Zinsser on Friday

Sacred Objects

By William Zinsser | July 30, 2010

In 1988, when I went to Bradenton, Florida, to write a book about spring training, I learned that Edd Roush, the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, had been a winter resident of the town for 36 years and was still a familiar presence at McKechnie Field, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ winter ballpark, where he held court on a couch in left field and told everyone how much better the game was played in his day. He was 94 years old.

I thanked the journalistic gods who had delivered to my chosen town one of the game’s authentic giants. From 1916 to 1931, playing center field for the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Giants, Edd Roush hit over .300 twelve times and hit over .350 in three straight seasons. Defensively, he ranks with Tris Speaker, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays. He was famously cantankerous in his playing days, and time had evidently done no softening. Reporters on the Bradenton Herald warned me that he was particularly hostile to writers he felt were “pestering” him.

That didn’t augur well for my getting an interview. Still, I was determined to try; no purer link to the National League’s early days of glory would come my way, and time was running out. Not wanting to be rejected on the phone, I drove out to the house–a modest one-story dwelling on a small lot with two orange trees and a neatly lettered mailbox that said EDD J. ROUSH.

There was no doorbell–a deterrent to pesterers, I assumed–so I tried the kitchen door. After several minutes it was opened by a stern-looking older woman who said she was Mary Allen, Edd Roush’s daughter. I explained my mission. She said she had heard about it. “Some damn fool from the newspaper called to say that a big writer from New York was in town to do a story about Edd Roush,“ she said. “There are three things my dad has no use for–preachers, teachers and writers. That’s why it took him until 1962 to get into the Hall of Fame. The baseball writers weren’t about to vote for him. He had to wait until the old-timers committee voted him in. Of course he couldn’t care less if he got in the Hall of Fame.” She started to close the door. “We don’t like to have writers sicced on us,” she said.

Talking fast, I explained that I hadn’t been sicced–that I was acting on my own. I was there mainly to pay my respects to Mr. Roush, I said, adding, however, that it didn’t seem right for a book about baseball in Bradenton not to include her father.

Mary Allen looked at me long and hard through the screen door. Finally she turned around and I heard her say, “You might as well let him in, Dad. He’s here anyway.” She unlocked the screen door. “You can have 10 minutes,” she said.

I think I expected to see a frail old man sunk into a sofa, probably wearing slippers. What I found was a small and very neat man sitting straight up in a chair. He was wearing a clean and pressed khaki shirt, a pair of clean and pressed khaki trousers, socks, and shined shoes. His hair was wet-brushed down, and he looked at me with vigilant blue eyes. Another damn-fool writer, they said.

I shook hands as ceremoniously as if I were meeting royalty–which I was. The hands and wrists were large–the hands of an Indiana farm boy, unreduced by age. They were the hands, I remembered, that had swung the heaviest bat ever used in major league baseball–48 ounces. I asked Edd Roush to tell me about the early days of spring training in Florida, and he recalled several ballparks that were little better than cow fields, full of holes. He described every nickel of his famous salary disputes with the tyrannical John McGraw–all of which he won. The blue eyes flared with the memory of outmaneuvering his old foe.

Mary Allen didn’t kick me out when my 10 minutes were up, so I followed her into the kitchen and asked her about her own life. She said she had long been a schoolteacher in small Indiana towns. I mentioned that I had also done some teaching in Indiana, and soon it was as if there had never been a screen door between us. I asked Mrs. Allen if it was a burden to be a member of a Hall of Fame family.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff people send for my dad to autograph,” she said. “Just last week the mailman brought a big box, and it was the slat of a seat from some stadium in New Jersey that got torn down. Well, there’s no way Dad was going to sign that. We packed the thing up and sent it right back.”

“Would you like to see what goes out of here in a typical day’s mail?” she asked. I said I certainly would. We walked out to the mailbox, which she had stuffed with lumpy self-addressed packages containing baseball items that fans had sent to be autographed. I wrote down the destinations: East Petersburg, PA; Roanoke Rapids, NC; West Deal, NJ; Little Rock, AR; Center, MO; Canterbury, CT; Mahwah, NJ; Centralia, MO; Virginia Beach, VA; Bristol, TN; Brooklyn, NY.

Just then the mailman arrived. He took our oddly shaped packages and stuffed a new load into the mailbox. I looked to see what the day’s tide had washed up: 12 envelopes from Idaho, Maine and various states in between. The biggest–elaborately stamped DO NOT BEND–was from Forty Fort, PA.

I helped Mary Allen carry the packages into the kitchen, and then I went back and said goodbye to the oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was sitting straight up in his chair, staring fiercely into the past. Six days later Edd Roush died. He had a heart attack at McKechnie Field, just before a game between the Pirates and the Royals.

Today I still think of that Florida mailbox. For me it symbolizes a deep American yearning to connect with our idols through the artifacts of a shared passion. All those balls and bats and gloves that came back to the mailboxes of all the people who sent them were no longer mere balls and bats and gloves. Anointed by Edd Roush, they had become sacred objects.

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