Notes of a Baseball Dreamer: A Memoir

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9780618329618: Notes of a Baseball Dreamer: A Memoir

For anyone who has ever hit a baseball, or gone to sleep with the rise and fall of home runs in his mind, here at last is the book that unlocks the secret to baseball’s hold over our hearts. Robert Mayer’s hilarious and heartbreaking memoir of growing up baseball-obsessed chronicles another kind of ballplayer altogether. Mayer’s star is the boy who was too skinny, too small, and otherwise too genetically unfit ever to become what he really wanted to be: a major league great. Relating his own tribulations as a would-be shortstop from the Bronx, Mayer shows how the poetry of the game has influenced not only the fantasies but the crucial facts of his life. He also shows that he is not alone. Here are intimate takes on a half-century of baseball history as viewed through the clouded lenses of dreamers. We meet the teenage Tiger fan who worships failed minor leaguers, the middle-aged amateur whose greatest gift is to hear his name included in a fictional lineup, the suicidal Mets aficionado who can’t kill himself because he needs to know who’s going to win the next game. Mayer offers a Holden Caulfield like view of baseball as life and an explanation of why, for so many men, these two things are inextricably linked. Here, too, are the women who put up with these men and some who can't. Funny and moving, neurotic and necessary, Notes of a Baseball Dreamer is about what we can and can’t let go of in our lives and the things that will never let go of us.

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About the Author:

Robert Mayer is the author of eight previous books, including THE DREAMS OF ADA and I, JFK. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and have earned him two Mike Berger Awards for the year's best writing about New York City. Born and raised in New York, he now makes his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

First
A Puddle of Moral Uncertainty

When i was a kid my mother called me a skinny-marink. I never knew what
a marink was, not then, not now, but skinny I certainly was, largely because
whenever the Brooklyn Dodgers lost a baseball game I became too upset to
eat. And the Dodgers lost a lot. Baseball, by the time I was seven, had
lodged itself that deeply into my gut. My own national tapeworm. The
Dodgers lost just often enough to keep my immigrant parents fearing for my
survival. Such mounds of spaghetti and Yankee Doodles they did induce
down my gullet I quickly burned off by playing ball from the moment school
let out till half an hour past the time you could see the ball in your hand.
There was a decided advantage to playing ball after dark: errors could be
blamed on God, who"d been dumb enough to invent the useless night.
Strictly speaking, it wasn"t baseball we played. I grew up in the
Bronx, in a neighborhood of brick houses and tenements and narrow paved
streets lined on both sides with parked cars. We played punchball in a
concrete backyard; we played stickball in the street when the steady
stream of traffic would allow. But as Humpty Dumpty would surely have
instructed Alice, baseball we wanted it to be, so baseball it became, and
anyone who says different is a liar. The fact that we used our fists or
broomsticks instead of bats, that we hit Spaldeens or worn tennis balls
instead of baseballs, never detracted from my certainty that one day I would
be playing in the major leagues. I would be the next PeeWee Reese.
Though we lived a mile from Yankee Stadium, I seem to have
emerged from the womb a Dodger fan. This was just as well, because the
Yankees in that Joe-DiMaggio-followed-by-Mickey-Mantle era never seemed
to lose; as a Yankee fan I might have become the Goodyear blimp. But
rooting for the Yankees would have been like rooting for General Motors. I
was congenitally for the underdog, an off-my-trolley Dodger. As was my
older brother for reasons equally obscure.
All my friends on the block were Yankee fans, and my infatuation
with the Brooklyn Bums provided all the sweet music of childhood: the
endless front-stoop arguments over who was better, Reese or Rizzuto,
Mantle or Snider or Mays; all the grand clichés that got us through the
wonder years, the true wonder years — the days when girls were that half
of the human race who tried to throw a ball with the wrong foot in front. That
and nothing more.
My earliest baseball memory is from the summer of "46, late at
night, the Dodgers playing a night game against St. Louis, whom they were
battling for the pennant that year. My parents and my brother were asleep,
me in my bed, seven years old, the blanket pulled over my head to hide the
beam of a flashlight and the sound of a portable radio, listening to the
game.
The Dodgers and the Cardinals tied for the pennant that year.
They played the first playoff games in baseball history, best two out of
three. The Dodgers lost. Born to an ancient tribe of sufferers, I had found my
baseball home. The next year, sparked by Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers
would win the pennant but lose the World Series to the hated Yankees in
the seventh game. "THE BUMS IS DEAD," the Daily News would proclaim
while my weight dropped precariously. They would lose the series to the
Yankees again in "49. In 1950 they would fail to tie the Phillies for the
pennant on the final day of the regular season, when Richie Ashburn would
throw out Cal Abrams at home plate. I was eleven years old then, and I still
remember the name of the coach who sent Abrams in from third: Milton
Stock. Mentioned prominently, I believe, in Dante"s Inferno. . . .
And then came 1951.
Of 1951 we do not speak. . . .
Through all of this we played our own games, countless boy
hours — punchball, stickball, boxball, triangle. Punchball we played in the
large backyard behind the houses our families rented. One side of the yard
was formed by the windowless rear wall of a solid brick warehouse. Another
side was the solid brick wall of a tenement. Two sides were formed by the
backs of brick houses, and these had windows in them. These windows, if
left open, often caught our Spaldeens or tennis balls; we would have to beg
to get them back; if left closed, when ball met glass — a law of elementary
physics — the glass often broke. Mostly this happened to the bedroom
window of Mrs. Newman, a frumpy hausfrau who would come waddling
down to the backyard to catch us, swinging a broom with which she hoped to
box our ears. But there were two sloping cement driveways leading down to
the yard, one at either end, and whichever Mrs. Newman chose to block with
her huge bulk, we could always scamper up the other. The poor woman never
understood Newton"s third law of punchball dynamics: that a two-hundred-
pound landlady in house slippers will never outrun a fifty-pound skinny-
marink. Not ever.
Though I liked to be called Pee Wee, my nickname for one entire
year was Slugger. That was because I was the only one on the block who
couldn"t punch the ball over the fence. But if there was derision in the name,
it was ill conceived. I had no desire to hit home runs; I was more the
hit-and-run type, the slickest fielder in high-tops. Pathologically shy in
school, on the ball field I was always the captain, shouting instructions to
kids much older than I.
My mother, who did the New York Times crossword puzzle every
day, was a firm believer in reading, and every two weeks we rode the trolley
car together to the Fordham library. And every two weeks, to her chagrin, I
came home with an armload of books about baseball. Fiction was
dominated by the immortal John R. Tunis; the clackety-clackety-clack of
spikes in The Kid from Tompkinsville and World Series was — since we
ourselves played all our games in black high-top sneakers — like music from
a foreign land. It was echoed in my childhood only by the clackety-clack of
the trolley cars as they switched rails on the way to Fordham Road and the
Grand Concourse, the Times Square of the Bronx. In the nonfiction section of
the library I read every book available about how to play baseball. I studied as
scrupulously as a brash young scientist at work. I knew the game. By the
time I was eight, I knew that on a hit to right field the shortstop had to cover
second base, while on a hit to left field he had to go out for the relay. I knew
that with a runner stealing and a left-hander at bat, he had to cover second. I
knew that to sacrifice a runner, you squared around and caught the ball on
the bat while laying down the bunt. And that bunting for a base hit was
another matter entirely; hour after hour in the small front parlor of our
apartment, where I slept, I stood with a bat in my hands and practiced
dropping it on an imaginary ball, laying the ball down the third base line even
as I broke toward first. I knew, therefore, nearly everything important about
life. The only thing I didn"t know was how to stop being afraid of the dark.
When I was six years old, one Saturday afternoon my brother
took me to see my very first movie, at the old Surrey Theater on Mount
Eden Avenue, fourteen cents for kids. The attraction was an animated Walt
Disney film called Make Mine Music. It featured, as I recall, The Little Engine
That Could, a bunch of penguins freezing their butts off on ice floes, and
assorted other inspirations and amusements. Unbeknownst to me, however,
there was also a second feature, which my brother wanted to see: The
Phantom of the Opera, with Lon Chaney. As we watched the film, I took
particular note of the Phantom"s acid-eaten face. I did not venture into a dark
movie theater again for two more years. I did not go to bed with the light off in
my room for three.
"How can you be a baseball player if you"re afraid of the dark?" my
frustrated mother asked, trying a bit of psychology.
"What"s that got to do with anything?"
"How will you play night games?"
"There"s lights."
The trouble was, even if the naked light bulb was burning on the
ceiling of your room, when you closed your eyes to go to sleep, darkness
inevitably descended. To rid myself of the monsters that immediately filled
my brain, I began to chant, that summer of 1947, the first full summer of my
fandom, the same refrain, over and over in my brain: The Dodgers are gonna
win the pennant! The Dodgers are gonna win the pennant! The Dodgers are
gonna win the pennant! Since I had never in my life seen a sheep, counting
Jackie Robinsons and Pee Wee Reeses scoring runs was far superior to
the traditional escape. The problem was, the Dodgers actually did win the
pennant that year, so when October turned to November and then to winter,
the mantra of the Dodgers" winning lost some of its soporific effect. Which
gave new meaning to the perennial Brooklyn refrain, "Wait till next year."
If the Dodgers did win the pennant that year, they maintained their
traditional role as heartbreakers by losing the World Series to the hated
Yankees. It was during that series that I learned an important lesson,
however. While Dodger fans could run like hell, Yankee fans could fly.
It was the fourth game of the Series, played at Ebbets Field. The
Yankees led, two games to one. Now, in game four, Bill Bevens of the
Yankees was pitching a no-hitter with two out in the ninth inning. To be
no-hit in the World Series — that would be too much for even a Dodger fan to
bear. I was listening in our two-family house, in our apartment that covered
the entire first floor, when two men reached base on walks and Cookie
Lavagetto came up to pinch-hit. The Yankees were ahead, 2–1. Lavagetto
swung. The ball sailed deep into right field — all this coming over a yellow
plastic radio in the moderately hoarse voice of Red Barber, the voice of the
Bums, the original music man of my youth. The ball hit the wall high over the
right fielder"s head. Two Dodgers raced around the bases and scored. The no-
hitter was broken, the Dodgers had won the game and evened the Series,
all with that one swing, the most dramatic hit in history up to that time —
and, for Dodger fans, for all time to come. (We do not mention 1951.) This
little-known substitute player, Cookie Lavagetto, who would never play
another season, had found instant immortality — this player who until then
might have been to the vast uncaring public, or to my parents, some arcane
vegetable, like a zucchini or a squash. You don"t get any dessert till you
finish your lavagetto.
Lightheaded with joy, I raced out the door and down the three front
steps to rub it in to my neighbor and best friend, Jackie Brownstein. He
lived two doors away and was a Yankee fan, antagonist in all my childhood
arguments, William Buckley to my Bill Moyers. To my eternal
astonishment Jackie, who lived on the second floor and thus had to churn his
solid body down a whole flight of stairs, Jackie, who should have been
brooding in solitude about the sudden turnabout, as I would have been doing
had our roles been reversed, Jackie was waiting for me in the street before I
got there, waiting to chatter excitedly about the unbelievable ending. As if he
knew his Yankees would triumph anyway. As they did. As in those days
they always did. But how had he gotten into the street so fast? How had he
beaten me, for I had raced to the door in a .ash? There could be only one
explanation: he had leapt without fear from his upstairs parlor window.
Yankee fans, it seemed, could fly.
This observation has held up fairly well throughout my life. In the
byways of my mind, Dodger fans and Giant fans and now Mets fans tend to
ride the buses or hitch with their thumbs, hoboes drinking beer at synaptic
gaps. While Yankee fans drink Chivas Regal and fly first class, no matter
how well or how badly their team is doing. They need the wider seats for
their mental bottoms. They do not suffer, they do not quit eating, when the
Bronx Bombers lose. They are not now, nor have they ever been, either
skinny or marinks.
A day or two after Lavagetto"s Hit came Gionfriddo"s Catch.With
two men on base and the Dodgers leading, 8–5, Joe DiMaggio belted a long
drive into left-center field. A Dodger scrubbini named Al Gionfriddo, filling in
in left field, raced far back to the wall and caught the ball as it passed over
the low fence into the left field bullpen. Television had not yet reached
Townsend Avenue in 1947, so this, too, I heard on the radio. A picture of the
catch appeared in the next day"s newspapers — and has been reprinted
many times since. It shows Gionfriddo with his arm bent at his waist, over
the bullpen fence, the ball in his glove. I studied the picture that day and have
studied it many times since and still can"t figure out if this was the follow-
through of a traditional leaping catch or if, indeed, he caught the ball in that
curious position. It remains one of the abiding mysteries of life, along with
the origin of the universe and how anyone can eat boiled okra.
Despite the immortal heroics of Lavagetto and Gionfriddo,
however, the Dodgers lost this Subway Series, this first World Series in
which I was an active participant. On the seventh day God rested; He
ceased His miracles; He let the Philistines win. On the afternoon of the
seventh game, I was riding downtown with my parents in the family car, going
I know not where, when I heard the tragic ending on the car radio. Minutes
later we passed through Times Square, thick with traffic and noisy people in
the streets, as the electric lights on the Times Tower spelled out the Yankee
victory. People were shouting and cheering and throwing confetti, and I,
feeling sick to my stomach, could not imagine what they were celebrating.
Didn"t they understand that the Dodgers had lost?
The next day my friend Jackie"s father, Harry Brownstein, who
was a policeman and a Yankee fan and had heavy jowls, came by our
house and handed me a small white card rimmed all around in black. In tiny
letters in the center, surrounded by white space, were the words BROOKLYN
DODGERS.
I didn"t get it. I asked my mother what the card meant. She
explained that it was the kind of card people handed out when someone
had died: it had a black border with the dead person"s name in the middle.
I didn"t think it was very funny.
I still don"t.

He no longer lives in the city that gave him birth, the city that gave him
succor, an education, a job. He moved away for good and sufficient
reasons. He lives now at the base of a mountain range, where the air is clean
and perfumed in spring by the sweet scent of lilacs. But the city is in him
still; the most obvious link is through the snakelike black wire that connects
his house to a cable TV system, the cable that connects much of America to
the televised games of the New York National League baseball team. For
thirty years, since the first day of their existence, he has been rooting for the
Mets. For the past twenty years he has been doing this across two thousand
miles of American landscape.
Today he is apprehensive and eager. Today he prowls the hours
like a tiger in the zoo. It is April 6, 1992. ...

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