Donald Hall of Wilmot, the former U.S. poet laureate, began a book of essays with,
“Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch.” I can’t explain it any better. It’s a shame some people will never get it. They will always feel superior, mystified, or jealous.
I’ve been wondering why I’ve been abnormally obsessed with baseball this spring. Last week, my cousin gave me the answer: June 6, 2009 is the 30th anniversary of my Grandpa Isaac’s death. Without realizing it, I’ve been reading baseball journalism by the mile to thank him for his unconditional love, for all his leisure time, and for my lifelong appreciation of the national game
Isaac Eliot Bloom (1898-1979) came to Baltimore from Lithuania in 1912 when his Christian neighbors avenged Jesus’ murder by torching his father’s mill. Fenway Park opened that year, and the Red Sox won the World Series. He started rooting for the minor league Baltimore Orioles when they had Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, and Jimmy Foxx. He never spoke about the mill, his parents, or the old country.
He was the best retail butcher in Baltimore for 65 years. Mothers brought their just-married daughters to him, and told them to learn what to buy and how to cook it from him. His little butcher shop held out against the supermarkets until 1965. Then a gourmet shop paid him to bring his following, stand behind the meat counter, talk to the customers, and make sure everything was right.
Isaac was the only grown-up who never asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, but he refused to teach me the butcher trade. I should not lift sides of beef, or have serious accidents with dangerous tools, as he did once when he was young.
He taught me everything I know about baseball: fathers and sons playing catch.
He liked his baseball tight and neat, like the packages he wrapped for his customers. He got more pleasure from a perfect bunt than a three-run homer, and suspenseful pitching duels that ended 2-1 or 3-2. He would not have liked the steroid enhanced sluggery we’ve seen in recent years.
In 1954, when I was six, Isaac took me to my first Oriole game. We were in the Major Leagues by then, and the team was relentlessly terrible, the remnants of the laughable St. Louis Browns. The score was 3-0 against the Washington Senators, and I don’t remember who won. My second game was also against the Senators, also 3-0, but the other team won.
At breakfast the next day, my dad showed me the headline in the newspaper that reported the score. I was learning to read in school, and now I had a reason to. Later, Grandpa Isaac introduced me to the box score, and I had a reason to learn arithmetic. The statistics in the Sunday paper taught me multiplication and long division. Millions of kids like me learned the same way.
Grandpa Isaac and I suffered with terrible Oriole teams in the ‘50s, and rejoiced in the great teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In our last conversation, he said, “You’re underrating the Red Sox. They won’t finish fourth. They’re a better team than that.” The Red Sox finished third, far behind the Orioles who won the pennant. But by then Grandpa Isaac had been given his Unconditional Release.