Monday, April 27, 2009

Summers of Childhood - Books and Baseball

In recent weeks, I've seen and heard a lot of references to summer's approach - those lazy carefree days when life is good. No doubt, summer has a good rep, must have a great PR guy. Even as an old retired guy, I look forward to the season - maybe as much as when I was a kid.

Decades ago, a majority of my childhood memories were permanently deleted from my "mental hard drive." My sisters recall far more events than I. There may well be plenty of psycho-babble to explain that, but no matter, it happened. Nonetheless, I've been reflecting on those summer days growing up in the 1950s that are still indelibly stamped in my memory. This, then is a glimpse into what life was like in those days, a counterpoint to what you may have seen on "Leave It to Beaver," "Ozzie and Harriet," or "Life with Father."

Kansas weather was in a high heat and humidity cycle during the 50s, and that influenced the way I spent my days and nights. We had no air conditioning as it is known today (few families did) - just a window "swamp cooler" that actually added moisture to the suffocating dampness in the air. And - it didn't cool off much at night. I'd lay awake at night next to the open windows hoping for a breeze to blow across my sweaty little body.

Reading was my single favorite summer activity. I devoured books. Several mornings a week, I would ride my classic, fat-wheeled bicycle (no gears, no hand brakes) downtown to the public library, one of those grand Carnegie Libraries familiar to small towns. Safe? Sure. Even as a kid, there was no danger in riding my bike to the library as long as I avoided the noontime "traffic." Fortunately, my bike had a fairly substantial wire basket, as I usually carried quite a few books each way. Backpacks were a long ways off in the future, except for the olive-drab, World War I army surplus models that Boy Scouts used on outings.

My favorite reading matter? I read a lot of American history, particularly books dealing with the westward movement and the settling of the frontier, an interest maintained to this day as I have learned of the roles played by my ancestors in that great American adventure. On the subject of American adventurers, I somehow learned about early-day travel writer Richard Halliburton and then proceeded to devour everything the Wellington library had by him. Those might be interesting to dig up and re-read, as my love of travel has not waned, and his books were adult level reading. In keeping with my love for baseball, books about the sport caught my attention as well, particularly about the stars of the game. I wonder how many times I read the Jackie Robinson story.

Baseball was a different game in the 50s. Living in a small Kansas town where I did, big league ball was something of a fantasy game and a little boy's heros were indeed larger than life. Televised baseball did not come to our town until late in the decade; and then it was a weekly game on Saturday afternoon, broadcast in grainy black and white with two, perhaps three cameras trying to capture all of the action. Player closeups and replays would not come along for many years.

Most afternoons would find me on the living room floor in front of the fan and next to the Philco radio (similar to the one on the left) listening to the Game of the Day. At this point, my memories don't always jive with information I find on the internet. I recall the games being on the Mutual network and broadcast from a different site each afternoon by Al Helfer and Dizzy Dean. In that era, two-thirds of all games were played during the day. As a kid I was absolutely convinced that the announcers were talking live from the ballpark, then later was informed they were in a studio re-creating the game much as Ronald "Dutch" Reagan had done early in his career. Today I read that Mutual's games were broadcast live from the site, and a rival network - Liberty - recreated games from a studio in Dallas.

Helfer was a pro, and still my ideal play-by-play announcer. He had an authoritative, yet comfortable voice. He knew the game, but he didn't over-burden the listener with trivialities. He simply kept you informed without over-dramatizing the event. Years later he would become the Kansas City Royals' first announcer, and his young sidekick, Hall-of-Famer Denny Matthews, obviously learned some valuable lessons from him.

Dizzy was another story. Ol' Diz was colorful. Pure Country. Entertaining - unless you were an English teacher. He had a story for every occasion. Or, if the game slowed down, you could count on him to break into his rendition of "Wabash Cannonball." I never hear that song without thinking of him. His mis-pronunciations, original expressions, and malapropism became legendary, sort of a Yogi Berra and an Al Ueker all rolled up in an Arkansas farm boy package. Falstaff, the broadcasts' sponsor, seized upon the marketing opportunity to publish a dictionary which put Dizzy Dean expressions into everyday English. The nation's English teachers actually organized in an attempt to get Diz banned from the airwaves, but his popularity prevailed. Said Diz “I ain’t never met anybody that didn’t know what ain’t means”*

Somehow in all this I became a Brooklyn Dodger fan, to the dismay of my father, who grow up following the St. Louis Cardinals, the closest major league team to southeastern Kansas. I don't know why I picked the Dodgers. It might have been connected to multiple readings of "The Jackie Robinson Story." Maybe it was the collection of colorful names: Pee Wee, Duke, Campy, Preacher, Scoonge, etc. Shown in the photo at right are some of my favorites of the Boys of Flatbush: Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider (my favorite), and Carl Furillo (the only member of this group not inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame).

Our little town's daily (except Sunday) newspaper carried complete box scores of all the previous day's games, which I scoured religiously. It was easier for a paper to do that in the early 50s, as there were only 16 teams**, most games were played in the afternoon, and none of those were in the Mountain or Pacific time zones. It wasn't too difficult for a baseball nut such as young Frank to know the lineups of all the teams.

I also had an All-Star Baseball Game, just like the 1962 version shown here. Absolutely nothing electric about it. Imagine that - just player discs which fit over a manual spinner. But I played it for hours and kept stats on the roll ends of cheap butcher paper from my dad's shop.

When did my love for the national game wane? It started when the Dodgers and Giants moved to California. That was about the time I entered junior high school, that time in life when boys start finding lots of other interests. And in the big leagues the number of franchises grew, salaries skyrocketed, increased media exposure made mere mortals of super heroes. In the oft-used terminology of those who separate, "we just grew apart."

Books and Baseball. Did I do anything else? I had some chores, of course - lawn work, especially on those years when we had our own vegetable garden. I enjoyed going to visit my cousin at the old family farmstead, but even as a youngster he had his assigned chores, so he wasn't always available to play. Once in a while, our kindly neighbor Andy Anderson would take me fishing with him, usually at Lake Wellington, occasionally on Slate Creek in the city park. I seldom caught anything, but never cared about that. The city had a nice municipal swimming pool, but that was too far away to walk or ride my bike to until I was in the upper elementary grades.

Still one of the more vivid memories I have is the evening assembly of neighbors. Before air conditioning and television as we know them today, the best entertainment was to gather in front yards. All the neighbors and their kids. A few had lawn chairs, some sat on blankets, and the kids just rolled around in the bermuda grass daring the chiggers to chew on them - which they usually did. Carefree and relaxing. And we were certainly well acquainted with the people on our block, which is one of the things I treasure about our current neighborhood situation in 2009 suburbia.

I guess I've rambled on quite a bit for one whose "hard drive" is faulty. I have digressed a little bit as well. But there it is - such as I remember.


* Quotation, plus other information regarding Dizzy Dean found at:

** The sixteen teams I first remember were:
National League - Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals;
American League - Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington Senators, Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers. Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Browns (very soon after to become the Baltimore Orioles).

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