July 20, 2016

Celebrating Baseball, Highway Dreams, and Small Town America in a Time of Terror 

book rev

By Stuart Mitchner

The time’s right for a column about baseball. The All-Star game’s behind us, the World Series of American politics has begun, and I’ve been reading The Baseball Whisperer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $26), a book by Michael Tackett subtitled “A Small-Town Coach Who Shaped Big League Dreams.” The town is Clarinda, Iowa, named for Clarinda Buck, who, legend has it, carried water to workmen when the area was being surveyed 150 years ago. As if it weren’t enough to shape your dreams in a place with a name evoking Glinda the Good Witch of the South, it turns out that the most illustrious player whispered to by that small-town coach was baseball’s Wizard of Oz, Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

So why not plunge right into a celebration of field-of-dreams Americana? My problem is it’s hard to write about books or baseball or politics these days without reference to the shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and St. Paul, or to, this above all, the nightmare in Nice. A few hours after I saw videos of the Bastille Day massacre, I was taking the Alexander Road exit off U.S. 1 when a big truck made the turn right on top of me, looming in the rear view mirror like some cartoon of menace with its shiny chrome teeth. Any other time I might feel mildly irritated — is that guy tailgating me? Or is he being perverse, playing copycat? With everything else to worry about, the notion of a truck that kills works as a metaphor, the carrier of a cargo of bad news, bearing down on us, day after day.

Trucks and Baseball

Between the ages of 10 and 12, I spent part of each summer at my maternal grandparents’ house in Overland Park, Kansas, where my bedroom window overlooked U.S. Highway 69. I went to sleep every night to the road music of cars and trucks going places. As much as cars contributed to that soundscape of motion, the trucks were what fired my imagination because I knew they had unlimited destinations nationwide. And as the future recipient of life-saving lifts from British, French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Iranian, Afghani, Indian, and American truck drivers in hitchhiking adventures a decade later, I still feel a visceral connection with trucks and truckers. Which is why I’m probably the only person in my neighborhood who likes the idea that State Highway 206, the north-south artery of New Jersey, is only a stone’s throw from my back yard, in spite of the damage that does to our property value.

Those midwestern preteen summers were also all about baseball. My Overland Park grandmother made me a St. Louis Cardinal uniform from scratch, complete with the red piping on the sleeves and two bright red birds on a slanted yellow bat. Like any good tailor, she measured me, took one of my photos of Stan Musial to copy, sketched the sacred emblem, found the right material, and ran it through the sewing machine, but did I ever play ball in it? How could I? My friends in the neighborhood would have made fun of me. And I knew that one head-first slide would almost surely destroy my grandmother’s handiwork.

By all rights baseball should be worlds apart from shootings in Dallas, mass murder in Nice, failed military coups in Turkey, and demagogues in Cleveland, with ball parks as the equivalent of the “safe houses” in television dramas like The Americans. But “safety” taken to a bleak extreme was the ghost story of the empty stadium at Camden Yards last spring, closed to baseball fans due to fear of riots after the death of Freddie Gray. And my idea of the ultimate safe house, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, saw protesters and fans shouting at each other outside the park during the 2014 playoffs, blowback from the shooting of Michael Brown, whose parents put his St. Louis Cardinal cap on his coffin. Both he and the cop who killed him were Cardinals fans. Put shooter and victim in the right environment, side by side at a game, and they’re pulling for the same team. It’s the core reality of baseball. No politics, no war, no terrorism. Just travel the yellow-brick road into the emerald-green land of the National Pastime.

But I keep seeing that truck.

Blushing Clarinda

So think of something else. Think of an Iowa woman named Clarinda carrying water to the workers, an image glorified for all time by Sergio Leone in his epic western Once Upon a Time in America, where Claudia Cardinale doles out water for the men building the town that was her mail-order husband’s great dream. And think how it was when some city father asked Clarinda, “Is it okay if we use your name for the town?” Would she smile? And blush? How could she not? I like to visualize her as my Overland Park grandmother when she was young and lovely and just the sort of woman who would carry water to the workers, having grown up in Indian Territory where her father was a station agent on the Rock Island line.

Road Games

Until I read about Merl Eberly’s team the Clarinda A’s in The Baseball Whisperer, I’d never heard of the semipro leagues forming the National Baseball Congress. Clarinda is only a two-hour drive from the house by the highway in Overland Park. Even closer is Saint Joseph, Mo., or St. Joe, as my mother fondly called it, where my grandparents moved shortly after she was born. Having consulted an AAA road atlas, I see that although U.S. 69 morphs into various other highways and interstates, it still runs from Port Arthur, Texas to Albert Lea, Minnesota, which means that when the Clarinda A’s took the team bus, the Blue Goose, to games with their arch rivals the St. Joseph Mustangs, or some other team in their league, they used the highway of my dreams or at least one of the roads taken for trips to my other grandparents in Topeka, home of the Topeka Owls (a real minor league team), or to my birthplace, home of the Hutchinson Broncos, where future stars like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Rafael Palmeiro began their steroid-shadowed careers.

Clarinda and the World

I’ve found a Princeton connection in Clarinda, whose native son, bandleader Glenn Miller, helped create the soundtrack for wartime America with numbers like “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “In the Mood.” When the world premiere of The Glenn Miller Story was held at the Clarinda Theater, the guest of honor was the star, Princeton alum Jimmy Stewart.

In 1903, when President Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech in Clarinda, he deemed it true to “the folklore of smalltown virtues.” Look online and you learn that it was also the site of an internment camp for German, Italian, and Japanese POWs. And according to The Baseball Whisperer, Clarinda was considered “a relatively safe passageway” for runaway slaves, many of whom settled and raised families there. Less than a mile from Glenn Miller’s birthplace was the African-American neighborhood known as Guntown, “named for its frequent shootings over robberies and infidelities.”

His Remarkable Will

There’s no mention of Guntown in Michael Tackett’s account of Ozzie Smith in Clarinda. Clearly Ozzie was a stranger in a strange land when he came there from South Central Los Angeles in the summer of 1975, going “from urban to rural, from black to white” still carrying the memory of the Watts riots in the 1960s, when his mother “lay on top of him to protect him from bullets whizzing past.” It would also be hard to imagine a more unlikely prospect for the Major Leagues, let alone the Hall of Fame. Slightly built (5’9, 140 pounds) and a weak hitter, the main thing he had going for him was “his remarkable will and willingness to work to overcome his physical limitations.” During the two-hour drive from the Omaha airport, he was “struck by the flatness of the land, the height of the corn, and what seemed like the endless distance between farms and small towns.” The sign that greeted him when they came to Clarinda read WHERE THE WORK ETHIC STILL WORKS.

Tested that first day by Merl Eberly, who kept hitting ground balls at the puny newcomer, Smith imagined the coach thinking, “I will wear him out. He’s only 150 pounds. He will be back on a bus or a plane.” So it went, Eberly “hitting the balls harder and harder, deeper in the hole at shortstop, over the bag at second base, sometimes trying to create a bad hop.” Smith got them all, and after thirty minutes in the Iowa heat and humidity, the coach gave up. As the Wizard told Tackett, “Guys like me were always told, ‘You can’t, you can’t, you can’t, you won’t, you won’t, you won’t.”

Ozzie Smith would go on to help the Cardinals win four pennants and two World Championships, setting an example that said, “You can and you will.”

But in the end there’s no way to work around the news. One of the Americans listed among the dead in Nice was 11-year-old Brodie Copeland, who played second base for the Hill Country baseball club in Houston and was known as a good hitter and an aspiring actor. There’s a photo online showing the son, mitt in hand, looking up at the father, who died with him, both figures in silhouette, an image for a memorial worthy of a place in Cooperstown.