May 18, 2006 -- USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan was raised by a sports-loving father who taught her that she could do or be whatever she wanted. He inspired her through her career, which has included stints at the Miami Herald and the Washington Post and required tricky navigation through a male-dominated field. Her memoir, "Best Seat in the House," is a tribute to her inspiration, her dad.
Read an excerpt below.
My Father's Daughter
"Two tickets to a Cleveland Indians game," the announcer wassaying on the Saturday-morning radio show on WSPD inToledo, Ohio, "for the person who knows the answer to thistrivia question."
All six of us were at the kitchen table on a typically chaotic,noisy Saturday morning in late May of 1969. I had my headburied in the newspaper, poring over the baseball standings. Idon't think my parents or my siblings heard the question, but Idid.
"Who were the two pitchers involved in the only double nohitterin baseball history?" the man on the radio asked.
"I know the answer to that," I said, as much to myself as toanyone else. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
It was in one of the baseball books I was reading. Having justturned eleven, I already was smitten with baseball, with ourminor-league Mud Hens and with all the major-league teamssurrounding us: the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, the Tigersin Detroit, the Indians in Cleveland, the Reds in Cincinnati. Unlikeso many children in other parts of the country, I didn't haveto pick one team to cheer for. I had a half dozen in my big Midwesternbackyard. But those weren't the only teams I followed.
When I tried to fall asleep at night, I didn't count sheep. I recitedWorld Series teams, going backward from 1968, until I didn'tknow them anymore.
My father turned to look at me.
"You want to call in?" Dad asked.
I shook my head no. I pictured a sports fan, a man, already athis phone somewhere else in Toledo, dialing in, answering correctly,winning the tickets.
We listened for a few moments.
"We still don't have any callers," the radio announcer said.Dad looked at me and smiled. I pushed my chair away fromthe table and walked to the phone. I still thought I would be toolate. I picked up the phone and looked at my father, then mymother. They nodded approvingly without saying a word. I dialedthe number.
A man answered at the radio station. I recognized his voice. Itwas the announcer. Everyone in the kitchen fell silent. Momreached for the kitchen radio and twisted the knob to turn downthe sound so I wouldn't get distracted, then ran to their bedroomto listen.
"So," the announcer asked, "you know the answer?"
"Yes," I said in the firmest eleven-year-old voice I couldmuster. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
"Oh, we've got a young fan here," the announcer chuckled."And what teams did they play for?"
He was adding another question, right then, on the air. Itwasn't a problem. I knew the answer.
"The Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs," I replied.
"You're right! You win the tickets! What's your name?""Christine Brennan," I said.
"Oh," the announcer said. "You're a girl."
* * *
My first press box was in our family room, ten feet from thetelevision. Every Saturday morning during baseball season, Ipulled Mom's manual Olympia typewriter off a closet shelf, setit on a small table, and typed up a three- or four-paragraph previewof the NBC "Major League Game of the Week." Mybrother, Jim, who was four years younger than I was, would doresearch, looking up statistics in the Toledo Blade sports section.He was very thorough for a seven-year-old, giving me all the informationI asked for. We wrote about the starting pitchers,about who was hitting well, about what to expect in the game.My stories had a circulation of six -- five not counting me: my father,a former high school tackle and shot putter who once had atryout with the Chicago Bears; my mother; and my siblings.There were four Brennan children; I was born in May of 1958,my sister Kate in November of 1959, Jim in June of 1962, andmy sister Amy in August of 1967.
Those little stories flew off my fingertips. I had read hundredsof articles about baseball in the Blade, the Toledo Times, and theDetroit Free Press. I also had some previous writing experience.My parents gave me a diary for Christmas of 1968. It had a blueand green floral print on the cover and a lock that I never used.My first entry, on January 1, 1969, was typical of what I believedmy diary should be: "Woke up late after staying up last night towait for the New Year. After lunch, went to the Sports Arena toice skate. After that, watched the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl.In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State won over USC, 27-16. In the OrangeBowl, Penn State won over Kansas, 15-14."
I sounded like a stringer for the Associated Press.
Barely a day went by when I did not report in my diary thescore of a University of Toledo Rockets basketball game, or anNFL play-off game, or, when spring came, the score of a ToledoMud Hens or a Detroit Tigers game or the Saturday "Game of theWeek." My entries also covered the daily activities of a girl turningeleven: memorizing spelling words, going to classes at theToledo Museum of Art, skating on someone's frozen backyard.My entry for February 28 was particularly memorable:
"Today I begged my Dad to try to get tickets for the Rockets'game tomorrow against Miami (O.). It is Steve Mix's last game.Daddy will try to get tickets."
Steve Mix was the first big sports superstar I idolized. He wasthe University of Toledo basketball team's six-seven, 220-poundcenter. With his broad shoulders and tree-trunk arms, Mix lumberedthrough the key and under the basket like a giant, and weloved him for it.
"The Mixmaster!" Dad would yell, his deep voice boomingabove the crowd, as Mix grabbed a rebound and threw his elbowsside to side, churning like a blender to protect the ball. Iwould look up and smile at my father, a big block of a man atsix feet and two hundred pounds, with a quarter-inch crew cutand black-rimmed glasses.
And when Mix laid in a basket, rolling it off his fingertips ashe blew through the lane "like a freight train," as Dad said, wecheered mightily.
The Rockets won the Mid-American Conference championshipin the 1966-67 season, going 23-2 and making the NCAA Tournament,which was quite a feat because only twenty-three teamsqualified for the tournament that year. Mix and his teammates cutdown the net after they clinched their spot in the tournament, andthe next morning, I was stunned to see it hanging off a kitchen cabinetin the home of one of my friends whose father was a Universityof Toledo professor with connections to the team. We were living inthe well-manicured middle-class enclave of Old Orchard in WestToledo, just across busy Bancroft Street from the university. The oldField House where the basketball team played -- no one called it themen's team because there was no women's team that we knew ofback then -- was a five-minute walk from our home. Dad and I hadgone to a few games that season, but not the one that clinched thetitle. Instead, I listened to every minute of that crucial game on theradio. Seeing that net the next day made it real to me.
We went to a few games the next year, Dad and I, and on occasion,Kate and Jim. We went to several more the next, whichwas the 1968-69 season. Mix was a senior that season, and theMarch 1 game was Toledo's last, our final chance to see himplay. My father did find two tickets -- he bought them from astudent -- and we joined the crush of spectators streaming intothe Field House. The building held just four thousand fans. Itwas hard to say if the more remarkable quality about the oldbarn of a gym was the heat or the acoustics. Let's call it a tie. Itwas the hottest, loudest place I had ever been.
Dad and I found our seats in the last row, just under the ceilingat the top of the student section. We were a long way fromthe court. "But we're here!" Dad said, turning to me with a bigsmile. "That's the important thing. We can smell it."We could smell, see, and hear every second of Mix's finale. Idon't remember how many points he scored. I do rememberbreathing in every moment of the event as if it were pure oxygen.I kept looking around the gym, taking mental pictures ofevery significant moment. I could feel my heart racing. This was,I would later come to understand, the adrenaline rush of the bigevent: so many people gathered in one place, and us with them,for a grand, two-hour high-wire act. Nothing that happenedwithin the confines of the usual routine of my young life couldmatch this. Nothing even came close.
When the horn sounded near the end of the game, whichToledo lost, 70-65, Dad nudged me and motioned for me tolook toward the Toledo bench.
"They're taking him out," Dad said.
Steve Mix was walking slowly toward the Rockets benchdown on the floor many rows below us. Coach Bob Nicholsshook his hand. His teammates patted him on the back. Someonehanded him a towel. Mix sat down hard.
"And thus a great career comes to an end," Dad said.
I looked at Dad. I tried to blink back my tears. Dad smiled atme. I thought I saw a tear forming in his eye too.
Dad introduced me to sports when I was only four, during the1962 World Series between the New York Yankees and the SanFrancisco Giants. While watching the first game of the series onour black-and-white television, I made a pronouncement thatMom recorded in my baby book: "Yogi Bear is going to catch.When he gets the ball, he'll steal it, as he does the picnic baskets."The next summer, I used one of Dad's old gloves when we firstplayed catch in our backyard. Dad immediately taught me how tothrow the baseball properly, firing it from behind my right earwithout the slightest hint of the motion that has come to be knownas "throwing like a girl." I don't remember hearing anyone usethose words until late in elementary school; certainly my father ormother never used them. Nor did the boys I played ball with everyspring and summer day in our neighborhood. I was the only girlwho regularly played with them -- and I threw like they did.Then something wonderful happened. As my eighth birthdayapproached, I asked for my own baseball mitt. Dad went to asporting goods store and bought a light brown, perfectlysmooth, pristine Rawlings glove. Written in script on the palmof the glove was the name Tony Cloninger, with a drawing of aman throwing a baseball. Imprinted nearby were these words:
"The Finest in the Field!"
I didn't know who Tony Cloninger was, so I checked thesports section to find out. He was a right-handed pitcher for theAtlanta Braves who was to gain fame later that year, 1966, forhitting two grand slams in one game against the San FranciscoGiants. Unfortunately, I never saw him play in person or on TV.Cloninger existed only in newspaper photos, on baseball cards,in the box scores, and in the palm of my glove.
When Dad gave me the glove, I held it to my face and inhaleddeeply. All the boys did that with their gloves, so I did it too. Myglove smelled new and fresh and natural. This was the scent ofbaseball. I used my new mitt every day that summer, playingwith the boys in the neighborhood in the morning and afternoon,then with my father when he came home from work inthe evening and it stayed light until after nine o'clock.
I took to sports naturally when I was a little girl because Inever really was little. My mother said I was born size 6X andkept right on growing. I was the only Brownie Scout, Mom said,who outgrew her dress in the second grade, when at the age ofseven, I was already four and a half feet tall and weighed morethan seventy pounds. By the time I was nine, I was five feet talland one hundred pounds. What was bad for Brownies, however,was good for sports. While the boys were ambivalent or downrightinhospitable to most girls who wanted to play with them,they specifically asked me to join them, and sometimes picked mefirst when we chose up sides.
With my dark brown hair cut in the simplest of pageboys, Iwas the tomboy of the neighborhood. I broke my arm falling outof a tree when I was seven. That same year, I asked for G.I. Joe,not Barbie, for Christmas -- and that's what Santa brought.While Kate was innately drawn to Mom's side at the stove, Iobliviously walked by them -- Mom, Kate, and the stove -- as ifthey were invisible on my way outside to play catch.
Because I played with the boys all day, I wanted to look like theydid, so I wore baggy T-shirts and grass-stained shorts and pedalpushers. When we went swimming in the pool that Mom and Dadhad had built in our backyard, I often swam topless. Not that it mattered,not at that age. I was five or six at the time. If the boys couldswim topless, I said to Mom and Dad, why couldn't I? They smiledand told me it was just fine. I was seven or eight when I switched toa girl's bathing suit. This required no family intervention; it just happenedlike most things do when parents don't push their children, bymy mother buying me a girl's suit and my one day putting it on.
In those days, I was clamoring for as much from sports as I couldget. I kept asking for more trips to the backyard to play catch withDad, kept hoping for more visits to the University of Toledo for abasketball or football game, kept wanting more time in front of thetelevision or beside the radio with my father to understand thegames better. I desperately wanted to learn to keep score of baseballgames, to understand the sport's strange numbering system -- thecatcher was 2, the shortstop was 6, the center fielder, 8.
Dad wasn't pushing me to do this. I was asking, and Dad happilyobliged. I wondered years later if Dad thought of me as hisfirst son, and he laughed and shook his head. "No, you wantedto play sports and learn about sports, and you were a happychild, so your mother and I thought that was just fine. Wewanted you to do what you wanted to do."
If Dad wasn't home, I turned to my best friend, DavidHansen. David was my first running mate -- a triplet with abrother, Douglas, and a sister, Laurie. We became such goodfriends that they labeled me "the Fourth Triplet," a title I believeI hold for life. They all called me Christy back then. I wouldlater become Chris or Christine to everyone else, but not to theHansens, and especially not to David. Nearly forty years later,when I talk to David, I'm still Christy Brennan, which is finewith me. David and I spent our summer days trading baseballcards, fiddling with his transistor radio dial trying to tune in theChicago Cubs from two hundred miles away, and racing aroundthe block on our new bikes. One day we got the great idea to attacha rope to the collar of the Hansens' large boxer, McDuff, sohe could drag us around the block on our skateboards as if wewere waterskiing. There were more skinned knees in the neighborhoodthat summer than any year before or since.
David Hansen and I had just about everything in common.Our mothers always wondered if we would eventually get married.(We did not.) David was ten months older, but we were thesame height as kids, perfectly compatible for playing sports allday long. My first sleepover, when I was seven, was not at agirl's house, but at David's. We slept in sleeping bags in theHansens' basement. It didn't take me long to get there: we livedtwo doors apart on Barrington Drive in Old Orchard. David andhis siblings and I and mine played in our neighborhood Mondaythrough Friday, then went to art classes together at the museumSaturday mornings and to church Sunday mornings. I sometimesmissed a Sunday, but the triplets never did. They couldn't. Theirfather was our minister at Christ Presbyterian Church.
There was only one boy in the neighborhood taller than I wasback then, Clifford Siegel. Clifford was the triplets' age, a yearahead of me in school, and he lived with his grandparents just afew doors down from our home. One day, he stood on the sidewalk,refusing to move as I barreled toward him on my bicycle."You better move!" I yelled.
"I dare you to hit me!" Clifford yelled back.I did.
I flew off my bike one way, Clifford flew another way. But weboth bounced up, dusted ourselves off, and within an hour weremeeting up with the other kids at Goddard Field, a grassy expansetwo blocks from our homes, playing baseball once again. If weweren't pretending we were Mickey Mantle when we were up tobat, we were Al Kaline, the great Detroit Tiger. Other days, weplayed kickball, or running bases, or tag, or someone brought akite and we ran so fast we sometimes fell trying to coax it off theground. Goddard Field was right across Bancroft Street from theUniversity of Toledo's soaring, limestone Gothic clock tower. Wetold time by the black hands on that clock; when the hour handreached six, we dashed those two blocks home for dinner, often tomeet again in an hour or so to ride bikes or play another sport, assumingthat Dad wasn't home yet and ready to play catch with me.
Professional baseball turned one hundred in the spring of 1969;I turned eleven. We watched the weekly games on TV, butmostly, baseball came into our home through the radio. Dad al-ready had taught me every last detail of how to keep score; then,just in time for the Toledo Mud Hens season, he bought me aringed, blue baseball score book. I would plug in a radio on theend table beside the sofa in our living room, then close the doorsto our family room and kitchen, where everyone else was doingchores, homework, or watching TV. There I'd sit, night afternight, by myself, listening to the Mud Hens on WCWA 1230AM. I had my pencil and the score book on my lap and my wellworncopy of the Blade's special Mud Hens pullout section, withall the players' pictures and biographies, at my side. OccasionallyI switched to the Detroit Tigers game on the radio, but eventhough they had won the World Series the year before, I preferredthe Mud Hens, who were the Tigers' Triple-A, InternationalLeague farm club. They were ours.
I listened to those games from places that felt far away, citieslike Syracuse and Rochester and Richmond. I pictured what thestadiums might look like, heard the sounds coming from themthrough the radio -- one day I was sure I heard a hot dog vendor'syell -- and, for that night, I wished I could be there. Dad soon letme in on a little secret: many of the Hens' road games were recreations.The crowd noise and crack of the bat were produced ina studio, he said, and the announcer simply was reading the playby-play coming over a ticker. Alas, the hot dog vendor probablynever existed. I was surprised by Dad's news, but hardly crushed.I began to listen more intently to see if I could tell the differencebetween a real away game and a re-created one. The big giveawaywas the sound of the crowd noise; after an inning in whichit sounded the same no matter who was up to bat or what thebatter did, junior sleuth that I was, I knew it was fake.
My mind wandered those evenings sitting on the sofa by myself.I never knew what the other team's players looked like. I didn'tknow what color their uniforms were. There was no way to knowif the radio announcer didn't mention it; the local TV stationsnever went on the road with the Mud Hens, so there were no gamehighlights to be seen. It was still a full decade before the launch ofESPN, even longer before the arrival of local sports cable stations.I had to rely on the stories and black-and-white photos in thenewspaper to tell me what the game must have looked like. That,and my imagination. Years later, a sportswriting colleague told methat he had the same problem. When his favorite major-leaguerwas traded, he wrote to ask him a simple question: "What numberare you wearing with your new team?"
The newspaper sports section then became my guide, andmany days, I grew impatient waiting for it. We subscribed to theafternoon Blade, and it arrived around 4 P.M., sometimes 4:30.So eager was I to start in on the box scores and the wire reportsof the previous night's major-league games that I sometimesstood quietly in our foyer, waiting for the thunk on the doorstep.Even after listening to the entire Mud Hens game the previousnight, I devoured the newspaper stories the next day. I realized Iactually was more interested in reading about a game after I hadspent the night listening to it. Even at this early age, I was intriguedto see how the writers described it, what they chose toemphasize. I pored over the box scores and analyzed the InternationalLeague standings to see who had gained a game or whohad fallen back. I did the same for the Tigers and the othermajor-league teams, but I spent the most time on the Mud Hens.A few years later, the television show M*A*S*H and its nuttyCorporal Klinger, played by Toledoan Jamie Farr, introduced thenation to the Mud Hens. People came to realize then what I wasunderstanding in the 1960s, that our Mud Hens were the veryessence of minor-league ball. They had been around forever andhad a colorful history. Dad told me the great Casey Stengel evenhad been Toledo's manager in the late 1920s and early 1930s.Back in the late 1800s, the team had been alternately known asthe Blue Stockings, the Toledos (the Toledo Toledos?), theMaumees (for the river that runs through town), and the SwampAngels. For a while, their stadium was located in marshland inhabitedby ducklike birds. Amused by these creatures that occasionallyjoined them in the outfield, opposing players begancalling them "mud hens." In 1896, this became the team's permanentnickname. What a godsend this would become a centurylater when merchandisers inherited the earth and people wantedoffbeat souvenirs like hats with a hen on them.
The man who brought the Mud Hens to life for me in our livingroom every night in 1969 was Frank Gilhooley, a local sportscasterwith a rich, jolly voice. He was the Hens' radio play-by-play man.There was a language to sports, and I began to learn it from him. Onenight, Gilhooley mentioned "the hot corner." I didn't know what thatwas. I waited for him to use the term again, to see if I could figure itout, but before he did, Dad walked into the living room.
"What's the hot corner, Dad?"
If this question surprised him, coming out of the blue as it did,he didn't miss a beat. "That's another term for third base."I thought about that for a moment.
"Because the ball can come off the bat of a hitter really fastdown there at third?"
"Exactly," Dad replied.
Another time, Gilhooley talked about a double play going6-4-3, and, because Dad had taught me how to keep score, Iknew that meant the play went from the shortstop to the secondbaseman to the first baseman.
One night, Gilhooley announced a contest to name an all-timeMud Hens roster, position by position. A couple of weeks later, hetook time away from calling the game to read one submission.As he read the names, I listened very carefully: "Tom Timmermann.Ike Brown. Bob Christian. Don Pepper..."
Every name he read was a player who had been with theteam that year or the year before, when the Hens won the InternationalLeague pennant. Brown and Timmermann were playingin the game I was listening to that night.
As the list was being read over the air, my father walked intothe room. He stopped and stood over me, listening intently withme as Gilhooley finished.
"Must be from a young fan," Gilhooley said to his listeners.I could hear a smile in his voice.
"But there's no name on it," he said, "so we'll never knowwho sent it in."
I don't remember what Gilhooley said next, although I doknow he chuckled. I looked straight ahead. My father started toleave the room.
My voice stopped him.
"That was me."
As I thought about it years later, I didn't put my name on thatpiece of paper because, at eleven, I thought voting for an all-starteam was the same as voting in an election. I thought you weresupposed to remain anonymous. I remember feeling embarrasseduntil Dad looked down at me and smiled.
"You know that was yours," he said softly. "That's all thatmatters."
From that moment on, I put my name on anything I ever wrote.As for my all-time Hens, they didn't fare too badly.
Pitcher Tom Timmermann and infielder Ike Brown werecalled up by the Detroit Tigers on the same day later that season.They both played their first major-league game on the road, inYankee Stadium. Timmermann, who was six-foot-four and worethick, black-framed glasses, played for Detroit and Cleveland forparts of six seasons. In 1970, he had twenty-seven saves as a reliefpitcher for Detroit and was named Tiger of the Year. Brown,who always seemed to be laughing on his way out of the dugout,played for the Tigers for portions of six seasons.
Outfielder Bob Christian led the Mud Hens in hitting in 1968with a .317 average. He was in his early twenties, but every pictureI saw of him made him look younger. He had a sweet smile.Christian played parts of three seasons in the majors with Detroitand the Chicago White Sox, and I followed him in the box scores.But in February 1974, I opened the paper and was shocked toread that he had died of leukemia. He was just twenty-eight.I found out about Don Pepper many years later. While coveringa golf tournament, I stopped LPGA star Dottie Pepper to askif she was related to the Hens' old first baseman.
"Related?" she said. "I'm his daughter."
I soon asked Dad if I could see the Hens in person, if we couldgo to some games. Dad said yes, and he bought season ticketsalong the first-base line.
There was no better ballpark for a child to become introducedto baseball than the old Lucas County Recreation Center inMaumee, Ohio, a suburb just south of Toledo. That's where theMud Hens played until they moved to a new downtown ballparkin 2002. The old stadium was a former horse-racing track,with one long grandstand that was parallel to the third-base line,augmented by a set of bleachers, put in for baseball, that huggedthe first-base line.
This odd setup caused the players' clubhouse to be separatedfrom the stadium. To get to the locker room, players from bothteams had to walk through a public corridor. That meant theyhad to walk by us, so this became a gold mine for autographs.The first time we went to the park, we noticed other childrengathering behind the first-base bleachers, so we asked Dad ifwe too could go to the area between the stadium and the clubhousewhen the game ended. Dad thought it was a great idea.
First came one player, then another, then it was a parade, asteady stream of ballplayers, their spikes clicking on the concreteas they came toward us. With our Bic ballpoint penspoised and ready, we raced around like ants, asking the playersto sign our programs, our mitts, even the free bats we receivedon Bat Day.
This was so exciting to me, to meet the players, even for just afew seconds. We not only got to see the Mud Hens up close, butalso stars on other teams. I knew all of their names from theradio broadcasts; some of them, like Ralph Garr, Bobby Grich,and Al Bumbry, went on to become well-known major-leaguers.But we focused our efforts mostly on the Hens. It is for this reasonthat, almost every game we went to, it seemed, I ended upwith big Tom Timmermann's autograph -- on my glove, on abaseball, on the game program. I figured I had more Tom Timmermannsthan anyone on the planet. When the last player hadfinally shaken loose to open the clubhouse door, we then cametogether -- Kate, Jim, the Hansen triplets, and I -- and comparednotes, like children after a night of trick-or-treating.
In 1969, Dad also started taking us to a major-league game ortwo every year in Detroit, which was just an hour's drive away.The year before, 1968, had been a big year for the Tigers. Theywon the American League pennant, then the World Series inseven games over the St. Louis Cardinals. We didn't go to anygames that year, but I listened to many on the radio, and all ofus kids knew the words to "Go Get 'Em, Tigers" so well that wecan sing them to this day.
We were not big Indians fans -- Cleveland was twice as far awayas Detroit -- although Dad did try to take me to a game in the summerof 1969 with the tickets I won in the radio contest. We gothalfway there when a hose broke in the engine of Dad's car and wehad to pull over. By the time the car was fixed, the game wasnearly over in Cleveland, so we turned around and headed home.I was so disappointed that day, but Dad grabbed me by the shouldersand looked me in the eye and promised me we would tryagain, and we did, later in the season. My free tickets were goodonly for the game we missed, so Dad bought us two more to watchthe Indians play the Chicago White Sox. As we sat among rowsand rows of empty seats in Cleveland's seventy-six-thousand-seatMunicipal Stadium, a picture of which should have been placednext to the word cavernous in the dictionary, Dad smiled and puthis arm around my shoulders. "You deserve to be here. You gotthat question right. We're here because of you." I beamed.
Usually, we went up to Detroit when the White Sox were intown. My father and mother were born on the South Side ofChicago and didn't move to Toledo until a few months before Iwas born. During one twi-night doubleheader in 1971, Dadbought each of us a White Sox batting helmet at the concessionstand. For this one night, we cheered against the Tigers and forDad's South Side Sox. The Tigers fans behind us in our upper-deckseats got a kick out of the gaggle of kids sitting in front of them -- Kate, Jim, and me, as well as the three Hansens, whose motherwas from Chicago -- each wearing a hard, plastic Chicago helmet.Every time Detroit scored, a woman rapped each of us on the topof our helmets and teased us about being from Chicago.
"Should we tell her we're from Toledo, Dad?" I asked softly."No," Dad replied mischievously, in an exaggerated whisper."Let's keep her guessing."
There was nothing wrong with making people think you werefrom Chicago, Dad told me later. Dad liked the White Sox, but heactually lived and died with the Cubbies, as he called them. Itwasn't easy to cheer for the Chicago Cubs, Dad told me in 1969.He said the same thing in 1979, 1989, and 1999. But the Cubswere his favorites, and had been since his childhood. Although hewas a Southsider, he actually grew up cheering for the North SideCubs because his father never forgave Shoeless Joe Jackson andthe White Sox for throwing the 1919 World Series.
Dad's favorite player was the Cubs' Ernie Banks, whose careerwas winding down in 1969. Dad always said Banks was thegreatest ballplayer never to make it to the World Series. He toldme how smoothly and fluidly Banks played the game, and whenI finally got the chance to see the Cubs on one of those SaturdayTV games in 1969, I realized what Dad loved about Banks, howhe held the bat so effortlessly, moving his fingers over it as if hewere holding a flute. "Let's play two," Ernie loved to say, andDad enjoyed quoting him, sometimes bellowing out the words ashe drove a car full of children to another game. Dad loved theman's spirit. "Now, that," Dad would say, "is a ballplayer."
In hindsight, the 1969 season was probably the wrong one topick to start rooting for the Cubs. Dad was ecstatic that they werein first place in June, but as a seasoned Cubs fan, he also waswary. And if he was, so was I. In late June, I had to take a weeklongbreak from baseball and go to camp with Kate in the IrishHills of southeastern Michigan. Most kids look forward to goingto summer camp, but I was of two minds on this. I was excited togo, but I hated to miss a day, much less a whole week, of the baseballseason. Dad knew how anxious I was, so he wrote to methree times (and to Kate three times as well), while Mom wrotetwo letters to each of us. With each letter to me, Dad sent the entireToledo Times sports section, folded up.
On June 25, 1969, he wrote:
Well, the Hens dropped another one and Ike Brown fi-nally got shut out. At least our Cubs won another one butlook out for those Mets, they are hot.
Did you know that General Custer made his famous"Last Stand" 93 years ago today?
It is bright and sunny today -- I hope you and Katie areswimming.
Love and kisses, Daddy
Dad was right. The Mets were hot. This was 1969, after all.They were so hot that they became known as the "MiracleMets."
But the fact is, we were growing up as American League kids.Jim and I watched the Tigers every chance we had on their telecastsinto the Toledo market, and we listened every night wecould to the legendary Ernie Harwell call their games on "TheGreat Voice of the Great Lakes," Detroit's WJR radio, 760 AM.The Tigers' road games emanated from even farther-flung citiesthan the Mud Hens' did, places that intrigued me even more,ballparks in big cities I dreamed of visiting someday. But it wasn'tjust the Tigers. There were games going on all over the country,and I wanted to know the score of each one. I was the kind ofchild who always stayed busy, who didn't want to go to sleep becauseI didn't want to miss anything. And here was a world inwhich every day, many times a day, there was another first pitch.In baseball, there always was something going on.
The Tigers' road swings out west were by far the most enchanting.I had never heard of something important just startingwhen I was going to sleep. This was exciting to me, and comforting.I wasn't any more afraid of the dark than your averagechild, but I wasn't any less afraid of it either. The truck thattrundled by at 2 A.M. on a busy street near our house alwaysprovided a reassuring message that people were still awake anddoing something productive as I slept. I felt the same way whenthe Tigers were on a West Coast swing, which meant their gamesfrom Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum or the Big A in Anaheimbegan at 10:30 or 11 P.M.
In his bedroom across the hall, Jim usually fell asleep first whilelistening to Ernie Harwell; I sometimes would go into his room toturn off his clock radio, then walk into my room and turn mine onbefore nodding off myself. Mom or Dad came up later to turn offmy radio. Harwell must have lulled to sleep countless childrennight after night in the Great Lakes states in those glorious baseballseasons in the late sixties and early seventies.
I went to sleep thinking of baseball, and I woke up thinking ofbaseball. I memorized the numbers that mattered: Babe Ruth's714 home runs, Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six-game hitting streak."That's the only record that won't fall in baseball," Dad said ofDiMaggio's feat. "No one will ever do that again."Dad maintained a reverence for the record, but not for theteam for which DiMaggio played. When I told Dad that I feltsorry for the New York Yankees because they had had a fewpoor seasons in the late 1960s, Dad did not suppress the urge togive me another baseball history lesson, right then and there:"Don't ever feel sorry for the New York Yankees!"
I became absurdly superstitious watching games of the teams Iliked, often refusing to get up from a chair for as long as an hourif things were going well. If I crossed my legs and the Tigers hit ahome run, my legs stayed crossed. Kate and Jim and even Amy,who was just a little girl, were in on this too, helping in theirown way, in their own seats. During the 1972 American Leagueplay-offs, the Tigers faced Oakland and things weren't goingwell as the A's were headed to the first of their three consecutiveworld championships. I told my siblings I was going to stand onthe stone hearth of our fireplace to see if that helped.
The Tigers scored. So on the hearth I stayed. For the next twoinnings, I couldn't move, hoping more Detroit runs would come.They didn't, the Tigers lost, and I finally stepped down onto thecarpet.
There was one other way we connected to baseball backthen -- by buying, collecting, and trading baseball cards. Toppsbaseball cards were stacked by the cash register at Ace Drug onBancroft Street, packaged with a hard stick of pink bubble gum,and available for a nickel a pack. Trading these cards was a veryserious matter. Our philosophy was to unload any doubles weaccumulated; sometimes we even ended up with three of a kindand really had to wheel and deal with siblings and friends. Katejoined in and accumulated so many Larry Dierkers over thecourse of one summer -- she must have had a half dozen cardsfeaturing the Houston Astros pitcher -- that she shrieked in delightwhen she one day opened a pack and found it Dierker-less.A prized possession became a misprinted Jim Bunning card thatread "Im Bunning." For a few days, until I showed the card toDad, we thought his name really might be Im.
Baseball cards were the currency of our sports passion, butafter a few years, we were not content to simply covet, trade,and hoard them. We started to send them away to be autographed.I sent cards to two dozen players, including BrooksRobinson, Hank Aaron, Ferguson Jenkins, Johnny Bench, HarmonKillebrew, Bob Gibson, and even Ted Williams when hewas managing the Washington Senators in 1969. Each one cameback autographed, some in envelopes that I swore were addressedby the player himself.
I sent cards to Aaron twice; one was his 1969 Topps card,the other the All-Time Home Run Leaders card, which cameout at the beginning of the 1973 season. Babe Ruth still wasfirst on this card with his 714 homers. Aaron was second with673 and Willie Mays third with 654. I had this card, whichAaron signed in blue ballpoint, stashed in my bedroom desk thenight in 1974 that he broke Ruth's home-run record. His historic715th home run in Atlanta was caught on the fly in thebullpen beyond the outfield fence by a Braves relief pitchernamed Tom House. I also had House's autograph on severalbaseballs and programs in my room. Before he went up to themajor leagues, he played for the minor-league Richmond Bravesand came to Toledo to play the Mud Hens on several occasions.I kept my baseball cards in a shoe box -- except for the autographedones, which I stored in that desk drawer. Much of the restof the sports memorabilia I was collecting -- pictures, programs,ticket stubs -- went into scrapbooks. I spent rainy summer days cuttingout articles and pictures from my Sports Illustrated magazinesand glueing them in. I had asked Mom and Dad for a subscriptionto SI for my tenth birthday; the magazine started coming thatspring. Years later, several sportswriter friends and I were discussingone of our rites of passage: What was on the cover of your first SI?For me, it was Don Drysdale and his consecutive scoreless inningsstreak. I still remember the line of 0's across the top of the magazine,nine innings' worth, a testament to Drysdale's perfection.My first scrapbook was devoted almost entirely to those SIclippings and souvenirs, page after page of Cubs and White Soxand Tigers memorabilia. But in their midst, on one page by itself,I glued a colorful brochure for the forklift truck businessDad started, the Brennan Industrial Truck Company. Thebrochure featured a photo of Dad smiling at his desk and anotherof him and four coworkers posing at the wheel of forklifttrucks, Dad in a business suit. Page after page of my sportsheroes -- and then there was my Dad.