Yesterday, July 8, was the 45th anniversary of my first visit to a Major League Baseball game. Of course, it would have more been appropriate to write about this on the actual date, but I was too busy ranting about the Damned, my zealous distaste for Roger Waters, and my virtual deification of Scott Walker (I said DEIFICATION, not defecation, clean your eyes out).
On July 8, 1969, my father made a plan to take advantage of a Synagogue-sponsored trip to nearby Shea Stadium. As a man richly aware of both the tradition of baseball and it’s long history of generating father-son moments, I am sure he was deeply cognizant of the significance of a “First Game.” We missed the bus – I don’t remember why, but our connection to Temple Emmanuel in Great Neck was tenuous at the best of times – so we set out on our own.
The Mets were playing the Chicago Cubs. It was a Tuesday. There was nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, remarkable back then about weekday day baseball games; and if I had any question regarding why my father was so readily able to miss work, I didn’t ask then and I have only a frisson more curiosity about it now.
The Mets were just beginning to significantly challenge the Cubs’ stranglehold on first place in the (newly created) National League East, and I was at least a little aware of the significance of this contest. I was seven years old, and that season I was following baseball intently for the very first time.
A witty, warm litany of the details of the game (as fascinating as they may be in hindsight) and a wistful roll call of the names of the extraordinary men who played that day…
… is not forthcoming. You can look that stuff up, if you want. The event, it’s memories, are bigger than that game; my memories are more common yet more individual then the no-doubt noteworthy achievements of that day; my memories of July 8, 1969, when the Chicago Cubs played the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, are more Rothko than Rockwell, and that’s as it should be.
My memories are fragmentary and impressionistic, befitting the recall of an event that took place when I was seven; and this is part of the instant nostalgia aspect inherent in baseball: we meet the game as children, usually under the tutelage of a father or older sibling, whose impression is likewise warmed by the fires of remembrance and the instant joy of the event. This scenario is replayed every day. Nostalgia is literally built into the event.
Did I ever think I would be an old-ish man waxing nostalgic about the smoky ballparks of his youth, and the baggy-uniform’d men who paced the green fields and sandy diamonds? Yes, of course I did. The presence of future-nostalgia is absolutely inherent in baseball, implied in its’ nearly ancient rhythms and virtually unchanging uniforms and rules, as it is in no other sport. The game is, essentially, the same game that was played 110 years ago, 90 years ago, 70 years ago, 45 years ago; the same cannot be said of any other sport — would today’s basketball fans even recognize the 1940s/50s game, plated jerkily by bony Jewish men and Midwestern farm boys, as the same game played today? Do we not marvel at the un-masked, un-armored footballers and hockey artists of the past?
Instant, future nostalgia is also implied in the sense of camaraderie baseball brings about, and the pause-filled, rolling pace of the game; it is only breathless incrementally, incidentally. It is perfect for sharing with friends, parents, even strangers, and therefore your companion (be it in the grandstand or in front of a TV screen) is as much a part of the memory as the game itself.
Even at a remarkably early age, we are conscious of this built-in nostalgia. Just a year later, when I was 8, I recall sitting in the upper deck of Shea and staring down at Hank Aaron below me in the outfield, and very intently committing the image to memory, knowing he was a historic man.
On July 8, 1969, I remember a seat in the back of the mezzanine, in the comfy shadow of the upper-deck overhang; no sun scratched my 7-year old face, and the deck close above us made the cheers echo and roar with mythic rumble. I remember the salty smell of beer and cigars (a smell that still, instantly, brings me back to the ballpark); and, perhaps oddly, perhaps not, I remember hats. I recall seeing a lot of hatted men, that is, men wearing the kind of hats we associate with archival sportswriters or mid-60s businessmen.
(Years later, I argued about this with a friend; were men in 1969 still sporting hats? Could that be possible? Well, I remember hats. If someone else attended a weekday baseball game in the summer of 1969 and doesn’t recall hats, they can write their own column, or investigate the edge-curled snapshots of their own sepia-tinged memories.)
I remember a dense crowd; and a little fact-checking, nearly half-a century after the fact, reveals an attendance of 55,096.
I remember cheering specifically for Mets’ catcher J.C. Martin, who, for some reason long-lost in the necessary fog of the decades, was my favorite Met. I suspect this had something to do with ownership of a precious baseball card.
I remember a come-from behind victory for the Mets in the 9th inning, and an enormous roar of jubilation.
Somewhere in there, surely, there was a hot dog or three consumed; a wending of the way through the crowds with my father’s large, tan hand clutching mine; happy and knowing glances between tall father and small son at the small and tall victories on the field, set to the happy chug of Jane Jarvis’ organ; somewhere in there, surely, was father-son discussion of an upcoming trip to the moon, to launch just eight days hence, which surely occupied my imagination as much as the pile of Topps cards in my bedroom; somewhere in there, surely, there was studying of a scorecard, and patient instruction regarding its purpose and completion; and somewhere in there, surely, was a triumphant march back to the parking lot (a field of concrete so large in it’s breadth it actually frightened me) with others, fathers, sons, fatherless sons and sonless fathers, those slacking off from work and those altogether unemployed, all celebrating a triumph both unexpected and inevitable.
In other words, it was pretty much exactly like every child’s first baseball game.
It was just like yours, wasn’t it?
The score of yours doesn’t matter, either; it doesn’t matter that you were watching Killebrew and I was watching Clendenon, or that I was cheering from J.C. Martin and Gary Gentry and you were cheering for Jim Palmer and Clay Darymple. It really, truly doesn’t matter, and I urge you not to cloud your most beautiful memories with the joyless ice of facts.
It was July 8, 1969, and I already know all the details that matter.