You never forget your first corn dog. Ever. Mine was at this stand at Rickwood Field in Birmingham. Before my first trip to New Orleans, my friend Luann had given me a copy of "Confederacy of Dunces." Ignacious P. Reilly took such delight in snarfing them down them that it frightened me. I am enough like him without adding corn dog addiction to my profile.
Hitting the baseball road, as I call it, 15 years ago, there was no master plan of what I was trying to accomplish. Rumors of my eminent demise were floating around and I thought it was better to be on the road somewhere than meet Kilgore Trout's maker in a small unheated room. "Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion...the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate." Dorothea Lange said and I have. Every Winter I brood and tell myself I am done shooting and Spring erupts and I am at it again.
From dancing around the country (Curly Shuffle, of course) I have narrowed my approach to things. At the parks, I spend as much time with people as I can. Fans, workers, former radio announcers...it is a great place to be. In Greenville, SC this past summer, I noticed a woman darting around the sidelines. It struck me that she was a pro and we ignored each other. It turned out that Yu-Heng was learning as she went along. She had chosen to go to different ballparks and photograph players of Asian heritage, specifically those from her home of Taiwan. Chih-Hsien Chiang, a big second baseman for the Greenville Drive was a subject for her. In three games, I taught her everything I could about b'ball photography, all of those little tricks that one picks up. She is even using one of my cameras in this photo. I know a guy that uses the umpire's pants to take a neutral exposure reading. Using the tan colored dirt of the infield works for me and probably less likely to have people question what I am focusing on.
The NYT today is running a "Best Pitcher Ever" column. I don't ever get into the "best of stuff." I am influnced more by what is in front of my nose than piling through record books. Best of to me...is who I had the most fun watching. Pedro, Nolan Ryan and The Eck would all fit into this group. Subdivisions of my group would include Bronson Arroyo, who I had the pleasure of photographing a perfect game. Bill Lee would be included. He was fun to watch but not much of a pitcher. Oil Can Boyd wasn't fun to watch and he wasn't much of a pitcher..so..
From the Negro League Baseball Museum website:
Positions: c, 1b, of, p
Teams: Memphis Red Sox, Kansas City Monarchs, Detroit Stars, Cleveland Buckeyes (1949-1950), Birmingham Black Barons, Philadelphia Stars, minor leagues (1950)
Born: December 1, 1921, Linden, Alabama
He was an outfielder with the 1949 Cleveland Buckeyes and, after beginning the 1950 season with the same ballclub, left to play in the Mandak League with Brandon and the Winnipeg Buffaloes. Beginning in 1951, after the decline of the Negro Leagues, he played and managed for several black teams for another decade. For a quarter century he was affiliated with ballclubs in organized baseball as an instructor, scout, and coach.
Baseball Career Highlights:
Reminiscing about the Negro Leagues, Evans commented, "We took a lot of abuse, stuff that people wouldn't know about these days, but we were one family. We were the nice guys who finished last except on the field."
Honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990, in a Salute to the Negro Leagues, Evans has been rated by many major league organizations as the best hitting instructor in organized baseball. Presently, Evans spends his spare time speaking to youth about the Negro Leagues and the importance of family values.
I grew up two trolley stops from Fenway Park. Some afternoons,my dad would give me a buck. The trolly was a nickle each way, general admission was fifty cents. That left a surplus of forty cents - good for a dog, a scorecard and popcorn. In those days, popcorn came in a funneled container.After you snarfed down the year old popcorn, you could punch the bottom out of the funnel and shout through it. "Big Neil" Kelleher was the father of my close pal, "Little Neil" Kelleher. As a bartender at Traver's Tavern, Big Neil would be given Sox tickets right on the third base dugout.With these cardboard sacraments Billy C. and Little Neil would go to the game. Third baseman for the Carmine Hose in those days was Frank Malzone. "Malzie" was a rock steady player. Nothing special, not flashy. I guess a ham and egger would better describe him. Forty years later, I met him at McCoy Stadium, where he spends a lot of time hanging in the owner's box. Friendly, affable and brave enough to wear his Sox World Series ring in public, he is shown here with Rick Medeiros, Director of PawSox Security. Rick is another great guy and someone I look forward to seeing at McCoy. A bear of a man with an even bigger heart, he is one that I am glad is on my side.
Hitting Chattanooga on Friday, I went from airplane to taxi to hotel to suit to banquet. After reaquainting with some old friends and shaking some hands, we settled back to hear a powerful speech by Larry Lester. During all of this, I performed "Double Duty," eating and taking pictures almost in unison. Had to be careful, my food doesn't like getting camera on it...The Chattanooga Choo Choos were a Negro League team back in the day that had Willie Mays, Willie's dad: Kitty Kat Mays and a remarkable man, Frank Evans, now 88. Frank attended the events and was the center of attention.
I have a couple of more social events in Chattanooga and I return to the city that was the last in Major League Baseball to integrate. It is never lost on me that the history of the game, so revered in Boston, is also missing any dialogue about one of its most meaningful chapters. Does one care more about Ted Williams in the Army or injustices brought upon minorities trying to play sports in Boston? To Bostonians, singing "Sweet Caroline" or if you claim to be a historian, "Tessie" is a deep as thoughts about the separation of races in Boston sports ever goes. Howard Bryant's "Shutout: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" should be on every high school must read list if not mandatory for all citizens of the "Athens of America."
Praise is not something I pay a lot of attention to. I suppose that I would have to receive it before I could acknowledge it. A photography professor of mine, back in the day, laughed at one of my pictures and said, "Billy, you are an American." That was good enough for me. Somebody noticed. Ernest Withers had asked me to do a photo job for him and after I asked him a question about it, he said to me "You're an American, you know what to do." High praise from the finest American that I have ever met. After 9/11, ballparks started playing "God Bless America" at some point during the game. The Pawtucket Red Sox were playing the version by Celine Dion. She is a native of Canada. I have nothing against our neighbors from the great white north but mentioned to Ben Monder, the owner and resident polar bear, that Kate Smith, as red white and blue as they come should be singing it. He growled, "If you can find it, I will play it." I did, (Thanks Mr. Amazon!) and to this day, she warbles once a game across the Elysian Fields of McCoy Stadium.If that is my only achievement in life, I will die a happy American.
On ye olde baseball road, I have met many, many people. Some waltz by the camera in the amount of time it takes to eat peanuts and crackerjacks at a ball park. Some have become life long friends. Funny how this mirrors the real world. Two of the finest gentlemen that I have ever met are pictured here. Willie Lee, former Negro League outfielder for the Kansas City Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons stands next to David Brewer, Director of Rickwood Field, the oldest ball park in use in the country. Opening in 1910, it predates Fenway Park by two years. As David tells it, Fenway is a mere pup.
My pal, Amy D, is an accomplished athlete, a sensational and soon to be published author, a dabbler in many arts and still has time to be a very hip person. She is also something that I am not (besides an athelete) - a diehard Red Sox fan. While many years of having my hopes dashed by good Sox teams gone badly in the clutch and then being overwhelmed by the mass marketing of said team, I lost interest. Amy, however, is still rah rah and for reasons that make sense to jaded old me. Here she sits with a World Series ticket around her neck, a beverage and her ideal man next to her. Heaven? No, Fenway Park during the World Series.
If you see her at the park, ask her to sing "Tequila."
Everyone has an "Origin Story." Superman, strange visitor form another planet, fell to Earth from Krypton. Batman saw his parents murdered. He became psycho killer, Qu'est-ce que c'est? Mitt Romney, strange visitor with a religion from another planet. Baseball Bill? Less dramatic perhaps but no less silly.
I grew up in Brookline, MA two streetcar stops from Fenway Park. At night, I could see the glow of the park's lights from my bedroom window as I listened to a Motorola tube radio under my covers. When I wasn't busy reading Supergirl comics with a flashlight or dreaming about Haley Mills (still do..) I would listen to the Sox. Everything would heat up and I would come up for air. Hard to say what got things hotter; RSox or SGirl..but some things are better left unsaid.
A friend once mentioned that knowing the president of a minor league team was still only knowing the president of a minor league team. Such insightful logic! It didn't seem to matter to her when she had her hand out for tickets. Minor League Baseball is no longer Americana. It has become small independant centers of entertainment caught up in the relentless pursuit of a fan base no longer interested in jumping dogs, sumo wrestling and least of all, interest in baseball. Want Americana? NPR would send you to the Cape Cod League. I have never been there and I wonder if I shall. It smells of bonhomie among the players but also of a wealthy fan base.
Nobody laments that type of baseball park any more. We are too far removed from it and it was already a myth when I went searching. The Bush Leagues. The myth of the small baseball park defining an earlier age is vanishing as fast at tractors can tear up their soil and contractors can install flashing scoreboards and many watted sound systems. Does the audience as baseball games represent America? No, only those that wish to spend their entertainment dollar on baseball. This is, however, a remarkable cross section of the population.
"If you're born in this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show. If you're born in America, you're given a front-row seat," George Carlin
Is the super bowl over yet?? It is a basic human need to identify with a power greater than ourselves. God, A-Rod, Mosi Tutupu,Jermaine Jackson,Dustin Hoffman all get the nod from one person or another. Everybody is a hero to someone.
A much yapped about trip to Chattanooga will finally happen in two weeks. This includes a banquet and a chance to meet up with some friends from that warmest, friendliest of climes, The South. At least one and perhaps two former Negro Leauge players will be there. Gotta love a man named Otha. Only for a duration of three days but enough to serve as a bracer for what I hope will be more travel to the sweet minors this summer. Peek-a-boo at Montana and Arkansas already. Poking around a trip to Canada as well.