By J. Anthony Lukkas
From Birth of a Fan, 1993
When I was four years old, my mother took me to my first evening at the theater—The Bumblebee Prince, an operetta by Rimsky-Korsakov, based on a story by Pushkin. By all reports, I was utterly entranced and, when the curtain came down, inconsolable.
“Oh, I’m so sad,” I wailed. “I want to be back in that land. It’s much nicer than this one.”
It was a theme to which I returned frequently in my young life: the realm of fantasy versus the real world, a juxtaposition in which I invariably came down on the side of illusion.
On more than one occasion, according to notes my mother took in my “baby book,” I was not altogether sure which was which. At age five, I asked at supper one night, “Is this fork real? Is this spoon real?” Uncomforted by my father’s stern assurance that the tableware was quite substantial, I proclaimed: “I think this whole life is a dream—Mommy is a dream and Daddy is a dream and those candies are a dream. But if I asked for a candy and you wouldn’t let me have it, I’d knock the whole dish down and it would make such a crash that everyone would wake up.”
Not long thereafter, I announced the arrival of “Jova,” an imaginary playmate who quickly became my faithful companion on auto trips, at mealtimes, and in bed. My mother speculated that he—I think it was a he—was a substitute for lost friends in a former play group, or perhaps an ally against my husky new brother. Whatever his provenance, Jova seemed as “real” as any other being in my universe.
This confusion of realms may have been partly explicable by our family’s heavy psychic investment in the theater. My father’s cousin was Paul Lukas, a matinée idol in his native Hungary who fluttered not a few hearts in this country as well, going on to win an Academy Award for his performance in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine. My mother also spent her young adulthood in the theater, studying at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before touring for a time with Eva Le Gallienne. As soon as my younger brother and I could walk and talk, she directed us in miniature productions, earnestly rehearsed on the spacious window seats of our living room, then performed for many an unwary visitor. Much of our repertory was my own work, for I wrote 11 “plays” by the time I was eight—my favorite a wartime melodrama called “Prussia under Pressure.”
But my preference for fantasy over fact may have been grounded less in theatrical make-believe than a child’s intuition about the contrast between our family’s appearance and its reality. By the late ‘30s, my father was prospering as a Manhattan criminal lawyer. He and my mother had purchased—and amply renovated—an 1820s farmhouse set on six wooded acres in White Plains. Bright flower beds rimmed the lawn, a rock garden graced the adjacent hillside, and behind the house was a pond, where on languorous summer afternoons my brother and I rowed our dinghy and chased bullfrogs in the rushes.
But this air of bucolic contentment disguised crueller truths. Beautiful and talented as she was, my mother was a manic-depressive. Shortly after my birth, she tried to kill herself. On several occasions, she was confined for weeks to a mental hospital. Tortured by her illness and by his own self-doubts, my father drank too much. And he incubated the tuberculosis which emerged full-blown in 1941 shortly after my mother succeeded in killing herself.
Little wonder then that I retreated whenever possible into that other world, where bumblebee princes soared to the stars. I was in search of a realm which made more sense than this one, a place in which beauty and virtue and talent were rewarded not by pain and death, but by the love and approbation they deserved.
It was then that I found baseball.
Tortured by her illness and by his own self-doubts, my father drank too much. And he incubated the tuberculosis which emerged full-blown in 1941 shortly after my mother succeeded in killing herself.
My first memories of the game are of listening to the Yankees on a radio in a stuffy little room over the garage occupied by a husky black man named Proctor Davis, who served as the family chauffeur, gardener, and general factotum. My father wasn’t much of a ball fan (what little enthusiasm he could muster fastened on the Pirates, a residue of his childhood years in Pittsburgh). So it remained for Proctor to initiate me in the mysteries of the “paaastame,” as he called it in his rich Georgia accent. The first game I can remember hearing must have been in the summer of 1938—when I was barely five—for I recall that Lou Gehrig hit a prodigious home run that day, a clout reminiscent of his glory years, even though his production was tailing off by then, only months before he was diagnosed with the fatal muscle disease which would kill him three years later.
Though Gehrig was nearing the end, and Ruth, Lazzeri, Combs, Meusel, and Koenig were gone from the splendid teams of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, the Yankees were still a powerhouse, capable of racing a little boy’s heart: DiMaggio, Henrich, Dickey, and Gordon at the plate, Ruffing, Gomez, and Chandler on the mound. They won their third straight pennant that year, going on to flatten the Cubs in four games. In 1939, with Charlie “King Kong” Keller installed in right, they took still another pennant, winning an astonishing 106 games and finishing 17 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox; then they simply annihilated the Reds in the Series. For the first time in history, a team had won four consecutive pennants and four consecutive World Series. Again the anguished croak, “Break up the Yankees,” was heard in the land.
To millions of Americans out there in the country’s midsection, the Yanks were arrogant Olympians, big-city bullies who enjoyed beating up less-talented teams, bloated spoilsports who squeezed all innocent joy from the game: But to an anxious youth, still shaken by the implosion of his ordered world, the masterful Yanks were vastly reassuring. If I couldn’t control my environment, they surely dominated theirs. And by some alchemy of fandom, their triumphs were mine as well.
I needed lots of reassurance. After my mother’s death and the diagnosis of my father’s illness, he went off for treatment at an Arizona sanitarium; our house was put up for sale, and my brother and I—aged seven and nine—were shipped off to a Vermont boarding school. That autumn, in the room we shared at Hickory Ridge, my brother, still a very small and frightened boy, cried himself into restless sleep night after night. I would surely have done the same had I not persuaded myself that nine-year-olds didn’t weep.
In those first years at boarding school, as I fell prey to bouts of melancholy, the Yankees were one of the rocks on which I reassembled my life. All through the war years, I opened the paper each morning with a little shiver of anticipation, eager to see how “my” Yankees had manhandled the Browns or the Tigers. Seemingly invincible, they armed me for bruising encounters with a hostile world.
They did something more as well. Not surprisingly, what I missed most in those years was the very notion of family, the ingathering of Lukases each night in that comfortable old house, the sense that people I loved and who loved me were there at the close of each day no matter how I’d fared on the history quiz or how many goals I’d blown in soccer practice. With mother dead, dad in Arizona, the White Plains house now filled with strangers, our only “home” my maternal grandmother’s New York apartment where we spent vacations from school, it was hard to believe in an entity called the Lukases.
Before long the Yankees became my surrogate family. It was a curious, makeshift clan during the war: thickening journeymen named Etten, Metheny, Stirnweiss, Johnson, and Grimes. But I tracked their exploits across the sports pages as intently as ever I did the advance of Patton’s tanks on the Times’ war maps. I knew where Nick Etten was born, how many years Bud Metheny had spent in the minors, what Snuffy Stirnweiss ate for breakfast, what size bat Oscar Grimes used, how Billy Johnson cared for his glove. Here were 25 versions of “Jova,” the imaginary companion of my early childhood, keeping me company well into adolescence.
Before long the Yankees became my surrogate family.
And there was always one special Yankee who spoke to me as no one else did. Through most of the ‘40s, that was a long, lean outfielder named Johnny Lindell, who hit for average and power, and had an uncanny penchant for the timely hit. There was something in the very name Lindell—redolent of pickup games on new-mown Appalachian pastures—that captured for me the essence of this very American game. “Come on, Lindell,” I’d chant to the radio, sequestered under my pillow on sticky summer nights, “Come on, Johnny, hit one for me!”
Yet, in those boyhood years, baseball remained largely an abstraction for me. It will surprise no one to learn that on real dirt and sod I was, at best, an indifferent ballplayer. For some reason, very early on, I opted for third base, though the wicked grounders and angry line drives which scorched down that line held special terrors for me. All through the elementary grades and into high school, I’d stand there as balls ricocheted off my chest and arms, scrambling to retrieve them in time for a desperate heave to first. But I don’t recall getting many runners out. And I never hit worth a lick. After a single year as a seldom-used reserve on the high-school team, I heeded the manager’s blunt suggestion that I take up tennis.
Moreover, for one whose fantasy life was so engaged with baseball, I saw surprisingly few games firsthand during those years. After my father returned healthy from Arizona, he’d occasionally take us out to Yankee Stadium (where, tongue firmly in cheek, he’d root loudly for the Pirates). I particularly relished that tingling moment, as one came off the Stadium ramp onto the first level, when the vivid green of the field leapt up at you with a sensuous rush. For me, in those years at least, the ballpark was less an athletic than an aesthetic experience. Those dazzling pinstripes against all that green never failed to take my breath away.
But somehow the game’s mystery was less compelling at the Stadium than it was alone in my room at night, the radio tuned to Mel Allen as he chanted the action in his liquid Alabama drawl.
Baseball and radio, it seemed to me, were blissfully compatible. The only major team sport which does not race against the clock, baseball’s dreamy pace was perfectly suited to the rambling style of old-time radio. Moreover, radio fed the listener’s fantasy, and baseball is a game that thrives on fantasy. Baseball broadcasting was often an art form because it left space for the listener to fill with his own secret musings (whereas television, always explicit and literal, filled the event entirely, squeezing out the intimations which could give it another dimension). For those of us who became fans in the ‘40s and ‘50s the radio announcer was a potent figure: a secret companion for our loneliest hours; an uncle figure with whom to take our ease; an intriguing raconteur who spiced his tales with the lilting lingo of a more exotic world; a play-by-play man for our fantasies.
For more than a decade, Mel Allen played all those roles for me. As a student at Putney, the upper school of Hickory Ridge, I walked a couple of miles each day from the main campus down to the school theater, where my extracurricular life was centered. As I trudged across the cow-pocked pastures, my mind played endless interior games of baseball. One phrase in particular resounded on those walks—always, of course, in Mel Allen’s melifluous tones—“It’s a hard ground ball down the third-base line, Lukas up with it on one hop, throws to second for one, over to first. A double play!” For years, when things weren’t going quite my way, I’d play that line back in my head and, abruptly, I’d feel better.
Those were the years when the fierce Yankees–Red Sox rivalry reached exquisite consummation. Whenever the Red Sox and Yankees played head-to-head, the school’s aficionados—among them, Chris Lehmann-Haupt, now the New York Times chief book critic—would creep down to the carpentry shop where we knew an old radio could be tuned to a Pittsfield station which carried the Sox. To this day, as I recall the autumn of ‘49, when DiMaggio and Williams led their mates to a delicious showdown on the final day, my nose sniffs the pine tar and wood shavings in that cluttered shop.
The addiction to baseball on radio has lasted a lifetime. In later years, wherever I was during the season, I’d flick on the radio to see if I could get a game, any game. I even fancy that I write better with a game on across the room, for it seems to me that baseball and writing enjoy a special affinity. Unlike any other sport I know, baseball is a linear game, falling naturally, play by play, inning by inning, into a story, an epic tale waiting to be told by men and boys in schoolyards or locker rooms, or late at night around beer-heavy tables.
As I grew older, the real-life story grew a bit soiled around the edges. The Steinbrenner years cured me forever of my Yankees addiction. For a time, while working on a book in Boston, I transferred my loyalties to the Red Sox, ancient rivals of my youth, whom I now elevated to a special rank of baseball purists, still playing on grass, in a park of human dimensions, before rabid, old-time fans. One year, I went to spring training in Winter Haven where I chronicled for the Times the emergence of a rookie Red Sox catcher named Gary “Muggsy” Allenson, who fitted my notion of what a gritty, knuckles-in-the-dirt ballplayer should be. Though Winter Haven was known then principally for huge black flies, remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, and the off-key trio at the Ramada Inn cocktail lounge, I attained a kind of baseball nirvana that spring.
But successive September debacles combined with the obtuseness of Fenway management pushed me ever deeper into the world of illusion. In 1981, I became a charter member of the nation’s second Rotisserie league, my loyalties henceforth reserved for the “Palukas” (what else?). Now on soft summer evenings at the stub end of Long Island, I haunt the late-night sports roundups, desperate to know how Ruben Sierra, Ken Griffey, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Abbott, and all the other Palukas are doing.
What can I say? Baseball reaches something deep inside me, stirring the guttering embers of memory and feeling. It keeps me in touch with the time when it was far more than a game or a pastime, but a buttress to my self-esteem, a substitute family, a cooling balm for my pain, a secret pleasure to my ear, a goad to my richest fantasies.
[Illustration by Angelica Alzona GMG]