Monday, November 19, 2007

FORGOTTEN WARTIME BASEBALL:
The St. Louis Browns, German Snipers,
& The Healing Power of Time

CINCINNATI (ZP) -- He tells me that the pain isn't so bad, that a slow death surrounded by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren is nowhere near as bad as what he'd seen back in the Second World War.

He'd been shot in '44 - bullet tore a chunk of meat from his shoulder the size of a pork chop. Shot by a goddamn Kraut sniper at the end of the goddamn summer, smack dab in the middle of a goddamn war, a few weeks before the goddamn World Series back home.

And that Wehrmacht sonofabitch took out Tommy from Kansas City, Big Brooklyn Lou, and Injun Pete, all in one night. Injun's face had been split in half, right at the bridge of his half-Cherokee nose, one shot to the head from behind some grove of trees.

But, the old man explains, that skinny little sniper got what was coming to him. One burst from the ol' M1 Thompson tore the scrawny Deutschländer in half, opened him up from behind and dribbled forth German intestines and bile and blood. He remembers losing it, just a little bit, as his corporal had to pull him away from beating the rest of the corpse into a mashed lump of flesh.

"See, in wars you can't lose it, because then you go from bein' a soldier to a killer."

* * * *

The old man stares out onto the suburban Queen City landscape, out from the shopping mall and towards the Interstate off-ramp. He's waiting on his grandson's wife to pick him up, to drive him back to his daughter's house. The State of Ohio took his driver's license when his eyes failed him years ago. The kids sold his house when their mother died, sold all of the furniture and appliances and other evidence of one's physical existence.

But, even as the doctors lop off toe upon toe upon leg, as they fight back diabetes and decades of machinist's diet, he still has his memories. Just the smell of cigarette smoke sent him into a tale about Joe Nuxhall, the longtime Cincinnati Reds pitcher and broadcaster.

Nuxhall - a 15-year-old rookie in 1944 - died earlier in the week from cancer, partially attributed to his years as a heavy smoker. The old man reminded me, as I reached for a cigarette, that smoking killed "The Kid" at a youthful 79.

How the veteran loved talking baseball. Of the beauty of old Crosley Field, how he'd hated those four long-haired Liverpool lads for defiling such hallowed ground with their British rock and roll, how he knew - KNEW - I was a lifelong Baltimore Orioles fan, based solely on a question asked about Frank Robinson.

He remembered, too, that the Orioles, prior to 1954, were known as the St. Louis Browns. And shortly after that German sniper cleaved open Injun Pete's face, the Browns clinched their only trip to the World Series before they left a decade later for Baltimore.

* * * *

Back in that European Summer, a few weeks after Operation Overlord began, a group of American G.I.s went out on another routine patrol, one so routine that they'd gotten sloppy.

A friendly conversation had just turned into an all-out debate over whose team was better, which city's fans were more dedicated. Injun hailed from eastern Missouri, and, having always been a half-Cherokee underdog himself, had been a lifelong fan of the perpetually awful, almost-forgotten American League Browns.

Instead of watching the tree lines, they'd been talking about the Browns and their race against the Detroit Tigers, about the Reds being in third place in the National League, when the first crack of gunfire overpowered the dusk.

He never lived to learn about the Browns squeaker of a pennant against Detroit, to hear about the last World Series ever played completely in St. Louis. In October 1944, the dreaded National League Cardinals beat Injun's boys in a six-game series that hardly any baseball fan alive remembers.

* * * *

The old man paused, mid-sentence, as old men tend to do. When he started to once again speak, it was as if the whole of his existence had been charted through France and Germany, the ghosts of long-dead war buddies channeled through the medium of America's Pastime.

He'd tried to forget Injun Pete, all of those war buddies he'd lost. After the war ended, it took him years to recover, to accept what'd happened and why he quit going to Crosley to catch games after work, why he didn't care about baseball for a good 20 years...

But then Frank Robinson was traded to the Orioles in 1965, he explained. Read about in the paper, along with accounts of another war, Vietnam. All of Cincinnati was in shock - Robinson was supposed to be a Red, dammit, forever. Just as people, too...

The next season, Robinson led the former St. Louis Browns to the franchise's first championship - over the Los Angeles Dodgers, Big Brooklyn Lou's relocated home team.

Like baseball clubs sometimes change cities and players sometimes get traded to new teams, he changed his mind about how he thought about those buddies he'd lost back in 1944. It took the passage of time for him to be able to talk about what he'd seen, who he'd lost, and what he'd done as a young man. He told his Cincinnati machinist buddies, his wife, and even his own father.

He started listening to Reds games on the radio, started routing for the team again, started being a fan for the ghosts of dead men and the phantom former ballclubs they cheered for, back when the world was alive with war and baseball.

And something magical happened. The Reds started winning. With the departure of Robinson, up from the minors came the era of Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion and Cesar Geronimo. Between 1965 and now, the Cincinnati Reds have played in five World Series, winning three.

They did, however, lose to Injun Pete's former St. Louis Browns, my Baltimore Orioles, in 1970, the same year ol' cozy Crosley Field was abandoned for the concrete doughnut aesthetic of Riverfront Stadium.

"I think those guys forgave me for losin' it back there in Germany, on that German kid..."

* * * *

Baseball, like all sports, really is played on fields of dreams, the illusion of something meaningful in a bat, a ball, that extra base hit. But war decided on fields of nightmares, the coldest athletic competition ever devised by humanity.

Joe Nuxhall, after all, pitched his first professional baseball game on June 10, 1944. Thousands of miles away, on the beaches of some unsporting place called Normandy, kids barely out of high school were already four days into a fight to liberate an entire continent.

The shores were already washed with the blood of British footballers and Canadian ice skaters, American quarterbacks and, yes, even aspiring pitchers by the time that 15-year-old rookie took the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals. And, as the Allies advanced into France, they left behind the corpses of hundreds of German alpine hikers and skiers, killed untold numbers of tennis players and hurdlers.

Once, long ago, I heard a noted sports historian claim that, in the scheme of things, 1944 was a bad year for baseball. He was right - all the best players were at war. The same holds true for all of the world's great sports.

A lot of great athletes never played anything, ever again.

At least, in the States, kids like Nuxhall, teams like the Browns and the Cardinals and the Reds, gave us a few innings' worth of illusion, kept us sane while the world went mad.

* * * *

The old man once again stopped, coughed, and apologized for wasting my time with a story about war and baseball. A young man like me, he said, should be out chasing women or causing trouble, not helping old men navigate their wheelchairs through shopping malls like some goddamn nurse.

I told him that, well, it was an honor to help out an old Reds fan. Like my Baltimore Orioles, the Reds haven't so much as broke wind near a World Series in more than a decade - sometimes it's just nice to commiserate together, to talk smack about the Boston Red Sox and, especially, the New York Yankees.

His children never understood why he loved baseball so much. His grandson had no clue why, every so often, he'd take his cashed Social Security money down to a sports memorabilia store and buy a new Reds home cap to mark the start of the off-season.

He added that he never talked to his kids, grandkids, or great-grandkids about the loss of his best pals back along the Rhine in 1944 - he never talked about why he liked to listen to ballgames alone, to turn on the radio, close his eyes, and act like that crazy old fart who bummed away summer afternoons.

"You know, I promised those guys I'd take 'em to see a ballgame in Cincinnati after the war..."

- # # # -


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's amazing the things we can learn from the stories we hear, when only we take the time to listen...it's a damn shame this gentleman's children and grandchildren will never see or understand the way that we all do now. All because you took the time to listen. Everybody has a story to tell.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Anon:
You know, I think a lot of folks from WWII and Korea (a lot of the vets still alive saw double-duty) don't feel it's their place to discuss certain things with younger folks, esp. children and grandchildren. A lot of the "Greatest Generation" shit, I think, tends to make these guys a bit uncomfortable - the vets left were mostly kids killing other kids. And it took awhile for a lot of them to recover...

I started talking to this guy because, heh, I hate shopping malls and, well, he seemed so lonely by himself. Guy said he had a large family but, well, everybody - esp. seniors, as I've learned from my grandmother - need their freedom, too.

EsotericWombat said...

The idea of guys in the trenches arguing about their favorite teams is one of the reasons I love baseball so much.

... I guess Boston fans have earned the smack talk. We don't get to be the good guys anymore, I guess.

The Yankees are waning, though. Baltimore is a couple of slick front office moves away from being a legit contender.

max said...

How odd. I had not read this when I responded to a post of yours on another board and brought up baseball.

The world is a funny place with funny links holding it all together in some ways.

This is a wonderful story.

pia said...

Man always have baseball to bond them

It's great you listened Jason.

Sometimes kids and grandkids get the feeling a subject is too painful to discuss. Sometimes they ask but a person isn't ready to talk

Then when the person is old and wants to make sense of his life through stories the people who needed to hear the stories the most have gone onto other things

But usually it's easier to open up to a stranger--it's too bad because the family missed so much though I doubt any would be able to recount the stories as you did

xboxgirl said...

..."sometimes it's just nice to commiserate together, to talk smack about the Boston Red Sox and, especially, the New York Yankees." WHAT, TALKING SMACK ABOUT THE YANKEES? YOU STINKING BASTARD!

That is a less crude version of what one of my cousins would say if she heard someone dissing the Yankees.
I, on the other hand, (other than some Hockey) am not a major sports watcher.

Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving!

The ZenFo Pro said...

Wombat:
You know, I was arguing with a few diehard pro football fans about the idea of "traditions" and "history" in the other big sports leagues in North America (NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLS). Professional baseball began in Cincinnati in 1869 - four years after the U.S. Civil War, the same year Brahms was debuting his complete Ein deutsches Requiem in Munich and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace was published.

I mention those benchmarks because I don't think a lot of folks grasp the fact that the history of baseball really reflects the history of the much of North America over the past century and a half.

As for the Sox, heh, yeah... but ya'll Bostonians have at least earned the jealousy. ;)


Max:
I saw that and thought it was a Twilight Zone moment. Very true, though. There are similarities between the writer's strike and the last MLB work stoppage. People think EVERYBODY's making the big bucks, and forget, well, that there are a lot of folks who don't, too.

Pia:
I think it is easier, esp. for some elderly guys, to open up to other people as human beings, not as a descendant or relative. There's a distance there.


Xbox:
Hey, I've been an Orioles fan since 1983. I'm used to Yankees fans getting upset when I talk smack about Steinhitl...er...brenner's boys.

:P

I've been sorta so-so about watching other big league sports, but, you know, there's something, well, almost magical about watching things like FIFA tourneys and this year's Boston Celtics...