This weekend, we have “One Pirate Year,” by James Scott, in which a boy tries to understand his father and his father’s love. If you’re a fan of baseball, or a fan of fiction, or a fan of life, then this story is for you. Enjoy. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
When George Gershwin died in 1937, my mother stopped listening to music. She didn’t let my father listen to music, either, on the radio or on the record player, and so I grew up in a quiet household with a dusty Sears and Roebuck console. Sometimes I thought my mother didn’t wipe it clean so that she would make out the fingerprints of anyone brave enough to risk even a moment of sound. Her parents had held Gershwin up as an ideal for their children, One of Our greatest, they’d said. Without him, her interest evaporated. All music had lost its meaning.
When we were alone, my father told me this made her an idiot. But the retirement of Hank Greenberg in 1947, coming just after a year in which he came to play for our hometown Pittsburg Pirates, the very same year he hit twenty-five home runs and walked over a hundred times for the third time in his career, my father stayed home from work for two weeks. Before I left for school a week after Greenberg’s announcement, I heard my father call his boss, his voice still sleepy, and he said, “Sorry, Bob, I’m still sick, and if you don’t believe me, then talk to the union.” Even I knew enough to understand that challenging someone to believe what you said automatically made them think you were lying.
My father came into my room as I fastened my books together, and sat heavily on my bed. The springs squealed. He wore nothing but his underwear. It was rare to see my father unshaven, but there he was, prickly and shadowed and sitting on my bed.
“You’re not going to school today, Jacob,” he said. He pronounced my name Yakob, as he sometimes did.
I didn’t argue, but to show my solidarity, I undid my books and set them back on my desk.
My mother would never say anything—silence being her mode—but you could tell as my father’s eyes filled with tears at the breakfast table for the thirteenth straight day that his love for Hank Greenberg made her think my father was an idiot.
Still unshaven, my father took me to Forbes Field. The security guard wouldn’t let us through the gate, even a grown man with red-rimmed, puffy, cried-out eyes and his small boy begging to get a peek at the snow-covered diamond. Instead, we parked on the street and made our way around the park. As we did, my father told me that Hank Greenberg had been paid eighty thousand dollars to come to Pittsburg to play, and that they’d moved the fences in right field in thirty feet and called that area Greenberg Gardens. He grabbed onto the chain link fence, his thick fingers red with the cold, and moaned. “We did everything for him.” He rattled the chain link. “We did everything to make him want to stay.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t really follow baseball, and hadn’t seen the bottom of the depths of my father’s passion until now. He’d taken me to a few games, but I spent most of my time at Forbes watching the people—not the ballplayers, the other fans. Once I was startled by my father’s elbow in my ribs, and when I looked up at him, I saw his gaze directed off into the distance, and then he erupted in cheers, his face loosened in an enormous smile. He glanced down at me, and I tried to adjust my quizzical expression, but it was too late. A small darkness attached itself to my father’s brow, and it remained there for the rest of the game.
“Where did he go?” I asked.
“To Cleveland,” my father responded. “They offered him a job.”
“He’s going to play for Cleveland?” I asked.
My father hooted, and stomped his feet into the powdery snow at our feet. “No, Jacob, that’s the worst of it. They gave him a job.” He said this word with disdain. “Now he’s just one of us.”
My father leaned his head against the fence, the bleachers of Forbes casting a cold shadow over the two of us, and he began to weep in earnest.
“Remember when Hank hit that home run?” I asked. “We were at the game.”
“Do you know,” my father asked, ignoring me, “why there haven’t been any dominant men like us in baseball before?”
“No,” I said, expecting an answer to follow. But my father merely kicked at the snow and stayed silent a long time. Without saying anything, he turned and began to walk away. I followed.
“The Great American Pastime,” my father said. “That’s what they call it.”
And he didn’t return to work, not until they told him that he would be fired if he didn’t show up. I’d only been allowed the one holiday from school, and my father would be sitting in his armchair each day as I left, and when I returned, he would still be there, and each day, his beard appeared to be a more solid mass of bushy black than it had been in the morning. He seemed deflated, as if someone had removed his spine.
He went back to work on a Tuesday, and my mother and I forgot about those weeks, forgot about Hank Greenberg, who went on to have a successful life after baseball, but without Hank Greenberg, his favorite player, whose every exploits he had followed in the paper and announced to us at the breakfast table even when he’d played for Detroit, who had finally come to my father only to leave after one measly year despite all the offerings at his feet, my father faded away.
In 1962, fifteen years later, I was living in Los Angeles selling advertising time for television and radio. I’d become a baseball fan myself during college, when my roommate and I would skip classes at Columbia to watch the Dodgers play in Brooklyn. I’d told my father about a young Jewish pitcher named Sandy Koufax, but he responded by handing the phone to my mother. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, I was one of the first in line for tickets, and I rarely missed a game.
My father was not well, and I encouraged my mother to try to get him out to the dry air and sunshine of Los Angeles. She told me the trip would be too much, and when I offered to pay for their tickets, she clarified, “No, Jacob, dear, I don’t think your father would survive. The trip is too much.”
Two weeks later, on June 30, 1962, under a cloudless Los Angeles sky, Sandy Koufax stuck out the side in the first on nine pitches and never looked back. He didn’t allow a hit, and I practically ran back to my apartment to call home. It was late back east, but I didn’t care, I needed to tell my father that I’d just seen a twenty-six year-old Jew throw a no-hitter. My mother’s voice was sleepy, and she refused to wake my father. I had to tell him, I explained, but she wouldn’t budge. The next day I was too busy to call back, and the day after that it seemed less important. I addressed an envelope to my parents’ house in Pittsburg and put my ticket stub in it, but I didn’t know what to write on a note, so it stayed on my kitchen table, propped up against the salt and pepper shakers. It was still there when my mother called me on July 8th and said that my father had passed away in the night.
Back in Pittsburg, I helped my mother go through their things. She was coming out to Los Angeles to live with me, and as we pored over stacks of papers, eliminating what we could, she would step away, towards the window, her hair silver in the light, and put a fist tight against her lips. These moments would pass, and I waited patiently, silently, flipping through letters and newspaper clippings detailing the weddings of the children of neighbors long moved away.
In a cracked leather folder in my father’s desk, which my mother refused to go through, saying it was bad luck—a schwartz yor—I found a stack of letters. They were all written in my father’s looping handwriting, and they were all addressed to Mr. Hank Greenberg. My mother didn’t look surprised to see them; her only reaction was to leave the room to put another pot of water on for tea, saying she was cold even though it was July. “You’ll be happy to get to Los Angeles,” I said, as I read through the letters.
They were full of praise, all of them, not just for Greenberg, but for me and my mother. My father bragged of my good grades and my synagogue attendance, how I kept still and quiet when the other children squirmed and complained. He told Hank Greenberg how handsome I was and more, thousands of words I had never heard from his lips, and never would have imagined were in his head at all. Many of them, in fact, were if not quite lies, exaggerations.
A cup of tea in her hand, my mother sat on the edge of her bed, on my father’s side, where his glasses and folded copy of the Post Gazette still waited for him.
“He never sent them,” I said. I knew it was a stupid thing to say, but I didn’t know what other reaction to have. There must have been close to a hundred of them, including a fever pitch when Greenberg came to Pittsburgh. A letter a week, sometimes more. My mother shook her head. “He wrote them in the bathroom,” she said. “He was embarrassed.”
“Can I have them?” I asked.
My mother nodded her head. “Someone should read them,” she said. “Someone should know what was going through that man’s head.” She laughed, softly, and I saw her lips were cracked at the corners, where small scabs gathered.
At the end of the day, the house was nearly packed, and I headed off to my bedroom, even though it wasn’t even ten o’clock, because I wanted my mother to feel like a mother again. “Good night, mom,” I said.
She sat at the kitchen table, working out the crossword.
I had my hand on my doorknob when my mother said, in her regular voice, not calling after me, “You know, he met him once.”
I stopped. We’d packed the photographs that had once lined the hallway, and even in the dim light coming from the kitchen, the bare white rectangles glowed.
“Who?” I said. I padded back down the hallway.
“Hank Greenberg,” she said. “He was just walking down the street. And your father, well, your father didn’t know what to do. They passed right by one another.”
“He didn’t say anything?” I asked. “Nothing?”
My mother was lit by the overhead light, her thin hair sparkling as it rose from her forehead. She kept her pen and her eyes on her crossword.
I saw them, sweat converging in a vee down my father’s back as he hustled down the sidewalk, holding his hat to his head as he always did, because he walked so fast and he loved his hats so, and, coming from the other direction, Hank Greenberg, all six-foot-four of him, angular and smooth at once, his hair neatly in place. My father’s pace slowed. I felt his panic. Hank strolled right past, hands in his pockets. I thought of the ticket stub, in an envelope still, now tucked away below my tidy rows of rolled socks. “He couldn’t think of anything to say?”
My mother reached out with her pen and tapped the stack of letters on the table. “He did,” she said.