A Baseball Hymn - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
April 2, 2012

St. Paul, Minn. — Possibly you've heard all you need to hear about the aesthetics of baseball. And here I am adding innings.

But when I get impatient with metaphorical praises of baseball as a poem, or as music, it's because for me baseball predated both as objects of contemplation and participation. Calling baseball a sonnet in flannel or symphony in spikes (it happens), is insulting, or at least patronizing, to baseball.

It's just fine its own self.

The first time I saw a professional baseball game was at Waters Field in Salem, Oregon. The blue Dodgers logo on the façade of a wood plank circle signified great entertainment within and was every teacher's ideal of proper cursive handwriting. This was 1963, '64. Flannel, in its elegantly simple blowsiness, hadn't yet given way to polyester. My memory of how a player ran in this uniform is like watching an old newsreel in my head. The game then, only a half dozen years removed from the parent team's Brooklyn base, was closer to Gherig and Ruth than to Jeter and Pujols.

The Salem Dodgers were a Single A farm team in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. They had players named Larry Ramsey, Cleo James, a giraffe of a pitcher with Buddy Holly glasses named Gene Brabender, Clarence Jones — who made it to the big leagues and later was the Atlanta Brave's hitting coach — and Jim Lefebvre — who became the 1965 Rookie of the Year with the L.A. Dodgers in an all switch-hitting infield.

They also briefly had a catcher named Bill Kelso. He threw to second (and occasionally back to the mound) so hard they turned him into a pitcher. A miniature catcher myself, Kelso's story suggested that in whatever drudgery I might spend my games and my days, somewhere along the line the true prince in me would be discovered. It was a lovely thought.

And even Max Patkin, the legendary clown prince of baseball, occasionally showed up, a man made of rubber.

The weekday games began with the sun high enough to splash half the stands, and ended in darkness. Something in that transition. Backdrop to a drama (oops, there I go) so intimate you could hear the players' conversations as they warmed up in foul territory. The outfielders you could hear laugh. And of course, lots of bulging cheeks and lots of spitting. No sunflower seeds for these guys, in those days.

Before games kids could wander down to the dugout area to ask for autographs. I never got up the nerve actually to hail one of the players, but I came away with better memories than a scrawl from a surly, underpaid minor leaguer who knew deep down his career would end in Double A. Because there I heard it for the first time. I won't call it music, since the effect on me was so immediate, so unstudied, so completely natural: it seemed somehow older than mere music, which has tried to recreate such effects ever since.

The players, in their cleats, walking on the concrete passage to the clubhouse. First a solo voice, then others joining in a clanging, clicking harmony. I never had or was induced to have the desire to touch my fingers to a keyboard or scrape a bow across some strings. But that music, I wanted desperately to make. It was the best sound I ever heard.

Truth is, for me, no other performance venue can ever top Waters Field as an authentic imaginative thrill. It was the right thing at the right time. Just as nothing but the clicking of cleats will ever top the delayed crack of my father hitting a fly ball from about mile away, and the subsequent delight and panic of tracking down that suborbital satellite as it returned to earth, motionless again in my smarting gloved left hand. Simply magic. This is why kids play baseball. This why kids play any game, and why they never really stop playing even when they stop playing. It's an original, indelible love, an essential surrender. Music is sort of like it.

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