Baseball, the thread that runs through our lives and ties them together


I had a little “Field of Dreams” moment during the wonderful conclusion to the World Series last night. In the sentimental “Dad, you wanna have a catch?” sense.

While Joe Buck or someone was talking about how it had been 95 years since a team from Washington had won, a picture of Senators legend Walter Johnson came on the screen. The BIg Train.

And I was reminded of a story my Dad likes to tell of when he was just a little guy. He grew up in Kensington, Md., in a house his grandfather had built for his Dad. My great-grandfather had a construction business, and he did that for each of his kids when they got married. Consequently, several of them lived quite close together. My Dad’s Aunt Ethel lived behind my Dad, on the next street over.

Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

Aunt Ethel’s daughter Jean married a guy named Walter Perry Johnson Jr. — the son of the Big Train. Occasionally, the great man was a guest in their home. When that happened, Aunt Ethel’s husband Carroll would call over and tell my Dad to come over, and bring his glove. Dad would go running, and then he would play catch with the great Walter Johnson.

Speaking of the Senators, there’s a story that my grandfather was invited to play for the Senators’ organization, but decided to go into the construction business with his father instead. It seems to me a surprising decision, since his life had revolved around baseball up to that point. Ancestry offers me scores of “hints” about his life, and most of them are clippings from The Washington Post telling about some ball club or other that he was forming, or pitching for, or the captain of.

He worked for the Post Office for awhile, for just one reason: So he could play on its baseball team.

Here’s how he and my grandmother met (which I think I’ve told before): She would see him walking past her house, in his suit and wearing a straw boater, with a satchel dangling from one hand, on his way to the Kensington train station. She decided he must be a traveling salesman, and the bag contained his wares. But when she finally spoke to him, she learned that the bag was filled with his uniform, glove and cleats. He wouldn’t have thought of going to work without them.

What's he doing in an Expos uniform?

What’s he doing in an Expos uniform?

I could go in all sorts of directions about baseball and how its threads run in and out of American life. I could reminisce about when we lived in Tampa, and in the spring we’d go over to St. Pete to watch the Cardinals play. I was an autograph fiend at the time, and in those days the players were easily accessible. (Once in Tampa, I went into the Reds’ locker room to get Pete Rose to sign my glove as he sat shirtless on a table during an interview with a sportswriter. Things were that informal then.) So I would chase Joe Torre, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Curt Flood. But I failed to get Tim McCarver’s. He was on the other side of a chain-link fence signing for some other kids, but I couldn’t get him to turn around, despite repeatedly calling, “Mr. McCarver! Mr. McCarver!”

Years later, when I was first dating my wife, I was over at her house and she was working on organizing her family’s photos. I asked why there was a publicity photo of McCarver in the box (in an Expos uniform, which is not the way I think of him). “He’s my first cousin,” she said. So, several years after that, we happened to be at the Red Sox training camp in Florida the one year Tim played for them. Carlton Fisk injured his wrist in the first inning and Tim went in for him. After the game, we went over to the house Tim was renting during spring training. As he drank a beer, guess what I chose to talk him about? That’s right: I complained that he wouldn’t turn around and give me an autograph when I was 14.

His answer? “Aw, I wasn’t playing when you were 14.”

Not long after that, his playing days ended. After that, he started his broadcast career. He would eventually be teamed up with Joe Buck, who I think was the one talking about the Senators in 1924 last night.

Which is where we came in.

(Oh, wait, something I forgot to mention: There’s meaning in the fact that Tim was, against all expectations, in an Expos uniform in that photo. The Expos are now the Nationals.)

Anyway, that’s a small taste of what baseball means to American life. My American life, anyway.

It runs through the years and the lives, tying everything together…

I’m very pleased for the Nationals today. And for Washington…

One of my grandfather's baseball teams. That's him squatting on the right.

One of my grandfather’s baseball teams. That’s him squatting on the right.

16 thoughts on “Baseball, the thread that runs through our lives and ties them together

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Yeah, I know I’ve told some of these family stories before. But this is what I was thinking about this morning. I liked the way the pieces lined up, so I wrote it.

    I was initially going to go on about how, when we were all this conscious of baseball’s role in our shared life, we were a better country. You know, another slap at football. 🙂 But I ran out of time.

    At the back of my mind, I was thinking this was something I could add to the family tree, for baseball-loving descendants to discover — even if no one reads it today.

    By the way, here’s one of those Washington Post clippings featuring my grandfather, Gerald Warthen. I guess the “W. Warthen” mentioned was his brother, Willard.

    It’s ASTOUNDING to look back and see the depth and detail of local coverage that paper used to have in it…


    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      The first time I saw one of these clips describing my grandfather as an infielder, I was confused, because I thought of him as a pitcher. Apparently, he was that, too. He was prepared to do whatever was needed, as long as it involved playing ball…

  2. David T

    So you’d be happy if the country was back in the time period of when your grandfather played. The roster sounds very diverse. I guess the diverse teams back then were teams who maybe had an Irishman on the team.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        If I were black, my memories might be of a grandfather or uncle who played in the Negro League, and I’d wax poetic about that — while probably mentioning how certain I was that he’d have been a star in the majors if he’d been born later.

        But I’m not, so my ancestors played on white teams. So my family memories, are of that. It doesn’t delegitimize my love for the game, or reverence for the role it’s played in American life.

        I was born after Jackie Robinson. When I played ball, it was on an integrated team. That doesn’t make me a better person than my grandfather. I deserve no credit one way or the other…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author


          By the way, here’s a team I played on, in senior Little League in Tampa. That’s me in the back row on the far left, next to the coach.

          I wasn’t all that good. My peak achievement of the season was one game when I broke up a no-hitter in the 5th inning. This redheaded kid they had on the mound — I want to say he was a left-hander — had just been overpowering us. Nobody could hit him. Nothing fancy, just fast balls. He didn’t have far to go, because the games were only 7 innings.

          I managed to get the bat around fast enough for an opposite-field line drive. I easily made it to first, and there was a pause while they changed pitchers.

          I was proud of that.

      2. David T

        Have you seen the recent popularity of football?

        The NFL attendance is tanking, some teams are lucky if they are filling 25% of the stadium seats. College football attendance is on the decline, parents are not pushing their kids to play football for fear of brain injuries, kids would rather be on their phone than on most any playing field.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yep. All those things are true. And it’s good that some people are wising up — I just hate that there had to be so many brain injuries for that to happen.

          Doesn’t affect the way people in Columbia go nuts on Saturdays, though…

        2. Doug Ross

          People may not be attending the games to fill stadiums, but the TV ratings have been off the charts. With hd tv and large screens, being there isn’t as important.

          1. Realist

            Agree. I have been to college and pro games and much prefer to enjoy the game at home in front of my hd, large screen tv. Guess it is my age and all but the crowd experience at a game doesn’t have the same appeal now as it once did.

            Attending a game is time consuming just to get there and get out unless one has a reserved parking place adjacent to the stadium and a luxury box with all of the amenities one has at home. Not worrying about missing a play if a break is needed for a visit to the facilities or to get refreshments is another advantage. If a key play is missed, there are multiple replays in a broadcast.

            But for those who love the in-person experience, the crowds, tailgating, and shared enthusiasm for your team, go for it and enjoy. Meanwhile, I will be in my recliner with refreshments being an armchair quarterback and enjoying every minute of the experience.

  3. Bill

    The crowd at the ball game
    is moved uniformly

    by a spirit of uselessness
    which delights them—

    all the exciting detail
    of the chase

    and the escape, the error
    the flash of genius—

    all to no end save beauty
    the eternal—

    So in detail they, the crowd,
    are beautiful

    for this
    to be warned against

    saluted and defied—
    It is alive, venomous

    it smiles grimly
    its words cut—

    The flashy female with her
    mother, gets it—

    The Jew gets it straight— it
    is deadly, terrifying—

    It is the Inquisition, the

    It is beauty itself
    that lives

    day by day in them

    This is
    the power of their faces

    It is summer, it is the solstice
    the crowd is

    cheering, the crowd is laughing
    in detail

    permanently, seriously
    without thought

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