Batter Up! Bottom of the 8th
A Game I Remember with More Fondness Than Any Other
Between 1964 and 1970, I went to at least 150 baseball games at Forbes Field, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, including the last two games ever played there, a Sunday afternoon doubleheader in June, 1970. I was 9 years old in ’64 when I started going to games on my own. Prior to that, brother Chris would take me to games on occasion, and he showed me how to get around that park, which I have described in earlier innings/chapters of this series, so I won’t go into detail here. Come to think of it, in many ways Chris was more of a father figure to me in my early years than my Dad was.
It was not a big deal to navigate going from my family’s home in Brookline, in the South Hills area of Pittsburgh, to the ballpark in Oakland, all the way on the other end of town. It was simply a matter of walking a block from Berkshire Avenue, where we lived, over to Brookline Boulevard to catch a streetcar (trolley) from there to downtown Pittsburgh, then transfer to another streetcar on 5th Avenue in town to take me out to the ballgame in Oakland.
In all it was about 7 miles from point to point, and would take about 35–45 minutes each way. I think sometime around ’66 or ’67, they took out the trolley line that ran down Brookline Boulevard, so you’d take a bus from there to downtown instead, then catch the same trolley on 5th Avenue out to Oakland. Even though that trolley travelled through what was known to be one of the rougher parts of town, the Hill District, it never phased anyone that I would routinely make that trip by myself at that age. In my family, we learned to take care of ourselves for such things, from an early age.
We never got an allowance, as there simply wasn’t any money to spare for such frivolity, after taking care of the roof over our heads, and feeding such a large brood. So, I started delivering the morning newspaper at the age of 5, when my brother Ken sub-contracted about 20 of his customers to me, for something like a quarter a day. That added up to a buck-fifty a week, big bucks for a 5 year old. By the age of 8, I’d inherited my own paper route of 67 or so customers, from my brother Brian, I think. By the age of 10, in addition to the morning paper route, I worked several evenings a week in the back of a bakery on the boulevard — so, I never wanted for spending money. I spent most of it on candy and baseball — the getting to and from the ballpark, the admission, the scorecard (which I always bought and dutifully kept score with, then would hang around after the game to get players’ autographs on), along with the hot dogs, pops, peanuts and cracker jacks once there. I was actually a pretty self-sufficient kid.
I only ever actually went to a game with my father one time — but that is a game I remember indelibly. I remember who they played (Chicago Cubs), who was pitching for the Cubs (Joe Niekro), who pitched for the Pirates (Jim Bunning), who hit the homerun that represented the only run in the game (Ernie Banks), and even who the lead-off hitter was for the Pirates (Maury Wills). The Pirates lost that one, 1–0, when Banks knocked that pitch from Jim Bunning over the ivy-covered brick wall in left field, just to the right of the big scoreboard out there, in practically the same spot where Bill Mazeroski had once killed the Yankees with a World Series ending homerun that is still talked about today, 62 years later.
I remember it all like it was yesterday. It meant the world to me that my Dad came to the place I had made my home away from home, Forbes Field, to take in a ballgame with me. We had made an evening of it, visiting before the game with my brother Ken where he was babysitting for a professor’s precocious little daughter, Megan Coffee (I even remember her name!) He was a student at the University of Pittsburgh, on whose campus Forbes Field sat, and he had an apartment on campus, not far from the ballpark. I think we had dinner with him that evening.
Being the 6th child, and the 5th son in my family, I guess somehow spending time with his son simply wasn’t a major priority for my Dad by the time I came along, and I understand that. Honestly, though, prior to that night, I didn’t much care. He never seemed to “get” me much, anyway, and didn’t seem to think much about me at all, for that matter, other than putting me down most of the time whenever we did interact. He had to work really hard just to keep his nose above water, trying to raise such a large family and keep up with all the family bills. I guess I only ever came to his attention when I’d done something wrong, so that was all I remember having interactions with him about.
With the exception of that night, May 2nd, 1968, when he took some time to hang out with his 5th son, me, in my favorite place in the whole world. At Forbes Field, he was in my world. I remember being kind of fascinated when I learned that it had also been part of his world, many years before, when he’d attend games with his father. I’m sure he told me the story of his father sitting in the left field bleachers and catching a foul ball with his bare hand, breaking his thumb in the process. I loved those stories, because I’d never met his father — he had died 3 weeks before I was born. I always felt like I would have liked him, from what I heard about him.
What I really enjoyed was how Dad kind of narrated the action of the game. He had a good feel for the dramatic, and really felt for Bunning, who had labored to pitch a fine game, but for that one solo homerun, but got no support from a Pirate team that normally scored runs in bunches. I came away from the night impressed with how much my Dad actually did know about baseball — but also just a little miffed that he had never shared any of that knowledge with me before. That’s the way it was with me.
Truly, the man could not win with me. Whenever he did try to reach out and include me, I would write it off as a condescending attempt to act like he cared, when I knew in my heart he really didn’t. At least, that’s the way I saw it. It was always too little, too late, when he did make what I thought was a feeble attempt to acknowledge me. I remember the one time he ever attended a sporting event I was involved in — we’re talking about a kid who lived, ate and breathed sports, so I was involved in a lot of sporting events — I think it was a CYO Football game when I was in the 8th grade, around the same time he came to that ballgame with me.
I remember him trying to compliment me on my play on the field, but all I could think was that he had no clue what he was talking about. I knew I had blown a play on defense that had allowed the other team to score what turned out to be the winning touchdown. I was playing defensive end, and had gotten drawn in on a fake run up the middle, leaving my end exposed as the quarterback carried that ball on a bootleg play right around my end and galloped down the field untouched for the touchdown that sealed our defeat. I knew I was supposed to be guarding that end, but had gotten fooled and abandoned my spot. So, I would not accept his compliment as I brooded about my tragic mistake. What did he know, anyway? I must’ve been a pretty hard kid to love, at that point.
Later on in life, when I was even harder to love, that man had practically loved me back to life when I was really down and out. He really had. So today, I hold no hard feelings about any of this. He more than made up for any shortcomings he’d had as a Dad to me in my early years. I’ve long since gotten over any ill will I once felt towards him.
But, I still remember, with a warm and very fond sentiment, that one special night when he came with me to the ballgame, and we just hung out, talking baseball. That night, at least, I felt like he really loved me, and I guess I got a hell of a lot of mileage out of that single positive memory of him from my growing up years.
Well, that’s about it for the bottom of the 8th. One more inning to go, two more stories, the top and the bottom of the 9th. Just when I think I’ve run out of stories to share about baseball and me, a new one always pops up that serves to remind me why I love this game so much. In my book, baseball is still the national pastime, even if that is no longer true for anyone else. It still is for me. “Play Ball!!!”