Six decades is a long time. That’s a lot of baseball memories.
Bill Lewers issues an important caveat at the beginning of his 378-page narrative: he’s an ordinary fan. For much of his life, he has watched baseball from the upper deck where he often sits alone (or so it seems), collecting memories that were recently recorded in a formal way, intended primarily as a gift to his two sons. His memoir is a scrapbook of personal treasures, snapshots, and vignettes that Lewers hopes will resonate with a larger audience of baseball fans.
The author’s persona is both the strength and weakness of his story. In a sense, he is Everyman. The voice of the common man or woman deserves to be heard, especially when it comes to baseball; but in this frenetically changing era of ebooks and blogs and tweets, the question becomes who will spend time listening to an ordinary person’s baseball reminiscenses? Unless, of course, they’re presented in a truly special way.
Six Decades of Baseball: A Personal Narrative is one man’s labor of love. Personal photographs accompany a long sequence of methodically organized memories. Many of these snapshots seem to have faded over time, yet in the fading they’ve acquired a certain richness, an almost mystical sense, as if these significant moments are literally vanishing even as we study them, their soft blacks and whites fading to fainter hues of photocopied gray and ultimately perhaps to nothingness, were it not for one man’s earnest and diligent efforts to preserve the images he holds dear.
“Snapshot,” in fact, is the key word. The brief chapters in Lewers’s memoir run just two to three pages in length, offering quick flashes of the game’s truths as one fan considers them: “Images. That’s what this book is about. Images.”
“Not the images that are produced with a camera . . . but rather those images that are recorded in our minds. We do not consciously strive to memorize them.” And so a narrative begins.
Endearing as baseball imagery is to my own heart, I’m not certain that a book can be about images, or that brief, picture-like summaries best serve this author’s purpose. It’s artistically challenging to build a compelling narrative from a collection of self-contained vignettes. Chronology and subject alone are seldom enough to hold a reader's interest.
Lewers’s memoir begins poignantly and offers great promise. He invites us to share with him the happy sensation that many young boys and girls experience upon tasting baseball for the first time, quickly followed by a yearning for more. Many good baseball stories begin with the obvious but important questions implicitly voiced: Why this particular team? When and how did everything begin? Why baseball?
Like countless other fans, Lewers loved studying line and box scores as a child. He enjoyed many a game after the fact, line by line, often not knowing the outcome of the previous night's match-up (except on those mornings when his mother spoke hastily about a specific loss or victory, thus spoiling the pleasure and verisimilitude of her son's experience). “I would find the box score of the Red Sox game. Then without looking at the final score, I would quickly cover the line score with my finger. Then by gradually moving my finger from left to right, I would follow the progress of the game in an inning-by-inning manner.” The young boy experienced the game’s suspense and wonder imaginatively while contemplating a couple inches of newsprint.
The beginnings of a fan’s affections for a particular team or player, though explicable, aren’t always logical or rational. Proper nouns captured W. P. Kinsella's imagination, for example: “The first position player I admired was Grady Hatton, an average third baseman with a .254 lifetime average over a twelve-year major-league career. I became a fan because I loved his name.” He also favored Harry "The Cat" Brecheen, mainly because of 1) his name and 2) Kinsella’s own fondness for cats. And why didn’t he root for the Yankees? Simple. “Their uniforms weren’t colorful.”
In his preface to Sean Manning’s Top of the Order, Kinsella remembers that many years ago, “when my twenty-something daughter traveled with me to a lot of games, she chose her favorite by how well his buns filled out his uniform pants. A totally acceptable way of choosing a favorite player, and I don’t doubt that there are many fans of both sexes who still do the same.”
For me, it was Edward Emil Kranepool and the magic of November 8th. Ed and I share the same birthday. That was all it took. Upon discovering that amazing coincidence, I had a feeling that I would love baseball for the rest of my life.
As a young boy growing up on Long Island during the 1950s, Bill Lewers might have had every reason to root for the talented players in Dodger blue, the Yankees in pinstripes, Willie Mays and the Giants, or eventually the underdog one-syllable Mets. Whom did he choose, and why?
“Actually, in the farthest recesses of my mind, I seem to recall initially being taken by the Phillies just because I liked the sound of their name.”
Lewers’s father displayed a lukewarm interest in most ball clubs after his beloved Dodgers abandoned Brooklyn, while his mom’s cheerful but annoying opinion - “Oh, I like all the teams!” - left the boy without much in the way of guidance or familial obligation, thereby granting him permission to go his own way and make his own choice.
His preferred team became the Boston Red Sox, because they happened to be “the one good team” that was not the Yankees and because they were “best on paper.” Thus began a lifelong attachment to Boston, a loyalty that would be challenged, obfuscated, and compromised throughout the years by geography, logistics, and the usual acts of circumstance and fate.
Lewers offers 138 vignettes in all, summoning up many fond baseball memories from his lifetime while hoping to resurrect others that had faded from consciousness. There’s a repetitive sameness in the telling, however, because his narrative abounds with sentences that begin alike: “I remember … I remember … I also remember … I remember … I mostly remember."
When memory fails him, the author's methodology is equally curious: “I cannot remember ... I’m not sure ... I don’t remember.” What concerns the reader is not so much the echoing prose of forgotten memories, but the dismissive treatment of individuals whom we yearn to see through the eyes of an ordinary fan: “I cannot say I recall anything concerning Tom Seaver.” Such admissions are probably best left unsaid.
Perhaps Lewers writes in deference to those who have already paid eloquent tribute to baseball's Hall of Famers, but his understated approach is baffling at times. A lukewarm tribute to a Red Sox hero is particularly stunning: "Much has been written about his last at bat home run at Fenway Park. While it was certainly a nice way to go out, I do not think I paid it that much mind." So much for Ted Williams.
Thoughts of John Updike momentarily distracted me from the book at hand, as I contemplated the literary possibilities open to those who honor the game in words. One can pen a lengthy personal narrative densely packed with baseball names and an impressive chronology of information; alternatively, it's possible to celebrate one splendid afternoon of baseball in a lyrical adieu.
Bill Lewers characterizes himself as a lifelong Red Sox fan, but his narrative considers an eclectic assortment of teams and players. Carl Erskine’s 1956 no-hitter comes alive once again in the careful markings on a young boy’s scorecard. Opening Day at Fenway Park in 1966 is re-lived as a surprisingly accessible and affordable event. Game 2 of the 1969 World Series takes on a melancholy tone, because it coincides with the untimely passing of the author's father. Covering a broad sweep of personal and baseball history, Lewers democratically recognizes many unsung heroes and ventures some refreshingly candid opinions. He gives a favorable review of Grady Little’s managerial style, for example, while criticizing today's broadcasters more harshly, faulting them for having too many conversations with each other rather than speaking directly to fans.
At key points in the memoir, one wishes for more passion and intensity. There's often a ho-hum quality in the author's tone - "It was a fun day" - as he shares his happy memories. There's not much in the way of humor, emotion - "This kind of excited the imagination" - fun and mischief among friends, or conversation between father and sons. The basics of logistics and geography drive the narrative forward.
Lewers’s accumulated memories are nonetheless impressive for their documentary-like authenticity and sincerity. It's probably no accident that a baseball fan raised in the '50s and '60s would voice his observations in a that's-the-way-it-was style reminiscent of Walter Cronkite.
Bill Lewers has built a book out of images that continue to hold value for himself and for others. There’s a keen desire in every baseball fan to share anecdotes and memories. I was there. I was at that game. Johnny Damon talked to us. Luis Tiant walked right past us. I saw Derek Lowe’s no-hitter. I got his autograph.
When we say “I was there” or “I saw that game,” it’s our way of saying we're important, isn't it? We make our mark just by being at the ballpark during a memorable event. What we see in baseball gives our life meaning and value.
The game derives its essence from what’s remembered and preserved. It has to be spoken or written down, whether in personal ways for our own children or in stories artfully crafted for a broader readership. To forget moments in baseball is to let go of what once made us feel alive; to forget is to relinquish our youth and give in to mortality. Many therefore labor in words simply to remember. Some of us reach an age at which we truly fear that our best experiences will vanish, and so will we, if we do not write them down.
The cover of Lewers’s book is one of its loveliest features. It will likely appeal to any Red Sox fan who feels a deep and abiding love for a scoreboard, and it will engage the attention of anyone who has known the joys of sharing America's game with children.
In the book's most important image, a boy's hand appears to touch the Fenway wall as if to make a spectacular catch; he's simultaneously stretching toward the title of his father’s book, reaching for the word “Personal.” Six Decades of Baseball is indeed a personal account. A growing boy points to what matters.