The major league baseball season has begun. Poring over the box scores, I am reminded the game has been part of my life almost 60 years.
I discovered baseball in the Bronx in 1953 as an 8-year-old. My mother, my sister and I were more or less living in exile. Our house in Fairbanks burned in October 1952. The Korean War had created a housing shortage in Alaska, and my parents agreed mom and the kids would live with her brother in New York while my Dad worked Bush construction jobs to save money for a new home. We were gone from March 1953 to July 1954.
Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, were a few subway stops from my Uncle Bill's house, but my first exposure to baseball was through the neighborhood kids who played stick ball in the streets and school yards. The kids also collected baseball cards, which were sold at the candy store. Through the cards, I began to know the players and understand baseball history.
I had the cards of a number of stars -- Boston's Ted Williams for one -- but I was particularly taken by players with unusual names, at least unusual to a kid whose whole world had been Fairbanks. For instance, Arnold Portocarrero of the Philadelphia A's, Fred Baczewski and Bud Podbielan of the Cincinnati Reds, and Vito Valentinetti, who pitched for several teams. They challenged me to become a better speller.
In retrospect, I am surprised at how much I learned from following the game every day. Not only spelling but math. You had to understand basic math to compute batting averages and earned run averages, won and lost percentages. And you had to learn something of American geography to understand where teams were located, although I suspect if anybody had asked me "Where's Pittsburgh?" I would have answered "In the National League."
I became a reader who loved newspapers through baseball. I was too young for The New York Times or the Herald Tribune, but the tabloids -- The New York Daily News and The Mirror -- with their large headlines, numerous photographs, and rapid-fire prose were within a boy's grasp. There were, inevitably, words I couldn't figure out -- intrigue for one, which I pronounced "inter-goo" -- but I usually could get the basics of any story that didn't have inter-goo. There were, additionally, words that in combination didn't make any sense. Call girl for example. A girl you called -- for what?
Every major leaguer's baseball card had his hitting or pitching record and biographical information on the back side. Arnold Portocarrero was born July 5, 1931, and lived on Long Island. He had been in the Army in 1952 and '53, and after he was discharged played winter ball in Puerto Rico (which I could spell and pronounce thanks to the numerous references to Puerto Rico in the newspapers). Some of the player information was contained in small cartoon panels. I especially liked the cartoon describing Giants pitcher Ruben Gomez's favorite pitch, the screwball. The cartoon showed a baseball with a goofy grin blurting out the word "Hic." Gomez's screwball was good enough for him to beat Cleveland in the 1954 World Series.
All these years later, I now realize baseball wasn't a game for me when I was 8. It was a refuge, a place to hide. From the upheaval created by the fire that took our home. From living with strangers. From a big city I didn't know. From a school where I was a outsider, the kid from someplace else.
Baseball was a balm for a lonely young soul, and in my loneliness I developed a passion for the game that never died.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org