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A Son Goes Back To Spring Training To Find His Father By Bill Bryson

My son attended spring training in Florida when he was 10 years old and again the next year. The first year we flew; the next year we went for a full week and drove. Those trips are highlight reels. So many wonderful memories -- I ought to write them down. Stay tuned!

Speaking of baseball, root for Christian Yelch of the Brewers. Ken met him and said he is a very unassuming person.

Now to Mister Bryson's article:

April 9, 2001 Issue of The New Yorker

The Baseball Writer

By Bill Bryson

April 1, 2001

Salty asked, “Did you ever hear the story about me and your dad and Babe Ruth?”

In the early nineteen-sixties, the Royal Canadian Air Force issued a pamphlet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short and frankly unfortunate vogue with my father, in Des Moines, Iowa. The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles. Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn’t need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect is what attracted my dad.

What made it unfortunate in my father’s case is that he would do it on airplanes. At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a heavy piece of machinery, an industrial printing press, say, begin to push with his shoulder or back against the outer wall of the plane, grunting the while in a low and preoccupied manner. Since it looked uncannily, if unfathomably, as if he were trying to force a hole in the side of the plane, this naturally drew attention. Businessmen would stare over the tops of their reading glasses; a stewardess would pop her head out of the galley and likewise stare, but with a certain cold caution, as if remembering some aspect of her training which she had not previously been called upon to implement.

Seeing this, my father would straighten up and smile and briefly outline the engaging principles behind isometrics. Then he would give a demonstration to an audience that swiftly consisted of no one. He seemed curiously incapable of feeling embarrassment in such situations, but that was all right, because I always felt enough for both of us—indeed, enough for us and all the other passengers, the airline and its employees, and the whole of whatever state we were flying over.

Two things made these undertakings tolerable. The first was that back on solid ground my dad wasn’t half as foolish. The second was that the purpose of these trips was always to go to a big city, stay in a nice hotel, and attend ballgames, and that excused a very great deal. My dad was a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register and often took me along on trips through the Midwest. Sometimes these were car trips to places like Sioux City or Cedar Rapids, but at least once a summer, sometimes more, we flew to St. Louis or Milwaukee or Chicago to take in a home stand. It was a kind of working holiday for my dad.

Baseball was part of a simpler universe in those days, and I was allowed to go with him into the clubhouse and dugout and even onto the field before the games. I had my hair tousled by Stan Musial. I handed Willie Mays a ball that had skittered past him while playing catch. I lent my binoculars to Harvey Kuenn so that he could scope some distant blonde in the lower deck. I sat in a nearly airless clubhouse beside Ernie Banks, naked but for a towel, as he autographed box after box of new white baseballs, each box containing a dozen balls. When he had finished with one box, I would hand him another, and he would thank me with a kindly smile. I knew my life was blessed.

My father, meanwhile, would be off schmoozing with the players and coaches (possibly, I fear, demonstrating isometrics to them). You could see at once that he was in his element, as well he should be, for he was a born sportswriter, perhaps one of the finest of his generation. At a time when a great deal of provincial sportswriting was leaden or read as if written by enthusiastic but minimally gifted fourteen-year-olds, he wrote prose that was thoughtful, literate, and comparatively sophisticated. “Neat but not gaudy,” he would always say, with a certain air of satisfaction, as he pulled the last sheet out of the typewriter.

Most of his working life was taken up with Iowa sports, but twice a year—for spring training and the World Series—he ventured into a wider world. Few could touch him at writing against a deadline. Here, for instance, is the opening paragraph of the story that ran in the Times on October 14, 1960, after one of the most dramatic concluding moments in World Series history:

The Pirates today brought Pittsburgh its first world series baseball championship in thirty-five years when Bill Mazeroski slammed a ninth-inning home run high over the left-field wall of historic Forbes Field.

And here is what people in Iowa read:

The most hallowed piece of property in Pittsburgh baseball history left Forbes Field late Thursday afternoon under a dirty gray sports jacket and with police escort.

That, of course, was home plate, where Bill Mazeroski completed his electrifying home run while Umpire Bill Jackowski, broad back braced and arms spread, held off the mob long enough for Bill to make it legal. . . .

Pittsburgh’s steel mills couldn’t have made more noise than the crowd in this ancient park did when Mazeroski smashed Yankee Ralph Terry’s second pitch of the ninth inning. . . .

By the time [the ball] sailed over the ivy-covered brick wall, the rush from the stands had begun and these sudden madmen threatened to keep Maz from touching the plate with the run that beat the lordly Yankees, 10–9, for the title.

Bear in mind that the story was written not at leisure but amid the din and distraction of a crowded press box in the immediate aftermath of the game. Nor could a single thought or neat phrase within it (like “broad back braced and arms spread”) have been prepared in advance and casually dropped into the text. Since Mazeroski’s home run rudely upended a nation’s confident expectations of a victory by the “lordly Yankees” (my father might, on reflection, have had that one ready), every sportswriter present had to discard whatever he’d had in mind to say, even one batter earlier, and start afresh.

Anyway, search as you will, I don’t believe you’ll find a better World Series game report on file anywhere, unless it was another one of my dad’s. Perhaps I overstate things—this is my father, after all—but if so it is not an entirely private opinion. 

Last year in the Columbia Journalism Review, Michael Gartner, a former president of NBC News, who grew up in Des Moines, wrote that my father, the original Bill Bryson, “may have been the best baseball writer ever, anywhere.” 

Unaccountably—well, unaccountably to me—my father was happy to spend his career in a minor-league city. It appears he had everything you could need to be a big-league writer except the need to be a big-league writer.

Still, he saw a great deal. For thirty-two years, from 1944 to his retirement, in 1976, he covered every game of every World Series and so witnessed many of baseball’s greatest moments—Al Gionfriddo’s miraculous one-handed catch of a Joe DiMaggio drive in 1947, Don Larsen’s perfect game in 1956, Mazeroski’s timely clout of 1960. In 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants finished a wild season tied for first place in the National League, prompting a hastily organized playoff series, the Register took its initial coverage from the Associated Press. In those days, playoffs, when they happened at all, were effectively an extension of regular-season play, something the Register wouldn’t normally cover itself, so there was nothing peculiar in my father’s not being sent. However, he must have lobbied hard to go, because by the third game he was there—and that, as every fan knows, was the game in which Bobby Thomson, of the Giants, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, with his team trailing by two runs, and lofted a three-run homer into the left-field grandstand, earning a measure of immortality for himself and a pennant for his team. I hesitate to suggest that Bobby Thomson wouldn’t have hit that home run had my father not been there. But he wouldn’t.

For my dad, the World Series was an almost reverential event, which called for the most particular packing and preparation. (He was something of a clotheshorse on the quiet; there is a photograph of him from the nineteen-forties in two-tone shoes and the nearest approximation to a zoot suit ever seen in Iowa.) But spring training was something else altogether—a kind of journalist’s equivalent of spring break. It didn’t have the same pressure of deadlines and the breathless competition of the World Series. My dad became conspicuously chipper in the days before leaving for Southern climes. He whistled. He grew playful with my mother. Then he disappeared for a month or so, and when he came home he was tanned and dressed in something unexpectedly lively. It can’t be, but in my mind’s eye I see him stepping from a DC-3 in a Hawaiian shirt with a string of flowers around his neck.

In the early years, as I recall, he went to Florida, but later on—by about 1970—he was going to Arizona. Mesa, just outside Phoenix, was the winter seat of the Chicago Cubs, the team most widely followed in Iowa, and of Des Moines’s own minor-league team, the Iowa Oaks, as they were then called. He stayed at an old hotel on Main Street called the Maricopa Inn, ate breakfast each morning at a local institution called Guggy’s Coffee Shop, and from there strolled the few blocks to the ballpark and the training facilities. Except for a childhood trip to the Grand Canyon, I had never been to Arizona, so any mental impressions were necessarily bolstered by images from cowboy movies. I imagined Mesa’s Main Street being dusty and having wooden sidewalks, and vaguely pictured the ballplayers playing in a desert setting on a field dotted with rocks and saguaro cactuses.

For as long as I could remember, I had harbored an urge to see it myself. By chance, on a trip to Chicago last November, I ran into an old family friend named Salty Saltwell and his wife, Betty. Salty had been a great pal of my dad’s. Salty was from Iowa, too, and had met my dad in the late nineteen-forties while working in the front office of the Sioux City Soos, a minor-league baseball team. In 1958, Salty had taken an executive job with the Cubs, and eventually he became general manager. I hadn’t seen him in nearly forty years and my instinct upon seeing him again was to say, “But you should have died years ago,” for Salty had seemed fairly ancient to me when I was small. In fact, he had been in his thirties. (He is seventy-six now.)

For all the famous ballplayers I met, Salty was actually my childhood hero in the major leagues. He was the ballplayers’ boss, which made him the nearest thing to God. He had the office of a banker: dark wood panelling, desk like an aircraft carrier, an intercom for bringing people running. And—how glorious was this!—it was in Wrigley Field. Whenever he wanted, he could rise from the cares of management, open his office door, and be in a major-league ballpark, amid the noise and happiness and popcorn smells of a ballgame. I didn’t think that life could offer any finer employment. In 1959, while we were sitting in his office, he said to me, “Oh, Billy, I’ve got something here you might like,” and he handed me a box containing a gleamingly new, singularly complete set of Topps baseball cards for the year. He was a kind and classy man, the quintessence of all that was splendid about baseball.

In the course of a brief conversation, Salty told me that he had retired, but that he and Betty still went to spring training in Arizona every year. That settled it. To Mesa I would go. Though these days I am, by dint of residence, a Red Sox fan, I would for old times’ sake attach myself to Salty and his beloved Cubs.

Before I moved to New Hampshire, in 1995, I lived for twenty years in England. If my experience is anything to go by, when you return to your native land after being away a long time, you find yourself mildly but permanently out of step on certain matters. I cannot, for instance, reliably recall which league some of the newer major-league expansion teams are in. It is as much as I can do to remember that the Braves are no longer in Milwaukee.

In much the same way, I am prone to be startled by features of contemporary life that others no doubt would find unexceptionable—Mesa, Arizona, for instance. If the purpose of the modern American suburb is to make sure that no citizen is ever more than five hundred yards from a food product featuring melted cheese, then Mesa cannot be faulted. I, however, was expecting to find an agreeable little community broadly on the model of those we used to produce routinely and more or less effortlessly in America. Mesa seemed to consist almost exclusively of parking lots that would exhaust a horse to cross.

Only the modest downtown, with its tidy one- and two-story buildings, hinted at the charm that had so engaged my father, but it was almost eerily forlorn, the sidewalks empty, the few remaining shops clearly longing for customers—even, in some cases, a customer. Failing to find the Maricopa Inn or Guggy’s, I wandered into the library and was directed to the Mesa Room, a repository of local history, where I was assisted by a cheerful lady named Nancy Dana Norton.

“Oh, I’m afraid Mesa isn’t quite the place your father would have known,” she said, with a trace of melancholy. The Maricopa Inn and Guggy’s were long gone. Mesa’s population, she told me, had grown more than tenfold in forty years, from thirty-four thousand in 1960 to more than four hundred thousand, but now all its life is on the fringes. On a shelf she found an album of old photos of Mesa—shots of a busy Main Street, aerial views of a compact community surrounded by orange groves and ranches, an abundance of Mission-style buildings that had escaped my notice in my stroll around town.

“No, you wouldn’t have seen them,” Ms. Norton said. “Most of them are gone now.”

I asked her what had made Mesa change so. “Well,” she said, “the real boom dates from 1979, when we were named an All-America community. That’s when people started to move here in really large numbers, because naturally everyone wants to live in an attractive place.”

It was much the same when I caught up with Salty the next morning. He has been coming to Mesa since 1959, and as we drove to the Cubs’ facilities on Center Street—a stadium at HoHoKam Park and a training camp a half mile or so away, at Fitch Park—he pointed out all the things that once were and no longer are. “That used to be citrus groves for as far as you could see,” he said, pointing across an expanse of tiled roofs and jumbo signs. “That was all cotton fields over there. And that’s where the old ballpark used to be.”

“Why did they tear it down?” I asked.

“Just got old, I guess. There used to be a public swimming pool just beyond the left-field fence. Every time somebody hit a home run out there, the ball would land in the water.”

We stopped at the camp first. I had never been in a clubhouse that didn’t smell powerfully of liniment, foot powder, damp towels, and whatever forty or so male bodies could exude in the course of an active day. Memory does strange things, but I vividly remember the Cubs’ dressing room in the early sixties as being oppressively hot and lit by no more than a scattering of bare, weakly radiant bulbs. The ceiling was simply the underside of the stepped metal grandstand above.

Salty took me on a brisk tour of the Cubs’ current spring quarters, and every inch of it had the clean, well-maintained, impersonal feel of a Holiday Inn. The four large interconnected dressing rooms, the weight and exercise room, the eating areas, the conference rooms, even the laundry and storage areas, were tidy and odorless. Outside, paths led through a manicured landscape to batting cages and warmup areas, and, beyond, to four full-sized, serenely perfect playing fields. It was a little Elysium devoted exclusively to health, comfort, and baseball.

By this point, the second week of March, it was the province of the Cubs’ farm teams. The Cubs themselves had vacated it a few days earlier and moved up the road to their new stadium. The baseball stadiums I spent my childhood in seemed to be built of iron and girders and outsized rivets, as if they had been recycled from old battleships, but the new Dwight Patterson Stadium at HoHoKam Park, as it is formally known, was soft and curving, like a nice piece of furniture. It cost twenty-eight million dollars when it was built, in 1997. The Cubs use it for a month each year and in a typical year play fifteen to eighteen exhibition games in it.

Batting practice was in progress, the players gathered around a big wheeled cage positioned at home plate. We sat in the shade along the first-base line. In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, Salty was telling me, nearly all the ballplayers stayed at the club’s designated hotel. “The hotels loved it because it drew a lot of fans to the hotel, and the fans loved it because they could see their favorite players lounging around the pool or breakfasting in the coffee shop or whatever. Now, with the per diems they get, the players can afford to rent a house or a condo.”

You have to admire the Cubs. They are the only franchise in baseball, probably in the whole of sport, whose success is built on failure. The last time they won a World Series, in 1908, Teddy Roosevelt was President. The last time they appeared in a World Series was 1945. In the fifty-six years since, they have had just thirteen winning seasons. Last year, they lost almost a hundred games, tying Philadelphia for the worst record in the major leagues. So nearly certain is their annual collapse that a fan once held up a sign on opening day that said “Wait Till Next Year.”

Yet their fan base remains one of the most faithful in baseball. In the 2000 season, the Cubs attracted 2.7 million paying customers. The year before, when they were nearly as bad, they drew 2.8 million. And at spring training they are almost without peer. They attracted more than a hundred and thirty-seven thousand fans to thirteen preseason home games last year—the sort of full-season attendance that our old minor-league team in Des Moines used to get in peak years.

I was at once amazed and charmed that several thousand people were prepared to pay good money—up to fourteen dollars a seat—to watch a baseball game that has no real purpose, between two teams that may never meet in a real season. Spring training is a strange pastime, when you think about it, in that you aren’t watching people doing their job but, rather, preparing to do their job. It is a little like watching Katie Couric getting her hair done or Dan Rather shaving.

Still, in the week I spent in Mesa, I enjoyed myself immensely. There really is something wholesome about spring training, and I am sure it is the underlying pointlessness of it all—that these games don’t count for anything, won’t be remembered—that gives spring training its noble qualities. Certainly, it was disarming to discover that I have reached a time of life when I can sit and happily watch any two teams play. And there is, of course, a real pleasure in watching Sammy Sosa knock a ball four hundred and fifty feet through the air, whether it goes into the record books or not.

When the Cubs were playing, I went to the game and sat with Salty and Betty, and we talked mostly about our families. On the days when the Cubs weren’t playing, or were on the road, I would go alone to Fitch Park and watch the minor leaguers. I believe I enjoyed this most of all. There is an appealing air of hopefulness and possibility in a minor-league camp. Before me, spread across the four fields, were some hundred and fifty young players, most of whom would never make it to the major leagues and all of whom didn’t yet know it. Sometimes when the players were engaged in the duller drills—a particular preoccupation with bunting became evident by midweek, and no doubt rightly, as most of the players seemed to be useless at it—I would browse through the official Cubs information guide, a three-hundred-and-twenty-page compilation of team history and statistics. Baseball is the most statistically obsessed of all human pursuits, and there was enough in the guide to provide hours of absorption.

The one thing the Cubs handbook never mentions is salaries, which is perhaps understandable but a little odd, since earnings are clearly the central issue in baseball today. In the late nineteen-sixties, Ernie Banks made about eighty-five thousand dollars a season. Today, Sammy Sosa makes nearly that amount every game. He will be paid twelve million dollars this year—by no means a stunning salary these days—which works out to roughly seventeen thousand dollars every time he steps to the plate. No wonder the kids in front of me were hustling.

The Cubs’ AAA farm team is the Iowa Cubs, of Des Moines, so I always wore an Iowa baseball cap to the minor-league practices in the certain knowledge that this would prompt conversations. (Iowans love to talk to other Iowans in distant places.) I passed most of one morning with a guy from Cedar Falls, who said this was his eleventh straight trip to spring training since retirement, and another with a couple from Fort Dodge, and yet another with a couple from Mount Pleasant, not far from where my dad grew up. They were all old enough to remember my dad.

We talked a lot about how baseball had changed. Nobody seemed to resent the players’ mammoth salaries, but there was quite a lot of anger—“a lot of disgustment,” as the lady from Fort Dodge put it, looking a little disgustmented herself—about the quality of management in baseball these days, and an apparent unanimity of view that there will be a strike next year. I asked the guy from Cedar Falls what he would do next March if there was no spring training.

“Oh, probably just come and sit in an empty park.” I grinned and he said at once, “No, I’m serious. I’ve been thinking about it. When you consider the difference between looking at a baseball field full of guys bunting for two hours and a baseball field where nothing’s going on at all—well, there’s not a whole lot in it really, is there?”

Naturally, I regretted very much that my father wasn’t there—he died in 1986—because I would have loved to know what he made of everything: the salaries and skills of players now, the pleasures of spring training today compared with in his day, where I should direct my annoyance if there is a strike next year. But I can only guess what he would say.

When I was in high school, my dad came to me one day with a letter from the American Association baseball league inviting him to be the official scorer for the Des Moines team that year. It was a fairly responsible appointment and paid fifteen dollars a game—good money back then.

“You want to do it?” he asked.

“Seriously?” I said. It occurred to me that there might be some objections to this at league headquarters.

“Well,” he said, furrowing his brow and studying the letter, “it appears they want somebody named Bill Bryson to do it.” He gave me a little grin. “It doesn’t actually say which Bill Bryson.”

I learned to score baseball—I mean, really learned it—and for the next five years I sat in the press box beside my dad for every home game. It occurs to me now that in all the thousands of hours we sat together in press boxes, both in my days as the unofficial official scorer for the Des Moines team and all the games we went to together through my childhood, we never really talked baseball. I can’t recall an occasion when he boasted even in passing about all that he had seen and done. I had no idea until long after his death, for instance, that he had seen Bobby Thomson’s home run. The things I have written about here I know about because I read the files, not because he ever mentioned them. I ached for information about him.

So I was all ears when, on my next-to-last day in Mesa, Salty turned to me as we sat watching the Cubs clobbering the White Sox and out of the blue said, “Did you ever hear the story about me and your dad and Babe Ruth?”

“Why, no,” I replied.

“It was in July of 1948. I was working for the ball club in Sioux City and your dad was in town with the Des Moines team, I guess. Anyway, he called me up one morning and asked me if I wanted to meet Babe Ruth. Well, I thought it was one of his jokes—your dad could be something of a joker, you know—but in fact he was serious. Babe Ruth was flying into Sioux City that afternoon to attend the state American Legion championships at Spencer.”

“Babe Ruth went to American Legion games in Iowa?” I asked.

“He was doing a lot of work for Ford in those days, and Ford was one of the big sponsors of American Legion ball. So anyway Ruth flies in and we’re at the airport with the American Legion officials waiting for him. He looked terrible—just a shadow of a man. He had throat cancer at the time, you see, and you could tell that the trip had taken a lot out of him. He asked us if there was somewhere that he could rest for a while, so we went with him to the old Warrior Hotel in Sioux City and he had a nap for about an hour and afterward we had a very pleasant meeting with him in his room.

“Your dad got his interview and Ruth autographed a baseball for me. I took a picture of him signing it and gave the film to your dad to use in the Register the next day with his story. I never did get a print of the picture, but I’ve still got the ball somewhere. That night, Ruth went to the Legion games and wasn’t very well at all. The next day, he flew back to New York and went straight into the hospital. He never came out. He died the next month.”

It took me a moment to absorb this.

“Are you saying, Salty, that my dad had the last interview that Babe Ruth ever gave?”

He thought for a moment, as if this side of the matter had never occurred to him. “Well, yes, I suppose he did. I guess he must have.”

There is a famous photograph that shows Babe Ruth standing by home plate in Yankee Stadium, cap in hand and slightly stooped, receiving a farewell ovation from forty-nine thousand adoring fans. It is one of the most moving photographs in sports. Without knowing anything about Babe Ruth or the game he played (I tested this on my English wife), you can deduce at once that this is a moment of supreme tribute to a man who had been great and was loved. It was his last visit to Yankee Stadium and his last time in a Yankee uniform.

One week later, to the day, Babe Ruth sat in a hotel room in Sioux City, Iowa, with my dad and Salty Saltwell. It was June of 1948, not July, but otherwise the facts are just as Salty related them to me. Ruth was frail, but cheerful. “It was a shock at first seeing the gaunt, shrunken giant emerge from the plane and walk with that shambling gait to the terminal building at the Sioux City airport,” my father’s story began. It wasn’t by any means the best story my father ever wrote, but it was a sympathetic and affecting portrait. Three days later, Ruth entered Memorial Hospital in New York, and there he died on August 16th, eight weeks and one day after his interview with my father.

During that period, he did leave the hospital at least once, in late July, when he attended the world première of the movie “The Babe Ruth Story,” and clearly he would have spoken to reporters then. Still, if my father’s wasn’t the last formal interview Babe Ruth ever gave, it was certainly one of the last. It is difficult to be sure of details, because most Ruth biographers skim over the period between his farewell at Yankee Stadium and his death. Few even mention that final trip to the Midwest. (He went, incidentally, because he needed the money to pay for his medical treatment.) Certainly none appear to have troubled to check out an interview Ruth gave to a man from the Des Moines Register not long before he died.

From time to time when I was growing up, my father would ask us at the dinner table how we felt about moving to St. Louis or San Francisco or some other big-league city. The Chronicle or Examiner or Post-Dispatch, he would inform us somberly, had just lost its baseball writer—he always made it sound as if the person had not returned from a mission, like a Second World War airman—and the position was being offered to him.

“Money’s pretty good, too,” he would say with a look of frank consternation, as if surprised that one could be paid for routinely attending major-league baseball games.

I was always for it. When I was small, I was taken with the idea of having a dad working in a field where people evidently went missing from time to time. Then, later, it was more a desire to pass what remained of my youth in a place—anyplace at all—where daily hog prices were not regarded as breaking news and corn yields were never mentioned.

But it never happened. Now that I am older, I can see the appeal of Iowa. It is wholesome, reliable, and rooted—not unlike baseball. Maybe that’s what held him there. Had he worked for a bigger newspaper, I have no doubt my father would have been one of the great baseball writers of his day. Because we stayed, the world never got a chance to see what he could do. Nor, of course, did he. In both cases, I can’t help feeling that they didn’t know what they were missing. ♦

Published in the print edition of the April 9, 2001, issue.

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