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Spring 1998

My Pirate Boyhood

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Vijay Seshadri
In October 1960, the month the Pirates beat the Yankees in a World Series that ended with a legendary home run, my parents and I were living on Electric Street, in Ottawa. My father, after being awarded his American Ph.D., in physical chemistry, had returned to India to collect my mother and me and move us to Canada, where he took up a postdoctoral fellowship with that country's National Research Council. I have a tape of that last, and most famous, game of the 1960 Series, the first World Series that I have a memory of. The tape was given to me by a friend of mine at work after he heard me lamenting over the fate of the Jim Leyland Pittsburgh Pirates— a team that allegorized certain dementias of our era by winning three straight division titles in the early Nineties, only to fall short of the pennant each time, and then to see itself decimated by the economics of contemporary sports. I've played this tape many times over the last three years, rehearsing its rhythms and anticipating, with a tension that familiarity only intensifies, the famous home run— second baseman Bill Mazeroski's solo shot that opened and closed the Pirate ninth, beating the Yankees 10-9, still the only home run to decide a championship in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of a Series. My interest in this game has something to do with the satisfaction it provides: it must be one of the most spectacular baseball games ever played. But it has much more to do with the fact that this game marks a point in time when my life pivoted, when what I might have become began to be subsumed by what I became— half-alienated and half-assimilated, a hyphenated American and a Pirate fan.

My father maintains that he decided to leave India when he did because to do the kind of work he wanted to do he would have had to go to the North (we come from Bangalore, deep in the South, where the culture resembles the culture of North India as little as Italy's culture resembles Sweden's) and that he felt if he had to go north he might as well go all the way. I happen to know for a fact that my parents' desire to see me have a great academic career in science was crucial to their setting out on their long journey to another civilization, but I've never challenged this explanation my father gives for his motives. Not having had a great academic career in science— not having had a career in science at all— I'm naturally uncomfortable when I think about what they gave up. Bangalore must have been a hard place for my parents to go so far from when they did— not the megalopolis of today, where a lot of the world's computer software is being written, and where the newborn, capitalist, high-tech India chafes against the India whose problems seem intractable, but a gracious garden city, one of Asia's most beautiful. My parents were born into a community with deep roots in that region. They had only just stepped out of the old Indian world, the world that antedates the arrival of the British, and even of Islam, to the Subcontinent.

Considering how far they stepped, it's surprising how surefooted they were. In the mythology of my family, those years in Ottawa are described as filled with possibility. My mother is the keeper of this myth. She was pregnant through much of that first year, giving birth to my sister just before the Kennedy Inauguration— an event greeted in Canada with the same hopefulness as elsewhere (including India, where you can still go into a sweet shop in an out-of-the-way village and find a framed photograph of the thirty-fifth American President hanging in a place of honor and garlanded with marigolds). The Inauguration, my sister's birth, her own strength and youth, and a new life in the New World have combined in my mother's memory to weave a powerful aura around those years. To this day, she will walk out of a room if anything bad is being said about the older members of the Kennedy clan.

The Kennedy years. Our Ottawa neighborhood was bounded on one side by my school, my fifty-cent barbershop, and the Parliament buildings near the river; and on the other by a little commercial strip with an I.G.A. and a fifty-cent movie theater. The people who lived around us were named Matherson, Campbell, Jones. Their religion was nonconformist and their game was ice hockey. I never took to the hockey, though I played a lot of it. I possessed a talent for the religion, though. My parents had the residual piety that characterizes even the most agnostic Indians of their generation, and a God-is-a-diamond-with-many-facets attitude toward doctrine. When the mother of a friend of mine asked if I could accompany him to Sunday school, they said yes, and I became a valued member of a Christian congregation. I might have been valued because I was seen as a heathen ripe for conversion, but I doubt it. Those people were generous and unintrusive and enlightened. They had a reticence and dignity appropriate to their climate and dispensation. I'm sure they liked me as much as they did because I was a loud and contented hymn-singer, and almost letter-perfect in learning the Bible stories. My favorite story was the one about Joseph, who was depicted in our Bible reader wearing his coat of many colors while his jealous brothers circled around him, getting ready to throw him into the pit. My favorite hymn was "O God Our Help in Ages Past," whose first stanza,

O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home,

still calls up for me an image of sticklike, barely discernible human figures toiling over an immense, featureless landscape.

My parents' attitude toward Christianity was refreshingly nonsectarian: they also sent me to Mass occasionally with our next-door neighbors, a Québecois family that had moved to Electric Street about the same time we did, from Hull, on the Québec side of the Ottawa River. I squirmed through Mass, but the children of that family were my best friends, and they and their father were the ones who introduced me to the pagan worship of baseball. Of all the people I knew in those years, their father's is the only face I can recollect without an effort of memory. A decade and a half later, my mother, who keeps in touch with everyone she has ever been close to, told me that he had recently committed suicide, a piece of news that gave what I remembered of him a strong, graphic, permanent clarity.

His face was long, saturnine, and classically Gallic-looking, with bushy, emphatic eyebrows and a heavy forehead, which contributed to the image I have of him as always scowling, even when he smiled. I was never afraid of him— he was extremely kind to us children— but he clearly had an uncontrollable nature. He coached a pee-wee baseball-league team that I played on with two of his sons, and drilled us mercilessly. Long after we were expected home for dinner, he had us out on the field chasing fungoes or learning to slide away from the bag. He gave elaborate lectures about baseball history, and about the game's finer points: the position and function of the cut-off man, the proper procedure for a rundown, when to bunt and when to swing away. And he was competitive to the point of instability. During a game in the spring of 1961, while disputing a call at second base, he abused the umpire with such sclerotic profanity that our team was not only made to forfeit the game but was kicked out of the league entirely.

I don't know whether his being a Québecois among British-Canadians contributed to his volatility, but his family was set apart from the social life around them. His children didn't go to public school with the rest of us, but to a parochial school nearby. Other than myself, their playmates were exclusively French-speaking kids from beyond our street— kids who were perceived, unfairly but inevitably, as tougher and more unruly and less hygienic than the rest of us. In October 1960, I spent a lot of time in their back yard, playing catch with my first mitt and shinnying up the smaller of their two maple trees. It was there that I first heard about a city called New York, the mighty Yankees who lived there, and the great contest then taking place to the south. The whole family were Pirate fans. Their father listened to the games in the afternoon and told us the results around dinnertime. And when the Yankees were brought to ruin at the hands of their improbable opponents, he had us rake up the fallen maple leaves in a pile, which he lighted to make a bonfire so that we could dance around it in joy and vindication.

The next August we moved to Columbus, Ohio, where my father joined Ohio State's chemistry department. When asked where I come from these days by people who expect to hear the name of a place in India, I say I come from Ohio and go on to describe my classic Ohio boyhood— tree-fort building, crawdad-hunting, fishing for bluegills with dough balls— and the streams and woods and railroad tracks near where we lived.

Actually, my Ohio boyhood was classic only in its over-all unhappiness. Disastrously for my athletic and social development, I had exhibited while in Canada a degree of intellectual precocity and had been skipped two grades. This led to my being forced to play with kids who were larger and more coördinated than I was, and I became one of those forlorn, bench-warming children who are a source of pity and terror to their peers. Baseball was the worst, because I always had dreams of baseball glory. (Well into my twenties, in fact, I would fantasize miraculous trains of circumstance that led me to the pitcher's mound in a big-league game.) When I got to bat, it was usually because I was small, and could be relied on to draw a walk; when I was sent out to field, it was usually way out, to left or right.

There were more complicated problems, too. Small, brown, bespectacled, alien, and saddled with a name that others thought was unpronounceable, I was an easy target for the casual cruelties of childhood. It was on a baseball diamond during a game at the lunch recess in the spring of 1964 that I was informed, by a kid half again my size, that I was, if I remember his words correctly (and I do),"nothing but a nigger." (About a year later, this same kid did me another injury. While fooling around on the railroad tracks near our house, I fell and gashed my leg to the bone on a spike protruding from a railroad tie. Coming across me as I hobbled home, he half-carried me the rest of the way, robbing me of the satisfaction of my contempt for him and prematurely introducing me to the hopeless complexities of experience.)

I didn't respond well to the social pressures I was encountering. I began to do badly in school, which was upsetting, to say the least, to my father. I became delinquent and secretive. The sport I excelled in was pyromania. One day, while playing with candles and Ohio Blue Tip matches— which I liked because you could light them on the seat of your jeans, the zipper of your fly, even your teeth— I accidentally set my bed on fire. Firecrackers were illegal in Ohio, but I used my paper-route money to buy them from Ohio State students who smuggled them in from Kentucky and carried on a brisk contraband business. The ones I liked best were the big ones-the cherry bombs and, best of all, the M-80s. My soul still thrills horribly when I see an M-80, with the evil little fuse sticking out of its side. I threw them like depth charges into unpeopled swimming pools and on the weekends staged elaborate, solitary pyrotechnics at the vacant construction sites near where we lived. When I was ten, after weeks of pleading, I persuaded my mother— a soft touch when it comes to her children— to buy me a BB gun. My father made her take it back the next day. I mourned that gun for years, and it was a long time before I recognized how shocking it must have been for my father, who grew up in an intellectual climate imbued by the presence of Gandhi, to come home and see his son cradling a not-lethal but nevertheless dangerous replica of a Winchester repeating rifle.

Apart from interdiction and incarceration, my parents-disciplined, hardworking exemplars of immigrant virtue— didn't know what to do with me. Life had become more complicated for them, too. It is somewhere in these years of the mid-Sixties that I date the beginning of my mother's long return to the religion of her people. My father was wrapped up in his work. He wasn't neglectful— he would regularly descend from his nimbus of equations and try to guide my education. My tastes in reading (this was when I was nine and ten and eleven) ran to Hardy Boys mysteries, sports biographies of people like Red Grange, and a book that I can't recall the title of but that I read again and again, which told the story of a girl and a boy who had various adventures on a tropical island and who eventually grew up to become Queen Liliuokalani, the last native ruler of Hawaii, and her prince-consort. My father would try to tempt me with more edifying material, chiefly the American naturalist fiction that he had read when in college— The Grapes of Wrath, Studs Lonigan, Dreiser's Frank Cowperwood trilogy. Mostly, though, he preached the gospel of science to me, telling me stories that revealed the human side of figures like Einstein and Fermi, and describing the careers of renowned twentieth-century Indian mathematicians and physicists such as Ramanujan, Bose, and C. V. Raman.

In those years before the immigration act of 1965 abolished the rigid quotas imposed on Asian immigration, there were hardly any other Indians around. Dressed in her sari, with her bangles and with the bindhi that signified her married status placed carefully on her forehead, my mother could be spotted a mile off. These days the smell of Indian spices— of cardamom, asafetida, fenugreek, black mustard seed, and turmeric— makes me ecstatic with expectation. In those days these same smells, emanating from our kitchen and wafting through the corridor of our apartment building, made me wince with an immediate, intimate, olfactory awareness of how different we were. At a parents' day at Crestview Junior High School, I pretended not to notice my mother when she came to look in on one of my classes— an act for which she has never forgiven me, which she still holds up to me as an example of my ingratitude.

Columbus was (and still is) a football town. But it also had a Triple A farm club, the Jets, at that time a part of the Pirate farm system. It was understood that we orbited the Pirate sun, and in the summer of 1967, when we were preparing to leave Columbus and move to Pittsburgh itself— my father was advancing professionally, which seemed to involve an ongoing nomadism— my Pirate boyhood began in earnest. By this time, my isolation had become as much a state of mind as a social fact. I had two friends, classmates of mine, but I was twelve and they were fourteen. The gap between a slightly chubby, indistinct, pre-pubescent twelve-year-old boy and a teen-ager of fourteen is enormous. I still had a fetish about my firecrackers, while my friends had moved on to Playboy centerfolds and shoplifting. They performed, or claimed they performed, secret acts with the girls of their acquaintance. I tried to keep up, but the hormones just weren't there yet, so I resigned myself to circling our neighborhood endlessly on my bike and spending hours learning how to do a back flip, a full gainer, and a half gainer from the diving board of the public pool a block away.

The strongest memories I have of that last summer in Columbus center on the passionate identification I developed with the Pirates' great rightfielder, Roberto Clemente. Clemente was flirting with a .400 average through the first half of the 1967 season, and getting the kind of national attention that he always craved. I watched him on TV whenever I could, and he was the first performer from whom I derived a satisfaction I would call aesthetic. He was a compact, elegant, laconic presence on the diamond, spare and geometric, with a sprinter's legs. His fielding and throwing were legendary— even then he was recognized as one of the very best ever at his position. Among his peers, only Willie Mays, from whom he had picked up the famous basket catch when the two of them played winter ball in 1954 for Puerto Rico's Santurce club, possessed a comparable grace and aplomb in the field. He didn't have the marvelous Mays liquidity— everything about Clemente was angular and emphatic-but as with Mays, his movements left you with the impression that he lived outside his body and commanded it effortlessly from a great distance. He was a bad-ball hitter— about as far as you could get, in the realms of greatness, from a student of the art like Ted Williams or a street-smart opportunist like Pete Rose— and a fierce, feral protector of the plate. With two strikes on him, he could foul off ball after ball, driving the pitcher crazy, until he got a pitch he could work with.

I used to follow the fluctuations of his batting average with an arithmetic intensity. Not content with the meagre statistics that the paper provided, I built my own landscape of numbers around him, topographically dense and various, with interesting declivities and elevations. I waited every day for the afternoon paper, the Dispatch, to arrive. When I got my hands on the sports pages, I took them to the table in our dining alcove, where I had pencil and paper ready. I divided his at-bats into his hits myself and calculated his average out to six digits. Then I determined what his average would be if he went five-for-five the next game, or three-for-four, or three-for-three. I'd do this five, sometimes even ten, games into the future. I projected almost inhuman final averages for him— Rogers Hornsby's modern-day record of .424, for example— and then calculated backward, on the basis of four at-bats a game, the number of times he had to hit safely in the remaining games to reach it. If my sister disturbed me in the middle of my insane projects, I pounced on her with a fury.

This numbers mania subsided after a while, but my identification with Clemente went on deepening. I had to turn off the radio or the TV if he struck out. His successes transported me. I was at once shocked and satisfied when, in a game that August, he lined a drive back to the pitcher's mound and broke the leg of the awesome Cardinal right-hander Bob Gibson. (Through the rest of Gibson's career, I felt toward him the solicitude we reserve for people whom we've injured without meaning to.) The game that has pleased me the most in my years of following baseball was one between the Pirates and Cincinnati, a game that the Reds won 8-7. Clemente batted in all seven Pittsburgh runs, going five-for-five, with a triple and two home runs. I thought that this effort was incredibly poignant in its doomed and solitary heroism.

The only thing I relished about our move to Pittsburgh, which otherwise did not make me happy, was the fact that now I was in the Pirate home world. For the next three years, until I went to college in 1970, I was familiar with pretty much every game they played. I didn't get to the ballpark often. My father couldn't tolerate more than four or five excursions a season, and I couldn't rely on friends because all through high school I refused to make friends. I was fed up with my parents' wanderings and sick of my ambiguous social status, and had decided to go it alone. So through those springs and sweltering summers, when the country was experiencing race riots, assassinations, and the divisions arising from the war in Vietnam, I could be found either in our basement, watching the one or two games that were broadcast weekly on TV, or lying on the floor in our living room, next to our Grundig radio, listening to the play-by-play relayed by Bob (the Gunner) Prince, the gravelly voice of the Pirates, and his sidekick Nellie King.

Clemente had an arthritic back— the result of a car accident in the fifties and the source of the physical frailty that became one of the causes of bad feeling between him and the baseball world— and after each pitch he would step out of the batter's box and whip his neck to the side, as if trying to realign his vertebrae. Though he could hit home runs, he was known for line drives, high averages, and two-hundred-hit seasons. This was upsetting to him, I believe, and to me as well. I used to curse Forbes Field, that beautiful, vanished old park, where the game was played the way it should be, because its spaciousness had forced him to relinquish power for the sake of average, and to resist the temptation to swing for the distant fences. I also felt that his teammates let him down, although they were all fantastic ballplayers. Some of them— Willie Stargell, Matty Alou, Mazeroski— were stars in their own right, but nothing they could do was enough for me. I felt a general animus toward the Pittsburgh pitching staff, and a particular one toward Bob Veale, the gifted but wild Pirate fastballer, because he didn't have the control to be the stopper the Pirates needed. Clemente deserved better; he deserved Gibson or Ferguson Jenkins or Denny McLain.

I found his character as compelling as his play. Much of what I remember about him has been interwoven over the years with the things I have read or heard. But the aura he projected was unmistakable even then, and even to my relatively uninformed adolescent faculties. Moody, sensitive, forbidding, his coal-black, faintly Aztec features usually scowling, he walked the earth feeling aggrieved and misunderstood. He had volatile relations with his managers, and his relations with journalists were bad until his very last years. I remember clearly that he was vocal about the effects of racism on his career— and vocal at a time when there were far fewer blacks in the major leagues than there are now, and when the reserve clause gave management enormous power over players. I found out later, when I read Phil Musick's biography, that he was convinced he had finished so low in the balloting for the 1960 M.V.P. trophy because of the color of his skin, and so refused to wear the 1960 World Series ring. He had a running war with the press over the physical ailments that regularly kept him out of games. The local press was unsympathetic, and he would make matters worse by his response to their provocations. When the broadcaster Dick Stockton suggested that he wasn't a team player, Clemente threatened to kill him if he came into the clubhouse. He had an inimitable way of giving ammunition to his detractors. Asked once how he was feeling before a game, he replied, "My bad shoulder is good, but my good shoulder is bad"— this in that thick Puerto Rican accent of his, which people were not above making fun of in those days, and which always gave me a pained sense of his vulnerability when I heard it in a postgame interview after he'd done something marvelous on the field. I interpreted him in a way that harmonized with my own social isolation, nursing a bitter private grief for him, and projecting onto him not only my dreams of glory but the feelings I had about my complicated social circumstances. I remember reading a story which left me with the impression that his social circle didn't extend any farther than the other Hispanics in baseball-Orlando Cepeda, the Alou brothers, Juan Marichal— and I was indignant.

My Pirate boyhood ended with Clemente's death, in 1972, in a plane crash off Puerto Rico while he was helping ferry supplies to victims of that year's earthquake in Nicaragua. By that time, other obsessions had come to join, and largely replace, baseball. I was eighteen, a junior in college, and deeply into the counterculture. I had all sorts of revisionist explanations of experience, some of which I applied to his abrupt departure from the world. Though I mourned him when he died, I didn't share the widespread opinion that his death was heroic. I thought it was unnecessary, even absurd. I suspected compensatory impulses at work in his disastrous humanitarian gesture, impulses that I ascribed to his social awkwardness. I now saw vanity as a driving force in his character (he was vain, but no more so than other players at his level of achievement). He had had a splendid World Series against the Orioles in 1971, finally becoming famous in the way Mays and Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were, and I imagined that this grand justification of his talent had led him to commit an act of hubris, with attendant consequences. He had come to see himself not just as a baseball hero but as someone with a mission to the world.

All this was unfair to him— he'd grown up poor and wanted to give something back; it was as simple as that— but I'd been robbed of maybe two or three more .300 seasons and four or five hundred more hits. It took quite a while for me to recognize how perfect he had been for my peculiar, Indian adolescent romance of hero-worship— complex, human, uncomfortable in the world he lived in but nevertheless astonishing and unequaled —and how much I had got from him. Recently I saw in the news that they were demolishing an old skyscraper in Pittsburgh to make way for urban redevelopment— a skyscraper that had a gigantic mural of Clemente, along with other greats of Pittsburgh sports, on one side. On TV, the building was there, with the mural visible, and then it imploded in a column of dust that itself collapsed and spread out into the surrounding streets.

There's another gigantic mural of Clemente on a wall of a housing project at the edge of Harlem which is named after him. You can see it from the West Side I.R.T. local after it emerges briefly from its tunnel and runs on elevated tracks between the 116th and 137th Street stations. There he is, the Pride of Puerto Rico, with his bat cocked, facing the city. When I find myself on that subway line, I sometimes stand up in the car near the 125th Street station and look at him as long as I can.

Vijay Seshadri lives in Brooklyn and works for The New Yorker. He has published both poetry and essays in The Threepenny Review.


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