Archive for June, 2017

A Boston Baseball Story

June 9, 2017
Piersall2

Jimmy Piersall

The recent passing of Jimmy Piersall brought back a load of memories. If you’re a New Englander of my generation, you automatically think “Piersall” when somebody says “center fielder.” He patrolled that sector of Fenway Park all through my childhood, from 1952 to 1958. I was shocked and confused when the Red Sox traded him for Vic Wertz and Gary Geiger in December of ’58. How could they do that?

Jimmy’s personal problems with a bipolar disorder, which were depicted in the film “Fear Strikes Out,” were well documented. When he came up to the Sox in 1952, he dubbed himself the “Waterbury Wizard,” a reference to his home town in Connecticut. His teammates didn’t care for that one.

The Red Sox were decent all through the 1950s. They usually had a winning record but never finished higher than third place. Their outfield was pretty damn good, with Piersall between Ted Williams in left and Jackie Jensen in right. Piersall was twice an All-Star – which meant a lot more then than it does now – and won three Gold Gloves.

I met Jimmy once, in 1964. He was playing for the Los Angeles Angels at the time. He stopped by Waterman’s Funeral Home in Kenmore Square for the wake for my uncle Walter. My father was there with me, and he asked Jimmy to come over and shake my hand. That was a thrill.

DON GILE HEADSHOT

Don Gile

But now to my Boston baseball story. Jimmy Piersall is a supporting actor in this one. The star of the story is a journeyman player named Don Gile (pronounced Jee-lee.)

Several years ago, my company had a luxury box at Fenway Park. I went there one night when the “legend” host happened to be Dick Radatz. Contemporaries will remember Dick, the unhittable – for a few years – closer whom Mickey Mantle once dubbed “The Monster.” Dick was perfect as a host – nice guy, erudite (he went to Michigan State and was, as he told us that night, only the 25th major leaguer to have attended college at the time he was playing.)

Dick Radatz

Dick Radatz

Dick told me a great tale about the 1963 All-Star Game, which I wrote up here. I happened to mention that one time I’d met, among other Red Sox of that era, Don Gile. It was at the Cottage Park Yacht Club one Sunday evening in the summer of 1962. We had heard that a bunch of Red Sox were around, and we went out to the floats to get their autographs.

The players put down the cases of adult beverages that they were loading onto the docked cabin cruiser and signed, obligingly. Yes, things were different back then. I still have those autographs. One of them is Gile’s. When Radatz heard this he said,

“Ah, Don Gile. Let me tell you about Don Gile.”

It was September 30, 1962, the second game of a doubleheader (remember them?) and the final game of the year. Gile, a reserve catcher and first baseman, was in the lineup. In 17 previous games, he’d not had a hit. He was rather down on himself.

Autographs

1962 Red Sox autographs: Don Gile, Mike Fornieles, Bob Tillman

During pregame warmups, a bunch of the players from the two teams were chatting on the sidelines. The opponents were the Washington Senators. Piersall was their center fielder.

Jimmy listened sympathetically to Gile’s story of frustration. He said, “Hit one to me in center. I’ll short-leg it for you and we’ll get you a hit.”

Sure enough, that happened. Gile hit a soft fly ball that Piersall pretended mightily to chase and catch.  But the ball fell in, and Gile had his first hit of the season. Thank you, Jimmy Piersall.

Came the last of the ninth. The score was tied. There were two runners on base. Gile came up. He swung hard. The air was shattered by the force of his blow.

Shattered too was the baseball. It flew high over the nets in left field for a walk-off home run.

Gile circled the bases, kept his head down, crossed home plate, and made a beeline for the dugout.

“By the time we got into the clubhouse, he was gone,” said Radatz. “We never spoke to him and never saw him again. He never played another game in the majors.”

I have no reason to doubt any of this story. Gile’s final year in the majors was that season of 1962, when he was 27 years of age.  He had two hits in 41 at-bats: a single, a homer, and three runs batted in.

Gile became the second Red Sox player of all time to hit a home run in his final at-bat. Two years earlier, Williams had done it on that day, famously chronicled by John Updike in The New Yorker,  that “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was Williams’s 521st career homer; it was Gile’s third.

Other than Don Gile, who’s 82, they’re all gone now: Piersall, Radatz, Williams. May they rest in peace. And thanks to all of them for those baseball memories.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Book Review and Reflection: Disturbance of the Inner Ear

June 6, 2017

disturbanceWhen a best-selling author recommends someone else’s book, you listen. That’s what happened to me recently, and I’m glad it did.

The book is Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett. I was surprised to learn that it was Hackett’s first book; it’s so beautifully written and masterfully crafted. I enjoyed Hackett’s writing style and learned a great deal about music, about human nature, and about a subject that’s of particular interest to me, The Holocaust. Hackett is both a gifted writer and a thorough, meticulous researcher.  This book won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize when it appeared in 2002.

The author who made the recommendation to me was Jacky Collis Harvey, whose smashing debut book Red: A History of the Redhead, came out two years ago. My review of that book is here. Jacky, with whom I’m connected on Facebook, made the suggestion after learning of my interest in The Holocaust.

Jacky didn’t know that I’ve also been trying to learn a little bit more about music – its history, its techniques, its people. I’m totally ignorant about all things musical, but even I know how important that music has always been and will always be to humanity. Disturbance gives deep and informed insight into the motivations and mindset of the musically gifted and into the instruments that they play.

Joyce Hackett

Author Joyce Hackett

The protagonist of Disturbance is Isabel Masurovsky, daughter of Yuri, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. That camp was smaller and somewhat less well known than the giant complexes like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald. It was a Potemkin Village, a “model ghetto” that the Nazis spiffed up on the surface for visits by the International Red Cross. The Nazis had promoted the place as a resort or spa; they even conned many elderly Jews into paying large sums of money for “lakefront” locations that did not exist. Yuri’s parents were among those that paid up in this manner.

Yuri makes it out of the camp, aided by his musical talent and by the several favorable twists and turns of fate that we hear in many survivors’ stories.  He settles in Brooklyn, where Isabella is born. She becomes a child prodigy on the cello, making her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. But her parents get killed in a car accident and she gives up playing.

Ten years later, she’s adrift in Milan, Italy.  The elderly Signor Perso, her teacher, guardian, and the last person on earth who knows her story, suddenly dies.  Isabel takes up with the smooth and seductive Giulio Salvagente, a surgeon and a part-time male prostitute who is carrying his own heavy load of emotional baggage.  She also gets a gig teaching the viola to the American teenager Clayton Pettyward, whose father happens to own a priceless cello that she calls The Savant.

In an article in Bella Online, Hackett said that she interviewed about 400 cellists before writing.  She also visited the city of Terezin, where Theresiendstadt is located, and spoke with many Holocaust survivors. That’s the type of research that I imagine is done by another of my favorite fiction writers, Jodi Picoult. An author who works that hard obviously has great respect for her readers as well as for her subject.  Hackett, who doesn’t play an instrument, stated

“I think research is mostly about, not being ‘right,’ but about being ‘not wrong.’ So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.

“…While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: ‘When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack–one after the other.’ Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I’d written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops.”

Giulio and Isabel need each other, but it takes a while for them and us to realize it. Hackett’s descriptions of their erotic encounters are alone worth the price of the book. They’re refresher courses in the facts of life, imparting new insights into lovemaking while giving the reader palmar hyperhidrosis and tachycardia.

Isabel neatly links Giulio’s sexual performances with her own musical performances, musing, “I wondered about the sex he had with the women he hung around with. Having to sweep away one rich, dead-bored woman after another seemed to me like having to perform the same program, over and over, to one tone-deaf music hater at a time.”

She brings in another musician-analogy when she jumps into the driver’s seat of Giulio’s new standard-shift automobile and teaches herself, on the spot, to drive it so that she can make a climactic escape to Theresienstadt with the precious cello:

“But I was not about to hand myself over to Giulio. Driving a car, I told myself, could hardly be more difficult than playing the Rococo Variations. I occurred to me to listen for the sound I wanted, the smooth, rhythmic groan from the groin of the engine that Giulio had made, and work back toward the movements. This was the secret: in second, my limbs had molded themselves to the needs of the machine. I managed to circle the parking lot without chugging, and then I was coasting up the exit ramp as if I’d always known how.”

We see more of Hackett’s elegant descriptions in Isabel’s climactic escape. She steals Giulio’s car and dashes from Italy through Austria and Germany into Czechoslovakia. She has no papers or passport, but manages to get through the border crossings with luck and guile. With the tension of the chase building, she approaches the Brenner Pass into Austria and says

“I was approaching the border with no passport but Clayton’s…There was no break in the rail, no exit to make a U-turn.  The slopes beside the highway were thickly covered with sharp, spiky evergreens that looked as if they’d impale you if you pulled over and jumped. “

But she makes it to Czechoslovakia. In the grimy town of Litomerice, adjacent to Terezin, she muses,

“I wandered around the won for what seemed like hours. Litomerice looked as if it had aspired to charm for fifteen minutes during the Hapsburg reign, then gotten drunk and let its face go to hell. Most of the buildings were decrepit and peeling: a few had been refaced in gooey apricot. There was not one tree in town.”

This is great writing. It not only paints pictures; it evokes strong, visceral reactions. You’re there, and you feel what she must have felt.  Hackett’s style here reminded me of Catherine Marenghi’s elegant yet gripping descriptions of everyday phenomena in her superb 2016 memoir Glad Farm – which, like Disturbance of the Inner Ear, was also its author’s first book.

Isabel and Giulio do exorcise their respective demons. She makes peace with her past. As she does so, Hackett gives the reader much food for thought about The Holocaust, about the people who survived it, and about their descendants who keep memories alive.

Of her own experience in the research and writing of the book, Hackett later wrote in Boston Review,

“More than anything else my book turned out to be about the task of living after trauma, about accepting that there is no mastery of the past, or another’s experience, while also facing the stark ethical imperative that is adulthood: to extricate ourselves from the warped narratives we inherit in order to avoid doing damage to others in the present. I wrote my way out of a past that was not my own by hurling myself back into its reality…”

She cites Holocaust survivor/author Imre Kertesz’s writing of the prisoners’ greatest fear, that the truth of history would not be told and recorded.  She also points out that when she took her trip to Terezin, “Still, all over Europe, the battle for the story was still being waged.”

That would have been close to 20 years ago, and I’m afraid that the battle for the story of The Holocaust is still being waged. Maybe the battle will never be over. That’s why books like this will always be important.