ORLANDO, FL --– In 1991, Columbia Pictures released City Slickers, a vastly underrated comedy about three lifelong friends (played by Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby) who vacation together each year.
The film centers around one vacation when the trio, facing a mid-life crisis, participates in a supervised cattle drive in the Southwest.
In one scene, the friends are discussing “the best day ever” in their lives. Crystal’s character recalls, “I’m seven years old and my dad takes me to Yankee Stadium. My first game. We’re going in this long, dark tunnel underneath the stands. I’m holding his hand and we come up out of the tunnel into the light. It was huge. How green the grass was. Brown the dirt. And that great, green, cooper roof. Remember? We had a black-and-white TV, so this was the first game I ever saw in color. I sat there the whole game next to my dad. He taught me how to keep score. Mickey (Mantle) hit one out. Good day. I still have the program.”
Fathers, Sons and Baseball
When many guys think about baseball, one of their first thoughts is of their dad, and with good reason.
Baseball is the sport, more than any other, over which fathers and sons (and occasionally daughters) bond. Their dad likely was the first person who taught them how to hit, catch and throw a ball; took them to see their first major-league game; taught them how to keep score, and explained some of the nuances of the sport – why the catcher hustles down the first-base line on a grounder in order to back up the throw to first base, or why the first and third basemen charge home when the batter shows a bunt, or why a hitter is walked intentionally, etc.
It’s a bond that lasts from childhood to adulthood. While the father-son relationship inevitably changes with age, that connection through baseball remains.
It begins with those early years, the son -- ball and glove at the ready – eagerly waiting for his father to come home from work so they can “play catch” (in some parts of the country, they insist the phrase is “having a catch”) before dinner in the back yard on a summer evening. The joy in tossing the ball back and forth, the silence occasionally interrupted by the father’s instructions: “Use both hands.” “Keep your eyes on the ball.” “Get in front of ground balls.” A Norman Rockwell scene come to life.
That bond is then tested as the father-boy relationship moves into the turbulent father-teenager period when the teen’s search for independence and identity leads to conflict over issues such as dating, curfew, fashion, music, use of technology, driving privileges, and choice of friends. It’s a natural part of the maturation process. Yet, during those times of estrangement, when any conversation can be difficult, it seems like the language of baseball is the one bridge over that gulf.
In another scene in City Slickers, where one of the other cattle-drive participants asks why the three friends talk so much about something as superficial as baseball rather than “real life” topics like relationships, Stern’s character replies, “When I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything, we could still talk about baseball. That was real.” Men across the country could empathize with Stern’s character.
And, that bond continues when father and son both are men, separated by geographical distance and career demands. Periodic phone calls have replaced those games of catch, and going to ballgames together. Yet, it is not uncommon for the conversation eventually to turn to baseball, with questions like, “You think your team has a chance to win this year? Did you see that game last night? Did you watch the World Series? You think Bonds can break Aaron’s homerun record?”
Baseball is a bond between father and son that endures through the years.
‘Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?’
It has been a few years now since my father, Clayton, passed. As Father’s Day approaches and I think of him, some of my favorite memories revolve around baseball.
For instance, he was a coach on my first Little League team. There was a shortage of men willing to coach teams. So, in order that I could play, my dad volunteered to be an assistant coach.
Ours was a challenging team to coach. We made the Bad News Bears look like world champions. When Casey Stengel asked of his hapless New York Mets team in 1962, “Can’t anybody here play this game,” he could have been talking about my team.
Our answer to Casey’s question would have been: “Apparently not.” We were so bad we failed to win a single game.
Even with all that losing it was fun to go through that season with my father.
Crashing a World Series
Another favorite baseball memory with my dad was attending a World Series game between the Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox in St. Louis in 1967.
I had failed in multiple attempts to get tickets, and was resigned to watching on TV. That next night, my dad said, “How’d you like to go the game?” My speechless, wide-eyed expression obviously answered in the affirmative.
My father had called a friend of the family, a police officer who was working crowd control at the stadium. We met him outside the stadium the day of the game and followed him to the entrance to the right-field bleachers.
The policeman asked a gentleman he knew, who supervised the ticket-takers, “Can you get these two into the game?”
The man then instructed my father and I, “You’ll have to crawl under the turnstiles, and you’ll have to stand along the side wall.” We were a modern-day, two-man version of The Knothole Gang.
Which was fine by me. I gladly would have stood for a month of games -- anything to see a World Series. It was Game 3, the first of the Series in St. Louis, and the atmosphere was electrifying. (The Cardinals won, 5-2.)
A Tiger Fan Surrounded by Cardinals
God has a sense of humor. As evidence, I bring up my dad.
He grew up in southwestern Indiana. The closest MLB teams were the Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, and Chicago’s Cubs and White Sox. But, he chose to root for the Detroit Tigers.
Once, when I asked why, he explained that when he was a boy, he wanted to root for a team that sounded tough. None of those four closest teams fit the bill. So, he became a Detroit fan -- because Tigers were ferocious.
When the Cardinals beat the Tigers in the 1934 World Series, he told me, it began a lifelong grudge against the Cardinals. Even Detroit’s defeat of St. Louis in the 1968 World Series failed to temper his disdain for the Cardinals.
Where does the humor come in? My dad started his career working for Kraft Foods in Evansville, IN. As he was promoted, he was transferred to St. Louis, the city of the baseball team he despised.
St. Louis is a baseball city above all else. The team is more a part of the city than the Yankees are of New York, the Red Sox of Boston, the Cubs of Chicago, or the Dodgers of Los Angeles. The Cardinals’ season home opener each year is practically a city holiday.
The Cardinals dominate the city’s sports scene. As my dad often complained about the local newspaper, the Post-Dispatch, “there’s nothing in the Sports Section but the Cardinals.”
Plus, his younger son is a devoted Cardinals’ fan. My mother, Stella, who had never shown much interest in baseball, late in her life became a die-hard Redbirds fan – and continues to be, rarely missing a game on TV. And, most of my dad’s friends were fervent Cardinals’ supporters.
Poor dad, surrounded daily by family, friends, and a city all pledged to the team he hated. I can’t help but smile whenever I think of it. You have to admit, that’s pretty funny.
A Lasting Bond
In 1989 Universal Pictures released Field of Dreams, an Academy Award-nominated film about a novice Iowa corn farmer (played by Kevin Costner) who hears a mysterious voice repeatedly say, “If you build it, he will come.” Though facing foreclosure and loss of his farm, Costner’s character sacrifices valuable cornfields to build a baseball diamond on his land, on which the ghosts of former great ballplayers come to play.
Toward the end of the film, Costner’s character realizes that the catcher in those games is his late father, as the young man that Costner never knew. After the two men introduce themselves to each other, Costner asks, “Would you like to have a catch?”
The movie’s final scene shows father and son tossing a ball back and forth. The unasked question: What would you give to “have a catch” with your father once more?
In the 30 years since Field of Dreams debuted, the movie site in Dyersville, IA, has become a popular tourist attraction. Fathers and sons (and daughters) travel from across the country to play catch on that field.
In movies and in real life, baseball holds a special bond between fathers and sons.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Keith Johnston/Unsplash.com