Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Celebrant and My Old Man

I just finished two readings of Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel, The Celebrant. How many memories of my old man it brought back to me! The book contained stories he’d told me many times. I wish I had recordings of those stories; and I wish I'd written down notes about them in a diary.
by Charlie Leck

Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel was under the tree as a gift for me this past Christmas. I just got around to reading it this week. After finishing the first reading, I just flipped back to page one and began again. I was jittery with excitement as I began the second read. I was drawn back in time and it felt as though my old man was sitting with me as I read. I guess some people would call it a spiritual experience. I don’t know about that, but it was something else – something else, indeed!

“Simply the best baseball novel ever written!”
                                                     [W.P. Kinsella)

Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe, won’t get any arguments out of me. Much of Greenberg’s book was set in the Polo Grounds, the home stadium of the New York Giants, that sat up in Manhattan (between 5th and 6th Avenues and between 110th and 112th Streets).

My old man, as a boy and young adult, was a hopeless New York Giants fan. He remained a loyal and fanatical Giants fan until they pulled out of the city and moved their franchise to San Francisco in 1958. I remember the affect that the last game the Giants played in the old Polo Grounds had on my pop. It was on 29 September 1957. The Giants lost the game. Spectators streamed on to the field and began lifting souvenirs – bases, pitching rubbers, bullpen items – whatever they could get removed. My old man just reached up to the TV behind the candy counter of his old general store and turned it all off. He was shaking his head in disbelief.

“No more New York Giants?”

He was in a state of shock. He was born in Manhattan in 1899. He lived in New York City until 1942. He couldn’t count the number of times he’d gone to the Polo Grounds to watch his team play. As a young, working man, he used to go to nearly every game. He had a job that began early, early in the morning. He’d take a street car up to the stadium after work and buy a cheap bleacher seat and sit out in the sunshine and cheer like hell for his team.

John McGraw was the manager. He’s the most famous manager they ever had. Greenberg draws a wonderful picture of him in his novel. He ran the team with an iron fist. He was in absolute charge and every player knew it. My old man talked about him a lot. “Little Napoleon,” my old man called him. It was for the way he led the team – like he was an emperor and not just a field general. He’d been a helluva player, as well. He was hot tempered and wasn’t afraid to use his fists on a guy. Yet, he was best known as a manager – first of the Baltimore franchise in the old National League and then, of course, of the New York Giants starting in 1902 (when my old man was but a toddler). With those two teams, McGraw accumulated 2,763 wins. From 1921 through 1924, while my old man looked on, McGraw led the Giants to first place finishes each of those four seasons. By that time, McGraw had become a part owner of the franchise and ruled as Vice President, General Manager and the on-field manager.

The extraordinary sports writer, Frank Deford, wrote (in his book, The Old Ballgame) that McGraw was “the model for the classic American coach – a male version of the whore with a heart of gold – a tough, flinty so-and-so who was field-smart, a man’s man his players came to love despite themselves.”

All I know is that my old man thought McGraw was a giant among Giants; for the man managed my pop's team for thirty years – 30 years (until 1932)! In that time my old man saw hundreds of the ball games that Old Napoleon managed in the Polo Grounds. McGraw was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937, three years after his death.

The first Major League baseball game I ever saw was in the Polo Grounds. I went there with my old man. Others were along, but I don’t remember who. I just remember that it was he and I; and I remember the green, green grass – so green it took my breath away. I don’t remember who won or lost. I remember the cracking sound of the bat as it met a swiftly pitched ball. I remember players running – running the bases, running in the outfield to track down and catch fly balls, and running off the field at the end of an inning. I remember the sparkling whiteness of the home team’s uniforms. Mostly I remember all the banners at the top of the stadium, fluttering in the breeze. It was one of the greatest, happiest days of my life.

I give Eric Rolfe Greenberg five stars for his wonderful novel («««««); though I may have been seriously impacted by sentiment as I read it each time. I kept thinking of my old man as a boy and as a young man. One of the central characters in the book was the Hall of Fame pitcher, Christie Mathewson, who toiled for the Giants from 1900 through the 1917 season. Though my pop was only a boy during those seasons, I cannot tell you how often he gushed about the abilities of Matty.

Mathewson was a very bright fellow who came out of a highly educated, cultured family. His parents objected when he told them he was going into professional baseball. They thought it was the sort of thing only scoundrels did.

The protagonist in the book had dinner (fictional, of course) with Mathewson one evening in 1905. In the conversation he recalled for the famous player a speech he’d heard once that compared baseball to life – “succeed in one and you’ll succeed in the other.” The mesmerizing, intellectual Mathewson replies with his disagreement.

“After all, baseball isn’t anything like life… In truth, nothing in the game appealed to me as much as its unreality. Baseball is all clean lines and clear decisions. Wouldn’t life be far easier if it consisted of a series of definitive calls: safe or out, fair or foul, strike or ball. Oh, for a life like that, where every day produces a clear winner. And an equally clear loser, and back to it the next day with the slate wiped clean and the teams starting out equal. Yes, a line score is a very stark statement, isn’t it? The numbers tell the essential story. All the rest is mere detail.”

Geez, The Celebrant was a wonderful, wonderful novel; and my old man and I really liked it – a wonderful book to read together!

Greenberg, Eric Rolfe: The Celebrant [University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1993]

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1 comment:

  1. Sold! It's on my list. I'm intrigued by your use of "my old man". You use it endearingly. During my youth it mostly referenced an authoritative individual. I like your use.