On a recent warm Sunday, Julie and I were beginning to emerge from what I call our Food Poisoning Apocalypse. Something – probably tainted crab cakes – had knocked us out of the human race for three miserable days. We were visiting friends in Frederick, Maryland, a historic, fetching Civil War town of about 80,000 people. I was still feeling a little weak and rather butchered, but it was time to work our legs and get outdoors, so we happily walked from our rented rowhouse to Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium for a day of sun and baseball. I had no idea that it would turn out to be a surprisingly fortuitous venture.
Nymeo Field is home to the Frederick Keys (named after Frederick native Francis Scott Key), an unaffiliated collegiate summer ballclub that serves as a showcase for prospects. (The Keys had been a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles until Major League Baseball began slashing farm clubs in 2020.)
Starting this year, however, the field also hosts a still-unnamed Frederick team that plays in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a high-quality league partnered with MLB that operates in cities without minor league franchises of their own. For reasons as mysterious as a knuckleball, the team’s moniker will not be announced until June 23. The final contenders are: Bone Shakers, Ghost Hounds, Rail Frogs, Sawbones, and Screaming Alpacas. Most of those names scare the bejeezus out of me – can you imagine screaming alpacas dominating your nightmares? – so I’m rooting for the least petrifying (and train-related!) “Rail Frogs.”
In the meantime, the players are wearing uniforms adorned with big colorful question marks. That’s low-level baseball for you.
There are no billionaire owners and superstars in these leagues. The players are underpaid and living on buses and in cheap hotels, but they’re doing it for the love of the game and for their dream of breaking into the majors. Only 10 percent of minor leaguers will make it to “the show,” and far fewer on independent teams will get there. But they press on until, for most of them, age and reality bring disheartening news.
There was plenty of extra room in the parking lot at Nymeo Field. Inside, an enthusiastically hokey announcer was making corny jokes about foul balls running “afoul” of something. On the outfield wall, billboards advertised a local ankle and foot doctor, Pepsi-Cola, and some kind of insurance. The scoreboard accuracy was, at times, questionable. In between innings, the young staffers worked hard. They raked the uneven infield dirt. They danced atop the dugouts to gin up the crowd. At one point they slingshotted free mattress pads, for some reason, into the stands.
For the spectators, seeing a game at this level means spending a few hours with your family, under a clear sky, rooting fervently for your town. All of the cliché sounds of baseball – the crack of the bat, the thwack of leather – are louder and more resonant in these stadiums. The action is personal and immediate. And it’s so affordable. The day we were there, we got to see a surprise doubleheader because the previous day’s game had been a rainout. That’s two games for the ridiculously low price of $15 – in the “expensive” seats. For a few dollars more, we could get a hot dog, a slice of pizza, or a funnel cake. And, of course, cold beer at a reeeeeeeeasonable price. I avoided the fatty foods but thought a beer would be okay. One of the local breweries – Flying Dog – had a stand at the ballpark, and the woman behind the taps offered us tastes as we chatted. It all throws back to an America before greed took over.
The crowd was thin. I’d say there were only about 17 people in the stands, but Julie claims that I have a tendency to exaggerate. So it’s more likely that there were 100 people there – in a stadium that holds 5,400. It was Mother’s Day, so maybe that kept the attendance small.
Yet somehow the loudest man on the planet ended up sitting behind us. I’ll call him Boomer. He was a large man, and his resounding cheers and wisecracks ricocheted around the nearly-empty stadium. He also jangled a piercing cowbell that rattled our ears. But he was polite. In fact, he asked us if the cowbell bothered us, and when someone is that solicitous I’ll inevitably respond that I’m not troubled in the least. At one point he offered us a piece of his pretzel, which was bigger than his head. We demurred.
The cowbell and the yelling continued throughout the game and somehow became a welcome part of the atmosphere. Boomer seemed to know his team well.
Meanwhile, as the game moved on, we took casual note of a relaxed-looking man at the end of our row who was congenially talking baseball with another fan. Julie began to suspect that the guy in our row had been an actual ballplayer. Possibly even a major leaguer.
I was skeptical. Why would a big-league player be watching an independent-league game at a ballpark in Frederick with a mere smattering of spectators?
But she insisted. She wondered if he could be Shawon Dunston, a shortstop who’d played for the San Francisco Giants and a handful of other teams in his career.
Okay, hold on now. Shawon Dunston is one of my all-time favorite Giants.
He’d been an All-Star – twice. He’d won the Giants’ Willie Mac award in 1996 for being the most inspirational on the team, with his big heart and smile. He played for 18 seasons, amassed almost 1,600 hits, and earned three World Series rings as a coach.
But much more importantly, his picture – which I cut out of the San Francisco Chronicle in August of 1998 and is now discolored with age – has been taped to the wall next to my desk for 25 years.
The reason this particular photo captured my heart is that, at the time, Shawon’s 5-year-old son Shawon Jr. – a Giants batboy – had been repeatedly asking after games, “Daddy, why don’t you hit home runs?” His father had always patiently replied that his career was winding down and he just wasn’t that kind of hitter. “Okay, Daddy, but why don’t you hit home runs?” Then on August 27, 1998, Shawon Dunston came into a game as a pinch hitter and swatted a three-run homer. His son, overcome with love and pride, couldn’t contain himself and ran out to the field to hug his father. That’s the photo on my wall.
Back at Nymeo Field, I was now starting to feel the thrill of possibility that Shawon Dunston could be sitting a few feet from me.
It’s rare that I’ve been really close to a professional ballplayer. My cousin Dennis Corti played at the AAA level for the New York Yankees back in the early sixties; he hit .294 with 12 homers in his last year (1964), but he was an outfielder and there was no way he was going to go very far with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris on the big-league roster. In 1966, our parents took us to Pacific Grove for a short vacation and at the hotel we ended up meeting Don Mossi, a Bay Area lefty who’d pitched for a number of MLB teams and had recently retired. Giants third baseman Matt Williams signed a ball for me in 1999 when I was volunteering to collect signatures for the soon-to-be new ballpark. And I got a photo with former Giants coach Bruce Bochy a few years ago when I met him at a charity event. But no words were spoken between us and he was not very friendly, to be honest.
Julie spent the last 15 minutes of the Frederick team’s exciting nailbiter of a game taking surreptitious photos of the mystery man at the end of our row – enlarging them, studying them, even analyzing his ring. She became convinced that it was Shawon. I wasn’t as sure, but I developed an ingenious and foolproof plan to ferret out his identity.
I would use my feminine wiles with Boomer and enlist his help without his ever realizing it.
It was clear that no one in our group would have the nerve to approach the stranger in our row and ask him who he was. But Boomer was obviously not shy. This big dude would help us – I just knew it.
When the game ended and Boomer was getting up to leave, I had to act immediately.
“Do you see that man sitting at the end of our row?” I asked him. “Do you think it could be Shawon Dunston?”
He looked over that way, interested.
“Do you mean the guy who played for the Cubs?”
“Yes,” I said (inwardly perturbed), “but more importantly, for the San Francisco Giants.”
“Well, I’ll go ask him.”
Boomer strolled over to the mystery man and I could hear him saying, “Those ladies over there were wondering if it was you.”
Holy cats, it was Shawon Dunston!
“It’s him, ladies!” Boomer bellowed over his shoulder as he left.
Wow. The guy who’s been on my wall for a quarter of a century was now sitting near me in a virtually empty stadium in Frederick, Maryland.
I had to act. Throwing restraint to the afternoon breeze, Julie and I walked over, and I told him that we were from San Francisco and that he was one of my most-loved Giants and I wanted to thank him for everything.
This man, as I might have expected, was so gracious and kind. He explained to us that his son – the little 5-year-old in my photo – was playing outfield for the opposing team, the Lancaster Barnstormers, but he’d hurt his hamstring in the first inning of the first game (which we had missed). He joked that he didn’t like his son’s long hair but that it had come “from his mother’s side.” I asked whether he was still advising the Giants, as he’d been a couple of years ago, but he said that he’d left in 2020 and was “a nobody” now. We told him that he most certainly was not a nobody.
I’m typically not a celebrity groupie or a “fangirl” type, but for the first time in my life I asked a stranger for a picture. He seemed thrilled to oblige.
By the way, I would like to add that the man is in incredible shape. I felt like I was putting my arm around a stone monument.
As we were walking out of the stadium afterwards, Boomer zipped out of the parking lot in his truck and honked. We waved wildly and yelled our thanks.
These days I often have to remind myself that serendipitous moments are possible even on the most ordinary of days. So although I may not be feeling 100 percent, or I may be wanting to just slouch lazily on the couch eating Funyuns, it’s better to simply get up and leave the house.
There’s always a chance for happenstance.
Quick note: my piece in The San Franciscan is finally online!
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
December 28, 1974 [age 19]:
“I picked up Jeanne [my friend who was visiting from the East Coast] at 12:30 at the airport in San Francisco and we left for our L.A. and Mexico vacation today. [We were in my old, tiny 1971 Toyota Corolla.] The trip was routine, save for a little rain, until we got to the Ridge Route [the 8,000-foot highway grade going from Kern County down into the L.A. basin]. Then it began to snow, and we had the brilliant idea of turning off to play in the snow. The exit, however, turned into a snowy mess, and we barely could move. Rather than get back on the Highway 5 on-ramp, Jeanne, who was driving, took the wrong road and we drove along parallel to the freeway but 100 yards away for half a mile, sliding in the snow. When we finally realized what was happening, we were isolated, alone, afraid, and unable to turn around. So we had to BACK down the road the half a mile, stalling every now and then. It was a nightmare. Back on the freeway we crawled along, and we learned that the CHP had closed the road down right after we’d gone through. But finally, driving in through flooded streets, we made it to Grammy’s house at 9:30. I’ll just never forget praying and shaking with fear on the Grapevine while we passed all those broken-down car corpses covered with snow.”
December 29, 1974 [age 19]:
“Yesterday we headed towards Mexico, settling down for two nights in the Motel 6 right on the border. Today we spent time first in Encinada [sic], walking around and buying liquor, then drove back up north, stopping for a walk on a beach. We parked in Tijuana so we could go into a bar (my first!) and drink margaritas. I had two (the second one was free, on the bartender) and then we drove off towards the border back into CA. Luckily we just looked innocent enough, I guess, to get past the customs inspectors, because the car in front of us had to pull over and open their trunk but we just had to answer a couple of questions. Thank goodness, because we were smuggling in 5 bottles of tequila and mezcal in the trunk.”
December 31, 1974 [age 19]:
“Of all of 1974 today had to be the most exhausting day. All morning and afternoon long we walked the entire length of the San Diego Zoo. Then at 5:00 [my friend Jeanne and] I drove to Anaheim, and the wind was blowing so violently that the Toyota swerved all over the road. We got to Disneyland and sat out in the parking lot drinking the mezcal from Mexico [it had a worm in it and tasted terrible!] until we ran into the Disneyland gates at 8:30 p.m. and had a great drunken time inside all night long going on the Matterhorn and the Haunted House and I loved the Pirates of the Caribbean that looked all purple and flowing through my hazy eyes.”
January 3, 1974 [age 19] [Ed.’s note: get out the violins again]:
“O you new year with your frightening implications. Why this black fear of life? [My friend] Jeanne and I are traveling on different roads. She likes meditation and I am skeptical, so she accuses me of not wanting to try new things. The past is falling away. Oh, it is terrible. I am alone. I want to be a writer and it’s such a useless dream. I have no direction. My personality twists within but never reaches the surface. How could I have been so naïve as to think that my friendship with Jeanne would never end? She is in love with Steve and ready to begin her happy new life with him in South Carolina. It’s really agonizing for me, and I’ve been bitter and cold. I should understand that she simply cannot continue dragging her life in the California mud. She has to settle down with her man. I’ve got to say goodbye for her sake. Her happiness is much more important than my sense of loss. So I’m here shedding tears for something lost and gone.”
January 4, 1974 [age 19]:
“[My friend] Jeanne and I drove home up the coast today, a gorgeous drive along 101 in our t-shirts, while we listened to The Band on my cassettes. It was warm and clear and we stopped to drive on Pismo Beach. I got to telling her about our Stations of the Cross ritual at St. Victor’s with all the incense that would make me so nauseated and I made it so funny that she laughed uproariously. After that we talked a fair amount, much more so than we had all week, about her love life with Steve and then about mine. Of course, I don’t have one. I tried to hint that my enigmatic relationship with Ted is more than platonic but of course it isn’t.”
January 5, 1975 [age 19]:
“The open road stretches before me now. I dropped [my friend] Jeanne off at the airport and she said that she would write and not break all of her California ties. I drove home alone not in utter sadness but in a dreamlike trance, watching the highway, knowing that this was the real culmination of my dependent existence, and that from now on a new life must begin: I must start making plans for the future, go back to school, leave home eventually, meet new people, tear myself away from the old. My new age has not dawned yet, but a red glow appears on the horizon. It won’t be long.”
January 11, 1975 [age 19]:
“I think I committed a felony today, which is pretty dumb since I’m majoring in law enforcement. Jeanne wanted me to buy her a lid of dope and mail it to her back East. I really didn’t want to do this at all; buying and carting dope around is a dirty and risky business. So I prayed that I would make it through safely. I called G– and he told me I could buy a lid from him for $15. I drove out to his house, gulping and shaking all the way, and bought the contraband. It was a small rectangle of stuff wrapped in thin Saran Wrap, about 5” by 2” or so. I had never seen a lid before. I put it in my spare tire compartment and drove home with EXTREME caution. Later, when the parents were gone, it turned out that disguising and wrapping was a problem. G– had given me the idea of taking a leg off a doll, so I went out and bought a $2 doll, but I discovered that the opening wasn’t quite big enough when, to my horror, it began spilling out on [my brother] Marc’s bed. Then I looked around my room for a suitable container and my eyes fell upon a can of tennis balls, so I emptied it, wrapped the dope in foil and put it in, stuck a tennis ball on top, shut the can, lay it in some straw inside a box, put a note in, unsigned, sprayed Lysol all inside, sealed the box, wrapped it up with a pound of package sealing tape, addressed it, wrote ‘Happy Birthday!’ on it, put 70 cents’ worth of stamps on it, and mailed it myself from the postal substation at work. I think it’s foolproof.”
January 16, 1974 [age 19]:
“One day this week after [my teacher’s aide job at a local high] school, Nancy Schwalen, a teacher, was talking to me about our future trip to San Francisco and about nightlife there and drinking and she suddenly asked, “Well, how old ARE you?” and I said nineteen and she said, “It’s funny, but I have a sister who’s your age and a freshman in college and you seem so much . . . .” and I KNEW she was going to say “younger.” All my life I’ve had this feeling that I’m socially very inept, very young. It’s a terrible insecurity. If only I were to be myself rather than talk embarrassedly to hide something. So I’ll work on it, on being as natural and as open as I can. But I still worry so desperately, about not keeping pace with my comrades, about being a little child forevermore. “ . . . . Older,” she said.
And no, I’m not talking about drinking excessively, although I’m not one to rule that out.
I’m talking about my personal rule when it comes to new experiences. For example, let’s say I’m going to see a concert. And let’s randomly say it’s Springsteen. If I wanted to, I could go online and pull up the setlists from every show on the current tour. I could find out about all the surprises so far, all the old chestnuts he’s been grabbing from his back pocket. And if I were to dig a bit further, I could read about the killer solos, Bruce’s hilarious stories, and what bandana colors Little Steven wore.
But I don’t want to know these things in advance, because then there is no element of surprise, and thus less of a chance for joy.
So I declare an “information blackout.” I do no research, and I allow no one to tell me about anything remotely related to the experience.
That’s because I want that mind-blowing, sudden rush of adrenaline made possible only by the unexpected.
I fully acknowledge the benefits the Internet has brought. Health and medical information at our fingertips, for example. I can now dash online and find out what fatal illness I’ve contracted when the tiniest inkling of a symptom shows up. And I can find a support group.
Nevertheless, I think the ability to know everything has robbed us of the joy of discovery. Of surprise. Of astonishment.
In 1980 I set off with a girlfriend in a ’67 VW bus that she had converted to an RV. (Well, an RV with zero amenities.) Neither of us had driven to other states before, and our goal was to cover the entire country by car, mostly by camping out. We had neither cell phones nor navigation systems. All we had were paper maps. We had no idea what we would find, and little idea what the rest of the country even looked like. Every day was a discovery. We befriended strangers, tried new foods, stumbled onto beautiful parks, heard new accents, completely immersed ourselves in different ways of living, and followed uncharted roads – all with no planning.
Is that possible today? It is, in theory, but no one would do it. Instead we sit for hours at our phones or computers, planning out each move, checking Yelp or TripAdvisor to ensure that our experiences will be “five-star.”
Of course, the problem with uber-planned experiences is that they don’t bring joy. Either they’re a disappointment or they merely live up to our expectations. Very little exceeds our expectations.
In the old days, discovering music and artists was possible in one of two ways. Typically, we would hear new stuff on the radio (limited to a handful of Top 40 AM stations and, later, a few savvy DJs on FM stations). It was out of our control, of course; we were at the mercy of what the DJs played and, if we had a favorite song, we had to be lucky enough to be tuned into the right station at the right time to hear it. I remember loving “The Sound of Silence” and feeling ecstatic when I happened to catch it on the radio. Those first few notes and – whoosh – a shot of adrenaline.
Or, if we hankered for something new, we could buy a record and take our chances. Because I had limited funds in those days, I shopped mainly at used record stores. My favorite record haunt in San Jose would slap a colored sticker on each record to denote the condition of the album. I would gently remove the LP from the sleeve, hold it up to the light, squint, and look carefully for scratches or pits. Most of the time my method worked. I’d bring the record home, set the needle down into the grooves, and listen to a dozen new songs with tremendous anticipation. Usually at least one would bring me great joy, but if I was lucky, it would be an entire album.
Getting tickets to a concert used to be a feat of endurance, patience, and ingenuity. Pre-Internet, there were essentially two choices: you could use your phone to repeatedly dial TicketMaster (or BASS or whoever your local ticket broker was) and hope that you’d be lucky enough to get through. It worked a couple of times for me but ultimately it became nearly impossible.
The other option was the most reliable: you’d line up. Hours in advance. Perhaps a day in advance. I’d join a line of die-hards in the frigid San Francisco dawn and hope that the tickets wouldn’t run out before I made it to the counter. It was a crapshoot. My legs would ache. My closest nail-biter was the time I waited in line at the Record Factory for Springsteen tickets in September 1980. In those days, BASS (Bay Area Seating Service) sold concert tickets in person at record stores. Three of us got in line in the morning, behind only about 20 people, but the machines were so slow that my two companions left me sometime during the day and I was still there at 5:15 p.m. Beyond my aching legs, the greater problem was that the BASS computers in those days shut down at 5:25 p.m. on the dot. Everyone knew that tickets were running out any minute, and the line could be cut off right in our faces. The people behind me were really vocal and getting obnoxious, trying to physically insinuate themselves ahead of me. But I was not about to let that happen and held my ground with some well-placed elbows. And as karma would have it, I was the very last person to get tickets. Behind the stage. At 5:23.
(I don’t exaggerate. It’s in my diary.)
I was ecstatic. Getting tickets was a crapshoot, and I’d won.
“This is bullshit!” one of the scorned women behind me screamed. “We should have gotten those tickets! We’re FROM NEW JERSEY!”
I kind of got her point.
That old process may have been brutal, but it separated the true fans from the rest of the plebes. Now a guy with a keyboard or a screen can casually sit at home eating a hoagie while buying tickets for a show he may or may not decide to attend. After all, he can always scalp them. And it’s just easier to sit on the couch. After all, the show will stream online somewhere, right?
People don’t call each other on the phone much nowadays, and when they do, they often text each other first and make a “date” for the call. There is just zero spontaneity anymore. Imagine growing up the way I did, when the phone rang and we had no idea who was on the other end of the line. Yes, it could be a huge disappointment to lift up that receiver, but much of the time it was a lovely surprise.
In the late seventies, long before there were personal cell phones, I was visiting my grandparents in southern California and absolutely obsessing about a girl I’d just met in San Francisco. Someone who would turn out to be my first love, although I didn’t know that at the time. I was dying to talk to her, but of course I couldn’t place a call from my grandparents’ phone, which was on a desk in their kitchen. So, with a pocketful of as many quarters as I could scrounge, I peeled off in my ’71 Corolla with an excuse I can’t remember. It was winter, and the rain was pounding. I drove around the dark wet L.A. streets until I found a phone booth, pulled over, and ran through the rain giddily to the booth. I had no idea whether she would be home, but my heart was screaming with hope. I was cold and soaked and that only made it sweeter. And decidedly more romantic.
Thrill. Avalanche of adrenaline.
Before all of us had Internet access, places like restaurants got their reputations primarily through word of mouth. There were exquisite little neighborhood spots that were known mainly to people in the ’hood because people all over the country weren’t Googling “artisanal tapas places” and taking over local joints to the detriment of the actual locals.
The same was true with attractions like national parks. You couldn’t make reservations in advance (there was no such thing) and had to make the effort to travel to different places and scope them out on your own. Effort and risk. Maybe a particular trail was a bust, or just maybe it led to the most gorgeous, solitary view you’d ever seen in your life.
But times have changed. A woman named Andrea Howe tweeted recently: “At Disneyland with the family and probably 50% of toddlers are strapped in their strollers on iPads or phones. At Disneyland. We are so screwed.”
I walk my dog Buster every day and pass scores of other dog walkers in the neighborhood. To my dismay, I’ve noted that about 90 percent of the people are staring down at their phones. Nevermind that they’re completely ignoring their pets, who could be meandering through foxtails, stepping in gopher holes, or ingesting something unimaginable. These people are also missing out on the world around them. On one of my walks a few years ago I found myself peering through an iron gate and exclaiming to Buster (yes, I do that!) about the beautiful gardens that lay behind the gate. It looked like Eden in there. Just then, one of the residents came up behind me and trustingly let us in. On the grounds was a Christian Science retirement home, and I ended up befriending the resident, Joanne, with whom I had lunch on more than one occasion. (By the way, those Christian Scientists go all out in their retirement facilities and their meals are incredible!) She was a sculptor from New York, full of gritty metropolitan stories, and I’ll never forget that serendipitous moment we met.
On another dog-walk last year, I met a man who’d written a book about Abraham Lincoln. We had a long chat and he insisted that I wait while he zipped inside to retrieve a copy before sending me off with it! Julie couldn’t understand how I walked out the door with a dog and came back hefting a book about Lincoln.
When I’m not meeting local characters, I’m happy to check out old houses, say good morning to my neighbors, smell the food and coffee up on West Portal, and take in the ocean view.
Cell phone not required.
The Chronicle recently ran a story about how Major League Baseball was taking a look at “augmented reality.” Fans at the ballpark could hold their phones in front of their faces – while the game was going on! – and their screens would overlay the action with stats and diagrams showing trajectories, launch angles, velocities, fielders’ ability to cover ground in a certain amount of time, and other bits of information completely unnecessary to the appreciation of baseball. The league execs didn’t think that youngsters could appreciate the beautiful and delicate balance of the game without augmentation.
I hope it’s a long time before this abomination comes to fruition. Never mind that micro stats don’t enhance real fans’ appreciation of baseball one iota. More importantly, what about the senses? The crack of the bat, the umpire’s call, the smell of a hotdog, the first refreshing sip of a cold beer?
And how about the swift thrill of a great diving catch?
Again, I admit that knowledge at our fingertips can be helpful. For example, not long ago I drank a huge slug of Gatorade before I realized that a big slimy blob of something had slid down my throat. I was pretty sure it was mold, because the opened bottle had been on the counter for weeks. In a panic I rushed to the Internet, which reassured me that stomach acid would take care of it. Since I have enough stomach acid to dissolve heavy metals, I figured it would be okay.
That was a relief. Now, what would have happened in 1974? Well, perhaps the end result would have been the same. I would have panicked, Mom would have told me I’d be fine, and I would have just gone about my business, because there was no Internet to potentially convince me I was doomed!
I don’t think this is too far off topic, but I’ve read lately that young people aren’t having much sex anymore. And that was the case before the pandemic kept them physically apart. It’s just more engaging to be connected to their screens. Less effort. Less risk.
(I don’t understand it. Honestly, I always say that at the end of my life my one regret will be that I didn’t have more sex!)
Today’s kids also, apparently, care less about driving than my generation did. When I was young, we couldn’t wait to drive. It was all about freedom, yes. But it was also about the full engagement of the senses. The radio blaring, the windows down, the wheel in our hands, the smell of grass in the summertime.
And we never knew what was around the next bend.
Sitting on our butts in front of a screen doesn’t yield joy at all. The brain gets wrapped up in repetition and reward, and that fulfills us in some way.
Pulling ourselves away from our screens takes effort, doesn’t it? And it allows for chance, which means there is risk involved.
Risk and effort, I think, build character. Do we always need to get exactly what we want? And do we always need to know exactly what is coming our way?
Sometimes we actually have to work for the unexpected.
Because if we’re constantly connected, and constantly in front of a screen, then that, my friends, marks the end of happenstance.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
May 28, 1974 [age 18]:
“Today was rather a day of torture, for I believe I studied more than I have ever done in my life. We are having a final midterm in Drama tomorrow (I am a borderline B-/C+), and I have to read over seven plays, five essays, and my notes. The task was almost impossible. I studied from the moment I got home from school till the moment I went to work, than at work from 7:00 to 9:00, then for an hour on the phone with a friend, then until 11:30, when I plunged into sleep, and then I dragged myself out of bed at 5:00 this morning and studied until I had to get ready at 7:00. It was absolute murder. I kept getting all of Chekhov’s characters in the 3 plays we read all mixed up – all those Russian names, and everyone seems to be alike, representing work or degeneration or age or a love of the past or whatever. So then this morning what does he give us but a final unlike anything he had described, with no terms and no quotations but only a few relatively easy essays! I almost flipped! But I would rather have studied in vain than to have studied insufficiently. Then I whizzed over to my Speech class, looked at my current grade, decided I was too strongly an “A” to take the last quiz, and drove home happy.”
May 30, 1974 [age 18]:
“The times are strange. I’m in some sort of limbo now, intense schoolwork behind but fragments of studying still necessary now and then for my remaining finals. And when I am free of all this, what then? What will summer hold for me but more working at Rexall? Ha! We look for dreams, we in our eager youth. We await our long, romantic summers and the lovers who will come to us one day and carry off our hearts. We look for trains and blurring landscapes and new faces. And yet – I have so much to learn, so much naivete to conquer, so much more SAN JOSE to cope with.”
June 7, 1974 [age 18]:
“Carolyn called tonight, saying that she and her sister were going out to a movie, and would [my sister] Janine and I like to go? I drove – we had decided on ‘The Sting’ – and the movie was good but certainly didn’t deserve Best Picture. (I still vote for ‘American Graffiti.’) The funny thing is that while we were driving to the theater, Carolyn was showing me a ‘shortcut’ and only when I was about to turn onto an on-ramp did I realize that I was going onto the terribly crowded [Highway] 17, so I screamed ‘No! I can’t merge!’ and I stopped the car right on the on-ramp and got out and made Carolyn run into the driver’s seat so she could take over and do the merge.”
June 16, 1974 [age 18]:
“I managed to get enough courage today to ask the boss for a raise. After a long runaround he gave in and raised me 10 cents, so I am now making a mighty $2.00 per hour!” Two days later: “I had told Mr. Jordahl [my boss] some time ago that I’d love to fly ’cross-country this summer but my finances were holding me back. So today he turns to me and says, ‘Well, I figured out on my pocket calculator that if I give you $2.10 an hour this summer, that’ll be 92 extra dollars to fly back East with.’ So I stared, openmouthed, thanked him more than once, and came out with a 20-cent raise in two days!”
June 25, 1974 [age 18]: [Ed.’s note: And to think my career goal was to become a detective]
“I don’t know why I don’t notice things sometimes. There was a strange incident tonight as I sat at my desk. I noticed a most peculiar and obnoxious smell. But, true to form, I remained innocently oblivious, until Mom came in because she could smell the powerful odor. It turned out that something had gone wrong with my desk lamp, and two inches away from my face it had become so immensely hot inside that the base of the lamp had melted, sinking in on top, and burning my desk underneath. The whole family cannot believe how I could NOT have noticed it, TWO INCHES AWAY, and now I am paying for the consequences with a headache and nausea from the plastic fumes.”
June 27, 1974 [age 18]:
“I’ve realized that the terrible idea which has succeeded in filling me with so much anguish is the expectation of spending almost my life savings on a plane ticket in August. So, now I’ve decided to forget the possibility of such a trip, at least for the present (perhaps a golden opportunity will show up). So today I instead bought a most wonderful bodyshirt, completely to my expectations, white, long-sleeved, soft, with strawberries, and hopefully, as soon as I can find a pair, I’m going to get some long white pants and wear my new clean whiteness to see Cat Stevens.”
July 4, 1974 [age 18]:
“I made a hasty, wild decision to drive up to San Francisco alone today to ‘write.’ For the most part, I had a grand time, enraptured by the city I love so well for its magic. I should hopefully be able to express these feelings soon in my journal. The facts are these: Most of the day was spent ‘in search of’ something, because I don’t know my way around San Francisco yet, and I have a TRAGIC sense of direction. After finding a bathroom, I settled down to eat four pieces of Fish ’n’ Chips (I had wandered around the wharf for a long while, gazing at the fish and smelling their delicious, salty smells, but alas – they were too expensive) and read the newspaper to find out about any exciting events. I read that the composer of ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ would be performing in the Cannery, so I struck out for there because I HAD to see him. Afterwards I wandered some more, played pinball machines, went to Ghirardelli Square, and saw a cinematic show called ‘The San Francisco Experience,’ which didn’t inspire me at all except for the idea that the city was ‘indifferent to fate.’ I then decided to eat in Chinatown, but, after a nightmare of driving, unable to park, I left in frustration. Finally, I settled down for a few minutes in the park where Jeanne and Carl and I had sat years before, wrote a bit, and gazed out to sea.”
July 6, 1974 [age 18]:
“Whew, this weekend has been rather crazy. I went to the library this morning, the big one, in search of information about San Francisco for my notebook, then to the Pruneyard to see ‘Our Time,’ a depressing story about a girl who gets pregnant and then dies. Then home to eat fish ‘n’ chips, and to Church. Though I settled down for what I thought would be a quiet evening, Ted and Joe and Bruce appeared, and soon, after a futile search for a movie to see, we somehow decided to go to Santa Cruz. So at 9:00 at night we drove over the hill to the Boardwalk in our shirtsleeves. We spent all of our coins in the Arcade and I loved it. There was a warm breeze and I had a great talk with Ted and I felt like the whole beautiful world was mine. Unfortunately we had to be home by midnight for Bruce Otherwise, I would have liked to have done innumerable crazy things.”
July 11, 1974 [age 18]:
“I finished another piece of writing for my journal tonight (or this morning, rather) which put me into a happy state and kept me there for the rest of the day. A writer’s work is every bit as hard as Thomas Wolfe portrayed it to be. You sweat blood.”
July 27, 1974 [age 18]:
“I was [a bridesmaid] in Colleen’s wedding today. I had three thoughts before I went: I was 1) curious about how to wear a long dress, 2) dreading the dancing, and 3) totally eager to eat at the reception. But when the moment came I shook like a leaf, and heard later that my nervousness was quite apparent all during my walk down the aisle. Tom Gallo, practically an Adonis among men, in my opinion, was my escort.”
July 31, 1974 [age 18]:
“The law enforcement classes which I so desperately need are closed, and it will do me no good to maintain a partial schedule, since I will still be forced to go to school an extra semester. Therefore I have decided not to go to school next semester (or most likely for a year) but seek alternatives. I need to leave myself some time to catch up to the world, else I will be graduating at 20 without ever having lived at all. My dream is to go up to San Francisco, the place so dear to my heart, to live for a while. Mom was dubious about it, repeating that I was “making a mistake,” but Dad even offered suggestions on where I could work in San Jose. I would like to work for the phone company and be one of those collectors who drive around and get coins out of phone booths.”
On a beautiful May day in 1954, on an innocuous ballfield in Charleston, South Carolina, two Negro League professional baseball teams faced each other in a preseason game. It wasn’t a particularly big deal for the players. The dry infield dirt, as usual, crunched under their spikes. Gloves were oiled, rawhides roughed. But looking back now, it’s clear that that moment was definitely a big deal. Three of the players warming up on the field that day were women. They were the only women, in fact, to ever play professional baseball.
Mamie “Peanut” Johnson was pitching for the Indianapolis Clowns. Infielder Connie Morgan was on the bench. Toni Stone was up to bat for the Kansas City Monarchs. Johnson had been throwing a shutout until Stone stepped into the box and sliced a base hit to the outfield. But she took a careless lead on the next pitch and Johnson picked her off first. It was baseball as usual, but they were not the usual ballplayers.
They were the girls of summer.
Baseball as usual, of course, has disappeared for now, and we don’t know when it will return. I’d been planning on writing about these three women for nearly two years, but I backed off when I learned that a play about Toni Stone was due to open in San Francisco this March. Frankly, I was incensed that the theater company had stolen my idea.
Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, the live production of Toni Stone didn’t happen. Yet perhaps now, more than ever, we need stories like these. You do not have to be a sports fan. This story is about much more than that. It’s about sexism, racism, talent, and guts.
From her earliest days in Saint Paul’s Rondo neighborhood, where most of the Twin Cities’ black population lived, Marcenia Lyle “Toni” Stone had an absolute obsession for baseball. She thought of nothing else, dreamt of nothing else. “Whenever summer would come around [and] the bats would start popping, I’d go crazy,” she said. But it was the 1930s, and her parents thought it was unnatural and unseemly for a girl to be crazy about a “boys’ game.” On top of that, Toni wasn’t at all interested in makeup or dresses or boys or any of the girlie fascinations that were thought to be “normal.” Everyone called her “Tomboy Stone,” and it was not necessarily a flattering moniker. Still, no one could deny that she was the best athlete, of any gender, in the neighborhood.
Stone started out playing in a summer Catholic boys’ league because a priest named Father Keefe needed someone to beef up his church’s ballclub. She then joined her high school softball team but quit after a year because the pace was too slow. But one spring day in 1936, at the age of 14, she stopped at a local park to watch a bunch of young white ballplayers coached by a man named Gabby Street, who had once played for the San Francisco Seals and the Washington Senators and who was then managing the minor league Saint Paul Saints. On that particular day, he was running a baseball camp for white boys in the area. Toni desperately wanted to play, and she was unaware of the fact that her race and gender were two strikes against her. Two strikes meant nothing to her anyway. So she began a campaign of relentlessly haranguing Street so that he would allow her to prove her skills.
Although Stone didn’t know it at the time, Gabby Street was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The group’s activities had begun to wane nationally, however, and the last Klan meeting in Minnesota had been held seven years earlier. Street began to wear down. “I just couldn’t get rid of her until I gave her a chance,” he said later. “Every time I chased her away, she would go around the corner and come back to plague me again.” Second base was her preferred position, so he asked her to field grounders and hit a few balls. And he was more than impressed. A few days later, on her 15th birthday, he bought her a pair of baseball shoes, and she thought it was a miracle. She had never owned anything “official” like that. He also allowed her into the baseball camp. Those white boys couldn’t believe their eyes when a black girl walked onto the field.
But she quickly proved her mettle.
Although Toni was not a good student in high school, she became an astute student of baseball in that camp. The game is packed with more nuance than those who don’t follow it could ever imagine. Under Gabby Street’s coaching she also honed her athletic abilities and learned the more intricate skills, to the extent that she was asked to join a few summer barnstorming teams of amateur African-American ballplayers. In addition to her comfortable position at second base, she’d play center field on those teams and sometimes even take the mound to pitch.
Barnstorming teams typically were based in cities that had no major league teams, and they spent much of their time on the road. (Note: The Minnesota Twins, formerly the Washington Senators, did not move to Minnesota until the 1961 season.) Keep in mind that in that day and age, being on the road for Toni and her teammates was not all fun and games. On one of Toni’s trips to Bloomer, Wisconsin, with her Twin City Colored Giants playing a white team, the man announcing the lineups blithely declared over the loudspeaker, “And now the starting lineup for the niggers.”
After dropping out of high school at the age of 19, Toni left her barnstorming Minnesota teammates behind and hopped on a bus headed for California, to see “what was over there on the other side of the fence.” Her sister Bunny lived in San Francisco, where men and women of all races had come to work in the shipyards. It was 1943, and the war effort was increasing. Toni had no idea where Bunny lived, and depending on when she would later re-tell the story, she had somewhere between 53 cents and $7 in her pocket. Her belongings consisted of a few items of clothing, her Goodwill baseball glove, and the cleats given to her by Gabby Street. To find her sister, the only thing she could do was comb the city’s streets. Incredibly, a few days after she arrived she was walking down a random alley when Bunny happened to look out the window and spotted her!
As I’ve written before, San Francisco is a mix of cultures, with so much to offer that any marginalized person can come here and find identity and acceptance. That happened to Toni. “I love my San Francisco,” she once said. “I had my hardships there. But they treated me right. Old San Francisco folks taken me over.” She had long had a passion for jazz, and the city’s Fillmore District was alive with it. She would hang out in Jack’s Tavern there, not only listening to the music but engaging in conversation with people more worldly than those she had known in her neighborhood back in Saint Paul. It was there that she would meet Aurelious Pescia Alberga, the much-older man whom she would eventually marry. He and the owner of Jack’s got Toni a spot on a local American Legion baseball team. Needless to say, she was the only woman on the squad. The team was part of a junior league, which required its players to be 17 or younger. It was now 1948, and Toni was 27 years old, so she decided to “change” her age by subtracting 10 years from it. It got her onto the team, but it also was the genesis of a long lie, and in years to come her fake youth would create unrealistic expectations and prove to be more of a hindrance than anything else.
Ultimately Toni found a place to live in Oakland through a priest at St. Benedict’s (because of Father Keefe, she would always have a soft spot for the Catholic Church). And she wrangled a job at Foster’s Cafeteria in the Fillmore District, although she would soon need more money and would end up doing physical labor down on the docks.
The next year, Stone was recruited by the San Francisco Sea Lions, a black barnstorming team that traveled throughout the country. (Note: The San Francisco Seals, part of the Pacific Coast League, did not include any black players.) She played second base and hit leadoff. Virtually no records were kept of those games, so no stats are available for me to quote. We do know that at some point Toni discovered that she was being paid less than her teammates, so she joined the New Orleans Creoles when they presented a better offer – which would indicate that her play was impressive. The Creoles went 44-8.
Better records are available for 1950, and by the middle of the season Toni was batting close to .300 for the Creoles. Meanwhile, she continued to fib about her age. She was a 29-year-old posing as a teenager. But she still had guts like no one had seen before. During one game in Iowa, a double-play throw from her third baseman ripped its way through her weakly made glove and knocked her out cold. Her teammates stood around pouring water on her (I’m not sure how that “treatment” was supposed to help), and when she regained consciousness she immediately stood straight up and screamed “Let’s go!” It stunned the crowd.
It was after the 1950 season, though, that Toni did a more audacious thing. She went and got married to the 67-year-old Aurelious Alberga.
No one really knew why she did it. In the first place, she had never had a boyfriend, had seemingly no interest in sex, walked around in men’s clothes, and, frankly, had been considered by many to be a lesbian. Yet her marriage to Alberga, in whatever form it took (they had separate bedrooms from the start), would last until his death.
Alberga was a well-known black social and political leader, and he provided stability and financial resources to the couple. But for a while, at least, he resisted the idea of her playing baseball, so she sat out for about a year and concentrated on home repairs and domestic chores.
Meanwhile, she was dying to get back to the diamond. During her hiatus she wrote to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League – the one featured in the film A League of Their Own – but it was not only “all-American” but also all-white, and she never received a reply.
By 1953, some of the Negro League players had joined Major League Baseball (MLB), which had integrated six years earlier, and few Negro League teams remained solvent. But half a dozen were still in existence, including the Kansas City Monarchs and the Indianapolis Clowns, who had won the 1951 league championship. The Clowns’ young shortstop, Henry Aaron, had left for the Boston Braves in the middle of 1952, and they needed infielders. The players were well aware of Stone’s play with the barnstorming Creoles, when her powerful arm, her defensive abilities, and her speed (she’d been able to run the 100 in 11 seconds) had impressed them. So she was offered a spot in the Clowns lineup for the 1953 season and joined them for spring training that year. The owner did try to convince her to wear short skirts on the field, but she threatened to quit and he relented. I mean, seriously, who can effectively slide in a skirt??
At this point, don’t forget, everyone assumed that Toni was 21 years old, and they also assumed that she could move like a dancer and run like the wind. But she was a full decade older than that and edging past her prime.
After only two days of practice (the extent of “spring training,” in those days, for the Negro League) and a month of preseason games, Toni Stone officially played her first game as starting second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns on May 15, 1953. She was 31 years old. As she took the field against the Kansas City Monarchs in Beaumont, Texas, she earned her place in history.
She was the first woman to ever play professional big-league baseball.
Just a few words, at this point, about the Negro Leagues. They were not minor leagues; they were not repositories for lesser talents. They were the beginning of organized professional baseball for black (and Hispanic, by the way) athletes who were not yet allowed into Major League Baseball. That would not happen until 1947, when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, and Willie Mays were some of the former Negro League players to follow Robinson into the majors and ultimately into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Negro Leagues lasted for 40 years, but they started to wane significantly once MLB began attracting their best players. The owners typically weren’t compensated for the departure of their superstars, and many of the teams went bankrupt. By 1960 they were defunct. The loss was bittersweet, because the Negro Leagues had helped spur economic growth in black communities and helped provide a sense of social cohesion among people of color. Their passing was greatly mourned.
This year we celebrate their 100th anniversary. It was in February 1920 that Andrew “Rube” Foster – owner-manager of the Chicago American Giants – convened a meeting with the owners of seven other independent black baseball teams to form the Negro National League. For true baseball fans and also for historians, it’s a really big deal. In fact, on June 27, 2020, all MLB players, coaches, and umps are (were?) slated to wear a Negro Leagues logo on their jersey. A host of other celebrations have been planned as well. The nature of those commemorations, however, remains to be seen.
A little more than halfway through that ’53 season when Toni Stone made history, her Indianapolis Clowns were in last place, despite Toni’s .364 average – fourth in the league. (Ernie Banks, by the way, was in second place.) Still, the team ranked first in attendance among all the Negro League teams – due almost exclusively to the presence of Stone, most observers agree. By season’s end, though, her batting average had dropped to .243, and almost all of her hits were singles.
It gave her cause for worry, especially because at that point a couple of other women were about to join the team.
Mamie Johnson was living with her grandmother in Ridgeway, South Carolina, when she first started playing ball in corner lots as a little girl. According to Michelle Green’s book A Strong Right Arm, a “pie plate was first, the broken piece of flower pot was second, and the large root about three feet from the lilac bush was third.” Home plate was the “smooth white lid of a five-gallon bucket of King Cane sugar,” the sweetest in the South. The “baseball” was a bunch of tape wrapped around a rock. And Mamie could throw that thing, powerful and smooth. She had a fastball, a change-up, and even a knuckleball, and the neighborhood boys had a tough time connecting with her pitches.
When Mamie’s grandmother died in 1945, it was decided that Mamie would move in with an aunt and uncle in Long Branch, New Jersey. She was about 10 years old, and it was not a popular move with her. Not only did she miss the sweet southern air, but there was no baseball at the school she had to attend. It was just softball, and she hated it and refused to play. The ball was way too big, and the pitching was underhand. Sissified blasphemy! But she had gumption, and one day she passed by a field on which a bunch of kids were playing baseball. All boys, of course. And all white. (Sound like a familiar story?) Although told she couldn’t play, Mamie noted that the team was sponsored by the Long Branch Police Athletic League and she hustled right on down to the police station to ask the officers – repeatedly – about whether local laws prohibited a girl from playing baseball. Eventually she wore everyone down and was allowed onto the team, which ended up winning the division championship two years in a row.
For a couple of years Johnson played for other sandlot teams, as well as for an all-black semi-pro club. Like Toni Stone, she also got wind of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, and in her case she actually took a bus with a friend all the way down into Virginia to try out for the team. Once they arrived, though, exhausted but ready to play, they were told that no “colored girls” were allowed.
In 1953, when Johnson was playing for a sandlot team, a man in a pinstripe suit who’d been watching their games for three weeks came up to her after he’d witnessed her strike out a series of batters with a particularly voracious fastball. (By the way, she was about 5’2” and weighed 92 pounds.) His name was Bish Tyson, and he was a former Negro League ballplayer and now an unofficial scout. He told her that the Indianapolis Clowns, a Negro League team, would be coming to town for some pre-season exhibition games and would be looking for new players. He was taking a gamble on her; after all, she had no high-level experience on the playing field and no exposure to skilled coaching.
When she arrived at the field in September for what she thought were widespread tryouts, she discovered that the only person trying out was her! She also noted that the Clowns had another female playing for them – second baseman Toni Stone. Mamie did well in the batter’s box and threw to some great hitters that day, and right there on the spot they signed her. She’d be allowed to play in postseason barnstorming games throughout the fall and then would join the permanent roster the following season. Johnson quickly quit her job selling ice cream and boarded the Clowns’ bus, without getting a lick of input (or approval) from her husband. “It didn’t make any difference because I was going to play anyway,” she said.
By 1954 Johnson was in the regular pitching rotation and took the mound about every six days. Her curveball came to her when, in Kansas City, the legendary pitcher Satchel Paige complimented her throwing arm. He was retired from MLB and back to playing in the Negro Leagues with the Monarchs. He told her to stop squeezing the ball as tightly and showed her his curveball. Allegedly. Years later, at a conference about the Negro Leagues, Mamie corrected the story. “He didn’t teach me how to throw it, he taught me how to perfect it,” she said. “I knew how to throw it.”
One day she faced hard-hitting Hank Baylis, third baseman for the Monarchs. Baylis reportedly stepped out, turned around, and hollered to the fans, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her!” She reached back, uncorked her fastball, and struck him out. “Call me Peanut,” she yelled back at him. From that point on she was Peanut Johnson.
At the end of 1953 the Clowns were also starting to look at Connie Morgan, who would be a more direct threat to Toni Stone because Morgan, too, played second base. Toni started to see the writing on the wall. Peanut Johnson and Connie Morgan – two 19-year-olds – were both slated to be her teammates on the 1954 Clowns. Toni was in her thirties, and the decision had been made that only one female at a time would be in the lineup. To add insult to injury, owner Syd Pollock offered her $350 a month, which was less than the $400 a month she’d been paid the previous year. So she made the decision to sign with the Kansas City Monarchs, who offered her $400 a month and the possibility of a $200 year-end bonus.
Constance Enola (“Connie”) Morgan, born in 1935 in Philadelphia, had played five seasons with the all-girl North Philadelphia Honey Drippers, with whom she’d logged a .368 batting average. She’d read about Toni Stone and the Indianapolis Clowns in Ebony magazine and penned a letter directly to Syd Pollock, requesting a tryout. He obliged in October 1953, and she signed a two-year, $10,000 contract after impressing the team with her defensive skills at second base. She was right out of high school. She’d never had male teammates, and at that point most of her time on the field was spent behind the dish, at catcher. But she could play any position except pitcher, and she shared the same chutzpah and self-confidence that Stone and Johnson possessed.
We don’t know as much about Morgan as we do about the other women, but we do know that her defense was spectacular. She was only 5’4”, but she was strong, and manager Oscar Charleston – a Hall of Famer, and universally considered to be one of the greatest ballplayers of all time – said “her throws across the diamond rank on par with many major leaguers.”
So, what was life on the road like for Negro League players? The teams played almost every day for eight months, with two (and occasionally three!) games on Sundays. Unlike MLB ballplayers, who usually had days off for travel, Negro League players had no such luxury, often riding on a bus for up to 400 miles between games with no break. Syd Pollock meticulously recorded every conceivable kind of stat, and according to his publicity material, “The Clowns have traveled 2,110,000 miles. Once played in a town with a population of 476 and had 1,372 fans at the game. Largest crowd 41,127 in Detroit. Smallest 35 in Lubbock, TX during a tornado. Have had the same bus driver for 17 years, worn out three buses and 19 sets of tires.”
By the way, for bathroom breaks, the bus would stop so men who had to pee could just line up on the side of the road and do their thing. The women, of course, had to walk off into the woods or a culvert, often in the middle of the night.
While traveling in the South, the players had to drink only from certain water fountains and shop only in certain stores. Many of the gas stations were “Whites Only.” Restaurants below the Mason-Dixon line often provided no service to black customers, and much of the time those places were the only food establishments in the area. Once in a while the players would be allowed to go to a back window to pick up cold food. When white people were traveling with the team, sometimes they would pick up a load of food at “white” cafes and bring it back. But they had to be careful; servers had been known to spit into glasses of Coke being served to black people.
As for hotels, many refused rooms to black people, and it was often a scramble if schedules got changed. The Negro Travelers’ Green Book helped out when the team was traveling in the South. But for Toni, there was an added burden. It started when she was turned away at some of the hotels – the few who would serve African-Americans – because they assumed she was a hooker for the players. When the hotel owners pointed her in the direction of the nearest brothel, she found that the kindness of the ladies there was better than some of the everyday treatment she received from the outside world. The women not only provided her with a place to sleep but also fed her, laundered her uniform, gave her extra money, lent her a car, and often even attended her games. It was the prostitutes who always helped her out in life, she would say years after she’d left professional baseball.
One night after a game in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Toni’s rattletrap team bus caught on fire for no apparent reason. Almost all of the players’ belongings and equipment were lost, although Toni had managed to grab her glove before bailing out of the bus. No one, of course, immediately stopped to lend a hand. When a sheriff finally came by, he called his dispatcher. “Nothing serious,” he said. “Just a bus burning up with niggers on it.” Help didn’t arrive for two more hours.
The players knew they had to be infinitely careful about their behavior, especially in southern towns. The smallest of infractions –and sometimes no infraction at all – could get them jailed or killed. “Reckless eyeballing” was one of the ridiculous charges potentially facing a black man. Any white woman could accuse any black man of looking at her too long, and he could be put away. Coaches would tell rookies to “keep their heads down and their mouths shut.”
At ballparks in the South, black major leaguers usually were not allowed in clubhouses and were required to change clothes on the bus. Even more ridiculous – if that’s possible – black fans often had to completely leave the stadium to use a toilet!
Unlike today’s ballplayers, who sit out a game if they have a hangnail, the Negro League players had no physicians available and simply had to play through almost every conceivable injury or health condition outside of a coma. Players who got spiked, for example, would make paste from coal-stove soot, rub it on the (often very deep) wound, and lay a spider web on top of everything to protect the wound because there were no bandages available!
Toni Stone, in particular, was no stranger to being spiked, or to being hit by pitches. Many of the men in the league – including some on her own team – resented playing with or against a woman so much that they either ostracized her or blatantly tried to hurt her. Some teammates even threw to her directly in a baserunner’s path to make it easier for the opposing players to gash her with their metal cleats. She ended up with a lot of scars to prove it, although later she would shrug them off as being battle wounds.
Meanwhile, sportswriters were beginning to be more callous about the women in the league, considering them to be novelties and concerned that they were somehow emasculating the men and the sport. “It’s thrilling to have a woman in one’s arms, and a man has a right to promise the world to his beloved – just so long as that world doesn’t include the right to play baseball with men. . . . This could get to be a woman’s world with men just living in it!” screamed one such insecure writer.
After 1953, the league was on its last breaths.
Connie Morgan played only one full season with the Indianapolis Clowns. She never quite found her footing offensively, hitting only .178 with seven singles, a double, one stolen base, and one RBI in 45 at-bats.
Peanut Johnson hung on for a bit. She played for parts of three seasons with the Clowns and ended up with a dazzling win/loss pitching record of 33-8 and a batting average reported to be between .262 and .284.
The 1954 Monarchs season was not a good one for Toni, who was now 32 years old and 12 pounds over her typical playing weight. She was trying too hard, and her batting average never crossed what is now derogatorily called the Mendoza line (.200). As a result, her temper was closer to the surface. During one game she was called out by the ump on a pitch she thought was a ball, and the catcher yelled “pussy high” after the ball crossed the plate. Enraged, she leaped on the catcher’s back. She would later say that she didn’t know what made her the maddest: the call, the catcher’s vulgar and sexist remark, or the fact that manager Buck O’Neill loved retelling the story.
The Monarchs would come in last place.
Toni Stone retired at the end of the season. The owner gave her $400 for the month but refused to hand over her $200 year-end bonus. It wasn’t the money that mattered, though. “Not playing baseball hurt so damn bad,” she lamented, “I almost had a heart attack.”
After these three women left the game, no woman would ever play professional baseball again.
Toni had a hard time adjusting to life after Negro League baseball. She settled back into her home on Isabella Street in Oakland. Her mom and sister lived nearby, but she felt unmoored. She spent time alone with her mementos, reliving the glory days, and occasionally she took to drinking a bit too much. She was always suspicious of visitors claiming to be sympathetic reporters, who on more than one occasion stole her mementos. But she was also suspicious of bona fide reporters, who, she thought, would go to great lengths to make her seem more sophisticated, educated, or feminine than she really was.
In the 1960s, though, she emerged from her funk. She began playing rec baseball and coaching neighborhood teams. She attended Oakland A’s baseball games, sitting by herself behind home plate. In June of 1975, Stone threw out the first pitch at a Giants game. She also did work for local hospitals and served as an occasional home caregiver. When her ancient husband Alberga turned 100 years old in 1984, he asked Toni to give up playing recreational baseball, and finally she agreed. She was in her sixties. After he died at 103, she could often be seen riding her bike around Oakland.
Peanut Johnson earned a nursing degree, moved back to Washington, D.C., remarried twice, and had a 30-year career as a nurse. After retirement she managed the Negro League Baseball Shop in Maryland, which not only sold memorabilia but also taught the public about the historic nature of the Negro Leagues and about living during Jim Crow. It was impossible to get baseball out of her soul, and she remembered only the good times. When asked how she felt about her days in baseball, she would say, “Have you ever won a million dollars? Just to know I was good enough to be there was a tremendous thing for me. If they didn’t let me play, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I’m very proud of that.” She passed away on December 18, 2017, at the age of 82.
Connie Morgan went back to business school, graduated in 1955, and enjoyed a career that included working for the AFL-CIO, the largest union federation in the country. But her subsequent days working for a furrier aggravated her arthritis, and when she switched to driving school buses she developed kidney disease and had to retire at the age of 40. According to Martha Ackmann, Morgan “rarely talked about the Negro League. To many who saw her, she was just the lonely woman who sat for days by the window of her Federal Street row house with only the light of a flickering television set.” In 1995, she was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame, and the next year – after living with constant dialysis – she succumbed to her kidney problems at the age of 61. For years her grave at Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia was unmarked. A travesty. But in 2014 she was finally given a headstone through the Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project.
Incredibly, the Baseball Hall of Fame did not even officially recognize the Negro Leagues until August of 1991. Seventy-five former Negro League players were invited to Cooperstown that year, and Toni Stone was one of them. It was the second-happiest day of her life. The happiest, according to a tale she would oft repeat, was the day she got to hit against Satchel Paige during a barnstorming game. Paige loved to toy with batters by outright asking them, ahead of time, which pitch they’d prefer to see. He did the same for Toni. “It doesn’t matter which pitch,” she yelled back. “Just don’t hurt me!” Satchel had a lot of pitches in his bag o’ tricks: the bee ball, the two-hump blooper, and a raft of others. She didn’t even know which one he unleashed on her, but she smacked it over second base. Yes, that was the happiest day of her life.
Toni Stone Alberga died of heart failure in an Alameda nursing home on November 2, 1996. She was 75 years old.
A year later, a baseball field named for her was dedicated at the Dunning Sports Complex in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
The year Toni Stone died, Minnesota playwright Roger Niebor wrote a play entitled Tomboy Stone that had a brief run at the Great American History Theater in Saint Paul. “I suppose the number of women who could travel and play like that, discriminated on the basis of race and sex the whole time, would be few,” he said. “And to do it with the energy and intensity of Toni Stone evidenced the power and beauty of the human spirit and made me proud to know her.”
To “power and beauty” I would add “fearlessness.” Those women needed to be physically tough and to have no problem squatting in a dark culvert at night or playing through serious injuries with no medical attention. And they had to be courageous enough to suffer relentless racist and sexist taunts and all the other consequences of breaking barriers more than a decade before the Civil Rights Act was signed.
Finally, I would also add “dignity.” No matter what they faced, these women continued to live their lives with self-respect. And when they retired from the game, and their departures garnered no attention, they showed no traces of bitterness over the ways they were exploited by team owners. Even in later years, when they spoke of their reverence for the game and for their time in the big leagues, they never dwelt on the fear they lived with on the road, the inconveniences, the scorn.
They played with passion, these women. Passion got them through the tough times.
Like a lot of war veterans, Toni Stone “didn’t talk too much about her baseball life,” said her niece, Maria Barlow. “But she was the first woman to do a lot of things. She wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but she knew that she wanted more in life and she was fighting for it. She stood up to people, like the white owner, and fought for her pay. She stood up for herself. I saw the letters that she wrote. And she did it all by herself. She didn’t have anyone helping her or clearing the path for her. My aunt was one of the strongest women I’ve ever known.”
All three are gone now. But they represented the best of America. And for a brief moment in time, they were our girls of summer.
Note: Much of the information in this piece was taken from the beautifully researched Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann and from A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
7/24/72 [age 16]:
“I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I have begun reading the Bible. Seriously, and completely. I have only gotten through Genesis. It is interesting reading, though sometimes the ‘Jason had two sons, Esau and Aron, and Aron had . . .’ and it continues for pages is boring. It may take me a year or two to read it, but I want to conquer it, just as I conquered ‘Leaves of Grass’ (of which I finally bought a copy, the cheapest paperback available, 95 cents).”
8/5/72 [age 16]:
“I rode [my bike] down to Confession tonight. Big deal, I missed Mass once. But I won’t miss it again. Hey, Auntie Jackie called yesterday and asked if I could fly down to her house [in southern CA]. I really want to go, and I love to fly, and I’ll be AWAY. But Mom and Dad are against it, and as yet they haven’t produced an answer. If they say no, I’ll croak!”
8/8/72 [age 16]:
“The [Santa Cruz] beach was awful today – it was completely cold and gray and overcast and there were absolutely no waves at all. No surf + no sun = no fun. (A Paula Bocciardi original – perhaps I should have it patented.) I didn’t even go in swimming, although I did wade a bit. Mom and Dad still haven’t given me an answer on the trip down south. They better hurry. If they don’t let me go, I will stay mad the rest of my life!”
8/10/72 [age 16]:
“It’s hard to believe that I got to come down South [to visit my relatives in southern CA] today. At 6:55 we took off from San Jose, and Grammy and Grampy picked me up in Burbank at 7:43. Fantastic, that plane ride! I mean, all by myself and it was so miraculous looking down on the earth. I was not afraid at all. I also love it down here. [My aunt] Jackie is a neat-type parent, and I like her way of life (except her house isn’t very clean). Today I was introduced to a new way of life. We drove down to [my aunt’s friend] Renee’s store. I met Renee – she’s a middle-aged hippie and owns a boutique shop and sells organic health foods. A friend of hers was in there, another free-spirit musician, playing his guitar and singing. The place smelled like a funny spice, which I can still smell, and was so hot I almost passed out. Also, I had one of her homemade organic fruit drinks and it nauseated me.”
8/14/72 [age 16]:
“I pulled one of my traditional ‘Paula Bocciardi the klutz’ tricks today. Dad had given me five dollars for this trip [to southern CA] along with the strange words ‘Don’t spend it’ (don’t ask what that’s supposed to mean) and [my cousins] Carla and Ronnie and I went down to a record store in Hollywood to get Andy Williams’ ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ for Carla. I stuck the bill in my pocket and – ack! – it had a hole in it. I LOST it! What will Dad say?”
8/15/72 [age 16]:
“Oh, wow, today was the best day of all. Grammy took [my aunt and cousins] Jackie, Kathy, Lisa, and me (Carla was too tired) to Magic Mountain in Valencia. I loved it. You pay $5 to get in, but after that ALL THE RIDES ARE FREE, yeah. I liked the log ride because there are two slopes that are straight down. And I also liked the bumper cars, because we met some guys (I swear they are all cute down here) and had a ‘war’ with them. From 8:00 to 8:45 we saw TRINI LOPEZ (free!). And Grammy saw GLEN CAMPBELL stroll by, and I’m sick because I didn’t see him. 1:00 to 11:00 – total time, 10 hours.”
9/9/72 [age 16]:
“Mom and Dad and [my visiting uncle and aunt] Fred and Jackie and [my cousin] Lisa and I went off to the Cannery and the wharf and Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. I’ve seen them a million times but I love San Francisco for its hilaric [sic] craziness. The city has a grand, majestic, mysterious beauty but the cars and the people and the streets – they’re all crazy. Two guys came near to blows in the middle of traffic and some girl who thought she was a witch was cursing some guys, and the musicians – it’s so crazy!!”
9/11/72 [age 16]:
“The very worst possible thing has happened. Dad mentioned tonight that we are going to Clear Lake this weekend. O, I did so want to make the most of this very last weekend before I start college! I don’t want to go to that horrid place I hate so dreadfully! Maybe if I play it straight and be calm and cool and good, something’ll happen. Please, God!!”
9/14/72 [age 16]:
“Today was a nothing day except I found out some wonderful news. We are not going to Clear Lake this weekend. I wanted everyone else to go and just let me stay at [our friends] the Rosaleses at night, but instead we are not going at all. Now I feel guilty. I don’t know if I should, since I HAVE put up with it for so often. Maybe it wasn’t wrong to ask – God heard my fervent, fervent prayer and granted it, so perhaps it’s okay. I don’t know. I can’t help but feel guilty, but my joy and relief right now overrules it. Yeah.”
9/15/72 [age 16]:
“The time for college is growing near, and I am no more emotionally prepared for it than I am sensible, and THAT’S not at ALL. My car pool situation is very confusing, which doesn’t cheer me up at all. My best friend and teacher and confidant is going away, and the thought of homework kills me. Only a few days left, and I am so scared. Oh, my aching heart.”
9/16/72 [age 16]:
“I went to see ‘On a Clear Day’ and ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers’ with Jeanne, and something a lady in the latter movie kept saying has been bothering me. She was always in a constant state of depression, and told Alan Arkin that he couldn’t be able to think of three kind, loving, decent human beings, and I’m wondering if humanity is all that bad. Who would my three be? [My cousin] Carla, Sister Kathleen Mary, and Abraham (my Bible hero). Linus and Charlie Brown aren’t real, and Christ is God. I don’t know if I could think of anyone else.”
There’s a moment, as you’re heading to a Giants game from the west side of town, when your Muni train rises out of the darkness of the Market Street tunnel and rumbles into the sunlight.
It’s a moment I always anticipate, but this time it was particularly meaningful.
Until recently I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get to the ballpark this year. Typically I attend all the Giants weekday afternoon games, but for the last six months I’ve been suffering from savage nerve pain. For those long months I felt as though my eyes had been burned raw from the inside out, preventing me from seeing one ounce of beauty in the world around me.
But as fall became winter and turned again into spring, slowly and almost imperceptibly I started to get better. The murky tunnel in which I’d been existing started to recede behind me. I could finally start to clutch the world around me and feel the sensations of each moment clearly. It was time to take in a ballgame.
When the T-Third Street train climbs out of the tunnel and onto the city’s surface streets, the sun emerges like a gift, and the vivid appearance of San Francisco’s people and textures makes you feel like you’re passing through the opening curtain of a sumptuous play.
It was a cloudless April afternoon. As our train poked its head out onto the Embarcadero, my very first sight was the magnificent, colorful “Cupid’s Span” sculpture sitting romantically on the shore, its red arrow partially drawn. Tourist boats and cargo ships went about their business. Scores of people strolled along the promenade towards the stadium, past the piers, past the palm trees, past the choppy waters of the bay. Most of them were dressed in orange and black, all of them hopeful and happy.
We got off near the main entrance to the ballpark. Our animated crossing guard was earnestly attentive to the elderly, and to parents with children. We all felt protected. Everyone was chatting. Our friend Mona remarked that just being there lifted her spirits. I said that it felt like we were about to enter the enchanting gates of Disneyland.
Once we got inside, Mona mentioned that it was our mutual friend Holly’s birthday. Holly was a fervent Giants fan who passed away from cancer 11 years ago at a much too young age. She was also a tequila lover, so we immediately determined that our very first order of business was to have some shots in her honor. Bellied up to the bar, we clinked a toast and Mona downed a shot of fancy tequila while Julie and I each slammed back a jigger of Maker’s Mark. Moments later, as we weaved our way along, Mona blurted out that man, she was really feeling that tequila. I suddenly realized that I was almost blind with liquor. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I kept yelling, laughing.
It had been a long time since I had quaffed a shot of booze. I felt like a swaggering buckaroo in a Nevada saloon. The day got warmer.
People who claim that the best seats are right behind home plate are not necessarily true baseball fans, especially at the Giants ballpark. I recently heard Mike Krukow, one of the team’s announcers, say that if he could sit anywhere he wanted, outside of the announcer’s booth, he would sit in the upper deck, first base side.
I agree, and that’s my chosen spot. It gives me a bird’s-eye view of the entire stadium, the huge fiberglass glove and Coke bottle behind the left field bleachers, the retired numbers of the greatest Giants ballplayers, and the World Series flags whipping in the wind. Beyond lies the bay, dabbed with sailboats. The dramatic white span of the Bay Bridge is visible east of Yerba Buena Island. And standing far in the distance are the gently rolling hills of the East Bay.
I always insist on grabbing my Sierra Nevada beer and my Crazy Crab Sandwich early so that I can be at my seat when the National Anthem is played. And yes, I know that my favorite sports meal usually involves a hot dog. But there’s nothing in San Francisco quite like crab and sourdough.
The bread, I believe, might be the best thing about the crab sandwiches at the ballpark. The Boudin sourdough is cut thinly and spread with a mixture of garlic, parsley, and butter. Inside lies the sweet, tender Dungeness crab, mixed with a hint of lemon juice and a light bit of mayo to keep it together. Ripe red tomato slices rest on top of the crab. The whole thing is then toasted to a golden brown and served hot. God help me!
We were at our seats on time. A school band from Healdsburg began playing the Anthem. Hand on heart, I looked to the right of the scoreboard, out in deep center field just behind Triples Alley. Yes, our flag was still there.
I thought about the past six months and the unrelenting nerve pain that had sizzled through my body. I thought about all of the times I had considered giving up completely. Who would care, I actually wondered at one point. But working against that desperation was a reserve of patience, strength, and will that I never knew I had. And when I was at my very lowest, the phone would often ring. That does it. A surprise phone call. A suggestion. A kind word. My beautiful friends and family. “I believe in you,” one of them said. “I believe in your ability to cope.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Our seats were in full sun. I felt safe. I’d left almost all of my pain behind me in the tunnel.
Our long-postponed road trip to Kentucky would be happening soon. The thought made me smile.
A cool breeze came in softly off the bay. A lone seagull flew white against the blue sky.
The players had taken the field.
I settled back and slowly brought my cup of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to my lips. Its hue was a vivid amber, its fragrance clean like the clear crisp water of the Cascades. I took my first baseball sip. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Due to popular demand, I am including, at the end of each blog post, the latest random diary entries that I’ve been posting on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday.” These are all taken absolutely verbatim from the lengthy diaries I kept between 1970 and 1987.
3/11/72 [age 16]:
“My cold is still fairly bad but I am up here at Azama’s and Moore’s cabin anyway. . . . Skiing [at Bear Valley] wasn’t really that fun. Until lunch we were mainly trying to stay on our feet. It takes really long to get up if you fall. I was really a klutz, and Mrs. Espinosa was a chicken, so we stayed on the beginner’s slope. Mrs. Moore kept on repeating, “Why did you fall?” It made me mad. Then I got so hungry I could eat a bear. Luckily, lunch was fantastic. They had made us delicious sandwiches and I ate five of them. Miss Azama told me that skiing uses a lot of energy and that’s why I ate five sandwiches. After lunch we watched the Celebrity Ski Race, and I snuck under the tape and got pictures of Clint Eastwood and Peter Graves up close! Unbelievable! In the morning they made us something called sourdough pancakes and I had 13 of them. They were fantastic.”
2/7/72 [age 16]:
“Last year I saw a skiing movie in English called ‘Ski the Outer Limits’ and it was so beautiful I was hooked right then and there. Well, Miss Azama and Mrs. Moore asked Colleen, me, and Marie Ehrling, our Swedish foreign exchange student, to go up to their cabin for a weekend in March. I can’t wait. They’re going to teach us to ski. It’s going to cost us $15. They said the first day is the worst. I may, with my great coordination, find myself wrapped around a tree.”
2/6/72 [age 16]:
“This guy named Jerry in my English class has this crush on me. But I’m not going to spread it around like I did with Jeff last year. Jerry is kind of a baby but he’s nice. He’s played basketball with me a lot after school. And he sits in English and throws paper wads at me. Romantic, huh?”
2/5/72 [age 16]:
“You see, I don’t believe in finals. All they do is test a bunch of facts.”
2/4/72 [age 16]:
“We went to see ‘Dirty Harry.’ It was [my brother] Marc’s and mine first ‘R’ movie and [my sister] Janine saw it. Can you believe that? When I was eleven I got to see really good movies, like ‘The Love Bug.’ ”
Well, how odd. That was the entire, precise Facebook message, including caps and exclamation points, that suddenly appeared on my new smartphone at 3:15 p.m. on October 3, 2014.
Now I just had to figure out why in the world my friend Mona, whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, had sent a message out of the blue shouting “son of a bitch!” at me without so much as a greeting or an explanation. How does one respond to such a thing? What did it mean?
Mona and I had gotten to know each other back in the 1980s, when she decided to sponsor my softball team. Other than my move to San Francisco in the 1970s, that team was the single most significant influence in my life. The lessons I learned, and the powerful friendships I made, informed my life’s course at a time when I most needed direction. And I have been blissfully bound in the mesh of those relationships, filament by filament, ever since.
As time went by, after Mona married and had a couple of children, we’d just naturally lost touch for a few years. She and I are very different in a million ways. She owned the first female-run network telecommunications company in the country and has been a serial entrepreneur ever since. She’s energetic, gregarious, and progressive. I’m more reticent and conservative, and I prefer the back of the stage rather than the front. She has a warm voice and a beautiful crinkly smile and she wears her feelings on her sleeve, while mine are often deeply concealed. But at our essence we’re both passionate and emotional, culturally similar. And as with all old friends, the bonds between us have abided.
Anyway, that October afternoon I was glued to the television watching a baseball game. When the “son of a bitch” message popped up, I’d been digging around in a wooden bowl for old maids. You know what they are – those partially popped kernels of popcorn at the bottom of the bowl that are so crunchy and satisfying. I’d just finished eating a sports meal, or at least my definition of one. A Paula Bocciardi sports meal consists of three items: a hot dog, popcorn, and a beer. I prefer Hebrew Nationals, Pop Secret Homestyle, and Sam Adams Boston Lager.
As I sat on the couch, crunching on the last of those old maids, I racked my brain for some kind of meaning to Mona’s expletive. At first I figured it was a mistake. Maybe she hadn’t meant to send it at all. And why no explanation? Did she really expect me to understand what she meant, especially since we hadn’t spoken in so long? It must have been meant for someone else. Maybe she was sitting in a boardroom somewhere, seething about something, and she’d fired off the message to the wrong person.
But then I started laughing. I figured it out. It was right in front of my eyes. I was watching game 1 of baseball’s Division Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals. The Giants were ahead 3-0 going into the 7th inning when coach Bruce Bochy pulled out starting pitcher Jake Peavy – who had a shutout going – and brought in the ever-erratic reliever Hunter Strickland, who allowed back-to-back homers by Bryce Harper (whom I loathe anyway) and Asdrubal Cabrera.
It was after the homer by Cabrera, when the score was suddenly 3-2, that Mona flew into a baseball rage and messaged me.
Assuming that my clever deduction was indeed correct, I messaged her back. The exchange was exactly this:
M: Son of a BITCH!!!
P: No kidding!! Plus I hate Bryce Harper.
M: Then I hate him too!
P: He’s an a-hole. On the plus side, I love Joe Panik. i just gotta first iPhone. This is fun!
M: Panic is a fun player to watch. Strong infield, I love Brandons!
P: I agree! Now we need to suffer through 6 outs. I need some bourbon.
The beauty of the whole thing was the fact that someone knew me well enough to correctly assume what I was doing at a particular moment in time. And to assume that I would know exactly what she was talking about, despite the years since we’d last talked. Within seconds we had effortlessly relinked ourselves. That kind of friendship is a precious gift.
I probably have hundreds of ballpark memories, but my most cherished are those that were shared with friends whose hearts beat with the same love of sports. In the first season the new Giants ballpark was open, tickets were nearly impossible to get, but my good friend Julie R. and I developed an elaborate scheme to score some seats, part of which involved my cozying up to a workmate whose boyfriend had season tickets. Armed with a couple of his unwanted seats, Julie and I went to our first day game at what is now AT&T Park on June 14, 2000. What made that day almost unrivaled in San Francisco history is that the temperature was 103 degrees. For San Francisco, that means you have practically entered the gates of Hell. (The average temperature for that date, by the way, is 69 degrees.) I would send an e-mail to my sister-in-law Lori later that night, telling her that it was 91 degrees inside the house at 9:00 p.m. (no one has air conditioning here). I also reported that I’d been reading Rolling Stone magazine that evening, and that the inks on the cover had melted in the heat and run all over my legs.
In any case, Julie R. and I were not to be deterred from seeing that game. We were intrepid sports fans and we were not going to let the heat get to us, even if we boiled to death. Our seats were, of course, in the blazing sun; they were very close to the field, along the third base line. We endured the conditions as long as we could, but after an hour and a half, with sweat cascading off of us, we decided that our hearts were racing dangerously fast and we needed to seek shade. Only when we turned around did we realize that no one else in the stadium was sitting in the sun. And I mean no one. It was 111 degrees on the field, we had heard, and I believe that we were possibly close to death at that point. Plus we hadn’t had a thing to eat; as Julie later said, “My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow.”
The fans, it seemed – at least, those who were still there – had crowded into any empty spots they could find in the shade. There was very little shade left for us, but we eventually managed to spot four seats under an overhang, and we quickly grabbed two of them. Shortly afterwards, however, along came the season-ticket seat owner. He was with only one companion, so we asked him if we could use his other two seats. It was then that we realized that he was drunk as a loon. He was stumbling and slurring, his zipper was half-down(!), and he declared that we could use his seats only if Julie R. gave him a hug! (She ended up being the one next to him, thank God.) So the typically reticent Julie had to close her eyes and reluctantly hug him. It was hard for me to control my laughter, and at the same time I was utterly relieved that he wasn’t sitting next to me. Anyway, whenever the Giants did something good, he would sort of put his arm around Julie, but she was sweating so much that he would then draw it back in revulsion. He did this repeatedly because he kept forgetting that he’d tried it earlier! Luckily, he left before the game was over and we were able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon baking in peace.
Whenever either of us recalls that game, we burst out laughing. It’s just a funny, funny memory that can never be replicated.
Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees at AT&T Park are, as one might expect, rare. In my estimation, the ballpark had to have been designed by a meteorological genius, because no matter how chilly and windy the San Francisco days and nights might be, inside the park it’s usually fairly temperate, as if you’ve entered another town altogether. The team’s former stadium, of course, was Candlestick Park, which was not so temperate and had a worldwide reputation for its blustery, howling winds. Longtime rumors have it that Giants pitcher Stu Miller was blown clear off the mound there during the 1961 All-Star game. Witnesses agree. Miller, though, claimed that he merely “waved like a tree” in the sudden gust.
In any case, my favorite Candlestick wind story was not Miller’s. My friend Erlinda and I were there for one of the rescheduled 1989 World Series games, and she told me about an acquaintance who had brought a little boy to the park for his very first game. When it was over, the boy gushed about what a great time he’d had, and she asked him what his favorite part of the game was.
“The flying napkins,” he answered.
Another only-in-San Francisco moment of a totally different nature came during a game in August of 2002. Barry Bonds hit his 600th homer that night. Julie S. and I were sitting in a good seat down the third-base line. A yo-yo sitting in the row on front of us, and slightly to the right, was constantly standing up and blocking my view of home plate. I could have stood up, too, but then I would have been obstructing the people behind me. It was very frustrating, and these two young guys beside me asked me if I could see. “Not at all,” I said glumly. They were peeved on my behalf. They shouted to the guy a polite request to please sit down, but he belligerently told them that he was going to do what he damned well pleased.
Their furious San Francisco response? “Well, that’s not very mature!!”
The next day, I ran the situation by my friend Carl – a Yankee fan and consummate New Yorker. I asked him what would have happened had a similar situation occurred at Yankee Stadium. His answer was that the scenario would have progressed thusly:
Man stands up and blocks people’s view.
Someone: “Down in front!”
Man does nothing.
Someone else: “Hey! Sit the f— down!”
Man does nothing.
A fight ensues and the man gets beat up.
The year after the ’89 earthquake, when many of my workmates and I were displaced from our damaged building, I somehow finagled a work situation in which I was allowed to edit manuscripts from home. (Remember, this was before the concept of telecommuting existed.) No one ever checked up on me, and I would steal away to Giants day games by myself at Candlestick. I was never caught, and in fact this is my first public confession of those crimes. (Honest as I was, though, I would always make up the hours and work late into the night after I got home.) I would walk two blocks to 19th Avenue and catch the 28 bus for its very circuitous route to Candlestick Park. (The bus schedule was dubious; I remember that one time the driver made us wait 20 minutes while he parked and bought something at a garage sale!) I shared the bus with five-foot-tall little old ladies from the Sunset, all of them wearing baseball caps adorned with pins marking some Giants event or another. They were hale and hearty and always undeterred by the Candlestick chill.
These days, I still go by myself go to all the Giants weekday afternoon games. I’m a loner, so that’s just fine with me. But sharing the games with others is so much better.
Last year, Mona treated me to a seat at the ballpark on Opening Day against the Dodgers. When Hunter Pence hit his grand slam, I believe I actually crawled up Mona’s arm. She paid me no mind. She also participated in one of my fantasy leagues last year, drafting an all-Latino team as her “strategy.” It was not a particularly successful strategy, but I wished I’d thought of it nevertheless.
My mother became a hardcore Giants fan in her later years, and I took her to a handful of games at AT&T Park, where she always insisted on having a glass of (bad) red wine with her crab sandwich on sourdough. She thought Brandon Crawford was a hunk. Those are some of my most beautiful memories.
During the 2012 playoffs, Mom was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, so we watched the Division Series together in her hospital room. When Buster Posey hit his grand slam against the Cincinnati Reds in game 5, we tried to maintain quiet and dignity so as not to disturb the other patients on the floor. Then we heard the whoops erupting from the other rooms and echoing along the hallways.
When the San Francisco Giants finally won the World Series in 2010, it was their first title since they’d arrived in the city in 1958. A lifelong fan, I wept for three days after that Series. My emotions partially sprang from the happiness I felt for the ragtag group of players who pulled off that improbable victory – especially for Andres Torres and Cody Ross, good-natured and grateful guys who had been put out to pasture until the Giants picked them up. But mostly I cried for the fulfillment of my 50 years of hope and longing.
That night Julie S. and I took the bus down to the Civic Center, where a celebration was brewing. All I could think of was the night the 49ers won their first Super Bowl in January of 1982. Cynthia and I had raced out of our 9th Avenue apartment into an exuberant crowd of celebrants. It was a spontaneous and delirious gathering. A young man – a stranger to both of us – suddenly swept Cynthia up in his arms and kissed her. We were all smiles; there was no harm or disrespect intended. The whole thing looked like that iconic World War II photo of the kissing strangers in Times Square – a sailor dipping a nurse and planting a joyful smooch on her when the news broke that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
But the Civic Center in 2010 wasn’t like that. It was mostly a bunch of drunken college girls who may or may not have had any idea how the game of baseball is even played. We came home quickly, dejected. But the next day I was listening to Gary Radnich, one of my favorite Bay Area sports show hosts, on the radio. And he launched into a speech about how the lingering euphoria in the air was most decidedly not for the youngsters. It was not for the bandwagoners. It was not for the casual fan. It was, he said, for the battle-scarred veterans.
It was for the little old ladies with the pins in their caps. And frankly, it was for me, too.
People wax poetic about baseball all the time, and they often talk about the concept of renewal. Spring Training is a metaphor for that. It’s a way for the team to rebuild and refresh itself, and for the fans to revive their sense of optimism for the coming months. Everything starts all over again. I look at friendship that way. Sometimes it waxes and sometimes it wanes, but it can always be renewed. The ties, they bind.
The Giants take the field at AT&T Park in just a few hours for their 2017 home opener. The ticket prices were just ridiculous, so Mona and I decided to go to a sports bar instead and watch the game from there. It’ll be the two of us, then, throwing back some Boston Lagers and cheering our way through a 3-hour ballgame, tethered gently by 30 years of friendship and the beautiful, delicate filaments of memory.
The World Series begins on Tuesday, and I for one cannot wait. For those of you who don’t follow sports very closely, it will involve two of the most storied teams in baseball: the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948. But Chicago’s drought beats that dubious record by decades: the Cubs have not been to the Series in 71 years and have not won it since 1908. That’s a 108-year deprivation.
For me, though, this historic Series will be slightly marred by one thing. One guy, actually. His name is “Marlins Man.” And I loathe him.
I first became aware of Marlins Man last year, when he showed up at the All-Star game in July. He was constantly on camera because he sat right behind home plate, and he was wearing an orange Miami Marlins sweatshirt and an orange visor.
Then he became a fixture during the playoffs and World Series, always sitting behind home plate, always wearing the ubiquitous Marlins outfit. (Mind you, the Marlins were not in the postseason at all.) Of course, all of the other fans were wearing the colors of the two teams involved. But not Marlins Man. He really stood out. He was a blazing beacon in orange.
It amazed and intrigued me that one guy could somehow score a ticket – right behind home plate – to every playoff and World Series game. (Well, not every playoff game, obviously, because sometimes multiple games occur simultaneously and he had to choose one.) How can that even happen? It’s not that these tickets are easy to come by. And the chances of getting a coveted seat in a particular section on camera must be very, very slim.
So I did some research on the guy.
His name is Laurence Leavy, he’s 60 years old, and he owns a big law firm in Miami. And it’s not just baseball games he attends. He’s also inhabited choice seats at the Kentucky Derby, the Super Bowl, the NBA finals, etc.
So how does Mr. Leavy score the tickets? Generally he gets them off of StubHub – a site on which season-ticket holders sell their unused tickets. He apparently has no problem getting them because, as he boasts, “people will sell them for good money.” He says the price he’s able to offer is equivalent to an entire year’s worth of seats. So we’re obviously talking YUUUUGE bucks.
I use StubHub myself. That’s where I buy my tickets to all of the Giants weekday afternoon games. I set myself a price limit of $20-$40, and I sit in the highest-level seats, in sections 312–314 because they’re near the escalator and Tony’s Slicehouse Pizza, which also happens to sell Sierra Nevada beer. Nirvana.
Marlins Man, obviously, is in a far different league. He’s unbelievably wealthy. During the 2003 World Series, he apparently bought an entire section of seats and brought 104 people to sit with him. There was nothing wrong with that, of course; the Marlins were actually in the Series that year, and I am not one to unilaterally demonize the rich. He did a generous thing, and wealth in the hands of good people can do immense good.
Why, then, does Marlins Man bother me so much? I’ve asked myself that question many times.
First of all, I hate that he wears the same outfit to every game he attends. The same orange Marlins sweatshirt, no matter the weather, the event, or the location. And I hate that he wears a visor, for cryin’ out loud. Why not wear a baseball cap, as everyone else does? Visors are for accountants, bookies, blackjack dealers, high-society Napa ladies, and golfers (not that there’s anything wrong with any of those people!). To make matters worse, he often wears the visor sideways, which really gripes my keister. It just looks ridiculous.
I hate, too, that he hardly ever watches the game. He’s either blathering to the fans around him or obsessed with his cell phone. Since he has no particular allegiance to either team involved, he doesn’t feel a burning need to focus on the game. In the ninth inning of Saturday night’s Cubs victory, for example, while the Chicago fans were at once nervous and weeping with joy, he was turned with his back to the camera, taking selfies. What a jerk.
I’m not the only one who takes issue with this guy. During last year’s World Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets, the Royals were royally miffed that he was there. They tried to bribe him with World Series paraphernalia if he would just jettison the *&^%$#@ orange sweatshirt. And they even offered to move him to a private suite. But he refused. After all, he’d paid $8,000 for his ticket. And he certainly was well within his rights to wear what he wanted and sit where he wanted. But still, it was almost a deliberate attempt to flaunt his power and show up the Royals fans. What a putz.
He also got into a beef with some Indians fans once, so this upcoming World Series should be interesting. After the incident (which is too unclear to recount), he actually engaged in a Twitter storm with Indians fans and somehow ended up tweeting something about the “Japs.” Lovely. What a bully.
It bothers me, too, that he feels he has to have seats directly behind home plate. In my view, those seats should go to diehard loyal fans. Instead, Marlins Man admits that he wants those seats so that he will be on camera for the entire game. If he fit in with the crowd, and didn’t make such an effort to call attention to himself, no one would notice him. But what a shameless publicity hog.
Of course, Marlin Man’s ability to get those seats also means that someone is willing to give them up. This is what really puzzles me. If I had a World Series ticket, and the Giants were playing, and I could be sitting a few feet behind Buster Posey, would I sell my ticket to this obnoxious dude from Florida? That hypothetical recently prompted a conversation between Julie and me. I asked her to imagine that she had such a ticket and that Marlins Man offered her money to give it up. How much dough would it take? I declared that for me, it would take half a million dollars. Julie said that she would sell out give up the ticket for $10,000. (I was aghast.)
Mostly, though, what bothers me about Marlins Man is that this one wealthy guy can have continuing access to the most coveted seats at the most significant sporting events in the country. There are people throughout this nation who would give their eye teeth to go to one of those games, but they can’t afford even the least expensive of regular-season games, which are now – like everything else – beyond the means of so many. The concept he represents is what most of us know to be true – that wealth equals power, and part of that power is the ability to have anything one wants and to wield control, however subtly, over the less wealthy in the process.
I’m sorry, dear readers, to have put this guy’s visage in your heads, because if you tune in to the World Series, he is going to haunt you. I guarantee that he will be at every World Series game starting Tuesday, sitting in his usual spot, and you will not be able to avoid his garish presence. I’ve been thinking about sticking a Post-It note on my TV screen over his vile head.
But keep in mind that you will be witnessing history. I cannot wait to watch these two great teams play for the greatest title in the greatest American sport. My heart lies with the Cubs, because of family and friends and that 108-year dry spell. But I will not be dismayed by a Cleveland victory if that happens. These are two honorable teams, each of them deserving.
And if your eyes should fall on Marlins Man, just avert them. This rich, orange, entitled, self-besotted, intimidating cretin of a media hog may lurk around for a little while longer. But come early November, when the contest is over, we will be rid of him. And what a relief that will be.
By the way, I would love to hear from my readers as to how much money they would be willing to take for a coveted ticket. Don’t limit this to the World Series. Imagine it’s a ticket to something you revere. It could be the Super Bowl, or the NBA finals, or Wimbledon. It could be front-row seats to see Streisand or Springsteen. Or a chance to ride with the Blue Angels. Just let me know how much lucre it would take for you to sell your soul!