In mid-October, after I’m certain those yellow buses are rolling over early morning roads, as I have every year since leaving my last classroom, I’ll grab another former teacher, my Lady Jane, and take a leaf-peeping sojourn, often a travel-combo platter of the Mid-Atlantics and New England.
Although for convenience and practicality, I often fly when I travel, my favorite trips are actually the ones that remind me of the vacations of my youth, when the trunk is filled with bags and the backseat with a cooler of goodies that can laid out at a rest stop amidst all the golds, oranges and reds on the overhanging boughs of deciduous trees.
This past fall’s trip that travel director Jane routed took us to Cooperstown, New York, before overnighters in three small Vermont towns — Manchester, Middlebury and Burlington — and then across the border to Canada’s capital of Ottawa and back across again to our home country for some final fun in Niagara Falls, New York, to see the mightiest of Falls.
As far as trip highlights, of course, for a lifelong baseball guy, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was, as it has been the other five times I’ve toured it, so very special. The exhibits and inducted players’ plaques provided so much reading material that, after my five hours there while Lady Jane amused and entertained herself in one of the prettiest villages just off the banks of Lake Otsego you could possibly imagine, my eye lids felt as if they had sand under them.
Of course, baseball is a sport of numbers, many of which are sacrosanct — Ted Williams’ .406 batting average in ’41, Cy Young’s 511 career pitching wins, the Great Babe’s 60 homeruns in ’27 and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s 755 career homeruns. And, they are numbers known by pretty much every true fan of America’s pastime.
But of all the numbers I absorbed in my five latest hours, including the unusual dimensions of the original Polo Grounds in New York with its 279 feet to the leftfield foul pole and the 257 to the rightfield pole but the figurative country mile 483 feet to straightaway center, making it the only ball field ever to take on the configuration of a bath tub, or the incredible symmetry of Stan Musial’s 3,630 hits, which divided itself equally into 1815 hits on the road and 1815 hits playing at home, none of the numbers were more remarkable than the words I read.
No, those words came from two men of color, men who showed such an abundance of grace and forbearance in the face of overwhelming bigotry and injustice, all placed at their feet because of the pigmentation of their skin.
In the case of one of baseball’s great ambassadors, Buck O’Neill, who missed displaying his talents as a player in the Major Leagues because his time came before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947, it was his response to a reporter’s question late in O’Neill’s life asking if he was bitter that he came along at the wrong time.
O’Neill, who played and managed for almost two decades in the Negro Leagues before traveling all sorts of back roads as a scout for the very Major Leagues that barred his entry as a player before then becoming the Major’s first black coach to mentor so many black ballplayers who were allowed to do what he was prohibited from doing, responded to the reporter’s query thusly:
“Waste no tears for me. I didn’t come along too early. I was right on time.” For someone who could understandably have been so very bitter, the words exude such grace and dignity.
Amidst so many other torrents of numbers — Willie Mays’ 24 All-Star Game selections, Nellie Fox’s string of 19 straight seasons where he never struck out more than 18 times and George Brett’s winning three batting titles in the three different decades of the ’70s, ‘80s and 90s — I saw again some words that resonated, words of the great Hank Aaron, who himself had to start in the Negro Leagues before being given his pass into the Majors after Robinson paved the way.
As I studied the large Aaron exhibit, I was struck by his words when he responded to a reporter who asked him how he had such patience in waiting on a pitch he could “barrel up” and hit with authority.
He said, “The thing I had on my side was patience. When you wait all your life for respect and equality and a seat in the front of the bus, it’s nothing to wait a little while for the slider inside.”
And so it was in baseball’s hallowed shrine in a bucolic village in central New York at the southern tip of a lake that the Indians used to call Lake Glimmerglass that I was again reminded that while numbers are fine and many are indeed memorable, it is often the words that we take the time to read and hear that resonate the most.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.