I should preface this by stating that I have never played a game of baseball.
No, not even an inning.
I don’t recall ever playing a game of catch with my dad. Now don’t assume I was neglected, but rather my family’s “All-American” summer past time involved a tipi and black powder, but that’s another story.
I have played maybe ten games of softball, all of which were during my elementary school days; since then I have probably been in a batting cage twice. I have never felt this was a void in my life, or that my sporting experience has been lacking. I enjoy going to the the park, be it Citizens Bank, Turner, or Camden Yards, and spending a summer evening eating sunflower seeds and yelling “hey batter-batter,” but I will not spend more than 1 minute watching the sport on a TV. I do not really have a team, but I love my city, and enjoyed hugging strangers on Broad St. after the World Series win much more than I enjoyed the game.
With all this in mind, I veered off course and headed for Cooperstown.
It’s a quaint little town, well groomed and well keeping of the theme of the place. As I walked toward the front door, a young employee opened the door for me and smiled. Inside another young employee smiled, and showed me toward the ticket counter. The man at the counter took my money, handed me a map, and smiled.
What I found inside was unlike anything I have seen before. It was amazing.
Why amazing? Because inside was America as we hope it is.
There were jerseys from players whose names we all know; Babe Ruth, DiMaggio, Hank Aaron. There were seats from ballparks long gone and memorials to players and events. Here was a game documented and celebrated from its birth down to the present. There were artifacts with information to give context to what you were looking at, presented in a style that brought it to life.
I loved looking at photos of fans in ties and hats, teams that no longer exist, and trophies won before any of us were born. I liked the handle bar mustaches, the knickerbockers, and the stories.
But none of this is why I call it amazing.
I cannot recall being in a place where everyone there was so excited to be there… except possibly Broad St. after the Phil’s won.
I have surely been to no other museum where the patrons were so enthralled by what they saw or read. I watched a grey haired man with a Red Sox hat and khaki shorts, happily arguing with a mohawked and pierced young man who was wearing an Oriels jersey, as they were both hunched over a list of statistics.
I saw families all dressed in matching jerseys, all doing the same activity, and all enjoying it.
Generation gaps were closed, people dissagreed agreeably, and lambs layed down with lions.
If you think the Utopia I have described is as fictional as the Field of Dreams, consider I almost bought a mitt from the gift shop. What would I do with a mitt? Play baseball?
My experience with sport has always been participant first, then when ability or opportunity render me unable, I become a follower. Cooperstown has nearly made me a fan.
Now I doubt I will start tuning in my television, nor will I join the beefy and sleevless guys on the weekend beer league, but I will claim to be a fan of baseball. I am a fan of what it represents in Americana. I am a fan of anything that gets a father and son happily on the same page. I am a fan of summer, and mostly, I am a fan of a museum that would enshrine Barry Bond’s record smashing home run ball with the asterik carved by the fan who caught it, prominantly displayed.
Alright, I admit I have made a few jokes about our friends up north. None too harsh, but yes, I laughed audibly when Homer Simpson called Canada “America Jr.” A Canadian friend of mine once lamented that Americans (he bristled that we claimed that title) knew nothing of Canadian government while every Canadian knows who the founding fathers of the U.S. were, as well as who the sitting President of the U.S. is at any given time. I looked at him and with a straight face simply said, “yeah? You realize there is a reason for that right?”
He didn’t like my answer.
Turns out a lot of Canadians don’t like my answers.
After spending some time with friends in St. Alban Vermont, I decided to take advantage of my proximity, as well as schedule flexibility, and head up to Montreal to see what all the fuss is about. I was actually getting a bit excited as I pushed northward with echos of “It’s a lot like New York” ringing in my head.
I had my passport in hand when the guy with the bullet proof vest and walrus mustache said “bonjour”. He asked questions, asked me to step out of the vehicle, and asked me to open all the doors.
I expected to have my things rifled through a bit as I drive a vehicle that all my family and associates find suspect. After finding no missing children inside, I was sent to the desk to talk to the DMV lady. She uninterestedly stamped my form and gave me a slip with the code to the gate that would send me on my way to a French speaking adventure.
Mr. Walrus met me at the gate. He explained that Montreal was a great place and I would love it; but only after I went back to the States and unloaded my van. He was unimpressed with my not having anywhere to leave my cargo and simply waived me toward the U.S. checkpoint.
The U.S. border agent told me I wasn’t missing anything in Montreal. He also told me that those denied entry are supposed to get a little pink slip. I wasn’t.
Inside, at another desk, an agent was asking a large man with no socks when exactly it was he went to Cuba, and why did none of those cigars have bands on them. The agent at my desk just handed me my papers and said, “they think you were headed there to work, not play.”
So essentially, in an attempt to avoid work and go play, I was suspected of being on my way to work, was turned away, and consequentially had no choice but go work instead of play.
None of the border guards got my Yossarian reference.
One joy of traveling sans-family is the ability to visit as many forts and historical sites as I please without enduring the whine and pleading of little people. I say this not because my little people have complained but because I complained when I was myself a little people; and because my wife would complain were I to attempt to drag her to the fifth fort in as many months. “Aw Dad, not another fort”, was a favorite of my little sisters, while I was partial to, “Dad, this deer looks just like the last five. Why are we pulling over?”
Ticonderoga is all about cannons. Lots of cannons. Of course before it was called Ticonderoga it was called Carillon, and back then it was about tomahawks.
Carillon was built by the French around 1754. In those days the French and English were fighting over pretty much everything. These European guys fought each other in Europe, on the Atlantic, and in America. At the same time the Iroquois, Huron, and Algonquins were fighting each other in the same place… minus Europe and the Atlantic. Just to make things a bit more interesting, a large portion of the Englishmen here weren’t really Englishmen, they were Scottish Highlanders. The English had just got done fighting the pesky Highlanders back home, won, and decided to round them up and ship them to America where they could fight to their wild hearts content.
The French and Indian War while largely neglected by bored American school kids, is the perfect storm of historical conflicts. It had swords, muskets, cannons, tomahawks, bows and arrows, kilts, breach cloths, horses, ships, feathers, banners, bagpipes, and wilderness adventure.
If we look past that war and just look at the place we can include, spies, traitors, and heros.
Benedict Arnold once captured this fort when he was fighting for the Americans. Word is, he didn’t get as much credit as he thought he should have thanks to that upstaging Ethan Allen, and harbored a grudge, eventually leading to his turning coats. Of course they captured the fort not to control the lake but to get the cannons.
Having captured the cannons, the Americans had Henry Knox haul these cannons through the middle of nowhere in winter to Boston. Knox and his Ticonderoga cannons forced the Brits to get outa Beantown.
The Fort itself is quite impressive. High stone walls, lots of fire power, and a deep ditch make the outpost seem impregnable. Turns out it was quite an easy place to capture. One could simply sneak in the doors when the guard didn’t know you were coming as Ethan Allen did, or as the Brits did twice, simply put some big guns up on Mount Defiance where you can rain shells down inside the fort at your pleasure.
Those days are over. The United States no longer feels a need to defend itself from the Canadians, we now only fight against British oil companies, and the regiments of the Black Watch are replaced by tourists.
After the locale lost its military relevance, it was sold to Columbia University. They tired of the property and sold it to some rich guy who wanted to build a summer home on the lake. Down the hill from the walls the home still stands surrounded by beautiful gardens.
The fort is still privately owned but open to the public. I walked through the barracks, which is now a museum, and looked over the largest collection of powder horns I have ever seen. I saw sabers, muskets, rifles, and a few tomahawks. The museum did not have my children complaining of yet another fort and when I saw a deer in the parking lot, I did not pll over for a picture.
One could argue about whether or not it is true, or about how it may vary depending on the program, but there is no denying that the vast majority of Americans, if asked what is the country’s top college, they will answer “Harvard”.
What is not debatable is that this is in fact America’s oldest institution of learning, est. 1636. The University is responsible for having educated our current President, our second President, our coolest president (Teddy), the signer of our most clichéd signature, and has had over 19 Nobel prize winners and 15 Pulitzer winners as faculty.
The school gave us Emerson, Thoreau, Cummings, Du Bois, Bernstein, Yo Yo Ma, Conan O’Brian, and Good Will Hunting.
The word Harvard drips of smarts and prestige. The place Harvard does the same. Its list of firsts and bests is deep, as is its endowment. It is visited by scholars, dignitaries, and an unusual amount of tourists. It is a punchline, a resume headline, and the object of both awe and resentment.
Of all its accomplishments, of all its firsts, perhaps its finest (maybe you can guess where I’m headed here), is that it built the world’s first concrete football stadium. This school’s early dedication to this divinely inspired game not only provided a nice place to watch the game, but was a prime influence in the creation of the game itself. Once upon a time those who make rules wanted to spread the game out and make the field wider. Harvard’s field could not be widened, so the powers that be scrapped that idea and in stead instituted the forward pass.
I found myself sitting in an Italian restaurant in Atlanta Georgia, not an obvious pairing. At the table sat a truck driver in his late 30’s, a service technician who calls a Tennessee farm his home, a 20 something year old who married the daughter of a large company’s owner, myself of course, and then there was Ron.
The Tennessee man, sometime after appetizers were served, with a half grin on his face, asked, “Hey, Ron, where’s your truck?” To which Ron responded by rolling his eyes, and then looking over both shoulders, as if someone should help him out. The rest of us had no idea what was going on. “Well I believe that man still has it,” he eventually offered. Ron squirmed in his chair as the rest of us looked back and forth between he and Tennessee. This time with a complete smile, the technician motioned wide with his hands and said, “Aren’t you going to share?” So Ron did.
“Well (Ron starts many a sentence this way), I got this truck for work. I thought it would be good to have something reliable and besides, I was taking on an apprentice and I just figured that it would be easier if I let him use the truck for work. Thataways he could just meet me at the site and I wouldn’t have to pick him up all the time.
So the second day we are working together I show up and he isn’t there. Now mind you this is about a day’s drive out so I don’t think too much of it and I just wait. After waiting about three hours I call his phone and I get nothing. Two hours after that I finally get him and he says he’ll be right there he just got behind. Now by this time it’s late so’s I just tell him to meet me the next day.
The next week He did it again. On the third job I said to him that we were to go to a place that was hard to find so we should just ride together and I went and picked him up. We met up and I said something about wanting to drive that truck so we both got in it and we took off. Now we hadn’t said anything about the other times, and I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do so I decided to stop and have some breakfast. I told him to get whatever he wanted when we sat down, and we ordered, and then he goes to the bathroom. Three hours later I’m still sitting at the table by myself. I can see the truck sitting in the lot, I have the keys, and now I’m getting worried. I look in the can, walk around outside, and there is no sign of this guy. I’m worried because we are hours away from anywhere and I don’t know how he’s going to get home. Well, so I went and did the job and drove home.
The next day I go with my girlfriend so I can pick up my other truck where we had left it. When she hopped out to drive it home I started to go through the new truck to see if he had left anything. He had so I packed it up and sent it to Tennessee in the mail.”
We were amused by this tale and looked over at the technician for the resolve to this yarn.
“I don’t know why Ron sent it to me (Ron shrugged his shoulders at this as if he didn’t know either), but All I know is a get a box with a burnt tin can, a crack pipe, and a rock.”
The table erupted in laughter, the truck driver nearly falling off his chair. We caught our breath as best we could, and went about chatting and eating lasagna. Every now and again the truck driver would giggle and shake his head. During one such instance he caught himself short, looked serious, then looked at Ron and asked, “So who has the truck?”
“Well, my girlfriend has a son who is kind of a bum. He stays with us sometimes but he just can’t keep it together. I comes home one day and the truck isn’t there. I’m beside myself because I can’t find who took it. I call, and I look, so eventually I call the police. I do a report and all and a couple days later the Sheriff calls me and says, Ron, you aren’t going to like this. We sold your truck.
I don’t even understand what he said so I ask what he means and he explains; well, the bank had to repossess it because the payments weren’t being made. Once they got it back they sold it at auction. That was a week ago. Now I’m sore and say I can’t be late on the payments cuz I paid cash money for that truck. To prove it I go back into my files to get the title and the title isn’t there.
Turns out this guy, my girlfriend’s son, broke into the house, got the title, had the title changed to his name, notarized and all, then went to the bank and got a loan on my truck. Now he hasn’t even got the keys, the truck is sitting in my driveway till the day the bank repo’d it from my house when I wasn’t there. So all this time I’m looking and he’s out spending my truck money and someone else is driving the truck.”
At this point we are all doing our best to stay in our chairs and keep our meal from not being laughed back out onto the table. Ron is just shrugging his shoulders while the truck driver is hugging him and thanking him for the best dinner conversation he has ever had.
We stumble from the restaurant back to our cars; me to my van and Ron to his old truck. The truck driver hasn’t had a drink at all that night but has to be helped to the car, still doubled over with laughter. I looked over at Ron and asked what he ever did about the truck.
One of the finer results of travel is unintentional learning. One would think that in touring our country’s historical institutions of education, one would expect to learn a thing or two, but it’s that third thing you learn that comes as a surprise. The answers to questions you never knew to ask are the ones that stick with you.
Question like, who is this Roman looking guy on the horse, and why did I just realize now that Dartmouth had no statues?
And of course the obvious question as to what colonial era college does NOT have a building that boasts to at one time served as the headquarters for a revolutionary army?
On my many ventures, southern and otherwise, I have seen many 1st Baptist Churches. I have never, till now, actually seen THE first Baptist church. Turns out it’s in Providence, right down the hill from Brown.
Also down the hill from Brown is a row of houses, one of which is covered in relief carvings and contains the art studios of the Providence Art Club.
Letting gravity take its course, drawing me further down the hill, I the found the Euro Deli & Cafe. A quaint little shop filled with bookish looking patrons, this deli produces a treasure worth noting. Hot chocolate with a healthy dosage of cayenne pepper! This Aztec treat should clue historians in to why the Conquistadors really invaded Mexico. I had no need to rally troops and burn my ships, I only needed to hand the woman $1.50.
Perhaps Brown’s greatest acheivement was losing the Rose Bowl to Washington State in 1916. This game was the second time football had been played in California’s annual festival of the Roses, the first being a western embarassment at the hands of Michigan some years earlier, but was the first in what would become an annual tradition. Of course that tradition now rarely, if ever, includes Brown.
Waiting in line at the Brown Bookstore, I was looking at a portrait of that 1916 Brown team, and over on the left hand side was a brown player. Brown as in, very distinctly, an African-American. That was Fritz Pollard, the same man who would in 1922 become the NFL’s first black coach. Go Brown!
Ahhh the good old days of the gridiron. Old institutions putting forward young men to do battle. Men wore hats, sports writers were poetic, and a black man could run the ball. This brings us back to looking for answers we never knew to ask.
Mr. Pollard played in the Rose Bowl 54 years before USC’s famous game against Bama in 1970. Mr. Pollard was professionally coach Pollard more than 80 years before a man of his race coached in the superbowl.
Progress is often slow because progress sometimes goes backwards. It is the case with both individuals and societies that while time marches steadily ahead, people don’t steadily go the same direction.
I realized this at Brown.