Saturday, November 24, 2018

Baseball Imitates Life

Dedicated to Jessie Lee Moss, May 3, 1939 – November 18, 2018

“Bull Durham” has remained an iconic film, not because men love baseball, but because women understand that the game imitates life. I grew up in a family, where at Thanksgiving, men watched football and the women talked about Spring Training. Men are men, their attention will move to the next shiny object of whatever sport is before them. Women in our family, however, knew deep in the essence of their being, that the seasons of baseball mirrored the cycles of life.

My family roots lie in Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and baseball. Men played Saturday afternoon games on town teams. Family and friends gathered for the serious matter of bragging rights. Bitter rivalries often carried over into the week’s work place. The women knew the intricacies of the sport and the children mimicked their parents. Later in life, my mother would often recount having watched her father, her husband, her son, and her grandson all play baseball. Almost every woman in our family has a similar baseball pedigree.

Some of my fondest memories were of visiting my great-grandmother. As a young boy who carried two gloves and ball everywhere, she was always willing to play catch with me. As a teenager, she gave me a metal pin commemorating Jackie Robinson’s Rookie-of-the-Year season. Obviously, I still have it, along with my thousands of baseball cards.

My grandfather’s oft repeated tale of his relationship with Gene Autry, singer, movie legend, and eventual owner of the then California Angels, has mythic significance in our family. Before Autry left Oklahoma, their families lived in the Tulsa region. During the World Series, Autry would translate the play-by-play telegraph messages and post them on a giant manually operated scoreboard at the local train station. Men and women would hang around, talk politics and smoke, while getting the inning by inning updates. Family legend has it that Autry was sweet on my great-aunt. She would always deny the story with a twinkle in her eye. The plot of “Bull Durham” came naturally by its narrative that had been ground in a myth repeated for generations.

Our family’s loyalties divided between the St Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers, and the New York Yankees. Much of that was fueled by geography and regular World Series exposure. The Cardinals were close by and the Yankees and Dodgers were national rivals. When the early games appeared on TV, Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese simply fanned the flames. Those loyalties have softened over time with family migration, syndicated television, and additional MLB teams. The passion for the game, however, has not diminished nor the women’s knowledge of the game and its symbolic meaning.

Jessie Lee Moss, my mother’s cousin, passed away this week. We visited her last summer at her home in rural Oklahoma, not far from where she had spent her entire life. She was a lifetime Cardinals fan. A real fan. A true fan. She watched all 162 games and understood the nuance of every subtle move. When we showed up at her home, she paused the game to record it. I told her we would very be glad to watch the game with her, but she told us it was better if she watched it alone. It was her polite way of telling us she didn’t want to be distracted by our familial chit-chat while she was watching the Cardinals battle for a playoff spot. We understood and kept our visit to a reasonable time.

Today, I can hear my mother and Jessie laughing together. Most of the women of their generation had a similar laugh—hearty and rooted in simple pleasures born of painful sacrifice. Many of them suffered a natural melancholy; loss, grief, and death had left its wounds on their souls. They were woman who worked hard, played hard, and loved with passion. They spoke truth to power, suffered no man’s foolishness, and loved their family with every ounce of life’s blood. When these women watched baseball, their lives were reflected in the mundane pace of the game that requires attention to every detail. And even with the most careful planning, to win half the games is earned success. The only failure is not to give your all. Strikes outs happen every day; everyone makes errors; some days you just can’t throw a strike to save your life. But then, there are those moments, though rare, when you hit a game winning home run, or you strike out the side in the bottom of the ninth, those times when your team embraces you in love, respect, and appreciation. You live for those days. It is the good times that we remember, but it is those bad times that make us what we are. That is the truth of baseball.

In a “League of Their Own,” a movie about women’s professional baseball during World War II, the manager tells the one his players, “There’s no crying in baseball.” That line gets repeated too often, for its not true. There is a lot of crying in baseball. But it’s usually hidden in the souls of the brokenhearted. Jessie Lee, we are grieving our loss today. And we will cry, not only in brokenhearted souls, but outwardly, where everyone can see. And it’s okay, because we love you and we will miss you.

Today, Jessie Lee, as your number is being eternally retired, you are embraced by all your family, past and present. You played the game well. You showed up for every inning with all you had. You finished every season with gusto, no matter how well the team played. You rested in the off season. And you anticipated Spring Training with great joy. Now it’s your turn to take a final lap around the field and receive well deserved accolades as you are being inducted in Life’s Hall of Fame.

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