To go back part way or all the way in my memory, to the fields and confines of my youth, is to color or discolor those most real situations, is to make more pleasant the quick reverie of triumph, is to soften the seeming indignity of loss. There was a point in time, which seems had no beginning or an end, when I grew with heroes, lived and died with them in their joys and agonies, when I hurt at their fading, saw them one step slower, one ounce weaker, the dream going down the hill. Oh, thus I come and thus I pass.
Not all of the heroes were nova stars leaping at me out of infinity, though some had singular qualities that for times took them above journeyman status. There was the endless and dominant hustle of Red Sox outfielder Al Zarilla, the bulldog determination of early Patriot halfback Larry Garron, the laboring graces of Tommy Holmes who belonged to the people of the pasture in old Braves Field right field, and the near-journeyman substitutes who waited out the interminable times to make one dream move. There was marathoner Johnny Kelly running forever and a sub lineman on the Boston College 1941 Sugar Bowl team who mustered an unquenchable desire and not such great talent whom I shall leave nameless for the knowledgeable. (But I was born an Eagle then, in spite of all other loves.)
I remember, radio-wise, alone, couched in a darkened room with but a dial’s pink glow, crying out my sledge-hammered sadness when the Duke Blue Devils, whom I had never seen, lost a Rose Bowl game to USC 7- 3. I think it was 1939. That association is still unfathomed, its cause or its coming, though the pain of those moments lasted for years, and brings still a hollow feeling in the chest something else has not yet filled.
Through all those aggregate times of joy and pain, the quick winds of exhilaration, being crushed by an odd score for a span of hours or days, the names and the deeds came and went, comets afoot in the universe, loose in the void; Sweet Jim Lelani, Hurryin’ Hugh McElhenny, Sweetness himself, kneeless Kyle Rote, Toz throwing a crushing rolling-body block in the Tennessee secondary, Iron Mike Harrington and Shipwreck Ed Shipulski and Bazooka Bob Burns right in my own backyard of Saugus, Nyle Kinnick leaving the grainy grass of Iowa for all of America, Choo-Choo Charlie Justice chugging away, my destined to be slighter in body than desired and finding Davie O’Brien way out there in Texas and second basemen all over the planet who were no bigger than I was, or would ever be.
They came and did and went, and they left the images behind and the sounds, the incantations, the melodies of their names, the alliterative power that nouns and adjectives had suddenly amassed around the Splendid Splinter, Jarrin’ John Kimbrough, the Galloping Ghost, the Donora Greyhound, Joltin’ Joe, the whole orchestral arrangement that simply said, “Babe and Lou.”
Oh, I remember there was the guttural impact of Frankie Sinkwich, Bronco Nagurski, Forest Eveshevski, Red Schoendeinst, Babe Dahlgren, Dizzy and Daffy Dean, the Chicago softballer Stash Kujawski; the endless impact of Tank Younger and Night Train Lane and Jackie Robinson; and long before some announcer would say, “Holy Cow,” or “Whoa there, Nellie,” there was Bill Stern bringing all the inside scoop on sports radio.
In my own small sphere, of minor talents, feet fitted with snowshoes on occasion, to have mixed with some of the great ones, to have come away from the contest with even the smallest sense of achievement or joy, is immeasurable. These I have done: shared the field with Harry Agganis, Art Spinney, Mel Massuco and Walter Belardinelli; joyed finally at the bright light coming back in Jimmy Piersall’s eyes; saw Bobby Orr’s first game at Boston Gardens; saw Hondo Havlicek falling down and away at the buzzer and the shot going in the basket; watched the dominance of Bill Russell and the inadequacies of others; saw Larry Bird steal the ball and dish it off to DJ for a basket; screamed as Gino Cappelletti, with one second on the clock, lift one over the crossbar to take out Houston Oilers 25-24; touched Smilin’ Jimmy Henigan’s wreath from the ’31 Boston Marathon; read sports reporters Jerry Nason and Bill Cunningham and The Colonel and Curt Noyes and Bill Cahill and breakfasted on Saturdays with Ernie Roberts; near died at the end with the Red Sox in ’46 and ’67 and ’75 (when it seemed the whole Earth must have been up all night long), and again in’78 and ’86 ( all long before the World Series wins came around). Each of them is part of it, a place I make for myself, my very own, and I always move the color around.
It was my father who took me to my first baseball and football games, who kicked the can open for me, who slipped me under his coat past a winking Boston Gardens ticket-taker about 85 years ago. A few things he said to me, in manly confidence, will ring in my mind forever:
Crow a little bit when in luck. Own up, pay up, and shut up when you lose.
Fishing is the great solace in sports. It’s for the mind, not the hook. It’s the time when you measure wins and losses in the truest angle of all, a slant of unbearably beautiful sunlight through morning’s alder leaves, a water’s whisper of confidence on rocks you think you can hear later in the night, the pointed miracle of a trout beating you at his game, letting you know the wins and losses do come and do pass by. It’s like the game of golf or a game of pool; the green is highly coincident.
And early in the games, at the edge of my first failure, marked by the touch of his hand on my shoulder, you come into life with two gifts, love and energy, and baseball and football and hockey are going to take both of them for all you’ve got. I think his heart remembered a loss, his knees their pain. When they took his leg off, the pain did not leave him.
My bent was early known, my love of the written word; and in the early huddles on the gridiron came the gentle taunts, The Ballad of the Dumb Quarterback or How Many Ways Do I Love Thee, Let Me Call Thy Play. They came repeatedly, jokingly, until the moment in a big game I called a time out and posed this for my teammates: Who calls the plays here? Who has called every play we’ve ever run for the last two years? Who’s the boss here? He’s the poet, that’s who. Now let’s shut up and win a game. And we did. That was 74 years ago. I can still see some of the eyeballs of my teammates, can see the referee trying to figure out what was going on.
Poetry won out.
Here then, in this message, in these poems, is the spectrum, the substance of my memories, the composite of momentary joy and bitter sadness, minute impressions of my time, of those I have touched and been touched by, or in truth have created out of all the touching; and while every battle fade further away and the stars grow dimmer, the times were real. And I am, in my 92nd year, still in love with the agony and the sweat that was demanded.
Note: This is a portion of a forward I wrote for one of my books, Jock Poems and Reflections for Proper Bostonians, from Pocol Press in Punxsutawney, PA