It snowed again last night, and this morning the wind is ripping down Swan Mountain in violent bursts. Trees are swaying, the wind chimes are ecstatic, and the forsythia are waving their yellow-budded arms like they’re trying to get the attention of a rescue party. “Hurry! We can’t hold on much longer!”
But fear not, forsythia. And take heart, all who yearn for spring. Help is on the way.
Baseball season begins tomorrow.
And on the eve of this glad occasion, on this blustery day, I offer this tale of baseball magic.
In September 1992, I blew off my first week of grad school and took a baseball pilgrimage with my friends John, Bill, and Jim. We would see games in three great stadiums – the brand-new Camden Yards in Baltimore, Fenway Park in Boston, Yankee Stadium in New York – plus spend an afternoon at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
On our drives we read aloud from a great book about baseball, George Will’s Men at Work. Since this was a pilgrimage, we called the readings our daily devotional. I am not a fan of George Will the political pundit, but as a baseball writer he’s fantastic. Will has a special fondness for the Orioles, so as we drove towards our first stop, in Baltimore, we read and learned bits of Orioles history none of us had known before: how they came to Baltimore in 1954, after fifty-two years in St. Louis as the Browns, and how the Browns once had a one-armed outfield named Pete Gray. Gray lost his right arm in an accident at age six, but in 1945 he played seventy-seven games for the Browns and hit .218. On May 19, he had five hits and two RBI’s in a win over the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
Our pilgrimage had many a sacred moment. My Uncle Jack – the venerable, incomparable, saintly Uncle Jack – went with us to the game in Baltimore. We took a wrong turn and got lost in the Bronx after dark. We passed burned out cars and buildings, the sidewalks were thick with people and music, and we were giddy with an exaggerated sense of danger. Eventually we hopped a curb, drove across a field, and caught an entrance ramp onto the Saw Mill Parkway. We spent a morning in Woodstock. We batted around a beach ball with fans in the right field bleachers at Fenway and did a house blessing for our hosts in Boston. I wore Jim’s leather jacket at a trendy restaurant in Manhattan and felt cooler than I ever have, before or since. We ran through Central Park on a crisp September Sunday morning.
On Sunday afternoon we were at Yankee Stadium, twenty rows up behind the visitors’ dugout. The Yankees were mediocre that year and good seats were not hard to come by. In one of the later innings, we did the math and figured that a boy who had come to the Stadium in 1927 as a ten-year-old, and seen Ruth and Gehrig, would now be 75. I thought it would be great to talk to someone who’d done that, so I stood and looked around for a man in his 70’s.
There was an older-looking man a couple rows back. He was wearing a light blue windbreaker and a bucket hat. I walked up, pointed to the empty seat beside him, and asked if I could sit for a minute.
“My friends and I were hoping we might talk to someone who came here as a kid. Did you ever come to a game here when you were a boy?”
“No,” he said, “but I played here.” And it was then I noticed, for the first time, that the right sleeve of his jacket was empty.
“Are you Pete Gray?”
“Yes, I am.” And he smiled.
I remember nothing of the conversation after that, only the amazement I felt that here I am, in a city of eight million and an announced crowd of 21,319, talking with Pete Gray, Pete Gray whom I’d never heard of till five days before, but who seems pleased that, forty-seven years later, a random stranger knows who he is and what he had done.
I went back to my seat with my friends and told them, “That was Pete Gray.” They looked back, saw his one arm, and laughed. “Uh-huh. Probably every one-armed man that comes here says he’s Pete Gray.” Then a man in front of us said, “That’s Pete Gray. He rode the charter with us this morning from Wilkes-Barre.”
So, friends, a new season is on the way, and there will be magic. Do your reading, stand up and look around, talk to strangers. Pete Gray is in the house.
(Here’s a link to a video of Pete Gray from 1945: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1UG6bxkq5L4.)