September 16, 2021

19 to 21…Life Imitates Baseball

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Volume 9, #19

About 30 years ago, the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell brought out his first book, “How Life Imitates the World Series.” Boswell had a good point, but he stopped short of the essential truth. While life DOES imitate the World Series, it would be more comprehensive, and accurate, to say that life imitates baseball. If you want further proof outside of Boswell, you have only to turn to a couple of recent autobiographies by two other writers on baseball… Nicholas Dawidoff and Ted Taylor. The two books, Dawidoff’s “The Crowd Sounds Happy” and Taylor’s “The Glenside Kid” (The Educational Publisher, www.EduPublisher.com, 1-877-576-7212, ISBN 1-934849-56-1, ISBN 13:978-1-934849-56-9) are similar in that they are both “growing up in America” books about the authors’ youth, and how baseball played such a significant role in that youth, even though one grew up in New Haven in the seventies and one grew up in Glenside (a Philadelphia suburb) in the fifties.

If you’ve been a Sports Illustrated reader over the years, you’ve probably read Dawidoff’s “stuff” in the past. If you’ve been a Philadelphia Daily News, or Sports Collector’s Digest reader, then you’ve probably read Taylor’s musings on the sport and the hobby over the years. Now maybe Dawidoff is better known to the public at large, since SI has a pretty big readership, and one of his previous books, the Moe Berg bio, “The Catcher was a Spy,” is very well known (although Taylor’s Philadelphia Athletics-themed books are more than worth buying). And it’s also true that Dawidoff’s book has probably sold a lot more copies since it was published by Random House about three years ago, but, if you can only buy one baseball-themed, growing up in America autobiography, Taylor’s is the one you want.

Why is that? Well, there are other similarities between the youths of these two writers, mainly in that neither one had what would typically be called a classic childhood. Dawidoff, in fact, seems to have written “The Crowd Sounds Happy” as an exorcism of his youth, a childhood growing up in a single-parent home with a mentally-ill, absent father. The reviews of “The Crowd Sounds Happy” that are printed on the covers tend to describe the book in terms like, “youthful angst” and “a childhood troubled by a mentally unstable father” and “melancholic” and “unusually haunted” and “painful, gleaming and utterly precise,” but, if you want to know the truth, Dawidoff does a lot of whining about his childhood. (Of course, cover blurbs are chosen only when they say something perceived as good about a book.) The overwhelming sense of the book is that this kid had a lousy life. And it’s true, he did. And it’s easy to feel sorry for the life he led.

On the other hand, Taylor’s father Jack was very ill, and in and out of the hospital, from the time his son was six, until he died of cancer in June 1949, when Taylor was eight. So, in addition to suffering the absolute loss of his father, Taylor also grew up in a single parent situation, at least until 1955, when his mom married his uncle Ernie. Like the Dawidoff family, the Taylors weren’t exactly wealthy, but the only comment Taylor really makes about this is that, to this day, he hates liver and doesn’t much care for steak. That’s because, he explains with no little humor, his mother used to serve him liver (since that’s all they could afford), and tell him it was steak. And that’s the major difference in the two books – attitude. Taylor basically makes lemonade out of lemons, and recalls the humor and good times far more often than the bad. “The Glenside Kid” is an overwhelmingly positive story. Dawidoff focuses on the hard times. “The Crowd Sounds Happy” is a dark tale of, as the subtitle proclaims, “A Story of Love and Madness in an American Family.” I don’t know about you, but, if given the choice, I’ll read about the good times every time.

Now, it’s also true that a lot of the good times in both books revolve around baseball. Even then, though, Dawidoff manages to put a somewhat gloomy spin on what should have been the one positive aspect of his story. As the back cover blurb states, “Dawidoff listened to baseball every night on his bedside radio, the professional ballplayers gradually becoming the men in his life.” Somehow, having Ron Swoboda and Jim Rice as the men in your life doesn’t sound that enticing. On the other hand, Taylor had the ultimate baseball nightmare when he was a kid – his team, the Philadelphia Athletics — was spirited away to Kansas City when he was 13. Talk about the loss of a significant figure in life. If that doesn’t qualify as a traumatic experience for a young teenage baseball fan, well, nothing does. (Even the 1964 season pales in comparison.) And yet, Taylor barely mentions it in “The Glenside Kid,” which isn’t about trauma, but (as the back cover blurb says), “a poignant, humorous tale of growing up in the author’s beloved hometown.” It’s a matter of attitude. Life does imitate baseball, but it’s how you deal with it that ultimately makes the difference in life.

There’s no good reason to delineate between Dawidoff’s and Taylor’s baseball experiences that frame so much of both books, and ultimately make them worth reading for the baseball fan. Both have a lot of good stories to tell about being a childhood fan of the Mets and Red Sox (Dawidoff) and the A’s and Phillies (Taylor), and of playing the game on the sandlots and schoolyards on New Haven and Glenside. Dawidoff’s (who was a pretty fair player – he made the team at Harvard before a knee injury ended his career before he could win a letter) best story is the time his father took him to his first game at Shea Stadium – a 15-inning affair with the Pirates that the Mets won on a walk-off single by the immortal Bob Aspromonte. And yet, even then, Dawidoff minimizes the good… “I must have been thrilled. Strangely, though, I recall no ecstasy… It had all begun in my imagination as something so glorious, and now it was the furthest thing.”

Then there’s Taylor’s recollections of visiting Shibe Park, first with his father, Jack, and then with his uncle (and eventually his stepfather) Ernie. “My memory of the games is vague, but not the image of the pristine green grass, the rich brown infield dirt, the green painted ballpark itself and this wonderful smell of hot dogs and peanuts and cracker jack, all blending together. The ballpark was impressive to a little kid.”

Actually, Taylor says he didn’t fall in love with baseball until a July 1949 visit to Shibe Park, just a month after his father died. Somewhat like Dawidoff recalls no ecstasy, Taylor recalls (in print at least) no pain, just the thrill of it all. Ernie apparently knew a few of the right people, and he marched his nephew down a flight of stairs in the old ballpark (it was already 40 years old at that point) to the A’s locker room, where, standing outside the door was, “a very tall, very old looking man in a fitted gray suit.” It was, of course, Connie Mack, who asked Taylor what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A newspaperman or a teacher some day,’ said the not-yet nine-year old. (And, he did.) This answer surprised “Mr. Mack” (as he was introduced), who then asked, “don’t you want to be a ballplayer?” Taylor admitted that that would be most welcome as well. (And he did. Taylor was an infielder for Millersville State Teachers College in the late 50s.)

Both Dawidoff and Taylor had childhoods defined by baseball and the loss of a father. Both wrote books about same. Both books do, in their own way, show how life imitates baseball, in that you win some, you lose some, and the rest get rained out. It’s impossible to say if growing up in New Haven in the seventies was any harder than growing up in Glenside in the fifties, but it sure sounds like it was. As to whether it REALLY was or not, that’s a different matter. No one can really say, but what can be said is that Taylor dwells more on winning some, and most of Dawidoff’s memories are losses or, at best, rain outs. I’ll take a winner like Taylor any day.

If you’d like to subscribe to future issues of “19 to 21?—a subscription for the rest of the 2011 baseball season is $20 (only $1 per issue)—please e-mail me at JohnShiffert@mail.clayton.edu.

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