Turkey Mike’s Big Game

Our son Michael got his name from Carolyn’s great-grandfather Michael Patrick Donlin. No, this wasn’t the “Turkey” Mike Donlin who starred for the New York Giants. Our Mike Donlin lived in Ireland during the Great Famine. He spent his youth scaling sea cliffs, stealing eggs from sea gulls to fight off starvation. We don’t have any reason to believe that he played baseball, but that’s okay. Our son Michael is more than willing to compensate for that family shortcoming. Trouble is, he’s had some trouble getting recognition. He’s not a big kid, and his dad doesn’t have connections. After spending last spring watching his coaches ignore him, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put up with another year of Pony League. We signed him up for a couple dance classes. We would have had him play soccer in the fall, but baseball was cheaper, and I’m a sucker for cheaper, so we signed him up for fall baseball.

Our Say Hey Kid

Our Say Hey Kid

My Dad was a San Francisco Giants fanatic. His unfailing allegiance to the Giants began with his childhood, when he and the Giants were in New York. Listening to him talk about Willie Mays, you’d have thought Mays parted the Red Sea. Dad could never shake his addiction to the Giants no matter how badly the Giants did. He knew it to be a waste of time, but the Giants were too much a part of him to be cast aside. He endured year after year of mediocre seasons. To be sure, there were some good Giants teams over those decades, but the best of them hadn’t won the big prize since New York, back in ’54.

Last year, the Giants won their division on the last day of the regular season. As they battled through the playoffs, Michael was playing “fall ball,” watching the Giants make history and ratcheting up the intensity of his own play, diving or sliding head-first whenever he got a chance. He did well enough to earn the team “most valuable player” honor, and his fall ball coach expressed disappointment next spring when he failed to acquire Michael in the draft.

The Giants finally won the World Series. Obviously, this was big news in our family. It made me very happy to know that Dad—who’d just turned 86 years old—had finally seen the SF Giants win it all. Being blind, he had to see it with his ears, but he saw it just the same.

Last April, the day before we had planned to go on a trip to the desert, we got news that Dad had suffered a heart attack, and that he would not be long for the world. We changed our vacation plans, and, immediately after Michael’s game the next morning, we hit the highway for Oregon. Every time we stopped, whether to camp, to fill up the gas tank, to eat, or to walk the dog, Michael wanted to play catch. He had thoughts for his grandfather, however, and he was worried that the hospital might not let him into his grandfather’s room. Well, it turned out that he would be permitted to meet his grandfather a couple times. The second time, Michael wore his baseball glove, and presented it as though it were his hand. Grandpa’s frail fingers inspected the glove. Perhaps just making conversation—or perhaps not, Dad asked Michael to play for him. I thought nothing of it at the time.

After several days of visiting, we sped back home to San Jose and, prodded on by Michael, got back just in time to get him to his baseball practice. His team was preparing to face the Giants, the team at the top of the league. On the morning before that big game, we received word that Dad had passed away, and Carolyn dutifully informed Michael just before game time. His response was “Why’d you have to tell me now?!” Carolyn, desperate to recover from that mistake, then remembered Grandpa’s request, and she reminded Michael. Suddenly he didn’t mind so much. He would play this game for Grandpa, ironically, against the “Giants.”

It didn’t start well. Michael grounded out, then he struck out. Carolyn went to the dugout to check on him. He was crying. I didn’t try to comfort him. I didn’t know how to begin. But his team—the Astros—managed to build up a 2-0 lead against the Giants, and in the final inning, the Astros’ manager called Michael in to take the mound and finish the game. This was a first. Michael had been telling me that he could be a closer like the Astros’ ace “Lights-out” Ledbetter. Michael didn’t pitch flawlessly that day, but he was effective—as usual. He even dropped to the ground to nab a soft line drive just before it would have hit the pitcher’s mound and bounced who-knows-where. Michael completed the shutout of those looming Giants, and was honored with the game ball.

What a way to see Grandpa off.

The Astros finished the regular season in first place. That victory against the Giants, as things turned out, served as the tie-breaker. Michael has three of the best players in the league as teammates, but he too has played a big part in the Astros’ success. During the regular season, Michael was 3rd on the team in run production, 4th in batting, and 3rd in extra base hits (and all without a composite bat). As one of the team’s four regular pitchers, he had the second best ERA, allowing only three earned runs all season. But more impressive, this kid loves the game. He is so full of baseball it can get a little embarrassing. Last night after practice, he received his jersey for an upcoming tournament. He’d asked for number 24, Willie Mays’ number, and he got it. He didn’t make the slightest effort to hide his joy. It was as though he thought he’d been transformed by that jersey into the Say Hey Kid himself. I was a little overwhelmed, and I barked at him to get his bat and helmet, but inside I was happy for him; I was jumping with joy.

Thank you, Jackie Robinson

When I hear the name Jackie Robinson, I am sometimes reminded of Ty Cobb, as was Branch Rickey:

“This is the most competitive man I’ve known since Ty Cobb.”
— Branch Rickey (to Red Barber)

There’s a difference, of course. No black man could have got away with Cobb’s behavior (nor could most other white men), but Robinson and Cobb had this much in common: they were both warriors.

Jackie Comes Home, May 15, 1952

No major leaguer has ever come close to Cobb’s record of 50-54 steals of home. Robinson, in his short ten-year career, was the modern player to come closest, with 19-20 (we cannot be exact because it’s not an official stat).

The Cheetah-like Cobb

Robinson may not have been the first modern player to play the game of baseball the good old-fashioned way; the way it was played before Babe Ruth. It may be that Robinson’s teammate Pistol Pete Reiser was the first. Branch Rickey might have had something to do with the baseball renaissance as well. Perhaps a renaissance was to be inevitable once non-whites were admitted into the major leagues.

In any case, it must have been a pleasure to see the old game back, after nearly two decades without Cobb.

Ty Cobb: All-American

Baseball “historian” Daniel Okrent righteously denounced American icon and baseball great Ty Cobb in Ken Burns’ Baseball miniseries:

“Cobb is the great black mark on the history of baseball … he was a man of vile temperament and vile habit … I think that Ty Cobb in his totality is an embarrassment to baseball.”
—Third Inning, “The Black Mark”

Some people just have no sense of historical context; even some people who call themselves “historians”.

Coming home

I wonder whether Daniel Okrent realizes that there were a few other racists in America in Cobb’s time. Does he realize there might have been a few in Cobb’s home state of Georgia during the Post-Reconstruction Era? I wonder whether Okrent has seen the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. It might remind him just how racist a place America very recently was.

I wonder whether Okrent is aware that Major League Baseball was itself an all-white organization long before and long after Cobb.

I wonder whether Okrent has ever heard of the Black Sox scandal, and how it nearly ruined baseball. As far as I know, Cobb never threw a baseball game. It doesn’t really seem to have been his style, really. He was too competitive.

Cobb was a vile racist. Cobb was a violent bully. Cobb was a ruthless competitor. Cobb was a shameless self-promoter. Cobb was a Coca-cola investor.

Can one imagine a more All-American resume?

Cobb’s mother shot his father.

Good. Now we have guns in the story. Can one imagine a more All-American upbringing?

Yes, it’s true that Ty Cobb assaulted a handicapped heckler. How very politically incorrect of him! How insensitive to the underprivileged! I suppose he would also hit a girl or even a bespectacled girl! This was no “Christian gentleman”.

But it is also said that Ty Cobb paid Shoeless Joe Jackson a visit in Jackson’s hometown of Greenville, SC after Jackson had been expelled from Baseball. Imagine that: compassion? Could Cobb have been human after all?

Ty Cobb was a remarkable man. He wasn’t anybody’s hero, but he was an American phenomenon, and a phenomenon worthy of awe.

Further Reading

Tom Stanton: Cobb was nicer than most people think.

Curt Flood: American Hero

He could have contented himself with stardom, but he had to go out and try to break the last great American monopoly, Major League Baseball.

“I am pleased that God made my skin black — but I wish He had made it thicker.” —Curt Flood

As a kid I was, for some mysterious reason, a fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. When I gave my heart to Baseball in the mid-1970s, I lived thousands of miles from Saint Louis and the Redbirds were mediocre, but it may be that I absorbed some subconscious reverence for the team from overhearing the San Francisco Giants games and sports talk shows playing on Dad’s radio.

Baseball's Best Centerfielder

“Baseball’s Best Centerfielder”

I was raised with the certain knowledge that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player ever, and that the Giants were miserably hopeless. That was just Dad’s way of being a baseball addict. It seems like baseball has always been a bad trip for him, but that rarely stopped him from listening in on a game.

It seemed like he had nothing bad to say about the Cardinals. Maybe that’s why I became a Cards fan rather than a Giants fan. Maybe it was those glowing red and white home uniforms. Names like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, and Lou Brock shone in the firmament of my childhood; though not quite so brightly as Mays.

Some seem to have believed that Curt Flood was a better defensive centerfielder than Mays. That’s saying a lot.

I don’t remember hearing much if anything about Flood. He was a masterful centerfielder and embattled player activist, who left Major League Baseball long before my dad and little brother converted me. Until recently, I had no idea what he went through. The old stories of American racial hatred never cease to shock me.

By 1957, my second year in the South, I thought I was beyond crying, but one day we were playing a double-header…And…after the end of the first game you take your uniform off and you throw it into a big pile and the clubhouse manager, he comes and he gets your uniform and he drys them and he cleans them and then you play the second game with the same uniform…I, like everybody else, I threw my uniform right into the big pile with everybody else’s and the clubhouse guy came by with one of these long sticks with a nail on it and he very carefully picked my uniform out from the white guys uniforms and my little sweatshirt and my little jock strap and everything. Sent my uniform to the colored cleaners which was probably 20 minutes away and there I sat while all the other guys were on the field. [The crowd has] really been giving me hell all day long, and now I’m sitting there stark naked waiting for my uniform to come back from the cleaners and the other guys were out on the field. So finally they get my uniform back and I walk out on the field . . . boy you’d think that I had just burned the American Flag.

Curt Flood, Ken Burns’ Baseball, Seventh Inning.

Story: Flood Is at Peace With His Lost Career

King of the World

The Bahá’í Faith drove many of the big decisions in our family, and I’m certain that much of Mom and Dad’s time was dedicated to the Faith, yet I can’t remember much, if anything, about the Bahá’í Faith from our time in Walterboro. Maybe I was too young to be involved in all that.

I do remember that one of the neighbor kids had been named Jesse Owens.

Perhaps the most prominent event from our time in Walterboro, as far as my five-year-old mind could gather, was the day when everybody seemed to be talking about Joe Frazier, a local boy from Beaufort, and Cassius Clay (who had taken the name “Muhammad Ali” years before). As far as I can recall, there was a fight between the two names, and the name “Cassius Clay” had won the fight, but I later discovered that I had got it wrong.

Cassius Clay, 1964
New York Journal-American Staff Photo (De Lucia)
Source: HRHRC, University of Texas

I used to shrug at that memory, thinking of it as a historically meaningless sporting event, bemused by the fact that I had remembered the loser as the winner, but over the years I have come to realize that Ali may have been among the most influential men of the time. What could we Bahá’ís, with all of our enlightened racial profiling and spiritual bureaucracy, do for Black America that this man could not do with his skill, intelligence, adaptability, toughness, political courage, and poetic hubris? Here was a new breed of exemplar for the ever-so-humble American Negro: “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

By the way, you may be wondering where Ali got his quick step and gift of gab. You guessed it: he’s Irish.