Chisel at the bat.
"I'm calling you out of the dugout, Dad. Yeah, I know you've been in there a long time: it's been over forty years since your death. We're going to have to reach back even further, more than sixty years, to the days when you were still an active ballplayer. What's this all about? I'll tell you what this is all about. Step into the on-deck circle, take a few quick practice swings, and listen."
Let me start by explaining a few things to everyone. When I was young, my father knew I didn't think much of sports or of his sporting talent. And he certainly didn't look at me as any great prospect for achievement in sports, at least not like my older brother, an excellent pitcher like him. Oh, yeah, there was my playing football in high school: inside linebacker and, occasionally, offensive right guard.
"Remember, Dad? If you weren't drunk, you'd come to my games; then, you seemed the greatest father in the universe, but that wasn't very often. Anyway, you claimed to be much prouder of my prowess in the pursuit of other things, like school grades and the love of science.
"So step up to the plate, old man; it's my turn to pitch to you now. And not with a baseball, but with words, thoughts, and memories. Let's see what you've got. Can you hit the curveballs I'll be sending your way? How about my sinker? I don't have much in the way of a fastball, not like yours at least, but I can read my opponent pretty well. That sounds fairly adversarial, but you were great for competition, and I kind of like it myself now that I've spent a good part of my life studying theories of game and play. I can take it if you can."
"Batter up!" cries the masked Umpire.
"But, wait, Ump. We both need a little more warming up. I'm not at full heat yet, and Dad still looks a little shaky at being brought up from the Inactive List." Meantime, the crowd can check out what kind of a batter I'm facing.
Charles Swann was the son of a railroad man named Joseph; however, Joseph was better known to everyone in my small town as Mody, which rhymes with Cody. Born September 1, 1921, Charles was all of twenty when the Second World War came along, just freshly graduated from high school, having kept himself back twice (at least he would say in retrospect) in order to play two more years of high school ball. Like his old man, he quickly developed a nickname, Chisel, early in his boyhood.
His sister-in-law, my Aunt Mimi, once told me, "I don't believe that the moniker was because of Chisel's sculptured features; his certainly weren't. Nor do I think that he was more of a cheater or scalawag than anyone else." Of course, the real origin of the name was that my paternal grandfather was a descendant of proper British folks who often shortened Charles to Chas. He began calling his son that, but his daughter Hilda turned it to Chis, and from there the boy's friends modified it to Chisel.
Now, get ready; here comes the first pitch. The pictures I've seen and the stories I remember about Chisel's days in the wartime military are hot of trenches and battles, or even missions flown while he was in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Rather, most of those pictures are of him on the mound at ball fields in various stateside camps and on makeshift fields somewhere in the European theater of operations.
"Oh, sure, there's one or two of you in your G.I. uniform, but mostly you're in a baseball uniform with your unit's colors and logo on it."
The stories he told too: they were, as I remember, all about victories and defeats on the pitcher's mound. So, it was hard to be proud of him for that, especially when most of my friends would regale me with stories of bravery and military feats of glory filtered down from their fathers. I worried that one of them would ask me, "So, what did your dad do in the war?" and all I'd be able to respond is, "He mostly played baseball." And then all the kids would know my dad was the fraud I believed him to be.
I never understood how Chisel could be in more ball games than battles while he was in the war, until I saw the movie M.A.S.H. years later. Playing or watching the great American pastime was good for morale, the big brass realized, and since there were often many good players either enlisted or conscripted for the war effort, why not have them blow off some steam with organized games in the midst of such horror? It was just one more way to entertain the troops, while reminding them of the importance of winning at everything.
"But then bow did you make the team with so large a pool of possible talent? Just how did you get so skilled at the game?"
Everyone can hear Chisel utter that one monosyllable, but the rest of his speech is either garbled or inaudible. So I guess I will have to keep translating for him.
"Swing and a miss. Strike one," calls the Ump, his shadowy hand rising, and then falling.
Here comes the next pitch. Delevan Street, where Chisel matured as a kid from the mid 1920s through the mid '30s, was in a lower middle class neighborhood lined with mostly row houses and a few detached homes. At that time, the street also had very few trees that might interfere with the kids' ball games. Chisel and his pals played stick ball in the street. Finding the stick was easy: any discarded broom handle would do. The balls, however, had to be bought or else filched from Baers' place, the mom-and-pop grocers in the converted first floor of their row house right next door to the Swanns' corner row house. The grocery was still operating when I was a kid thirty years later. In what had been their living room, the Baers offered the usual goods, including milk, bread, soda, candy, and gum. But old man Baer also jammed the walls and stacked the corners with every kind of cheap toy one could imagine. And hard rubber balls, perfect for stick ball, were always in good supply. The alley that intersected Delevan Street, and thus made Chisel's house a corner row house, gave all the kids easy access for gathering together in his backyard in order to choose up sides. That intersection was also perfect for the center of the game's action.
"Yes, Dad, you were just a kid doing what kids do: kid play."
"That's ball one. One and one's the count," cries the Umpire, the sound of his clicker approximating the tick of a dock.
Next pitch: Chisel's stocky build and broad shoulders made him a natural born pitcher. That side arm lob he threw in slow pitch stick ball stuck with him even as he converted to pitching for regulation baseball at school and for the American Legion team he was invited to join at age fifteen. Being the youngest player on that Legion team was both an honor and a challenge. Fellow team members included a couple of former minor and bush leaguers. Most of the others were former high school ballplayers, and a few were guys from the 13-15 League in the next county whom he had played against in exhibition games a couple of years earlier. He felt a great thrill to be traveling with them on spring and rail alternate weekends and several evenings a week during summer breaks. Some of the fields the team traveled to were literally diamonds in the rough, while others, with adequate funding for upkeep from various lodges or corporate sponsors, were dazzlingly beautiful and professional-quality in his young eyes.
"Are you blind, Ump? That was right on the corner!"
"Ball two," the Ump repeats with finality.
"Smiling, Dad? Why, because you're ahead in the count? Go ahead, laugh; we'll see who bas the last laugh." Oddly, that once contagious laugh that I haven't heard in over four decades catches me a little off guard. I shake it off.
Okay. Okay. Here comes my sinker. The challenge wasn't that Chisel couldn't pitch against those ex-big-leaguers; his arm was already well developed and his curve balls often deadly accurate in the corner of the strike zone. It was after the games that was challenging. His mother was a teetotaler and temperance advocate who raged against America's (and particularly her husband's) drinking habits. She often lectured Chisel on the evils of alcohol consumption and pointed to his father as the worst example of its evils. But after the last pitches were thrown, the Legion provided tubs of beer and soda for the away games; for home games, especially if their team won, the Legionnaires would invite all the players, coaches, and managers into the American Legion Post adjacent to their ball field. There, they had a fully stocked bar with drinks at bargain prices, and often players and coaches alike were treated to several rounds before they had to pay for their own.
"I know, Dad, at first, you did choose or were simply handed bottles of Royal Crown cola, in light of your relative youth, but mostly in deference to your mother's well-known ideology. Yeah, those were Depression times; Prohibition had ended three years back, but most of the Legionnaires still remembered your mother's fervent speeches from those awful years."
It wasn't long, however, before the rising star, Chisel Swann, was indulging in the free beer and shots of whiskey that his older teammates were enjoying.
"Exactly, Dad. Why settle for Royal Crown when you could have Crown Royal?"
"Foul tip," the Ump shouts, as he pulls another ball from thin air. "Strike two."
At first, the beer was bitter-tasting and the alcohol burned all the way down, but young Chisel got used to it. He never got unused to it again. Even when his father Mody, a fellow Legionnaire, showed up at the post one evening after his shift at the capital city terminus, Chisel brashly continued to drink. And my grandfather seemed okay with it, almost resigned.
"Yes, you did seem to hold your liquor well."
As long as he stopped at Baers' to get a stick of gum for his breath and didn't get too close to his more when he got home, she seemed not to suspect his drinking. Besides, she was often preoccupied in those days with his older sister, Hilda, who was a senior in high school, definitely headed for college. Unfortunately, she had recently dropped out because she had been running around with the star quarterback and had gotten herself pregnant.
"Foul ball! Still two and two," counts the Ump.
"I suppose I can't hold my Aunt Hilda's plight against you, and anyway, your own high school reputation was fine, especially after you made the varsity baseball team as a starter in your sophomore year, the first player to do that in your school's history."
Let me try a curve next. Chisel also led them to two all-county championships and helped them make it to the all-state semi-finals by the end of his first junior year. He pitched nearly every game, sometimes seven or eight innings. His arm (and the rest of him) seemed indefatigable. He was even pitching most weekends for the American Legion team. His effort in the classroom did not echo his stamina on the field, though. At first, teachers gave him a break because they thought he'd take time to develop into the type of scholar his sister had been. Then, for awhile, they let him slide because he was making a name for the school with his athletic skills. That only bought him so much time, though, and before long, Mr. Moonan failed him for math and Mrs. Janney failed him in English, and Chisel had to repeat junior year.
"I know, Dad. You could almost understand 'Miss Proper' flunking you in English, but 'Feener' was young, had played ball in high school, and worst of all, he belonged to the American Legion. How could the sonuvabitch not pass you in his math class? Thank God you started dating Margaret Connelly!"
Her nickname was Mona (rhymes with Donna). She was pretty, she was good at both math and English, she was willing to tutor him, and most important, she loved baseball. The downside was Chisel had to kind of steal her away from his best friend, Vic Walton. It was easy because Vic was a second string outfielder, though he batted .340 when he played, but he just didn't prioritize baseball like Chisel did.
According to Mona, "Perhaps, I was too easily swayed by the moves of THE most exciting pitcher to come around in a long while. And he was a whole year older than me."
And so they were now both juniors together. Chisel took her to the junior prom, where he and Vic polished off a fifth of gin that Vic snitched from his father's liquor cabinet.
Mona again: "I hardly seemed to notice he was drunk, because I loved to dance, and though he stumbled through the proper number of slow dances with me, I probably danced the jitterbug with every other boy at the dance, as well as with my younger sister, Mimi."
Mimi, though a sophomore, had been invited to the prom by Jim Gaspari, son of the police chief. Here's Mimi: "My father, Jim Connelly, was livid when he found out. He could tolerate having Italians for cops, but he certainly didn't like his Irish daughters dating their foreign-looking sons."
"Yes, that is surprising that Jim Connelly didn't give Mona more grief about her dating you."
As a kid, Jimmy Connelly had practically grown up next door to and played many street games with Chisel's Irish mother. However, when, as a young woman, Agnes Swann nee O'Shaunessy joined a temperance league and became intolerant of uiscebaugh, the water of life, Jim and she never really talked much again.
"Sure, I know Jim Connelly certainly loved his V.O., Dad. But why should I stop talking about Jim Connelly, already?"
Listen. Back then, Jim did talk a good deal about international politics: about Hitler and Poland. All Chisel wanted to talk about was who was going to win the '38 World Series: the Yanks or the Cubs? Of course, Chisel was a diehard Yankees fan, but the Cubs had Dizzy Dean and, to Chisel, Dean was the greatest pitcher of all time! Dean had just helped win the NL pennant for the Cubs despite his sore pitching arm. Still, Ol' Dizzy's pitching wasn't enough to keep the Bronx Bombers from clobbering the Cubs four in a row to sweep the series that year.
"Way outside. Ball three," calls the Umpire.
OK, here comes a slider. The 1938-39 school year was much better for Chisel. With Mona and her best friend Nan McGinnis' assistance, he squeezed through math and English. But he was also drinking a lot more, not just after Legion games, but now that he had his driver's license and occasional use of his dad's '32 Packard, he and his pals could drink as they cruised the back roads around the township.
"Oh, you did break some more school records in your first senior year--five shut-outs and two no-hitters that spring!"
Still, the Mighty Chisel was destined to be held back one more time. Mona and Nan were graduating that year and they had a lot less time to spend tutoring him because they were under pressure from their parents to do well and try to get into State College. It didn't bother him much, because he could play varsity one more year; back then kids could do that without being eliminated.
"Sure, you did know lots of guys who had taken five, six, even seven years to graduate. And that last year of high school was really a breeze for you. Of course, most of your friends were already graduated, and some of the younger kids on the team called you the old man, but the teachers just let you pass all your classes because they just wanted you out of there."
"Foul tip. Still full count," calls the Ump.
Here's a nice, new, change-up pitch. Chisel graduated in June 1941, and it looked to be a banner year for his baseball career as well. Both Phillies' and Giants' farm team scouts watched him play that spring. About the same time, a couple of the Legion players and several of his friends were joining the Army or Marines because the newspapers were all about the European war and how America would be drawn in soon.
"Well, you figured, let them all join up. It only increased your chances of getting called up for a spot on one of those farm teams. Then, it would only be a matter of rime before you moved on to the big time: the Majors. But Tojo's attack on Pearl Harbor put an end to those plans."
First, Mimi's boyfriend Jim Gaspari joined the Navy; then Nan McGinnis' fiance, Dick Cassidy, joined the Army, finally, Chisel's best friend Vic upped with the Marines.
Chisel had no choice but to follow suit, so he chose the Army Air Corps.
"It is a good thing you did, Dad, because you were sent to Mercer Air Field for basic training, and that's where you found out they also had a league and a ball field near the landing strip. Compared to those guys on the front lines, you had it made for the first couple of years of the war."
To his credit, by Christmas of '43, Chisel was a staff sergeant in charge of shipping medical supplies to bases in North Africa and Italy. He wasn't shipped overseas until a month after D-Day. He was in England, then in Wales, then in Normandy, then in Paris, and eventually in Alsace-Lorraine. He played ball all the way through Europe.
"Sure, it's lucky for you, the Germans surrendered long before your unit was finally sent to Berlin."
And even in that nearly devastated city, he got to pitch in a couple of exhibition games staged for tired and bored British and Australian troops who had just returned from the Russian front.
"What's that you're whispering to the Umpire? C'mon, why are you out of the batter's box? I'm getting to you, aren't I? Good. Now step back up to the plate."
"Play ball," the Ump calls out, but it almost sounds like "Last call."
Since Chisel was never really traumatized by the stresses of the war or even suffering from battle fatigue, the transition back to the normalcy of civilian life was easy for him. Unlike friends and fellow veterans Vic Walton and Dick Cassidy, who chose to use the new G.I. Bill to pay their tuition to college, Chisel opted to forego higher education.
"You're shaking your head at me; damn, I know what you're doing. You're taunting me, hoping I'll throw a wild pitch way outside, and then it's a walk for sure!"
OK, fine. Instead of college, Chisel directed all his energies to pursue once more a career in professional baseball. That effort was aborted all too quickly, not by anything he failed to do to advance his career choice, but by his naivete in underestimating the magnetism and power of lira Connelly, his new father-in-law.
"Foul and away. Still three and two count," the Ump yells, while simultaneously pulling out his brush and sweeping off home plate.
"Yes, you married your high school sweetheart in Match of 1946, soon after your release from service."
New pitch. Upon reentry to the States on Christmas Eve 1945, Chisel made sure to contact some of the scouts he had known before the war. That contact had paid off in the form of one Jimmy "Bonehead" Japhet. He got Chisel a tryout with the Newport Buccaneers, a double A farm team for the New York Giants. This was his big chance.
"Of course, it meant moving yourself and your new bride immediately to the Newport area, three states away from home."
And that's when Jim Connelly stepped forward and flexed his formidable parental muscles. After all, his "little princess" Mona had driven to State College for four years, even though it was a thirty mile commute one way because Jim refused to let either of his two daughters get out of his sight for any length of time. Here's how Jim Connelly put it to Chisel: "I am not about to let you take her three hundred stinkin' miles away to pursue some cockamamie dream of playing games for a livin'."
No amount of arguing, whining, or cajoling could change his mind. Chisel couldn't even take off by himself because Jim Connelly had started building him and his now pregnant wife an apartment over the three car garage on his property, and Chisel was conscripted to help in all phases of the construction, even though he knew little or nothing about building a house.
Jim Connelly was a master builder and all he needed was physically fit, large-size bodies to help him with the dirty work, and his son-in-law fit the description perfectly. So Chisel temporarily kissed that offer from Bonehead Japhet goodbye, hoping for a chance next spring, though he'd already be a twenty-six year old pitcher by then. Chisel reluctantly took a job with his father on the railroad.
"Foul! Still full count!" cries the Ump, who pulls a dark rag from a pocket, lifts the face mash, and wipes a face devoid of features.
"Pushing off your pro career to twenty-six was risky because now that the war was over, there was a whole new crop of younger ballplayers emerging, who were not tied to a family or the strictest son-of-an-itch of a father-in-law ever to come down the pike."
Another curve ball on the way. All Chisel could do to keep up his skills that year was to play Legion ball and coach a team of youngsters in the 13-15 League.
"Deep inside you did know it was over, didn't you, Dad? When you did manage a rare night out at the movies, Mona and you would watch the newsreels flashing pictures of crammed hospital maternity wards and hear the announcer talking ecstatically about a post-war population explosion.
"So you could blame your dream career bust on the Great Baby Boom, after all, you and Mona contributed by having four kids in less than five years."
Of course, the consumption of alcohol at the Legion after the games and, on top of that, frivoling after work with his fellow railroad workers at just about every bar in town: these contributed greatly to the wearing down of Chisel's pitching abilities as well. But the truth is his heart, his focus, just wasn't on the diamond anymore.
"Foul tip. Still three and two."
Next pitch: a knuckleball. One of the Legionnaires who loved baseball, and who also had a real eye for up and coming business opportunities, helped land Chisel a job in the state capital at Public Gas and Electric, where he could make twice as much as the railroad paid.
"And probably tons more than you would have ever gotten pitching for a farm league team somewhere in the pinelands of South Jersey."
Chisel moved up in his new job pretty quickly, and they were even willing to send him to night school so that he could bone up on all that chemistry he needed for his job, but had never bothered to learn in high school. So he quit the American Legion team, and, eventually, he started playing slow pitch softball for the town team.
"True, your old friend Vic Walton was playing for them, and he convinced you to join."
Vic had just graduated from the local college with a degree in business, and he had decided to get a loan and buy out his great uncle who owned a small liquor store a couple of blocks from Chisel's house. Having a running tab at Vic's new store seemed like a blessing in the short run but, in time, it was truly the curse that pulled him over the edge into the shadowy hell of alcoholism.
"Foul ball! Still full count," calls the Ump.
"You swung at that last pitch for all you were worth. That's guilt and anger and regret swinging, Dad, and the baselines keep on shifting and the fences keep moving farther away every moment!"
So, here's my best and surely my last pitch: "You see, Dad, you didn't become a happy drunk like my Uncle Porky or a social drunk like your own father. No, you were a mean drunk, and a sneak, like when you'd send us kids ahead to go start practice at the Little League field where you now volunteered as coach because you said you forgot the bag of bats in back of the station wagon, and then you'd go for the bottle hidden under your seat for a couple of extra snorts before the games began. And it was embarrassing because then you'd get ornery and yell at the umps and me and most of the kids as well. Just not at my brother, Denny, because you could see he had it, that something in his stance, in his delivery, in his speed that told you he might be able to do what you were not destined to achieve: to go all the way to the Big Show.
"It never happened for Denny because you weren't around to nurture his skills by adding encouragement to his natural talents like you added shots of Seagram's to your Schmidt's beer to make boilermakers. Oh, my brother could have been a great baseball boilermaker; like you, he was already a starting pitcher by his sophomore year. However, that's also the year you left us by passing out and driving your Chevy into the canal at four a.m. on Thanksgiving morning 1967. The troopers dragged your body out after first light. According to one of the troopers, 'He had enough alcohol in him to preserve his body for a year.' Denny just gave up on baseball after that. For a few years, I pretended to hate sports, but my mother kept on loving the Yankees because you had loved them so.
"So now you understand why it has taken me forty years to write about my love of sports, most especially my love of baseball; it's just too ironic. But your ghost has been haunting me far too long. However, I realize now that I can't completely exorcise your spirit with this little pitch and toss of memory.
"In fact, you're right, I've done the exact opposite, haven't I? I've glorified you. I've turned you into a flawed hero.
"'Hero,' you echo and then I catch that familiar laugh again."
I can hear the crowd responding now: "He was human. He can't really be blamed for having once had a great hope to play a game that he loved for a living."
Circumstances just got in the way, like the Depression, the booze, the war, the booze, the Baby Boom, the booze, the stress of work, and the lack of money, and, finally, the booze. My God, I'm an enabler for the sporting ghost of my father!
"Ball four," cries the Ump. "Batter, take your base!"
But there are no bases to walk to and no batter on deck to replace Chisel. Vaguely, I can see my son in the bullpen, warming up, waiting to take the mound, as I step slowly toward the plate.
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|Publication:||Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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