Last Friday, when the sun was darting in and out of the blackish winter clouds and the infield was actually a slippery archipelago of mud left over from the storm that had swept Jerusalem the day before, an insufficient number of the usual personnel showed up. Having no choice, we drafted some of the kids from the neighborhood who usually hang around and stationed them in the empty positions—they were warm bodies, and they might even stop a ball.
Usually, using our persuasive powers and superior numbers, we push these local schoolboys with their honeycomb soccer ball off the field when we come to play softball, permitting them at most to retrieve fouls. Never do they give up the field graciously, or without an argument. But on this cold, wet, muddy Friday, we compromised. Our player-manager—the transplanted bank teller, born and bred in Atlanta, Georgia—pointed out to the little Israelis where they should stand, and told them, in Hebrew, what they should try to do if the ball happened to come their way. They just nodded as if they understood, but one of them protested, in English, “I know! I know! You don’t have to tell me!”
A child of nine or ten, he was skinny, quick, awkward, eager. He was promising. His English was American, and yet it wasn’t. He must have been the offspring of one of those rare Israelis who leave Israel for the Promised Land and then come back, but not before their children become willingly steeped in the non-exportable essences of the master culture.
I recognized myself in this kid.
He had learned the basic motion of throwing a ball correctly, with some velocity and precision, not elbow-first, weakly and erratically like a girl or a non-American athlete who can only propel a ball with his feet. When I was his age, the American throwing motion had become nearly natural for me, too.
I had worked on it for a thousand hours, first with my father, then with my American friends. My father was responsible for starting me off. It must have been as early as our first spring in the New World that he took me to H. Brine’s in downtown Boston and had me pick out a bat, a glove, and a ball—he had already guessed somehow or been told that this sport could be his son’s surest road to Americanization. The salesman demanded to know whether we were in the market for a hardball or a softball. This we didn’t know, but hefting the two possibilities—the hardball in one palm, the softball in the other—my father suggested I choose the softball. We rode back to Dorchester on the MTA, I smacking the shiny round thing into the stiff, oversized glove, over and over, distending it, beginning to form a pocket that would soon become as unremarkable and necessary to me as my own hand.
Thereafter we spent not a few late afternoons in Franklin Park, near the zoo. I have the picture in my mind of my mother sitting on a bench, reading a French novel, while we play—or better, try to play—catch. My father, a continental European, and a Jew on top of it, wasn’t adept at throwing or catching. I noticed that he couldn’t quite decide whether the main object of it all wasn’t in fact to protect himself against an approaching missile. But although I was soon throwing more accurately and catching more consistently than he was, he didn’t chicken out or drop these sessions. On the contrary, he applauded me, calling over to my mother after I’d done something which, frankly, had surprised us both. She looked up and I pantomimed the deed for her.
When I finished with my father’s services and went off to play with Americans, it was strictly on my own initiative, and not because he gave any sign of having had enough. But first, I had to see how the game was really played. I had to pick up the rules, which he couldn’t teach me because he couldn’t fathom them himself. I didn’t have far to search on those summer days, made longer than in Jerusalem by daylight-saving time and the northern latitude. During these extended twilights the Slo-Pitch teams would compete on the crab-grassy diamonds of the park. They sported glossy satinized uniforms, American Legion posts and the Knights of Columbus sponsored them, and their brand of play was sharp and midway between serious and mock-serious. After outs the infielders would peg the ball smartly around the horn. By watching and listening to these firemen, cops, and mechanics, I began to gather what the game was about. My brain also sponged up that slangy stream of encouragement and disparagement that ran counterpoint to the stop-and-go action—“No stick in there, Big Mike I” and “How you fire!” constituted among my first hundred words in English.
Playing ball, or watching it being played, these Americans conveyed a feeling of solidarity that I seemed to remember the Jews showed with one another in Palestine, in Israel. Strangers talked to each other, exchanging remarks on the plays, on the players. My father, exercising his English, drew people out—spectators who called him “Doc” and “Mac.” But although I could feel that this game which my father had taken pains to introduce me to was my new country’s great common denominator, it wasn’t easy for me to take the next step.
Fearful, speechless, alone, I’d gaze at the pick-up games of my own age group in a vacant lot near our apartment building. At first I watched from across the street, my glove impaled on my bat, afraid to come closer. Day after day the players ignored me—perhaps it was for the best, perhaps I was overreaching. But one day I crossed the street, and after a couple of innings during which I sat on a crate and was ignored again, the summons came. Directed there by the finger of a red-headed older kid, I found myself playing right field.
I didn’t give such a poor account of myself, not on that day, and not on the days that followed. Most of my work was stopping grounders that got through the infield. This I did with my body as much as with my glove, and heaved the ball back energetically. “How you fire!” I would shout, still unsure exactly what to say or do, and when. High flies and line drives were another matter—there was no telling how I’d handle them. But out there on the field, a spectator no more, a foreigner, an outsider no more, the distinct possibility of making an error didn’t bother me so much. I was already proud, already perfectionistic. I wanted badly to excel, to win at everything, even at this American game. Yet to be on the field, and make an error, to play and lose, was preferable to not playing at all. I saw that true-born Americans made errors too, and if they were called “Butterfingers!” it didn’t kill them. I could feel for a certainty, now, that this game was a door I could walk through to naturalization. More than that, I could become good at it, and more than that even, I could come at moments to love it for itself, a pure love uncontingent on any social benefit. Especially I could be good at hitting—my growing nearsightedness notwithstanding—though it would take me longer to get the hang of hitting a pitched ball than to learn to catch and throw.
These kids could do things with a pitch that my father couldn’t dream of. They could make it spin and dip, or accelerate across the plate after seeming to have slowed down. At first I swung at almost every pitch, and missed nearly as many. I must’ve cut a comic figure. Once, getting a piece of the ball, I fouled it off my toes, exposed and vulnerable in the Old World sandals that I still wore. I dropped my bat and hopped around in pain. “The fingers on my foot,” I managed to explain to the Irishmen, there being no single word for toe in Hebrew. They laughed, not unkindly I thought, and through my grimace I laughed too, and for the time being was acceptable in their eyes.
After this all that remained was to become a Red Sox fan, and a worshipper at the shrine of Ted Williams.
I don’t remember whether it was our first or second summer in America that my father took me to Fenway Park. I do remember, and vividly, how it was to arrive at the top of that gently up-sloping concrete ramp at Fenway where, suddenly, you come out of the musty shadows below the grandstand and face the field. Young as I was, I was already liable to see in similes, sometimes two at once, or one right after the other. So to climb that ramp and face the field was like going on holiday and climbing the last dune on the beach south of Tel Aviv, facing at last the impossible color and impossible expanse of the sea—all the more immense and lovely for a mountain-bound child from Jerusalem. Here at Fenway, the sea was grassy, it was green grass greener than green, stretching out flawlessly and becalmed to a kind of distant horizon that was formed by the scoreboard, the bleachers, and the outfield walls.
Or, Fenway Park was like something else altogether. It was like a meadow in the country, like the meadow we had had a picnic in near Longfellow’s Country Inn. But here it was a meadow that was inexplicably and wonderfully enclosed by the iron girders and rusting patina of the city, the pillars and posts and erector-set geometry of the grandstands and bleachers where twenty- or thirty-thousand American city dwellers like myself were raising a reassuring hubbub.
What enchanted me—the similes, or the thing itself?
The Sox took the field. The crowd cheered, and I cheered too. They played the “Star Spangled. Banner,” and I stood with hand over heart, as I had learned to do in school. After the anthem, the crowd cheered again out of sheer good spirits, and sat down twenty or thirty-thousand times. The game began. It resembled the Slo-Pitch games in Franklin Park, and yet it was nothing like them at all. The least of the differences was that the pitcher threw overhand. More impressive than that, the players performed prodigies that were beyond the powers of the Franklin Park amateurs. The pros scooped up terrific grounders and hauled in fly balls that could’ve arched one of those skyscrapers in New York the floors of which I had given up counting from the sidewalk after I reached fifty and got a crick in my neck. Yet while the crowd cheered these amazing plays, it didn’t seem to be positively wowed by them—basically it seemed to take them for granted.
There was more to this game than I’d imagined.
The sides changed. I purchased a bag of Double-Jointed Red-Hot Peanuts for myself and my father out of my allowance. Casually I clarified for him what a base on balls was. He, I noticed, was already slightly bored. Though he could toss a ball around with me for hours without tiring of it, and he could find it amusing to chat with the onlookers at a Slo-Pitch game, to watch or listen to a Red Sox game for more than a few minutes tested his patience. And then something happened. A thrill of complete attention passed over the crowd, stirring it like a breeze. Things seemed at one and the same time to grow noisier and quieter as a tall figure with his back to us, the numeral 9 stitched on his dazzling white uniform, came to the plate. The public-address announcer said something that I couldn’t quite hear for the noise. “Who’s that?” I asked in Hebrew, and my father, looking down at number 9, answered that he didn’t know.
I was only curious, that first time, watching this figure knocking the sod from his spikes, digging in, charging the air around him—there was no reason yet for me to have gooseflesh about Ted Williams, for the little hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end, for a kind of aura to seize me that would come over me during the next ten years whenever I was at Fenway, or listening to the radio, or viewing a game on TV, and Williams came to bat.
Appropriately, unluckily—inevitably?—he hit a homer the first time I saw him. Wiggling his hips, he strode into a pitch, and met it in the center of the arc described by his bat. Instantly thousands of people were on their feet, and then myself and my father, following the flight of the ball through the blue sky. It kept climbing, climbing steadily like the dove that never came back to the ark, and disappeared over the top of the right-field bleachers, near the Gruen clock. Deadpan, Williams made the tour of the bases behind the man he had driven in, while the crowd I was a living part of raised a joyous tumult.
I was well trapped.
But why the Red Sox? And why Williams?
Why not? The Red Sox were the exasperating darlings, the frustrating favorite sons of Boston, indeed of all New England. It’s true that another major league team, the Braves, also made its home in Boston. The Braves, however, were unloved and virtually ignored—a few years after I arrived, they moved to Milwaukee, formalizing the fact that the Red Sox owned the region. The Red Sox had a grip on New Englanders who cared about such things that could only be compared, perhaps, to the claim that a somewhat similar, somewhat better team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, is said to have had on the souls of its fans at the same period. Like the Dodgers, the Red Sox were loved and groaned over, and like the Dodgers, they were oversupplied with stars. They had Bobby Doerr, Jim Piersall, Johnny Pesky, Walt Dropo, Mel Parnell, Ellis Kinder, Junior Stephens, the meteoric Clyde Vollmer, Vern Stephens, Dom DiMaggio, and Williams. Unlike the Dodgers, the Red Sox never once fulfilled their promise. Each spring, a national panel of sportswriters queried by the Sporting News—I was soon a subscriber-predicted that with such a line-up the Red Sox had to win the pennant and each September, during the last week, sometimes on the last day, of the season, after leading the league for months, the Red Sox would invariably be overtaken, usually by the Yankees.
The Red Sox were highly gifted losers.
Having been brought to Boston, and having been introduced to softball and baseball, it wasn’t very surprising that I let my head be turned by the Red Sox. And since Williams was the team’s star of stars, it isn’t any wonder either, that I chose him in particular to adore. What was remarkable, perhaps, if not inexplicable, was the extent of my craziness, the intensity of my adoration and identification. Even for a Red Sox fan, I overdid it. Hunched like some medieval kabbalist, I pored over the standings and the schedule every day in the Globe, computing what the team had to do in order to protect its lead. All the statistical data on Williams I committed to memory, not only for the year in progress, but for all the years he had played in the majors, including the years before I was born. I made a great effort to tune in to every Red Sox game—for me to miss a broadcast was most unusual. TV then was only black-and-white, of course, and only the Red Sox home games, and these only on the weekends, were televised. But WNAC and the generous Narragansett Lager Beer Company presented all 154 games over the radio, home and away. It is these radio broadcasts I still remember now, especially the away night games.
If the Sox were on the road, and a night game was being relayed from another time zone—from St. Louis or Chicago or Detroit—I’d stay awake past midnight attending to Curt Gowdy’s play-by-play through an earphone which I hooked up to my crystal set. As I lay in the darkness, my active inner eye would picture the details implied or neglected by Gowdy—the glow of the grass under the million-watt floodlights, the gray flannel that Boston wore away from home, the snouty faces in the crowd, the canopy of smoke hanging low in the humid Midwestern night. These imagined images made my rooting that much more passionate. How I wanted the Red Sox to win! But if they didn’t beat the Browns, the White Sox, or the Tigers that night, I prayed that, at least, my idol would shine. Whatever the score, I’d be shaken by a spasm of expectation as the third batter in the Boston line-up was retired or reached base, and the unfriendly crowd in Busch Stadium, Comiskey Park, or Briggs Stadium stirred and murmured a thousand miles away.
“Here’s Williams. . .,” Gowdy said laconically.
More than once in every three atbats, Williams delivered. When he did, I was filled with a deep, almost ecstatic satisfaction. When he didn’t, I’d either wait faithfully for his next at-bat, or bitterly weep—it depended on the situation in the pennant race, on whether it was April, July, or September. At the end of September, the Red Sox, those losers, and Williams, that genius, dispersed. Fall and winter were thus dead seasons for me, a dead space I sought to fill with books. The Bruins and the Celtics, hockey and basketball and football, left me cold. I waited for February, that short, endless month during which I crossed off the days until spring training. Waiting for the planet to tilt toward the sun again, I fantasized. I coaxed a God I didn’t believe in to let this be the season—the season when the Red Sox and Williams would make it.
They never did. Their annual September collapse, their failure in the clutch, I took as personally and as badly as possible—Williams, too, often let me down when it meant the most for the team. The Red Sox lost the pennant, and I wept. I took it like a Betar-Jerusalem soccer fan when Betar loses. Worse. I was angry, ravaged, inconsolable. With an inarticulate sound I rejected my astonished and worried father’s reminder that it was just a game.
Years later, when I presumably had gotten over Williams and the Red Sox, and begun to gain perspective, I would seriously ask myself if my life and character might have emerged differently, more happily, if the Sox had at least once won the pennant, or, alternatively, if my parents had stayed in New York and I’d become, of all things, a Yankee fan. But that was really an idle question. Taking the Red Sox and Williams to my heart—which they bruised—was natural for a kid in Boston, and more than that, it was fatefully right for me, because of what the team and Williams were. The Red Sox were the chosen who could never quite make it, could never quite cash promise in for achievement, and Williams was a genius, a proud perfectionist and individualist and not at all a happy man.
Consciously I modeled myself after him at the plate, and not so consciously off the field as well. I did it being pretty much in the dark about what I was really doing. I didn’t know that my identification with the fortunes of a baseball team and with a pensive native slugger, my fantasies of growing up to be a professional baseball player and my moments of forgetfulness and tremendous pleasure on the ball field, were actually not uncommon disturbances among my kind, among dreamy immigrants or near-immigrants trying to prove to some examining magistrate that they were really men and native sons.
Forgetfulness and pleasure—yes, raised or debased to the level of metaphor, of principle. On some of those summer days on the ballfields and vacant lots in the various neighborhoods, towns, and states we lived in when I was between the age of six and sixteen, the world would temporarily take on aspects of balance, peace, and benevolence which, taken in sum, seemed to amount to the same as a guarantee of immortality. This too is familiar to readers and researchers—those who take an interest in that long-lasting phenomenon, American childhood—yet with all the reading I was doing, I didn’t have any idea that my love for the famous athlete, and my moments of joy on the field, were already becoming minor themes in the culture and psychohistory of my foster country.
The victim of this disorder could play ball from breakfast to supper, dreaming with his eyes open that he and his hero were one. The North American sun would warm his bare shoulders and the sweet taste would well up in his mind of performing physically with effectiveness. At sunset, he’d bicycle home with his glove hanging from the handlebars, head home reluctantly yet prepared—unless there was a night game scheduled—to forget his hero and the game for a time and spend most of the night reading—and not the Sporting News, either. Tomorrow there’d be another game.
But did I ever write Williams a fan letter, did I ever wait for him at the gate at Fenway to ask for an autograph, did I ever so much as clip his photo from the newspaper and paste it on the wall? The fact is, I never did. I don’t think I ever even considered it. The reason may be that my love for Williams was actually abstract, and that to give it such crude expression would have been unintellectual, uncool—like showing my sensual joy on the field too openly. “Play it cool!” might have been my motto during those ten years in question, during which I was actually playing it quite the opposite, playing and identifying feverishly, trying too hard for those forgetful moments, losing badly, storing up responses and habits of mind which it would take me more than another ten years to get over.
Once you’ve learned to take the game for more or other than it is, you can, with difficulty, get over it, but it’s doubtful whether you can ever be completely cured. Twenty years later, back in Jerusalem where I started, I can play softball once a week, and take it pretty much for what it is. Yet even now the fugitive moments come when the pleasure I get or want is excessive and I have to remind myself that this is just a game. It’s liable to happen particularly after I connect for a clean hit or handle a sharp grounder in the infield satisfactorily—events that don’t occur more than two or three times per game. For all I know, I may look as awkward actually executing these plays as that ten-year-old Israeli-American-Israeli kid—who made me think of myself at his age—did when he caught a pop fly in last Friday’s game. All he lacked to make the resemblance to me at ten complete was a pair of glasses on his nose. But the resemblance was eerie enough to move me.
Calling for it, he lifted his arms stiffly, he slipped in the mud, but he kept his footing, and he held on to the ball. Do I look anything as helplessly radiant as he did, after his nice play? I trust not. My urge, at any rate, was to warn him, to tell him, “Don’t do it, kid! Don’t take it so seriously! Don’t do what I did!”
Wisely, I suppressed this urge. “Yeah!” I hollered instead. “Sign’m up!”