In honor of all mothers on Mother’s Day, I offer this section from my new memoir, Gone the Hard Road.
On one of the last visits that I made to the nursing home when my mother still had language, she told a fantastic story about just getting back from Florida where she’d been at the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training camp. She’d tried out to play first base, but she hadn’t made the cut.
There’s a part of me that still thinks this is a happy story. I delight to the thought of my mother taking ground balls at first in the Florida sun, digging out low throws from third and short, charging hard to field a sacrifice bunt, leading the pitcher with a perfect toss when he has to cover the bag.
She was so often the only playmate I had when I was young. My father couldn’t play catch with me, but my mother could. She hit grounders and fly balls. She pretended to be the first baseman for my throws, the catcher for my pitches. We spent countless summer hours at play, hours away from her work, because I was her son and she knew that boys needed someone to throw the ball to them, to pitch to them, to encourage them.
I was crazy about sports, especially basketball and baseball. I remember October of 1962 when the New York Yankees played the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. The series came down to a decisive game seven at Candlestick Park. I was a Yankees fan. Somehow in southeastern Illinois, where everyone’s team was either the Cardinals or, to a lesser extent, the Cubs, I fell in love with the Bronx Bombers. These were the teams of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford. They were often on the Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons, the only game we could see on television, unlike today when games are readily available via broadcast or streaming, and, of course, they were winners. I loved the pinstripe uniforms, I loved the history of the team, and I loved watching Mickey Mantle hit those long home runs. October meant the World Series, and the World Series meant the New York Yankees, and the New York Yankees were supposed to win.
But here they were in a game seven against San Francisco, the Giants of Juan Marichel and the two Willies—Mays and McCovey—and I was stuck in school. This was long before the days when all the games were played at night. These were the days of kids in school dying to know the score, hoping that perhaps a teacher would bring in a television and let everyone watch, or at least turn a blind eye to the thin strands of a transistor radio’s earpiece if a kid decided to bring one to school and to sneak a listen.
All I had was my mother.
I will always cherish this memory. This is the year she doesn’t teach, and when I run off the school bus and into our house, there she is in our living room, her ironing board opened in front of our Philco console, where in black and white, the game has come down to the last out. The Yankees are ahead 1-0. Matty Alou is on third base, Willie Mays is on second, and Willie McCovey is at bat. Ralph Terry is on the mound for the Yankees. I get there just in time to see McCovey lash a scalding line drive that threatens to knock Yanks’ second baseman, Bobby Richardson, to his knees. But he holds on, and like that the game is over and the Yankees are World Champions.
This is the first World Series I can remember, and there we are, my mother and I, on a beautiful Indian Summer day, and I’m so happy that I made it there in time. The living room smells of my mother’s hot iron and spray starch. The windows are up, and outside, the maple leaves are starting to redden. I notice a piece of paper on the ironing board, a pencil lying on top of it.
My mother picks it up and reaches it out to me. “I kept score for you,” she said. There in her neat handwriting is the box score. “Now you can see what you missed.”
Each year, when the World Series starts, I think of that moment. I wish I still had that piece of paper so I could imagine my mother watching the game as she ironed, making her marks on the paper, knowing they would matter to me, doing all that because I was her son and she loved me.