"Don't look back, something may be gaining on you". Great quote! Keen, poignant, thought-provoking … a life-lesson quotation by one of Baseball's greatest,
the late Satchel Paige.
Satchel Paige? He was an American baseball Major League Hall of Famer who came up from the Negro League, in the early 1900s. He was a great pitcher a wise man. They did eventually make a made-for-TV movie titled DON'T LOOK BACK starring Lou Gossett Jr. as Satchel Paige.
He put it better than any I've heard, in one of his quotes: "I never worked for a living, I played Baseball". Baseball was a vital ingredient in the recipe for the making of America. Jazz and the Civil War rounded out the top three which contributed the greatest impact/mixtures to the nation-creating template. Why certainly there's lots more that went into that jambalaya. For sure it was, at times, half-cooked, over-done. Many "cookins" were half-baked, huh?
Some say Baseball isn't a team sport… something to do with no time limit?! What about a sacrifice fly, taking one on the rump, a Tinker-to-Chance-to-Evers Double play, a Suicide Bunt on your Third Strike?
Sans bunting, my opening-day, first light, supraliminal memories of baseball were as a 9 innings, er, 9 year old playing in our town's newly created recreation department – NORD – the New Orleans Recreation Department.
We had moved into what became our final "family" home. A large stucco on a corner lot with a basement as roomy as the primary dwelling way up above on the real first floor. Get this, believe it or not, the basement was 4 feet below the ground! Some quirky, kooky person (thoughtful and brilliant, as it turns out) built this thing in a city that's already 6 feet below sea level! I know of but a handful of other basement (cellar) homes in New Orleans. Things were cooler down there, especially for the hot and humid summers. So our family of 8 became nomads in our own home: living/cooking upstairs in the winter; then migrating down below for the summer. Two homes in one. Cool enough down thar to keep a wine collection (which my father kept well stocked and being good altar boys we'd take covert sips on occasion). The only time it was essential to reverse the nomadic cycle was for the elevated protection needed to ride out safely (we prayed a lot) when one of those nasty hurricanes was coming into our city's strike zone. Family and friends were always taken in… our doors were never locked… in the '50s never had to.
My father sailed the seas for a living. A seaman at the age of 13, the youngest Chief Engineer ever to sail out of the Port of Orleans at 26, and, he was a proud Father of 6. He and mama zita (she was Irish, barely 4'8", truly zita, but not a little person, heart wise. She ruled us with a kind, loving heart and the threat of the "5 Fingers" (opened or closed, she took requests). All her brothers; and her father, were boxers. They weren't by trade but did what they had to do to make a living during the Depression. She delivered her famous Zita's Hay-maker with a wallop. Direct, without delay, without question, tough love, ouch! Didn't really hurt, nah! 'tho her consoling hug and kiss on the cheek did make it feel better.
They kept us busy: an important key to staying out of trouble. First it was saxophone lessons. I traipsed to my instructor's home at 6 in the morning on sleep-in Saturdays! My clarinet-playing brother formed a band. We practiced in the basement. Made a few bucks playing Dixie Land Jazz and slow dance music: Chapel in the Moonlight, A Very Precious Love were big requests. Didn't have many others: In The Mood and a sickly attempt at Pennsylvania 65000. Chicks drew to him like moths to you guessed it. I still have my tiny soprano sax.
Year round we never stopped till we dropped, even our down time was filled. As 24/7 as anyone is today. Oh how we hated to go to sleep, and, coequally hated to wake up. We played every sport imaginable: touch football, basketball; even badminton, even Croquet! Daddy, affectionately called Big Norman, purchased a real pool table for us. (Daddy? Big Norman? I declare the world is going to pass us Southerners by … Thank God!) Each of the pool table's two slates made up the surface, they weighed 500 lbs. The thing had to be reassembled in our basement. Talk about, "Build it and he will come." We had to take bookings to get time for everyone's buddies and girl friends to have the opportunity to shoot pool. Ultimately, we got the bright idea of charging them a nickel a game: the felt top was getting horribly, horridly torn and tattered; those bouncy side cushions were having "dead leg" issues.
I never learned to swim (in a city surrounded by water!). Our Baseball coaches would not allow swimming. We listened and obeyed our coaches in those days. They've reversed roles, today, n'est-ce pas? They warned it would drain us of our bodily fluids and deaden our legs. Didn't the crazed Sterling Hayden say something about THEM not taking his bodily fluids? Quickly, name that movie! As memory serves me, many of my friends went to the seminary following high school… must have had to do with the bodily fluids thing.
Let's just chalk it up to naiveté, innocence, and the times. Look, we only wanted to play baseball all our conscious hours. That was enough excitement for us, for the time being. Know what I mean? We'd break for lunch and go to the outside service window of the corner barroom for a Pepsi and a pickle. La Dolce Vita!
Wait! Time Out, Call off the game… the MOVIES! They begin at 7 o'clock!
On Friday and Saturday nights we were going to the movies if there was not indeed even if there was, something else to do. Well, except if there was a party to go to. Loved the movies, especially when a new picture came to the neighborhood theater; especially, if it were a new BASEBALL picture. Didn't miss any of those.
Take this one, for instance. FEAR STRIKES OUT, the story of the Boston Red Sox player Jimmy Piersall, came out in 1957. A must see for many of us kids who happened to be at a particular New Orleans Pelican game (The Pelicans were our beloved Double AA team). If memory serves me, it was in the summer of 1954. It was NORD Kids night, thousands of us were in attendance. Many in attendance knew Piersall had been sent to the Minor Leagues, just didn't know why. And, didn't really care: we were in the presence of a Major League baseball player. It was very obvious why he was playing for a minor league team. All during the game he was cutting up, acting clowny at times, then shifting to a darker side. He'd start something with an ump, arguing in full animation (making faces at them behind their backs). We screamed in delight! Finally, the umpire had enough, and threw him out the game. A few minutes later he appeared in the stands smack in the middle of us, continuing his antics with a great joker-grin and smile. Seeing Elvis perform live in '56 didn't beat that day seeing a Major Leaguer running around, putting on a show for US!
FEAR STRIKES OUT starred Anthony Perkins as Piersall. The movie was an engrossing account about Piersall's mental breakdown. Hmmm…wonder if it was before or after Perkins did Psycho? FIELD OF DREAMS made my hair stand up when I realized who the "he" was in the "Build it and he will come" shibboleth. I just love that word and 'tis naught pirate talk, OK? Caramba!
And forget about Robert Redford, he can't hit!
So many other great baseball movies, so, check out this web site for a complete chronological list. http://classicfilm.about.com/library/weekly/aa101800a.htm
©2003 Steve Esquerré
For more commentary and articles by Steve Esquerré, check the Archives.
Steve Esquerré is a writer, playwright
and an inveterate traveler.
He lives on a streetcar in New Orleans.
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