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Home » Army Life and Stories » JEAN SHEPHERD–Baseball: all star it’s not, but unforgettable

JEAN SHEPHERD–Baseball: all star it’s not, but unforgettable

baseball

My publisher once asked me if there were enough good Shepherd stories about baseball to make a book. I’m rather sure that (only considering the audios we now know of) there are not enough of any kind of actual stories to make up a book. There are Shep’s occasional comments; there are short bits such as the three variations on his “old man” heckling a Yankee, who then hits a home run, almost hitting him; there’s the one of him playing ball for the United Brethren team, there are a couple of Shepherd monologs in which he complements the New York Mets playing ability and winning the World Series. etc. But even if all those and other descriptive pieces were included, there is not enough for a full-length book.

Anyone looking for Shepherd baseball stories would surely clamor for the one titled “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game of the Giants Versus the Dodgers, Tropical Bush League.” That’s the one in which Shep and his fellow soldiers construct a baseball diamond in the tropics, play a game in the “raw,'” the nude, because of the heat, and are seen by the General’s daughter. He told that one on the air and then published a version of it in the May 1971 issue of Playboy. I would have included it and the “Troop Train Ernie” story (published as “The Marathon Run of Lonesome Ernie, the Arkansas Traveler” in Shep’s book A Fistful of Fig Newtons), and possibly other of the few army stories from Playboy in my Shep’s Army, but I was told that some day the Shepherd Estate might publish a book of his previously published-but-not-collected-in-book-form stories. Don’t ask me what or when–I have no further details. (But it does bring up the question of why Shep could never get his army stories published by his publisher, the gigantic publishing conglomerate, Doubleday–which must have made lots of dough on his first two books. No known logical answer there, folks.)

As I don’t have permission to publish “The Unforgettable Exhibition Game” story, I thought it might be interesting to quote a bit from a broadcast version of it with a bit from the printed version to see what Shep did, in part, to alter the spoken word for Playboy, where he had more freedom of expression and maybe even where he might have thought that Playboy readers would expect a more immediately harsh and militaristic start and some unexpurgated army lingo.

As the radio version came first, I begin with it at the beginning. One will note that on the radio–especially at The Limelight–

Dave Michelsohn photo(Shep during a Limelight broadcast)

 with its audience–where this version originated, Shepherd  is more conversational and can give more extemporaneous background thoughts about army life. On the radio in those days, of course one could not even imply a “bad” word of any sort. He sets up the scene of hollow and enervating life in the tropics nicely, as he does a little riff on one of his favorite themes about the military–the incredible boredom of it all (especially on the home front).

Excerpt of the baseball-in-the-nude story

June 18, 1966 at the Limelight

I’m in the army, see. You want to hear an army story? You know, I’ll tell you why the army is such a great place to tell stories about. Because this is the circumstances in the raw. And that ain’t all you see in the raw. See a lot of things in the raw, and that’s what this story’s about, see.

I’m in this company, and we’re way down in the boondocks. We’ve been in these boondocks for a hundred years. And the only excitement that we ever felt was once in a while you could hear an alligator off in the swamps, calling for his mate. You ever hear an alligator calling for his mate? It’s really thrilling.

You’re lying there in your sack, see, it’s two in the morning. You hear the mosquitoes. And you hear the sound of your radar set. We had a radar set. That is what our company did, see, it was a radar company. And twenty-four hours a day this radar set was going aaaaaaaaaaaaa, and the big beaming arm would sweep over us. You’d hear it going past you in the night. Over your head it would go. And you’d hear the mosquitoes. And you hear the sound of this motor going. and our world was just one long sea of boredom.

Have you ever been so bored you could taste it? Well, I’ll tell you how boredom tastes. Have you ever put a nickel in your mouth? Yea, put a nickel in your mouth and hold it there for about three minutes. That is the peculiarly active, metallic taste of boredom. Tastes just like that. And after a while you can sit there, you know–feel it.

And the whole company is just sitting there. And once in a while somebody gets promoted to Pfc. And that’s a big day, see. We can all go down and watch him sew on his stripes….

You can feel it, see, the way Shepherd begins the story by setting the mood of boredom–which will soon be interrupted by the thrill of doing constructive work that will conclude in a positive, enjoyable result–the making of a baseball diamond  to play on in the jungle.

_________________________

In contrast, for the printed page in Playboy, Shepherd chooses to begin with the harsh (printed) sound of the sergeant’s gruff orders. After all, when all ya got is a story wit words, ya gotta grab dose Playboy viewers by da ears–if not by the cojones.

the unforgettable ballgameOpening spread of the Playboy story

“GET THE LEAD OUT OF YER ASS, YOU GUYS! FALL IN!”

“That makes eight hunnert ‘n’ninety-six,” Gasser whispered under his breath.

“Eight-hundred ninety-six what?” I whispered out of the side of my mouth.

“I been countin’. Ever since Basic.”

“AT EASE!”

Company K instantly fell silent. Only the steady drone of our Signal Corps search radar broke the desolate stillness. But that didn’t count since it had hummed day and night, 24 hours on end, until it had become part of the stillness….

I prefer the spoken version over the written one–with printed words he describes, but on the air he evokes: “aaaaaaaaaaaaa, and the big beaming arm would sweep over us. You’d hear it going past you in the night. Over your head it would go.”

The printed story then adds a few off-color utterances: “Kee-rist, what diddlyshit.” and then describes how the army, to lift morale, decrees that: “A program of morale-building activities is hereby ordered. Athletic-type equipment will be furnished through quartermaster channels….” They will clear part of the jungle and construct a baseball diamond on which to play. With the ball field built there is joy in Mudville (Company K) as they begin a game. Of course, as we know, disaster strikes–in the form of the General’s daughter, who innocently comes to watch and encounters naked male bodies sweatin’ in the midday sun.

Back at the Company area they get the bad news–the field will be immediately returned to the elemental wilderness from which it came. And Sergeant Kowalski added his nickel’s worth of hell:

“Aw right, you bastards. You blew it. I have often stated that if you played ball with me, I would play ball with you. We will now begin my ball game. Immediately following chow, we will have a company GI party. We will clean every inch of this area. For three hours, I will see nothing but elbows and asses.”

Company K was back in business. Baseball season was over. the long hot winter had begun.

So endith the Playboy printed story.

_________________________

The Limelight story ends rather differently. Of course the troops have to unmake the ball field, but on the air, Shepherd continues. He comments that in later years, he found it difficult  to tell this story to anyone. No one would believe it anyway. One day he is in the Veteran’s Administration office signing up for the allowance given to honorably discharged military personnel, and there is the first lieutenant he remembered from that day when the daughter of the general had seen the team naked:

“Did ya ever make captain?”

He looked at me for a long look. He says, “You’re a third basement.”

I said, “That’s right.”

I said, “did you ever make captain?”

A long, pregnant pause. “No.”

I settled back.

He said, “Did you ever make buck sergeant?”

“No.”

[They continued the little dialog.] Until the first lieutenant said: “I wonder if it ever caused that chick any sleep.”

She’s probably been dreaming about that for years! And I sat back and I said, “I’ve been thinking about that once in a while myself.”

He said, “Yep, I’ll bet that was the greatest ballgame she ever saw.”

I said, “Yep.”

And then there was another long pause and he said, “I’ll bet nobody believes it if you ever tell them the story.”

I said, “Yep, I tried to tell it to a chick the other night.”

He says, “Well, I tried to tell it to my mother.” He says, “I just couldn’t, you know?”

I said, “Yep.”

I never saw him again. And let me tell you the funny thing. The last time I told this story, five minutes after I went off the air, the phone rang  and there’s this voice at the other end and it’s a female voice and she says, “Hello?”

And I says, “Hello.”

She says, “Were you the third baseman?”

¡ !

Of course this could not work in print, but only live before a Limelight audience or even before any live radio audience. The surprised pleasure in the Limelight’s audience laughing enhances the ending–as it’s only really effective with that live audience response, I like that.

The suggestion Shepherd makes by incorporating his supposed phone conversation after the basic story has ended, is that this is not fiction but a real story that a real chick has been a real part of and has called him about it. Do you believe that? I think that was a clever and amusing way to end this fiction–better than the downer that ends the Playboy version.

I do believe that each version accomplishes it artistic goal appropriately for its medium.

Hurrah for live radio performance!

__________________________________________________________

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