Buck O’Neil is hailed as a legend, especially here in the Kansas City area. Not only was O’Neil a great ballplayer, but his achievements off the field were arguably even greater. He not only worked to spread interest in the Negro leagues, he also played a huge part in the establishment of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
This piece by Rochelle Nameroff was first published in 1990 in the collection Into the Temple of Baseball. It reminds me a lot of playing ball, really just sports in general, in the backyard with my brothers as a kid. My oldest brother is twelve years older than me, and he was (still is) quite the sports fanatic. Thus, he took it upon himself to pass on to his younger siblings (and now on to his two sons) whatever knowledge he could about the different sports and how to play them well.
“There are two theories on hitting the knuckleball.
Unfortunately, neither of them works.”
It was all so serious
as he taught me,
digging the knees together:
a deliberate hunkering,
the back & forth wiggle
shifting the weight.
It screws yr behind in the ground he said.
Protection I guess
or the secrecy of boys.
He called it
The Stan Musial Crouch,
& man how I practiced
getting it right to unwind
breathless exquisite & deadly.
The permission to love
without going crazy.
& o big brother,
how much I remember.
This piece makes me want to go back in time a few months — back to the last days of winter as Spring Training was just getting underway and the threat of the coronavirus still seemed too far away to be of any concern.
We’ll get it back next year.
Late February, and the air’s so balmy
snowdrops and crocuses might be fooled
into early blooming. Then, the inevitable blizzard
will come, blighting our harbingers of spring,
and the numbed yards will go back undercover.
In Florida, it’s strawberry season—
shortcake, waffles, berries and cream
will be penciled on the coffeeshop menus.
In Winter Haven, the ballplayers are stretching
and preening, dancing on the basepaths,
giddy as good kids playing hookey. Now,
for a few weeks, statistics won’t seem
to matter, for the flushed boys are muscular
and chaste, lovely as lakes to the retired men
watching calisthenics from the grandstands.
Escapees from the cold work of living,
the old men burnish stories of Yaz and the Babe
and the Splendid Splinter. For a few dreamy dollars,
they sit with their wives all day in the sun,
on their own little seat cushions, wearing soft caps
with visors. Their brave recreational vehicles
grow hot in the parking lot, though they’re
shaded by live oaks and bottlebrush trees
whose soft bristles graze the top-racks.
At four, the spectators leave in pairs, off
to restaurants for Early Bird Specials.
A salamander scuttles across the quiet
visitors’ dugout. The osprey whose nest is atop
the foul pole relaxes. She’s raged all afternoon
at balls hit again and again toward her offspring.
Although December’s frost killed the winter crop,
there’s a pulpy orange-y smell from juice factories….
Down the road, at Cypress Gardens, a woman
trainer flips young alligators over on their backs,
demonstrating their talent for comedy—stroke
their bellies, they’re out cold, instantaneously
snoozing. A schoolgirl on vacation gapes,
wonders if she’d ever be brave enough
to try that, to hold a terrifying beast
and turn it into something cartoon-funny.
She stretches a hand toward the toothy sleeper
then takes a step back, to be safe as she reaches.
This is a lot like that Abraham Lincoln quote about not trusting quotes you find on the internet.
This song makes me feel sad and nostalgic at the same time. I sometimes wonder if baseball deserves all the negative sentiment that it receives today, and if the game’s past really was as great as songs like this make it seem. As with anything else, no doubt there is a tendency to place the past on a higher pedestal than it deserves, but it does make for some pretty good music.
There are a few guys in baseball fortunate enough to be able to bring it late in their career: Roger Clemens was one, and Nolan Ryan was another one. And I’d like to be that kind of a writer, who’s still able to bring the fastball.
This comic feels a lot like this entire baseball season, doesn’t it?