This story begins in my mother’s third-grade classroom on a Thursday afternoon in October, 1963. I’m there waiting for her to finish the work she has to do after her pupils have gone—write lesson plans, grade assignments, design bulletin boards—so she and I can ride home in the car with my father.
The gym teacher, Mr. Harrington, comes to my mother’s doorway and says hello to her. Then he notices me, sitting on a table along the wall, and he says, “Your Yanks lost today.”
He says this in a good-natured way, and I understand that he’s making an effort to draw me out of my shyness. He’s a kind man, who reminds me of the actor who plays the father on one of my favorite television shows, Dennis the Menace, a show that, though I don’t know this, is in its final season. I’m a kid who doesn’t do well with change, and lately that’s what I’ve had, so even though I know Mr. Harrington is a good guy, that he’s ribbing me a little out of affection, I feel the familiar ache in my throat, the one that comes just before I cry.
“They’re in trouble, don’t you think?” Mr. Harrington says, and I fight back the tears.
I’m in the third grade, too, but not my mother’s class. My classroom is across the hall, and my teacher is Mrs. Langhout, a woman with a lazy eye that makes it difficult sometimes to tell who she’s talking to. I find it troublesome, as I do so much of my life since we moved from our farm in downstate Illinois to this southern suburb of Chicago. People talk funny here, their accents so different from our southern Illinois twangs. They say things like “wash,” with a short “a” sound, instead of “warsh,” like we do. They call the bathroom “the washroom.” I don’t tell anyone that this is the first time I’ve had indoor plumbing. Our apartment has a toilet, and it fascinates me.
We’re here because my mother lost her teaching position downstate. The School Board said she was too lax with her discipline of her students, which may be true since she’s a kind, soft-spoken woman. She’s fifty-three years old on this day in 1963. Her hair is gray. She wears cat-eye glasses and dresses with little matching jackets. She keeps a hanky at hand for any pupil who might need one. She believes in each boy and girl in her class and she praises them as a way of encouraging them to always do their best. I imagine they loved her as much as I do, and they probably also take advantage of her good graces from time to time.
I’ll learn later that my father was the one who insisted that my mother take this job even though it meant leaving her home and her family behind. My father doesn’t work. He spends his time watching game shows on television in our apartment, or having lunch at a diner uptown, or shooting the breeze with the mechanics at his favorite garage. He’s leased our eighty-acre farm and adapted a life of leisure. I never think to blame him for this because I know his life has been a difficult one. When I was barely a year old, he lost both of his hands in a farming accident and wore prostheses the rest of his life. He continued to farm. Then, he decided to take a break from it all while my mother, and the rent from our farm, supported us. Who were we to complain? My father was a man of temper. For the most part, my mother never questioned him. On the occasions when I did, I felt the lash of his belt. So often, we were a family that didn’t know how to love one another without first knowing misery. Here, in Chicagoland, we’re trying to figure out how to love from goodness and not from pain. We’re trying to believe in the best parts of ourselves.
But what I believe in more than anything is the New York Yankees. I’m at a place in my life where I desperately need something I can count on. So much is different here. I’ve already gotten into trouble and had to serve detention because I wrote my name on the brick wall of the school with chalk. I actually wrote it on the thin strip of mortar between two bricks—such a tiny scribble—and was shocked when I found out I was in trouble.
“This will not be tolerated,” the principal, Mrs. Walsh, said, taking me by my arm.
“Lee, how could you?” my mother said when she found out. How humiliating my bad behavior must have been for her.
“Do you know who that is?” an older girl said to her friend when they saw me waiting for the principal to call me into her office where I would work exercises out of a grammar book. “That’s Mrs. Martin’s son.”
October is one of my favorite months—the month of my birthday, the month of Halloween, and above all, the month of the World Series.
I’m spoiled. As long as I can remember baseball, the Yankees, my favorite team, have been in the Series. I expect them to be there, and I expect them to win.
So when Mr. Harrington says they’re in trouble—and they are, they’re down two games to zero to the Los Angeles Dodgers—I get my back up. I forget I’m a shy boy, and I say, “You just watch.” Then I hide my face behind my book, so no one can see the tears.
Mr. Harrington must know that his attempt at a little teasing has gone sour. He takes a stab at trying to make me feel better. He’s a thin man in a white shirt and a skinny black tie. He says, “I wouldn’t bet against any team who has Mickey Mantle.” When I don’t make a response, he adds, “I wonder how you got to be a Yankees fan.”
I don’t dare tell him because I’m not sure I can without continuing to cry. I hear my mother push her chair back from her desk, then the sound of her high heels on the tile floor.
Mr. Harrington says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Then the classroom door closes, and I know my mother’s in the hallway with Mr. Harrington, and she’s surely explaining that I’m a sensitive boy who’s having trouble with our move. I’m sure she’s apologizing for me, and that makes me even sadder to think of my timid mother having to admit all this to Mr. Harrington and then to have to say she’s the one who’s sorry as if somehow this is all her fault.
When she comes back into the classroom, she only has one thing to say to me, and she says it in a tone that doesn’t scold.
“You know he was only trying to be kind,” she says.
Friday is a travel day for the teams, and I do my best to hold faith that come Saturday, the Yankees, with right-hander, Jim Bouton, on the mound will start their comeback. They’ll win the Series, and I’ll somehow be a different boy because of that. I’ll be more confident, more at ease in this strange land. I’ll be released from the sadness that has surrounded me ever since we made the move north.
My father, as the game begins, says, “You can’t count on anything. You know that, don’t you? The Yankees can’t always win. Sooner or later, someone’s going to stop them.”
I’m lying on my stomach on the floor in front of our black and white television, and I pretend I don’t hear him. The sunshine in LA is brilliant. The white shirts of the men in the stands are blazingly white. The Yankees look a bit drab in their road grays, but I take hope from the thick wrists and biceps of Mickey Mantle and the fierce nature of “Bulldog” Bouton, a twenty-one game winner.
Don Drysdale is on the mound for the Dodgers, and I know he’s a fine, fine pitcher, but I believe that my Yankees can’t lose. Such is the blind faith of the young.
The Dodgers score a run in the bottom of the first, and as much anguish as that causes me, I tell myself it’s only one run and there’s plenty of time for the Yankees to make that up and more.
“Oh, oh,” my father says. “Drysdale just might make that run hold up.”
My father and I don’t see eye-to-eye on so much, not even baseball. He’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan, as is nearly everyone in our part of southern Illinois. I’m an oddball there, a Yankees fan. I fell in love hard and fast because I saw them play on the Game of the Week, and watching them win made me feel like I was more than I really was. Something about their swagger, their power, their panache, lifted me at a time when I needed to know I could be someone other than my father’s whipping boy. He was a demanding, hard man, and he had a way of making me feel that I was incapable. He counted on me to do things for him that he couldn’t do: to place a glass of Pepsi between the pincers of his prosthetic hand, to put a stick of Wrigley’s gum in his mouth, to try to loosen nuts on a piece of farm equipment with a crescent wrench. He used me as his hands, and he was impatient when I couldn’t perform a task to his satisfaction.
“I can’t,” I’d say, and he’d snap at me.
“Bullshit,” he’d say. “Can’t never did nothing. How are you going to ever be something in this world?”
I fell in love with the Yankees of Mantle and Maris and Berra and Ford because they were winners, and they made me believe that I could be a winner, too.
But on this Saturday in 1963, as game three of the Series goes on, it begins to look as if my father will be right. Drysdale is blanking the Yanks inning after inning.
Then, there we are in the top of the ninth and the Dodgers are still up 1-0, and still I believe.
Drysdale takes the mound and strikes out Tom Tresh. Mantle comes to the plate, and I chant to myself. “Come on, Mick,” I say over and over. “Come on.”
But Mantle grounds out to first, and our last hope is on the shoulders of Joe Pepitone, a left-handed slugger who hit twenty-seven home runs in 1963. He can get a hold of one, I tell myself. He will get a hold of one.
And he does! He sends a drive to right field, and I know it has a chance.
“Get out, get out!” I yell. I’m on my feet. I’m screaming at the television, screaming at that ball.
The Dodgers’ right fielder, Ron Fairly, keeps going back. Back, back, back, until he runs out of ballpark, and there, backed up against the bullpen gate, he makes the catch.
“Gave it a ride,” my father says.
And the first word out of my mouth is “Goddamn.”
I swear because my father does. I swear because it feels like my whole world has tilted. I just knew that ball was gone, and it would have been, if the game were being played at Yankee Stadium with its short right field porch.
My father fumbles with his prosthetic hand to unfasten his belt. I know what’s coming, and once the whipping stops, I lie on my bed, crying, but not for long, for tomorrow is Sunday, and game four is coming on this most holy day, this day meant for believers.
And when it does, I put dimes in my penny loafers for extra luck, and I go to church with my parents, and I pray for a Yankees win.
It’s another sunny day in LA. Sandy Koufax is on the mound for the Dodgers; Whitey Ford toes the rubber for the Yanks.
The Dodgers jump out in front on a solo home run off the bat of Frank Howard. The Yanks tie the game in the seventh inning on a blast by Mantle.
But in the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers, with help from an error by Pepitone, who loses a ball in that background of dazzling white shirts, score another run, and the their 2-1 lead holds up into the top of the ninth inning.
Here we are again, another one-run game, another last chance.
My father is curiously quiet, perhaps because he can’t stand to see my sadness, or perhaps because he’s always known, since his accident, how indeed we can never count on anything. He was finishing harvesting corn on Election Day 1956, when the shucking box on the picker clogged. He didn’t take time to shut off the power take-off, which would have kept the snapping rollers in the shucking box from spinning. Maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe he was eager to get to my aunt and uncle’s house to watch the election returns. Maybe he was just careless. For whatever reason, he tried to clear the corn from the shucking box while those rollers were still turning. His hand got too close, and the rollers pulled it in. When he tried to free it with his other hand, the rollers caught it, too.
Perhaps my father’s quiet as the game goes to last inning because he understands with his entire body how you can convince yourself you know what’s going to happen only to find out you know nothing at all.
Here are the facts: Bobby Richardson leads off the ninth inning with a single to center. Koufax then strikes out both Tresh and Mantle. Elston Howard hits into a fielder’s choice with Richardson safe at second on an error. The tying run in scoring position, Hector Lopez comes to bat, and as much as I convince myself everything will now change, he grounds out, and the game, and the Series, is over.
On this October Sunday, I don’t know that I’ll spend years and years trying to escape my father’s anger. I don’t know that for my sixtieth birthday, the woman I love will surprise me with a trip to New York to see, for the first time, the Yankees play at Yankee Stadium.
She’ll tell me later that when we entered the stadium and stepped onto the concourse, and the field opened up in front of me, I trembled a little.
“Oh, I didn’t,” I’ll say.
“Yes, you did.”
It’s true. There on the concourse, looking out on that field, I remembered my boyhood, and I felt myself shaking, if only inside where the deepest hurt lay, the hurt that never leaves me. I’m never far from the pain of the sensitive boy I was, the one who lived with his angry father, and did the best he could to listen to his mother when she said to him in her soft, kind voice, “Time will heal us. You’ll see.”
I felt myself trembling inside my skin. Trembling because I knew the faith it takes for me to keep surviving a life of anger and doubt, the faith it takes to believe.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.