The greatest beauty of sports lies in the bonds it forms across generations.
I’ve been reflecting on that thought quite a bit over the past week. The man who taught me more about sports than anyone, my dad, passed away at the age of 93.
He vividly recalled how his dad drove him to Philadelphia in 1934 to see his uncle, Max Bishop, play second base for Connie Mack’s A’s in Shibe Park. Also on the field that day were Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth.
My granddad remained a staunch A’s fan for the rest of his life, sticking with them through moves to Kansas City and Oakland. I still get a kick recalling how much he savored their World Series wins from ’72 through ’74.
Just a week ago a good friend gave me an old baseball card he had found in a sock drawer. The card is signed by Brooks Robinson, who just happened to be the favorite player on the favorite team of my other granddad.
And so it goes.
I first swung a golf club at the age of 4, because I already knew that’s what my dad loved to do for fun. After incessant badgering, he finally allowed me to swing one of his clubs. I took a big divot, the end of the club recoiled into my stomach, and knocked the wind out of me.
It wouldn’t be the last time that golf with dad would take my breath away.
Baseball was always dad’s favorite spectator sport. He grew up playing ball with Nellie Fox, and the two remained close friends until Nellie’s death. His widow, Joanne, made sure mom and dad joined her for Nellie’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
And so, I was privy to inside knowledge of how to keep baserunners from barreling into second base, proper bunting technique, and the art of choking up on the bat and spraying hits to all fields. I still have my original Nellie Fox bottle bat, circa 1962.
In the early ‘60’s we’d knock out our Saturday chores early so we could watch The Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. It truly was the only big-league game televised each week, and dad loved how ol’ Diz never allowed the game to interfere with a good story or a big laugh.
We’d also make the trip down to Ponce de Leon Park to watch the Crackers play. Sitting beside dad during those games was where I gleaned most of my baseball knowledge. Dad also proved to be an excellent scout. One night in ’64 he told me to remember the odd name of the starting pitcher for the Richmond Vees. It happened to be Mel Stottlemyre.
Later, dad would caution me every season not to get excited over the Red Sox hot start, and for 50 years he was right. Just a week ago he wondered if the Braves’ travails this season were Brian Snitker’s fault. We decided that their myriad calamities were beyond anyone’s managerial capabilities.
It was dad who took me to my first football game, at Grady Stadium on September 15, 1962. Wayman Creel’s Northside Tigers beat Murphy, 13-12. I still recall dad, an old guard himself, explaining that if I watched the guards, they’d tell me where the play was going. It worked every time!
Watching the Northside games became a cherished ritual, one that even an elementary school friend fondly recalled last week.
A year later, dad took me to my first college football game, and Georgia Tech defeated Duke, 30-6, at Grant Field. But dad was impressed with Duke’s fullback. “He’s a tough kid who runs hard,” I remember him saying. The kid was Mike Curtis, later one of the toughest linebackers ever to play in the NFL.
Each spring would bloom with our games of pitch and catch, and either my brother or I would always send a ball crashing through a den window. We had to be wild to elude dad’s vintage Hal Newhouser glove. “The only pitcher to win back-to-back MVP awards,” dad would always remind us.
We’d shoot baskets and toss the football around, but we spent more hours together on the golf course than doing anything else. Dad’s travails at our annual Jekyll Island Invitational used to grace this space. He loved golf, and his enjoyment seemed to be in indirect proportion to his scores.
He played regularly into his mid-80’s, but it was a decade earlier when I was lucky enough to bear witness when he hit the greatest golf shot ever struck.
He was teeing off on the ninth hole at Lanier Golf Club. The tee shot needed to carry across a wide, deep valley. At the bottom of the valley to the left was the huge storage facility where all the maintenance equipment was stored.
Just as dad began his backswing, I saw a large dump truck edging out from behind the trees into the fairway. I had just enough time to say to myself, “Please don’t hit a duck hook!” No sooner said than done. Dad’s drive careened down and took a hard left.
We heard the sickening shatter of glass, and then watched as the truck stopped, and just as slowly, slid back behind the trees. “Well,” said Dad, “I’m still chairman of the entertainment committee!”
When we arrived on the scene, the truck windshield had a perfectly circular hole in the middle, and the rest of the windshield was spiderwebbed. The driver had glass filaments on both arms. We walked up to the door, and the driver held up a ball.
“Top-Flite?” asked dad anxiously.
Yes, it's sad that dad’s now gone, but I’m glad that he passed so much of himself on to us.