Dad wrote for Sports Illustrated

Hand-me-down sports mania

Until his junior year of college, when he decided he needed to save the world, my dad wanted to be a sportswriter. His career began when he didn’t make the cut for his freshman basketball team at Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Hyde Park, New York. He got cut because, though he practiced for endless hours on outdoor courts and became the best shot in his neighborhood, he had trouble hitting layups during tryouts. And even on his best day, he couldn’t have played with the guys who eventually made the team.

In order to stay close to the game, he decided to write about it. His favorite sportswriter was Arnold Hano, who wrote occasionally for Sports Illustrated, but, more importantly, wrote biographies. In particular, a biography of my dad’s favorite ballplayer, Willie Mays. “He wrote one chapter entitled ‘The Catch,’” recalled Dad when I talked to him recently, “and another, ‘The Throw.’” Dad began reciting the details, taking obvious pleasure from repeating them, pulling them down off the shelf and showing them off, their glory undimmed.

Cleveland was heavily favored to win the 1954 World Series against Mays’s Giants. New York won in four straight, a fact Dad (and Hano) attributed to Mays’s spirit-breaking feat late in the first game at the Polo Grounds.

Cleveland first baseman Vic Wertz was at bat, a lefty who hit for power. Wertz drilled one deep into straight center field. At the crack of the bat, Mays turned and began sprinting for the centerfield wall — “like a football player going deep for a pass.” He looked straight ahead as he ran, which meant he took his eye off the ball; this spells doom for most outfielders. He didn’t look back until the ball was on its way down. Mays reached up, still running, still facing the wall, and caught it.

Hano was sitting in the centerfield bleachers, the best seats in the house for witnessing the catch. He wrote that other catches had been more spectacular, players diving, slamming into walls, and falling to the ground in a daze, the ball trapped in the webbing of their glove. But what made “The Catch” immortal was that only Mays could have made it. And only Mays could have wheeled around in one fluid motion and rifled a strike to third base to hold the runner. That was “The Throw.”

"I saw Mays play once," says Dad. "He was not big, about 5'10", with pretty good biceps for the time, but he hit a ball that went on a line off the top of the upper deck. And when he threw, it literally took my breath away — as if from a gun, no arc. He threw strikes from center field, no bounces.”

I repeat all this because of that phrase: “It literally took my breath away.” My friend Ernie’s young son Augustine begins grunting whenever he sees ball sports being played. Ernie feigns dismay at this, lamenting that everything women have ever said relating men, sports, and Neanderthals is proved true by those guttural sounds. And I have written before that Dad no longer watches baseball, and rarely anything else, because he has seen something noble leave the athletic world.

But no matter how far sports fall, no matter how far sport fans fall, there will still be that power to take your breath away, that fascination with one of the last activities that still gets associated with glory and greatness. Telling that story about “The Catch,” Dad was happy.

Dad touched on this idea in his last foray into sportswriting, a column in the single-issue run of The New York Express, a weekly independent. He wrote a semiserious classification of sports fans, my favorite of which was the man who felt castrated by the rise of feminism and sought refuge in the world of masculine athletics, where men could be men and strive for the glories that men valued.

He closed the column with a story about a railway passenger who found himself sharing a car with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. Warren had a newspaper with him, and when he opened it, he turned immediately to the sports section. The passenger was surprised and asked Warren why he had done so. Warren replied, “Because it is the one place in the newspaper where I may read of men’s achievements instead of their downfall.”

Another favorite sportswriter of Dad’s was Daily News columnist/reporter Dick Young, who introduced what Dad called “the conversational opening to a sports story,” providing a grabber paragraph before the introduction of hard news. Dad strove to imitate this, as well as the distanced, occasionally harsh manner of big-city columnists, forgetting that big-city columnists didn’t have to go to class with the objects of their contempt. Dad remembered accusing the basketball team's center of playing in a fog, only to realize that he had just insulted a 6'4" schoolmate.

By that time, though he was only a sophomore, he was covering Roosevelt High sports for the weekly Hyde Park Record, edited by one Elizabeth Dowling, a modernish (short hair in the late ’50s) woman who had once published a story in The New Yorker. He attended soccer, basketball, football, and baseball games and was paid a dollar per article.

He also received an orange press pass, which granted him admission to any sporting event — scholastic, collegiate, or professional — that he wanted to attend. Living just an hour’s train ride from New York City, this was a tremendous blessing for a wannabe sportswriter. “It was my most treasured possession at the time,” said Dad.

He continued his writing while attending Siena College, and though the Express folded and Dad found his calling elsewhere, in the world of developmental psychology, he still loved sports. He passed that love on to me. At one point or another, I have competed in soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, tennis, and swimming, and though grossly out of shape, I still get the itch now and then. And of course, I still watch.

I am trying to pass that love on to Finian. This was part of my elation in finding out that Fin was a boy, the anticipation of developing a bond through this mutual love. (No knock here against girls playing sports; I had no sisters, and so it’s unfamiliar territory for me, nothing more.)

I say “trying to pass it on.” It seems to have been encoded in his genes, springing to life with the barest whisper of effort on my part. “Sticks are for whacking balls” seems as self-evident a principle as “breasts are for suckling." An entire shelf of stuffed animals sits neglected as his red-mesh ball bag swells — baseballs, street-hockey balls, four-square balls, balls with strings that attach to the wrist, Ping Pong balls, whiffle-golf balls and baseballs, foam balls — basketball, tennis, baseball, football — tiny magnetic balls. Soft balls are allowed indoors, hard balls stay outside. To occupy him while Deirdre makes dinner, I take turns with him throwing a spongy red one against the front door and catching it on the rebound. Sometimes, we play catch.

The sticks include a foam baseball bat, plastic hockey sticks, a plastic golf club, and plastic tennis rackets. My mom recently sent out my old batting tee, which Fin does pretty well with for a boy not yet two. Whenever he gets a chance during the day, he brings me my baseball glove, the tee, a ball, and the bat, staggering under the awkward load. He doesn’t care if we play catch, or if I hit him grounders, or hit off the tee, or help him hit. He’s happy to play ball with his dad, which makes my sap rise.

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