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MY TURN AT BAT

Home Based: Mothers, Daughters, and Baseball
By Lorie Roth

My earliest memories of going to Fenway with my father are a blur. . . .
—Sports Illustrated,
November 1, 2004

I'm thinking a lot about my dad these days because I realize how special this baseball season would have been for him.
—Sports Illustrated,
November 1, 2004

[A] love of baseball and our Red Sox was a legacy passed on from fathers to sons (and occasionally daughters).
—Newsweek,
November 8, 2004

 

These passages from sports journalists covering the 2004 Red Sox–Cardinals World Series remind me that all my life I've read stories about fathers and sons and baseball. But I've never yet read one about how the sport has engaged mothers and daughters. The magnitude of the imbalance was illustrated for me recently by a quick-and-dirty LexisNexis scan of sports news. A search using the keywords "fathers and sons and baseball" located 964 articles; a search using "mothers and daughters and baseball" yielded only 54 pieces. A number of those supposedly about "mothers and daughters" were actually obituaries of men, and many were oddities, such as one article about Mother Teresa autographing a ball. In the story of the national pastime, the voices of mothers and daughters have largely been silent and their words invisible. So I can't resist writing about how my mother and I have experienced our shared love for baseball in ways very different from the oft-told story of fathers and sons at the ballpark.

My mother is the most ardent fan the Cleveland Indians will ever have. Her passion for Major League Baseball—and, specifically, the Indians—has been transfused so that it runs deeply and pervasively through my veins. Yet never once did she sit beside me at Cleveland Stadium and explain the fundamentals of the game. She never taught me how to record hits and outs in the esoteric symbols of scorekeepers. She never put a bat in my hand and pitched Wiffle balls at me.

Both of us grew to adulthood before baseball or softball went coed, before Little League allowed girls onto the playing field, so we were necessarily spectators from the start. Moreover, in the 1960s, when the love of the game began to insinuate itself from mother to daughter, a visit to Cleveland Stadium was a rare luxury. With the responsibilities of a full-time job, three kids, and my father (who much preferred golf to baseball), my mother had little time, money, or inclination to drive the sixty miles on country roads to downtown Cleveland. So for us, baseball was not lived on the playing field or in the stadium. We didn't meet baseball on its grounds; instead, we met it in our home.

My mother's devotion to the Tribe was forged in the glory years of 1948 through 1954, when players like Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau, and Larry Doby made the Indians into perennial contenders. It was transmitted to me when the Cleveland clubs generally were pathetic losers, but her fandom was never diminished by decades of dismal failure.

Baseball was the unobtrusive but omnipresent background to our summer months. It entered our home through the voices of Jimmy Dudley and Herb Score rising on waves of static from a large radio situated on the kitchen counter next to the electric mixer and spice rack. As my mother stood with her flour-covered hands baking the Eastern European pastries taught to her by her immigrant mother, she listened to the vicissitudes of the Tribe, leavened by the occasional small achievement (a victory over the much-despised Yankees, for example) or even the stunning and unexpected triumph (Len Barker's perfect game pitched against the Blue Jays). Rather than the highlights reel, however, I mostly recall the deep guttural groan my mother would utter, the "uhhhnnnn," when an Indians player dropped a routine flyball or struck out with the bases loaded. The moan would be followed by a brief disapproving frown (the same one used if I spilled the milk); then she would reach for the rolling pin and attack the pie dough with renewed vigor.

On the unusual occasion when a Tribe game was televised, my mother would position her ironing board before the black-and-white in the living room; retrieve a plastic bag of dampened, rolled-up cotton shirts from the refrigerator; and, moving to the tempo of Sam McDowell mowing down opposing batters, set to ridding the world of wrinkles. At dusk, when her work was finished, she sat on the back porch, flanked by me and a cocker spaniel, with the voice of Jimmy Dudley continuing to float out of the kitchen and into the night.

In the 1980s, both my mother and I had more money and more leisure to indulge our interest in the game, but perhaps conditioned by years of baseball in the home, we still shied away from baseball immediate and direct. We liked our baseball domesticated, and we found it in spring training. Every March, although we lived two thousand miles apart, my mom and I would wend our separate ways to a reunion at the airport in Tucson, Arizona. From there, we'd drive to a small hotel about a fifteen-minute walk from Hi Corbett Field, then the home of the Tucson Toros and, for almost fifty years, site of spring training for the Cleveland Indians. Because the games were never crowded (unless the Cubs were in town), we could stand next to the three-foot fence along the third base line, talk to rookies eager for an audience, watch Bob Feller throw pitches on the sidelines, and bump into the assorted oddballs, flameouts, never-weres, and resilient toilers who populated Cleveland's roster during those years.

My mother and I loved spring training for being baseball at its most human and forgiving. Spring training is when a rookie pitcher is allowed to give up ten runs before he is called to the showers; when, for fear of injury, superstars won't run too hard, throw too hard, or dive for a ball; when opposing teams agree to call a game if it is tied in extra innings; when it really, truly doesn't matter who wins or loses; when nothing much does matter except a few hours of good play in the sunshine.

In 1993, after the Indians abandoned Hi Corbett Field for Winter Haven, Florida, and its larger fan base of Ohio snowbirds, our spring training idylls came to an end. "They should've stayed in Arizona," she said. "There is no water in Arizona," she added, alluding to the boating accident that killed two young Cleveland pitchers that spring and irreparably damaged the career of a third.

Soon after this, of course, Cleveland finally made it to the World Series, and my mother and I finally made it to "The Show." When the Indians are playing the Anaheim Angels, she flies west to stay at my home in Southern California, and we go to real major league games. Before we depart for the stadium, she dons her Indians regalia—cap, sweatshirt, tote bag. Although I tell her that boosterism is too uncool for Southern California, she ignores me. We show up at Anaheim Stadium two hours early—to beat the traffic, we say, but really so that we can watch the teams take batting practice. To the constant backbeat of thwack-thwack-thwack, the players stretch, talk to friends along the sidelines, joke, horse around, even occasionally sign autographs for adoring children and middle-aged women. As we walk to our seats for the first pitch, the relaxed camaraderie of practice is somehow transmuted into the focus and intensity of a contest, and we stay, unlike most Angelenos, until the last out.

More than half a century has passed since my mother began her love affair with baseball. Today the radio on her kitchen counter has been replaced by a very small color television with cable, but not much else has changed. On Sunday afternoons, she stands in her kitchen, and I stand in mine. While we both get down to the business of chopping carrots or rolling pie dough, the two thousand miles that separate a mother and her daughter are bridged by the voice of a TV baseball announcer and forty years of shared love for a sport that remains, for us at least, a wonderful pastime based at home.

—EFQ

A lifelong Cleveland Indians fan, LORIE ROTH currently serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Programs at California State University.

© 2005 Lorie Roth

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