This month of August just now passing was a season of marathon bike rides with Charlie along N. Ctrl Jersey’s plethora of River Roads and railbed trails; a time also redolent with the spirits of commemoration, loss, and stubborn if fragile hope.
My boyhood and eternal hero Roberto Clemente would have turned seventy-six years of age August 18. The week preceding Clemente’s latest birthday saw the passing of two gentlemen closely linked with Roberto throughout his storied eighteen-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Nellie King was a Pirate teammate of the mid-1950s, an ex-relief pitcher who in 1967 joined the rascally legend Bob Prince in the team’s broadcast booth, at just the moment when the Pirate front office was beginning to assemble the glorious club that would capture the 1971 World Series. The chief architect of that revival, longtime general manager Joe L. Brown, passed away but days after the death of Nellie King, whose firing by Brown in 1975 (as collateral damage in a catastrophically ill-conceived move to banish Bob Prince) was tantamount to bad karma incarnated.
Remember the famous closing scene from Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 comedy Some Like it Hot, where the rich old guy Osgood Fielding II proposes to the female-impersonating Jack Lemmon on his yacht with the indelible punch line: ‘nobody’s perfect’? That was Joe E. Brown, the ex-ballplayer-turned-comic actor who bequeathed a passion for the game to his son Joe L.
My father took me to my first Pirate ballgame at old Forbes Field in spring 1962. Alvin O’Neal McBean, a talented hurler from the Virgin Islands, was the losing pitcher for the Bucs on that blustery chilled night. A lumbering slugger named Dick Stuart—whose liabilities as a first baseman won him the vintage Cold War-era sobriquet ‘Dr. Strangeglove’—smacked a futile home run en route to becoming my initial Pirate hero. Dr. Strangeglove was traded to Boston early in the following season: my mother broke the tragic news to me as I came home on lunch break from a first-grade classroom at nearby Sts. Simon and Jude School. That season for mourning was short-lived: our second and final game at Forbes Field found us seated along the right field line. Nobody ever called the man who patrolled that vast outfield terrain (so immense the practice batting cage was stored in the field of play against the center field fence, 467 feet from home) Dr. Strangeglove.
Bob Prince called him “the Great One;” he and Roberto grew so close Prince was the only media figure authorized to occasionally intone “Bobby” Clemente over the airwaves. The fateful summer/autumn 1963 found us relocated to Connecticut, attending public school, and reading anything we could find on Clemente and the Bucs in the two-day old pages of the New York Herald-Tribune, a venerable, soon-to-expire metropolitan daily my mom received in the mail to sustain her memories of a premarital career spent on Broadway working in the radio industry. It did not take long for Gracie to explain that I could tune in to Pirate night games broadcast via historic station KDKA’s 50,000 watt, clear channel–albeit sporadically fuzzy–signal. Me along with plenty others across 38 states and parts of Canada: a kind of underground Pirate nation retrospectively conjured of late in blogospheric tributes to the late Nellie King and, inevitably, to his outlandish, wholly unforgettable broadcast partner, “the Gunner,” Bob Prince, the voice of the Pirates and the narrator of heroic nightly tales of the diamond’s swashbuckling Bucs across a decade of youthful summers.
Transistor radio smuggled under the pillow, many a late night yielded to early mornings, especially during Pirate west coast swings, most memorably a 1971 San Diego double-header whose extra-innings “nightcap” ended sometime after 5 A.M. East Coast time, but not before a New York City morning radio show tapped into the KDKA signal for novelty value, affording me double barreled play by play as day broke. Bob Prince deployed his full rhetorical arsenal for Gotham’s worldly early risers; when the joyously free-swinging catcher Manny Sanguillen chased an offering up around his eyes, the voice of the Pirates drily reported: “he couldn’t have hit that pitch with a bed slat.” Clemente finally homered in the top of the seventeenth to win another one for the Bucs: that’s right, reader, this same notoriously sad sack outfit that’s already clinched an eighteenth consecutive losing season once won, and won often, and then won some more with a flair and brio unrivalled in all of professional sports in the dispensation prior to the disco era’s advent.
We relocated to North Jersey in 1971, of the autumn when Roberto Clemente seized the World Series against mighty Baltimore as his glory-laden, long overdue global showcase, and then—at the outset of a nationally televised post-victory interview conducted by Bob Prince—inspired what one Hispanic viewer later called a communal out-of-body experience, informing the Gunner that before he’d have anything to say in English he would first address his mother and father in Spanish, as they looked on from their home in Puerto Rico. Widely castigated later for not demanding an immediate translation, Prince well understood how intimately personal was Clemente’s tribute to his parents on the proudest day of his life (Series-clinching pitcher Steve Blass then leaned in to deliver a perfectly timed: “Mr. and Mrs. Clemente, we love him too!”).
Blass and the Buccos were even better in 1972: the legacy of Latin American talent first cultivated in Clemente’s early years was now embodied by prodigies like the Panamanian infielder Rennie Stennett (in the previous September of their championship season, long before the dawn of “multiculturalism,” the Pirates had proudly fielded an all-African American and Latino starting lineup for the first time in big-league history). On the final weekend of the 1972 regular season Clemente recorded his 3,000th—and final—hit; in a day game, alas: no KDKA signal reached North Jersey on that raw early October afternoon.
In those days baseball’s divisional champs engaged in a single best-of-five playoff round for the right to represent their league in the ‘Fall Classic,’ a World Series that proved anti-climatic in 1972 following the epochal playoff struggle between the Bucs and the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati. We entered the bottom of the ninth in game five three outs from a return trip to the Series; what felt like an eternity later, and surely lasted well-nigh a brutally painful three-quarters of an hour—and after the young Johnny Bench had smacked a Dave Giusti palm ball over the right field fence, and over Roberto Clemente, whose living image I witnessed for the last time at that moment–the Red Legs had scored the winning run on a wild pitch uncorked by reliever Bob Moose, a young man losing manager Danny Murtaugh described moments later to reporters as “a veteran, not a kid;” he’d get over it.
Bob Moose (who as a twenty-one-year old had no-hit the Mets in September 1969 at the height of the Amazin’s inconceivable championship run; in 71 when the Bucs won it all he was joined on the pitching staff by a Lamb and a Veale: you can look it up) went on to help pitch the Bucs to yet more Eastern division titles in 1974 and 75. Then in October 1976 Bob Moose died tragically, just months before Bucs’ skipper Danny Murtaugh (who had led the team to World Series triumphs in 1960 and 71) succumbed to heart disease. By then Steve Blass was out of baseball entirely, having completely lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate while seemingly at the peak of his career. The traumatic aftermath of Roberto Clemente’s death on New Year’s Eve 1972—in the surf just off San Juan where an aged cargo aircraft over-laden with relief supplies destined for earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua crashed into the sea—was often cited as a possible source of Blass’s malaise.
Well, after all, this is but a mere child’s game we’re talking here, and one that did not make of middling athletes millionaires until recent decades: there are some of us left who remember when ballplayers worked in hardware stores and as part-time phys-ed instructors to keep their families afloat during off-seasons. Today Steve Blass enjoys a charmed life as successor to King and the Prince as Pirate broadcaster. It’s a kids’ game: I played it endlessly and was never any good (then one day in the late 60s I got my hands around a basketball; our athletic prospects suddenly took a meaningful and interesting turn). But this child’s game has lent such meaning to the lives of communities and families; and a lovely, precedent-setting memoir by Doris Kearns Goodwin on her dad and their intimately shared life as Dodger fans in 1950s Brooklyn notwithstanding, it’s a game that has uniquely disclosed the emotional undercurrents joining fathers to sons; their intimate bonds and sometimes equally painful sorrows too.
I knew far more sorrows than joys amid the fraught spaces I shared awkwardly with my own father. Yet as a kid I knew too, without ever needing to ask, that on one weeknight each June—from the early 60s to the dawn of the next decade—my mom would drive me to his workplace, and that from there we would make the pilgrimage to Shea Stadium in Queens, and that my heart would pound riotously once we entered the stadium, until I ascertained from evidence offered by the far-off outfield scoreboard that batting third, and playing right field for the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates was No. 21, Roberto Clemente. With the natural order’s unshakeable foundation thus reaffirmed, serenity reined o’er the long Queens night: while jet planes ceaselessly roared in arrival and departure from adjacent La Guardia, Roberto Clemente graced right field in the same wondrously sui generis—I mean literally quite inimitable there’s never been one like him–fashion first revealed to us at Forbes Field back in 62.
The Buccos perpetually lost this annual renewal of our June weeknight game to the hapless Mets; always: one year a guy named Hawk Taylor who could scarcely be generously termed a ‘journeyman’ ballplayer hit a walk-off grand slam to cap a frenzied ninth-inning Met rally. I never saw the Pirates win in my father’s presence, which actually made our return trips home easier to endure since we were communication-bereft anyway; losing made the customary silence feel slightly more normal. I wondered sometimes what he made of my manic passion for Clemente and the Bucs: he often ritually explained to acquaintances that his only rebellious act in life was to become a Giants fan amid a family of Brooklyn loyalists, but I never saw any evidence of his devotion to that club, long transplanted from Coogan’s Bluff in Harlem to unimaginably distant Candlestick Park.
My father’s passion was wholly reserved for the Fighting Irish of the gridiron, but that was also about religion, a religion militantly grounded in a worldview against which I was hopelessly over-matched by virtue of temperament, wiring, and history both personal and tribal. So be it: yet this unknowable man annually drove me to Shea just the same, where down through the seasons of June weeknights Roberto Clemente was uncharacteristically quiescent at the bat, but good Lord did he strike a majestic, transcendent presence in the brilliantly green outfield under those June lights! To have seen Roberto Clemente gun down a Mets’ base runner, or three, for daring a too-wide turn at first after singling; that’s all I’ll ever need to stock a lifetime’s rich baseball memory. And to have acquired too something of the fluid argot of New York baseball fans, as in: “he really got on his horse,” did Roberto, in making a spectacular catch at the shoe tops after burning a diagonal from deep right toward second base. The Great One was the greatest; everybody grudgingly knew as much in the borough of Queens.
At the memorial service held at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral three nights after Clemente’s death, my father and I joined baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and New York mayor John V. Lindsay as the only non-Hispanics in attendance. Not that we joined them per se; just that we four Euro-Americans, the German-Catholic Kuhn, the patrician Anglo mayor and the Irishman and son witnessed one of the rarest moments in the century-old plus cathedral’s history. A packed house and only one genuine Irish-Catholic on hand! The scrawny longhaired teenager faced plenty trying times prior to temporarily re-joining that congregation’s fractious choir.
I have a couple stories about my son Charlie and baseball to soon share. I’m finding to my surprise that many of the tone qualities shaping our lives together evoke moments and inklings experienced in those months—and ok the few years—following Roberto Clemente’s death. I’ll come around to these, merely reveling for now in the marvel and the mystery of a life intimately shared with a son who, in forging his own way has helped disclose so many obscure contours from my own journey.
Like my own father before me and his only son, Charlie and I don’t share many words together, but does he ever teach, and swing, and light the way. And does this young gent ever love Phil Schaap on the radio! Phil, whose shepherding of the marathon August 1973 Charlie Parker birthday festival broadcast over Columbia U. station WKCR changed my life for good, even as Roberto Clemente’s recent death had left me feeling broken-hearted, lonelier than ever and chronically hopeless. That 1973 Charlie Parker marathon birthday festival, just now celebrating its own 37th anniversary changed my life for all time and the good; just as it changed Phil’s, as he affirmed for me as we shared an elevator ride on the West Side of Manhattan last year.
It’s been suggested I can come over as a bit over-effusive; I’m given to assertions that invite in some quarters eye rolling or faux or genuine bafflement. But not from Phil, not on that day in the West Side elevator: the Charlie Parker celebration changed our lives for all time and the good: we two among plenty others. Now 37 years removed does Charlie Fisher ever dig Phil on the radio: from the Subaru’s rear seat he joyously heralds “Phil” each and every morning at exactly 8:20.
Happy birthday Roberto, the Great One! Happy birthday Charlie Parker: