With the advent of April each year, there comes the joy of an old friend walking back in through a door after being gone on some trip during the winter and, might I say, looking as enticing as ever!
That friend is baseball, welcomed by every guy who remembers the first time he took note of the intoxicating aroma of a new ball glove. And, while I’m so glad to have baseball back in my life each year to remind me of the magic of my youth that grows sadly smaller in my rearview mirror each day, with each new season, I’m also reminded of a specific regret.
The year was 1962, just after the Good Sisters of Charity had done all they could do for and with us and released us into the grandest of months, June. My 11th birthday was just a few days away, and my father told me that he had a special surprise for me that year, something he said he’d acquired while traveling his work roads through Ohio and Indiana selling copper and steel to make a living and support a family.
Finally, after plenty of palpable anticipation, the day denoting the annual anniversary of my birth arrived, and dad presented me with his surprise, a baseball signed by every member of the 1961 National League pennant-winning Cincinnati Reds. He’d gotten it from a business contact whose uncle was one of the clubhouse attendants for the Reds, the same Reds that my favorite team, the Yankees, led by my hero Mickey Mantle, dominated in the ’61 World Series, four games to one.
On the pristine white ball there were the bold dark-blue signatures, signatures done legibly as most sports figures of yesteryear practiced, of players like Vada Pinson, Frank Robinson, Gordy Coleman, Wally Post, Bob Purkey, and Joey Jay, who owned the lone pitching victory for the Reds the previous Fall Classic.
I remember my father giving me some sage words along with the ball. He told me that although the ball wasn’t one signed by my Yankees, I should keep it in a secure place and out of direct sunlight as a keepsake that I would appreciate more and more as time went on.
If I close my eyes, I can still see the way the signatures looked, the straight-up seven-letter cursive of Jay, far different from the flowing script of Frank Robinson, and the distinctive way that Bob Purkey made his “P.”
Of course, there’s a reason I have to close my eyes to remember those signatures because, although I still have many sports items from my childhood, I don’t have that ball.
I remember looking longingly at it for several weeks and wondering if it would hurt all that much if I took it to Faurot Park and played with it just a little. After all, it wasn’t as if it were a ball signed by my Yankees, right?
And, that’s what I did, playing with it long enough for grass stains to swallow up the signatures and render them unreadable.
When my father found out some time later after asking to see the ball, the man with enough Irish in him to get my attention on numerous other occasions reacted far differently. He didn’t get angry, but certainly the look on his face betrayed the disappointment he tried to cover. He dropped his head, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I hope you had fun with it. You might as well keep playing with it now.”
While I thought at the time that I’d somehow gotten off lucky by not being yelled at, as the years passed, believe me, I’ve yelled at myself enough. I thought about it a lot in 1978, the year my father was killed in a car-train accident at an unmarked crossing outside Paulding, on a day when he was still driving his copper-and-steel selling roads, roads destined never to lead to retirement.
And, of course, I’ve thought about the incident many times since then, this story that involves a father who felt he’d given his son a great treasure and a son flush with stupidity.
Fortunately, I have my fond memories with my dad and baseball — trips to Briggs Stadium in Detroit before it became known as Tiger Stadium to see the great Mantle play and to Crosley Field, where the men who once signed a brand-new ball with a dark blue pen for me went to work.
But, sadly, I also have a regret, one that involves an 11-year-old boy who couldn’t see far enough down the road to realize the true value of what a father gives to his son.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.