Tag Archives: stennett

Baseball Is Generational: A Cooperstown Trip

My father and I made a short pilgrimage to Cooperstown this weekend; short in distance, relatively speaking but not in time. We attended a VIP Weekend at the Baseball Hall of Fame, including an after-hours access window to the main museum exhibits, and then two private sessions with an artifacts expert and one of the Hall librarians, who shared a variety of paper ephemeral that have been made permanent. It was a true pilgrimage for me, in many ways, as this may be the first year I did not watch a single baseball game in its entirety, the first summer I didn’t wait to hear John Sterling’s “The Yankees win! Theeeeeee Yankeeeees win!” on the radio, and the first post season that felt like a necessary conclusion only to get to the next season of sport.

Upon arriving, we were greeted by some of the Hall staff who reminded us that “Baseball is generational” – they told stories of three generations of single-family fans of single-sport fandom visiting, the innings of their stories and heroes spread over thirty or forty years. This trip, however, was generational in my enthusiasm for the sport. We don’t have the same-team affiliations across the generations in my family – I grew up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan (hence the Willie Stargell obsession) and have veered toward the local favorite Yankees, my son is a Nationals and Red Sox fan (by-products and time and geography) and the first of many discoveries this weekend is that my father was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, until another change in geography and time (my father’s college years and the Dodgers move west). On the topic of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World”, the home run that sent the New York Giants to the 1951 playoffs (while my dad was a high school student, in prime sports rooting years) – and something that repeatedly came up in our behind the scenes tour of the artifacts – my dad’s comment was that “my team lost.” The stories aren’t always happy ones.

One of the few remaining Honus Wagner T206 trading cards

One of the few remaining Honus Wagner T206 trading cards

Honus Wager’s T206 card, on prominent display, is a neat intersection of time and space. It was donated by the collection of the late Barry Halper (a fellow Livingston resident for a while); is the subject of one of my favorite baseball card books; conflates hockey and baseball (Wayne Gretzky owns the other pristine example of the card); and to quote Cory Doctorow from “Craphound,” there’s a poem and a story there. Wagner went on to coach with the Pirates nearly two decades after his playing career ended, and one of his minor league prospects was a future dentist who later became my father’s best friend.

LeRoy Neiman piece at the Hall of Fame

LeRoy Neiman piece at the Hall of Fame

I’ve always loved LeRoy Neiman’s bold, brushstroke heavy work, especially depicting baseball, because it captures the way we see those events – through summer haze, through flying dirt, through a light shower, never quite fixing the image perfectly in all places at once. A new exhibit at the Hall is about the art of baseball, including one large-scale Nieman work (which I believe is Willie Mays). You see art differently when you visit with an artist (like my dad).

One  of four $25,000 bonds used to purchase Babe Ruth's player contract for the Yankees

One of four $25,000 bonds used to purchase Babe Ruth’s player contract for the Yankees

We cannot tell our baseball stories without names, and I became acutely aware of the power of choosing names during our library artifact tour. One of the items on display was a nearly 70 year old player statistics register, a green lined ledger book better suited for the accountants of the game. Before computers and spreadsheets, it was the system of record for all statistics, and once a player had a page in it for a single at-bat or chance in the field, it was a matter of record. Neatly printed in block letters across the top of one page in the 1947 register is the name “ROBINSON, JACK R”. Not “Jackie” as has been retired in our memories and ballparks, but “Jack Roosevelt,” his given and preferred name. “Jackie” was a concoction of the media to make him “less threatening;” the librarian also spoke of Roberto Clemente, whose baseball cards read “Bob Clemente” so that he might be somehow less Latino. We are given names, but choose what we wish to be called, and when another party — media, public, fans — makes that choice for us it robs a bit of our self-determinism. Nowhere was the power of names to control more evident than on the reverse of one of the four $25,000 bonds posted to finance the sale of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees; it is one of two remaining and is been endorsed by the Boston American League Baseball Club. Over the years that transition had names swirling around it: “Curse,” “Bambino”, “Babe” but the formalities simply involve a man named George and a club named Boston. The librarian also pointed out to us that they prefer items that are not autographed, because they collect artifacts, not memorabilia. We ascribe time, place and context to memorabilia, as it tells a story of who, why and where we acquired the item, but artifacts tell the large story of the game, left for us to interpret later in different contexts, when the names perhaps mean more.

The bat used in Stennett's 7-7 game in 1972

The bat used in Stennett’s 7-7 game in 1972

The Hall continuously rotates artifacts in and out of display, and while I was disappointed not to see Ron Blomberg’s first designated hitter bat, we did discover Rennie Stennett’s bat used in his 7-for-7 game (the only player in the modern era to do so). Stennett was an integral part of the Pirates in the 1970s – the team that was the object of my affections and box score scrutiny. Only a few weeks after that batting feat, Stennett and company lost the National League playoffs to the Reds on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth – a defeat that for me was on the order of Mookie Wilson’s hit through Buckner’s legs, the ignominy of the Bartman incident, or Bobby Thompson’s home run as experienced by my dad.

Sometimes the stories just need a generation, and a road trip, to become happy ones.

The Stargell Bobblehead Obsession

What’s in the confluence of eBay, late-night PowerPoint editing, and a disgust with Alex Rodriguez that borders on something you accidentally stepped in while using a public bathroom in the Port Authority? Bobbleheads. Willie Stargell bobbleheads and figurines, to be specific. After re-arranging my desk (retired the tired old iMac desktop, moved some pictures around, and decided to aggregate anything Stargell-oriented on its own shelf) I made the fatal mistake of seeing what eBay might have to offer to fill up my personal Hall of Resin Fame.

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

Willie Stargell Bobblehead Collection

I use eBay for a work break the way I used to use a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies as a paper-writing motivation. You start with a small reward, then you’re up to a cookie each time you finish a page, and the whole thing collapses when you’re alternating word completion and cookie bites. In many cases, it starts with a simple search to see what new and exciting items I might have to add to a collection, or what inventories are showing up in the resale market. And this turned into an itemization of the various and sundry Willie Stargell bobbleheads available. Because if one mass-produced resin tribute to your boyhood hero is good, then ten of them reflect a healthy obsession. Or a flush PayPal account. Even if one of the figures is from the Danbury Mint, and owning anything from a pseudo-mint in one of America’s worst traffic states is a sign that there’s an AARP card with your name on it.

My desire to collect is also driven by a need to reconnect with my happier memories of baseball: A time when players had jobs in the off-season, and realized they were lucky to be playing a game for at least part of the year. Teams that had character, like Pittsburgh’s “Lumber Company” of the late 70s (Stennett, Sanguillen, Parker, Oliver, Zisk, Stargell, Hebner – 7 out of 8 position players who could deliver a hit when needed). Ballplayers who were humble, self-effacing, and hustled, all without the benefit of a lab in Florida. This counter-balances the rising tide of disgust I feel for the Yankees. They have the audacity to charge ticket prices that would bankrupt a family of four, hold onto or re-sign aging players in some hope they will jump-start a team without a soul, and find themselves in fourth place due to their inability to have both pitching and hitting on the same night. A-rod’s insistence on turning every stepping stone in his sordid path from post-season disappointment to Pete Rose sentence companion just pours more fuel on the fire. I’m quietly cheering the Red Sox, and of course the Pirates, knowing that somewhere “Pops” is smiling that his Bucs have figured out all of the pieces of the puzzle and might be headed to the playoffs. My Stargell shrine cannot hurt, of course.