May 25, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Cradle to the Grave

April 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

The phrase seemed to fit this issue, after the opening essay was written. Requiem for a Rookie is, I believe the sixteenth Requiem that has appeared in NOTES over the past, well, sixteen years. But they are not annual features, and never planned. Never really wanted. But they happen.

In baseball, we usually have a narrower focus. We don’t much care about the births and childhoods of the players we follow. We probably don’t know what schools they attended. They come onto our radar screen when they sign with our teams, and start working their way up the ladder, in the minors. This is reflected in the old phrase, “bonus baby” (apparently coined by Pat Jordan in one of the best baseball books I’ve read, A False Spring). The young men signed for big bucks (in Jordan’s day, $10,000 or more!) are “treated more tenderly” than the players in whom the investment is smaller. And they rise to the top more quickly, sometimes too fast, with dismal results. Which reminds me of a favorite adage, “TTT — Things Take Time.”

Once in the big leagues, we watch players come of age — and these days, if they don’t mature quickly, they are gone. Careers can be incredibly brief. I’m not sure what the average is these days, but only a very few players will stretch their playing days to fifteen or twenty seasons. Since free agency, few will remain with one team for their whole career. This has made baseball, for me, harder to follow. I gave up long ago trying to keep up with all of the rosters. I still know the National League better than the AL, and the Central Division teams better than the others; but I confess, there are strangers on my home team, the Pirates. Fifty years ago, that was unthinkable.

As a minor league fan, I enjoyed watching the kids (and they were younger every year) break in, and move on up. When they made it to the majors, I celebrated with them.

As for “the grave,” I think of Cooperstown. Willie Stargell is the first player that I followed from the minor leagues all the way to the Hall of Fame. From a skinny “Pirate Possibility” — what many kids in the system were called in the annual Pirate yearbooks — to “Pops” in 1979 and HOF in ’88, Stargell got my attention with his slugging in the minors. The Pirates always needed more left-handed power at Forbes Field.

But few players are buried at Cooperstown, while all die. Every fan can probably recall the death of some player that came ‘way too soon. For Pirate fans, there was Clemente, but before Roberto, Don Hoak, in 1969. Not a player then, but not long gone and the guys who hang around, becoming coaches and managers, earn a special place in our hearts. If they become broadcasters, we get to know them better than ever. So when they go, like Bob Prince, they leave an even bigger hole behind.

We are not accustomed to thinking of ballplayers from the cradle to the grave, as in birth to death. The truth is, we are selective, we tend to follow them for just that part of their lives that they spend at the top. We really get to know them very little. Then they are gone.

When they die while they are still playing ball, it is jarring. We realize how superficial our relationship is, yet we grieve, because they are, well, family. Baseball is not real, yet it is a parallel universe that offers a version of reality. We can be excited there, consoled, and experience real emotions, all from a distance, while feeling close. Enough intro.

REQUIEM FOR A ROOKIE

The death of an athlete is always a shock. Athletes are supposed to be victims of charley horses and sore elbows, strained muscles earned in combat. And ballplayers play the game outside of real time, in a zone where hours and minutes mean nothing, only innings and outs matter. Death is always an intruder, but an especially rude one in sports.

And death is never more unwelcome than in April, when fans are full of hope. When Addie Joss died suddenly, just after Opening Day in 1911, the folks following baseball were stunned. The Clevelanders’ ace pitcher was so well-liked by his peers that a benefit game for his widow and kids was scheduled that summer, and the best players from the other AL teams came to Cleveland out of respect for Joss. Addie had pitched just nine summers in the majors, but so brilliantly that the Hall of Fame eventually waived the ten-year requirement and admitted him to Cooperstown.

I think that the first baseball death I recall is that of Fred Hutchinson, in 1964; but the popular manager fell to cancer, a disease he spoke about candidly when hardly anyone else did, and so the shock was lessened. When Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve 1972, that was a shock. (The Hall of Fame waived its five-year wait rule for Roberto.) Like Joss, Clemente had performed brilliantly, but seemed to have more seasons ahead.

The sudden, senseless death of LA Angels pitcher Ken Adenhart, is different, and in some ways harder to accept. He was a rookie, just 22, his career in MLB lay in his future. He had worked hard for four years to climb to the top rung of baseball, overcoming arm problems and surgery. He seemed, with a good start this spring, to have finally made it for good.

In recent months, I have seen hundreds of questionnaires, completed mostly by men who played in the major leagues, but sometimes by a relative, if they were deceased. Some played in the nineteenth century, some are current. At the end of the survey, which was sent out by and returned to the National Baseball Library at the HOF in Cooperstown, all were asked their greatest achievement. Many players, especially if they were replying in their first seasons, said that their greatest thrill was just making it to the majors.

To fully appreciate that, we must remember how many never get to the top, not even for a cup of coffee. All the way up, the odds are against them.

The saddest funeral I’ve ever attended was for a toddler, the child of friends. The death was sudden and senseless, a very accidental drowning. The death of someone who has lived seventy or eighty years is sad, too, but it is nothing like that of a child, who was all innocence, all future.

The death of a rookie is something like the death of a child. Just as the world welcomes babies, baseball fans like the new kids on the team. They have no baggage, and everything to prove. They are fun to watch, they try harder, their enthusiasm makes us all young. They are baseball’s children, and like all kids, are mysteries, to be celebrated, rooted for, no matter what uniforms they wear.

Once upon a time, to this fan, a 22-year-old was an adult, an older guy; back then, 30 seemed ancient. Today, 22 seems a lifetime away, and in some ways, it is. My own kids are not that much older than 22; had I married earlier, 22 could easily be the age of my grandson. (This is the way the mind works, beyond age 60.)

Over the past two decades, I’ve written a lot of requiems. Each time, lately, the feeling is too many. Each time, I know there will me more to come. There is always nothing to say, really, about death. It is part of life, there is nothing surer. As for the death of athletes, a poem by A.E. Houseman comes to my mind. I guess it has been semi-famous for a long time; it ran in some newspapers after the passing of Addie Joss, in 1911. I’ll use it as my closer.

To an Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the marketplace
Man and boy stood cheerin’ by
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come
Shoulder-high we bring you home
And set you at your threshold down
Townsmen of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay.
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut.
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honors out
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade
The fleet foot on the sill of shade
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthened dead
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #484 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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