For reasons I never knew and have remained murky ever since in my family, it was my silent calm dignified utterly-uninterested-in-sports Uncle Elmer who took me to my first professional baseball game, the New York Mets v. the Houston Astros, in October of 1966. Perhaps he was given free tickets, and the sudden impulse to coddle a nephew came upon him. Or maybe he had received free tickets and could not find anyone to give them to, and being a man who disliked wasting money, decided that he might as well turn them into a pleasant afternoon in the roomy confines of William Shea Stadium, where the Mets were finishing an awful season, and there might have been 5,000 fans total if you counted everyone twice, and we could sit wherever we wanted, so we did.
I remember clutching my ticket, memorizing the section and row and seat number as I started climbing to the rafters, when my uncle, the soul of equable grace, murmured something to the usher, who laughed and waved his arm grandly over the sea of empty seats, and said, Be my guest, sir, and my uncle and I made our way down to the box seats near the glowing field.
I was nine years old and knew little of baseball, and less about the Mets and their already tumultuous history, but I knew that this was the Major Leagues, and these men before us were professionals, and the stadium was vast and imposing, and I could have a hot dog, though I could not have peanuts, since, as Uncle Elmer said, “the way people eat peanuts here and just drop the detritus on the floor is poor manners.” My uncle seemed to know some aspects of the game of baseball, but he had probably never been to a game before either, so he and I both viewed the spectacle with fresh eyes, wondering at some of the habits and customs that the other patrons appeared to take for granted, or even enjoy, such as the way batters and fielders fiddled with their private parts, or how the umpire barked sharp inchoate noises when a batter failed to bat successfully, or the way some patrons and even once a player used foul and reprehensible language within earshot of children.
In my memory the Mets used about 40 pitchers over the course of the afternoon, including the later-famous Frank Edwin McGraw Jr., better-known as Tug, who had a busy two-thirds of an inning, with a wild pitch, a strikeout, two hits surrendered, and finally a popup to end the third inning. (“Now there is a man who earned his pay today,” said my uncle.) I also vaguely remember other players who would later be famous as champions, like the Mets’ Bud Harrelson, who looked like he was about my age, and the Astros’ Joe Morgan, who would later be a star with the Cincinnati Reds, “who began as the Red Stockings, you know,” said my uncle suddenly. “Your father and I used to listen to the Reds on the radio sometimes. Our hometown team of course was the sainted and glorious Pirates, but occasionally we could hear the Cardinals or the Reds on the radio, and while neither of us was much for baseball, your father being absorbed as you know by tennis, and myself by other aspects of life than sports, still, there was something soothing and pleasant about baseball on the radio; to me the murmur of a game on the radio was not unlike the murmur of the sea when you are at the shore, or the murmur of traffic as you sit in your back yard under the sycamore trees. I suppose there are people who are interested in the game itself, and in the players thereof, but I much prefer it as a gentle background to other matters, much like it is today, when the primary pleasure of the day is sitting with my nephew. I would offer to purchase another hot dog for you, but I note that your aunt is making lasagna and cannelloni at home, and with great respect for your capacity to eat everything in sight, even such unsightly things as hot dogs, I believe that if we leave this contest in the seventh inning, we can partake of the bounty at my home, before your sister comes to reclaim you. It also seems to me that the Metropolitans are not going to be able to hit the balls being offered so deviously by the Astronomicals, and we have seen a rare triple hit today, and we did see the intense Mr. McGraw at work, which is what I suspect I will remember from today’s adventure. Shall we?”
And off we went, back down the winding ramp to the parking lot, and home to his house in Queens, where there was indeed an acre of lasagna and enough cannelloni for 20 boys; and though my uncle ever after claimed to remember only Mr. McGraw’s tumultuous two-thirds of an inning, what I remembered best was my uncle’s calm grace and gentle amusement, both of which were very much the mark and measure of the man all his life. When he died, many years later, I remember sitting with my sister and brothers and cousins, in his house, after the funeral, and not one of us could remember a time when he had raised his voice, or said a mean or cutting thing, or been anything but equable and kindly, no matter how tense and strained the situation. That is a remarkable thing to say of anyone, and something we can only hope and pray will someday be said of ourselves.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.