lifetime and know some people who have seen 40 or 50 over a period of decades. The flip side is a handful of published accounts of more recent whirlwind tours, such as the couple who saw all 180 or so major and minor league parks in one season.

John had a different plan. He decided he would take an annual trip to The States, each time seeing a few parks, until he had covered all 30 teams. Scheduling and travel logistics were in his blood and his resume, and he relished the chance to map out and execute this series of pilgrimages. He did, and he did. It took him ten trips to see 30 parks, and when he had fulfilled that mission, he headed for Cooperstown, his reward for perseverance. Being acknowledged by someone at the Hall of Fame was like the conferring of an honorary degree, and I was delighted to be the one to award him a Doctor of Fandom degree.

The past decade has seen an explosion of new ballparks, and John has dutifully returned year after year, attending games in each new one in its inaugural season–sometimes even in its inaugural game. That was the case in 2009, when the two New York ballparks opened. He had been a Mets fan since the inception of the franchise (because listening to “The Giants win the pennant!” had made him an early New York Giants fan who abandoned that team when it fled to California, and the Mets were playing in the Polo Grounds, where Bobby Thomson’s home run had galvanized his youthful enthusiasm for baseball) and wanted to see the first game at Citi Field. In order to be guaranteed a seat for Opening Day, he purchased a season ticket. He went to nine games there and gave most of the other tickets away, but the money didn’t matter (he paid $300 for a $30 to the opener at Yankee Stadium). In the space of 33 hours, he saw four games–two each at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium.

That brings up one of the three amazing things about John Russell’s approach to ballpark pilgrimages. He has attended a complete three-game series at every park–and the ballpark will be up 41 as soon as he sees his first game in the new Miami venue. Often he’ll spend a whole week in a city, using the ballpark magnet as an excuse to explore everything else the city has to offer. He provided me with a complete log of every trip, ballgame, and final score which I put in the “Fans” file at the Hall of Fame library. It’s a remarkable document. (It is also not the only John Russell artifact at the Hall of Fame. When the new park opened in Washington, he also bought a season ticket, which brought with it an invitation to the inaugural luncheon ceremony, a recording of which he proudly donated.) He’s a museum hound, an opera buff, a train aficionado, an amateur photographer, a de facto restaurant critic, and a tireless walker.

That brings up the second–and to me the most–amazing thing about John’s travels. He does not drive. He uses only public transport and his feet to get around. Trains are his preferred mode of travel, but he’ll make use of planes, buses, trolleys, and taxis when needed. He doesn’t need them for any place within a walkable distance, and this retired gentleman reminds me of what I did when I was 28 years old. I spent nearly four months crisscrossing Europe on a Eurailpass; at a price of $400 for three months, I could ride first-class on virtually any train in Europe, and I slept more than 40 nights on trains. At one point I was in a different country six days in a row. I would arrive in a city around 8am, spend the entire day walking, exploring, touring museums, cathedrals, castles and the like, sample the local cuisine, observe the natives, and mosey on back to the train station to catch a train around 9-10 PM to another city.

I think it’s the best way to travel, and so does he. You don’t miss much that way, and other people do all the work. Which brings me to the third thing that amazes me about John’s travels. He has written about them, detailed accounts that are not only day-by-day but also logistic-by-logistic–and he does it all from memory! He’ll get home from a two-week tour of several parks and summon up the details of every encounter, travail, detour, triumph, and treat. I am one of a limited number of people privileged enough to read these accounts, titled Best Available because that is his standard request when buying game tickets. Last year was the 18th edition of this annual account. I have urged John to try to publish (last year McFarland published some other Englishman’s ballpark travelogue), but he seems determined not to.

I enjoy Best Available very much. He is as meticulous in his narrative as he is in his logistics, and pointed in his opinions, whether they concern seat location, food, fans, schedules, and games. His game descriptions have become more sophisticated over the years, as he has learned more about the game’s rhythms, skills, and atmosphere. That is, he came to baseball without preconceptions and is therefore more open to its aesthetic character. For instance, the thing that impresses him most is how little time it takes outfielders to track down extra-base hits and get the ball back to the infield. It amazes him when a right fielder can chase a slicing line drive into the corner and somehow prevent the baserunner–hundreds of feet away–from advancing past second base. Americans would simply say, “nice play,” but John’s untrained eye sees the speed and symmetry in this athletic effort.

Good for him. He loves baseball and ballparks. He fills in off-days and other gaps in his schedule by going to minor league games. Of the six times he has seen two games in one day, three have involved minor league games: he saw the Mets and the Long Island Ducks in one day; the Phillies and the Camden Riversharks; and the Orioles and the Wilmington Blue Rocks. “All by public transport,” as he reminded me in a recent e-mail.

“Will it be the last?” he asked in the announcement of his itinerary for Trip #19. There is a new ballpark this year in Miami around which the trip is built, but there are no new openings on the baseball horizon unless the Oakland A’s drift 50 miles southward to San Jose. Will he find an excuse to return after seeing park #41 this spring? Will he keep coming back anyway even without an excuse, perhaps to explore the classic minor league parks or return to favored major league cities?

Who knows? But keep an eye out for a proper-looking, affable Englishman who knows much more about baseball than his accent would lead you to suspect. He plans to attend four games in Miami, two in Baltimore, four in Washington, and three (with the Mets visiting) in Philadelphia. He is contemplating a return to New York later on (“for The Met as well as the Mets”) and Cooperstown as well, now that he has earned his graduate degree. I hope to see him then, but in the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to sit next to him at a ballpark, give him my best. He deserves it, as the greatest fan I know.

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