The baseball season
Shepherd loved baseball and referred to it in many contexts over the years on the radio, on television in a “Jean’ Shepherd’s America” episode, and in a filmed documentary devoted to the Chicago White Sox.
Radio humorist, author, and multi-faceted creative force, Jean Shepherd, loved baseball above all other sports, and seeing it as a metaphor for life as we know it, loved it for what it signified for him and all of us. His belief that life requires good offensive as well as defensive maneuvering is illustrated in the movie A Christmas Story (which he created and narrated throughout), as every idea and action ends in disaster or its near equivalent–just a few examples include the kid who gets his BB gun for Christmas and nearly shoots his eye out, the longed-for secret decoder only decodes a “crummy commercial,” and dogs run off with the family’s Christmas dinner. Shepherd’s view is that life needs to be regarded with wry suspicion every step of the way, and the movie provides examples of his favorite rule for dealing with it, a metaphor taken especially from baseball: “keep your knees loose.”
Throughout his radio career he’d repeat the saying, meaning by it that life will frequently slap fast ground balls toward you across the uneven, rocky infield of your existence, and you’d better not be rigid, but be loose-kneed and ready to quickly dodge, or better, lunge to your right to glove the incoming missiles—or they will probably take bad bounces and give you a fat lip. He had a great joy in his life, but he knew that the Management Upstairs would eventually choose not to pick up his option, and that the price of conditional joy was eternal vigilance and loose knees.
Despite his world-view that argued that he’d never win a batting title, Shepherd’s involvement with baseball was much more widespread and successful than most of his well-informed enthusiasts were aware of. He even claimed to have been a professional ballplayer in his early days, but that tale is unlikely to be substantiated. The closest we’ve come is to learn that his kid brother, Randy, had played at a high level in the Cincinnati Reds organization, and Shepherd is said to have sometimes latched onto and honed his brother’s stories of sporting exploits for his own storytelling purposes. But even so, Shepherd had the skill in managing his life and his creative efforts to metaphorically bunt for a base hit, inside-out a swing that punched the ball to the opposite field, and even sometimes loft one over the fence.
Shepherd’s stories, anecdotes, and commentary on the radio usually illustrated his view of life, starting with supposed incidents from his childhood, frequently told to make a point and often straying far enough from the truth to be considered bald-faced lies. That the local team, the Chicago White Sox, were perpetual losers at the time, gave veracity to his symbolic stories and attitude toward human woe. Using his father, known as “the old man,” as a foil and frequent subject of subtle derision, Shepherd had at least three versions of one such family legend. In one, Shep and the old man were watching a Chicago White Sox vs. Yankees game from the left field stands, his father mercilessly heckling Yankee pitcher Marius Russo to the extent that Russo, usually a very weak hitter, blasted a home run in retaliation that not only won the game but “almost decapitated the old man!”
A similar story, this one in what looks to be the strictly historical portion of a 1987 White Sox video documentary, has Shepherd telling of Babe Ruth hitting the first home run in All Star Game history, the ball, naturally, just missing his father, who went lunging for it and fell empty-handed into a woman’s lap. The third story, this one also the result of his father’s heckling, has Yankee slugger Lou Gehrig aiming a home run ball and just missing him. This version of the tale was well known enough—and believed—for a radio interviewer to ask Shepherd to tell about his father and Lou Gehrig, to which Shepherd responded, “Don’t forget, I’m a storyteller, not a historian.”
Continuing his multi-faceted chronology into young adulthood, Shepherd tells stories of playing for a ball team named United Brethren and one summer broadcasting the play-by-play for an Ohio minor league team, the Toledo Mudhens. These may well be so, but one might well question the truth of his story published in Playboy, May 1971. This tale, “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League,” is about his days in the Signal Corps, stationed in the subtropical wilds of Florida. Shepherd tells of a game in a secluded jungle field between his fellow inductees, the day being so hot and humid that the two entire teams stripped down naked. This would have served well if an army vehicle hadn’t pulled up, carrying a surprised but maybe delighted spectator, a general’s daughter. Our man Shepherd apparently led an exciting youth, with many fascinating moments, but one believes all the details at one’s peril.
Years after his military service, when Shepherd moved from the Chicago area, lived in New York City, and broadcast from station WOR, he continued his lifelong passion for baseball. Fellow WOR broadcaster Barry Farber remembers seeing Shepherd come into their shared office space with all his baseball equipment, exhilarated, just in from playing a game, who knows where, in Manhattan. Though Shepherd never forgot his fondness for the perpetually trounced Chicago White Sox, he began observing, critiquing, and rooting, not for the Yankees, who, it seemed to him at the time, always won, but for those world famous underdogs, the New York Mets. He continued recognizing “the American pastime” as a long-running parable for our lives. In September of 1969 he spent a program talking about the Mets game he’d seen the night before, and discussing the unavoidable problem in all our lives of winning and losing—how do we manage to deal with it? The Met’ struggles just seemed the perfect example of all our human inadequacies and foibles. In mid-October he devoted another program to them, this one dealing with that amazing happenstance—the Mets had won the World Series! Shepherd was overjoyed—he commented that it had not been luck but the result of the high degree of skill with which they’d played. Heaven knows how he reconciled his usually negative attitude with this miraculously positive outcome!
Sometimes Shepherd talked of lesser baseball matters and sometimes of the larger picture—baseball as major metaphor. Sometimes there just seemed to be good magic in the air of baseball, such as that which had enveloped the Amazin’ Mets, while at other times there were obviously gremlins in the works. A recent find gives evidence of gremlins, devoted to denying a rightful place to those other perpetual losers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and denying rightful acknowledgment for their great accomplishment. Regarding appropriate acknowledgment, recently an old book emerged from obscurity, published, diabolically, in both Shepherd’s home state of Indiana, and in Brooklyn’s state of New York: The Scrapbook History of Baseball.
This book consists of many hundreds of photocopies of entire news articles about baseball from 1876 through 1974. Of this multitude of high points and mind-deadening trivia, for game seven of the 1955 World Series, a one-half inch by less than three inch box score is the book’s only indicator that, in the Boys of Summer’s entire history as the “Wait till next year kids,” the Brooklyn Dodgers had won their only Series.
(As a member of the Pratt Institute
ROTC in Brooklyn, I got to march
onto the middle of the outfield and
salute the flag on opening day, 1956,
when they raised the World Series
flag for the first time–oh, glory days!)
The other book-gremlin must have bedeviled baseball fan Jean Shepherd, because the only words besides his two-page foreword to this “scrapbook,” is the half-page acknowledgment of sources and the source listings themselves, presumably compiled by the book’s four listed authors. That’s worth repeating: four presumed experts in the history of baseball (with a blind spot regarding the 1955 World Series), who wrote nothing in the 320-page tome except the acknowledgment half-page, are glorified as “authors.” How does one define “author”? Ah well! The tiny text on the dust jacket just above the four expert names, says, “Foreword by Jean Shepherd.” Did Shepherd tear out his hair and jump up and down in a rage at the unfairness of it all, or did he keep his knees loose?
Maybe Shepherd kept his cool because he knew well what it was like not to receive sufficient credit for one’s work. He probably just chalked it up to one more lousy call by life’s Umpire-in-Charge. Ya can’t win ‘em all. Each year near the beginning of baseball season he’d read “Casey at the Bat,” commenting on humanity’s hopes and failures, one year half-jokingly describing the poem as “probably as close to a true American classic as you can get.”
His special perception often led to unexpected truths. For example, when Astroturf first appeared under a domed stadium in Texas, he decried the artificiality of the matter by noting that the blocking off of a natural phenomenon, wind, lessened the need for skill in an outfielder’s tracking and catching a fly ball and also in a pitcher’s ability to manipulate the path of a thrown ball. As he put it, “Actually, they’ve taken the blood out of the game now.” On another occasion, when he had the chance to speak several times in a Babe Ruth TV documentary, he commented, undoubtedly having his own manipulation of truth and fiction in mind, that the public’s erroneously believing that the Babe “predicted” a homerun shot, was, at worst, only a harmless myth. Shepherd’s take on baseball and life was observed by a New York Times reporter during Shep’s radio commentary for the Armed Forces Network during the 1964 World Series. The writer who interviewed him wrote of Shepherd’s love of “seeing things as few others see them.” The article continued, “Thus, though he was only one among 67,101 customers at Yankee Stadium, he spent the afternoon looking, not only at the players on the field, but also the players in relationship to the customers, and both groups in relationship to the stadium, and the stadium in relationship to Western civilization.”
Yes, for Jean Shepherd, baseball and all other human activities
are irrevocably entwined. As he said after one commentary
on baseball and life, as the ball flies into the outfield,
“just keep your knees loose, look up into that sun,
go back there as it’s drifting back towards the fence.
Make sure that you judge for the windage.
Drift a little to your left.
And just stand there and wait.”
WHITE SOX FAN