For me, it was the best place on earth: Connie Mack Stadium. That’s where the Philadelphia Phillies played; my home town favorites, my heroes, the guys I wanted to grow up to be. Guys like Robin Roberts, Del Ennis, Granny Hamner, who played shortstop, and who, Dad said, was “tough as nails.” The big wad in Granny’s cheek was chewing tobacco Dad told me. He was always spitting – Granny that is, not Dad. Dad smoked cigars as we sat in the stadium on those warm summer days. I was happy then. Being at the ballpark with my dad and my younger brother Paul was as close to perfect as my life could be.
Sports were the only way that I was able to connect with my father. In our regular day-to-day life he was distant, silent for the most part, sometimes threatening. Usually I tried to avoid him; Mom was always telling us not to “bother your father.” Like he might explode if pushed the wrong way.
We’d arrive at the ballpark early. Connie Mack Stadium was in North Philadelphia, in a tough neighborhood, by which I mean an African-American one. Back then, in the mid-fifties we said, a “colored section.” So, when we parked the car, Dad would give some “colored” kid a dollar to watch the car while we were gone. I understood that it was a sort of bribe, but one that everybody could agree on. Give the kid a buck, or else come back to find your tires slashed.
Before the game we would go to a little hole in the wall soda fountain where Dad would order us hot dogs with chili sauce, and chocolate cream sodas. I can’t tell you with words how delicious that food was. I can tell you how I felt about my father then. I thought he was perfect – strong, smart, even kind. I loved him in a way I could never have spoken out loud.
Dad always got us good seats, down close to the field on the first base side. That would be the best place to catch a foul ball, Dad said, though we never did get one. Walking out from the dark tunnels into the bright interior of the stadium took my breath away. It was so big, so vivid, with the bright green outfield grass and the brown dirt of the infield, lovingly tended to by the grounds crew. Some of the players would already be out on the field taking batting practice or running sprints. Someday, I told myself, I would be out there too, wearing a red, pinstriped Phillies uniform. I didn’t tell Dad that, though. I was afraid he might have laughed at me. That would have ruined everything.
We’d buy scorecards before we got to our seats, from a guy who waved a fistful about and hollered, “Get your pro-grammms here.” Dad bought two, and gave one to me. Paul was still too young to know how to keep score, and didn’t seem all that interested anyhow. Dad, though, had taught me how to do it – all the symbols and numbers you had to know to keep a running account of who had done what at each turn of bat. It was complicated, but I picked it up quickly because Dad expected me to, and because I wanted more than anything to please him.
Once the game got underway, we settled back into the hard wooden chairs and became totally absorbed in the action on the field. Dad kept up a running commentary on the game, yelling encouragements at the Philly batters – “Come on, Richie. A little bingle. Let’s get it going.” Richie Ashburn was the leadoff hitter for the Phils and consistently had one of the best batting averages in the National League. Dad turned to me almost every time Ashburn came to the plate and said, “See, you don’t have to be a slugger to be a great player.” If Ashburn worked the count to three and two, Dad yelled out, “A walk’s as good as a hit.” There were dozens of these phrases he would use, depending on the situation and who was at the plate. The other men in the seats around us were doing the same, whooping and yelling, and I’d also join in, though my voice wasn’t loud enough to be heard. Still, it felt good, like I was part of something bigger than myself. Dad’s loudest comments were reserved for the opposing team. He’d yell so loud I was sure the players could hear him. “No hitter, no hitter. This guy’s a bum. Strike him out. Put it in his ear.” This last, I finally figured out, meant for our pitcher to hit the opposing batter in the head with the baseball. I don’t think Dad meant that seriously.
We were all yelling and cheering together for the team, responding as one to every moment, good or bad, on the field. And when a Phillie player knocked one out of the ballpark for a homerun, all of us jumped up as one body, screaming and stomping, cheering. Dad and I stood there side by side clapping our hands as Willy “Puddinghead” Jones or catcher Stan Lopata or Elmer Valo circled the bases. If the homerun put us ahead or won the game, maybe Dad even slapped me on the back. My little brother, Paul, cheered too, but I got the feeling that he was doing it just because everybody else was and as soon as he could, he’d sit back down and continue eating roasted peanuts, the shells now scattered all under his seat.
By the ninth inning, unless it was a particularly close game, I was tired and ready to leave. Including the drive over, we would have been gone for five hours or more. On the other hand, I really wasn’t ready for the day at the park to end. I knew that once we left Connie Mack Stadium and got back in the car (whose tires were still in one piece) everything would go back to the way it was. Dad would stop talking, stop buying us treats. He’d drive us straight home, wouldn’t look at me, and I, smart boy that I was, would also stop chattering, stop asking questions, stop being happy. And wait for the next day at the ballpark.
By the time I graduated from John Bartram High School, Dad and I had stopped going to the games. We didn’t have much to say to each other – not even about the Phillies. And once I left for college and continued on with my life, Dad and I grew even further apart. I imagined that he was angry that I had not followed in his footsteps to become a doctor, upset that I married a non-Jewish woman, disappointed that I had moved my family 3000 miles away from Philadelphia. Our days at Connie Mack Stadium were a distant memory.
Then in 1978 (8 years after Connie Mack was taken down), Mom and Dad came to visit us in Seattle. Maybe because he was now retired, Dad seemed gentler, more open. He allowed my young daughters to climb onto his lap as he read them book after book. I bought us tickets to go see the Mariners play – good seats too, right on the first base side like Dad had taught me. We drank beer and ate peanuts and I kept score in the program. Dad still cheered and jeered at the action on the field. I did too. We shared the same vocabulary once again. Father and son.
From almost the moment of my birth, my family has called me Butch. I was an eleven pound baby. I often feel like I’m operating undercover when people call me Rob or Robert. Rob has gotten degrees, held jobs, raised a family and even published lots of stories. But in my later years, I have launched into reclaiming my Butchness. These days, Butch likes to hang out at the beach and go surfing.