A Tale of Two Loves

I love books and I love baseball. Always have since I was a kid and still do. But there’s a difference.

When I was in elementary school, I would gobble up books. The entire Hardy Boys series (I was devastated to learn later that Franklin W. Dixon was simply a collective pseudonym for a group of ghostwriters); the Chip Hilton books by Clair Bee (an actual highly successful college basketball coach who was forced to resign when some of his LIU players were implicated in a point-shaving scandal in which he was not involved); and many other sports books (the only title I can remember is the 1951 version of “The Kid Who Batted 1.000,” which is available on eBay for about $25. No, I’m not buying it. Tempted, but no. Really, no. Really.)

Clearly, my parents believed, wisely, in letting me read what I wanted, in the hope that my reading bug would continue while my tastes would improve.

As usual, they were right. The Hardy Boys eventually turned into dozens of Landmark Books, mainly biographies of American presidents and statesmen (unfortunately, few women), European composers, explorers, inventors, and generals, which I read and reread — and then reread again. They made an impression; indeed, every time I hear the Hallelujah Chorus, I’m reminded of the story in the Landmark biography of Handel of how King George II, hearing it for the first time, was so moved that he stood — and when the king stands, all stand, as we still do today. (Of course, whether the story is true is another matter.)

Eventually, my reading habit turned to classics (I actually read Dickens for fun one summer in camp) and all (yeah, all) the books of Agatha Christie, James Hilton (especially loved “Lost Horizon”), Isaac Asimov (science fiction), William Goldman (remember Zock in “The Temple of Gold,” Gary?), and Donald Westlake, of whom I was particularly fond. In later years I turned to history (lots and lots of history), behavioral economics (Dan Ariely is my favorite), literary novels, Sue Grafton, and Faye Kellerman among others. (I’m not into fantasy, so J. K. Rowling makes the cut only through her pseudonymously written mystery series.)

As for baseball, well, as befits someone who lived even for a short time in the shadow of Yankee Stadium (760 Grand Concourse at 156th St. before our family moved to Far Rockaway), I’m a lifelong Yankee fan. (The fact that my grandparents, and then my wife’s family, lived at 164th St. and Walton Ave., and I often heard World Series roars on the Yomim Nora’im and Sukkot when spending the holidays with them, sealed the deal.) And I still remember one Chol HaMoed Pesach as a teenager arriving at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the first with Mantle up, and waiting for his at bat to be over before my date and I found our seats, because I just knew he’d hit a home run for us. Which he did.

Being a Yankee fan didn’t mean I went only to the Stadium. I often joined my father, a Dodger fan, at Ebbets Field to watch the Duke play center field and hit home runs almost as well as the Mick. Almost. And we sometimes went to the Polo Grounds to watch the Say Hey Kid, who, sorry Mickey, really was the best of all.

I remember the World Series throughout the 50s, in which it seemed the Yankees almost always were beating the Dodgers (yes, sigh, I know about 1956 and Johnny Podres), and whose Sunday games I actually could watch since those afternoon games ended before bedtime. As for weekday games, someone would always bring a transistor radio to school, and the good teachers allowed breaks every 15 minutes to get the score; the really good teachers allowed a kid to sit quietly in the back with the radio at his ear so we could get immediate important updates, like Don Larsen’s final strikeout of Dale Mitchell. And I remember at whose house I was able to watch the seventh game of the 1960 World Series on Shmini Atzeret (they had a maid who turned on the TV), and have my heart broken watching Bill Mazeroski’s home run off Ralph Terry clear the Forbes Field fence.

But things have changed for me with respect to both books and baseball. As for books, I rarely read them any longer, if by books and read you mean ink, paper, and eyes. I now mainly listen to audiobooks. This began about 13 years ago, shortly after my father died and I began visiting my mother more often in Far Rockaway, when I realized I had to do something else in the car other than listen to WINS. After two bridges, the FDR, the Grand Central, the Van Wyck, and Rockaway Boulevard, I’d heard enough news, ball scores, and weather to last an entire aveylut period. So when my sister-in-law Andrea suggested I try a book on CD, I did — and I was hooked. (The fact that she lent me David McCullough’s “1776” didn’t hurt, because I’d been a McCullough fan since reading “The Johnstown Flood” and “The Great Bridge” years before.)

Listening directly from CDs in the car (and on a CD Walkman — an awful bit of personal listening equipment), then changed to uploading CDs onto my computer and downloading the files to my iPod/iPhone. And once I discovered all by myself how to convert CD files into audiobook format, I’m able to listen at double speed (and thus double the number of books in the same time). Finally — for now — I usually eliminate the computer and download audio files directly, via the OverDrive app, to my iPhone from BCCLS, the New York Public Library and, thanks to my daughter in Canada, the Toronto Public Library — all without setting foot in a physical library. Now I listen when reading is impossible or difficult like exercising, driving, walking around town, or shopping.

But I still like print. In fact, I still love print. While I have great appreciation for the Times of Israel for carrying these columns, I doubt I’d write like I do if I couldn’t first touch the newsprint and hold the issue of the Jewish Standard in my hands before adding it to the collection in my living room. As for those books that I can’t get as audiobooks, well, that’s one more thing Shabbat and yom tov are for.

Baseball also has changed. Instead of starters having 20-plus complete games a season, a “quality start” is six innings; instead of having a relief pitcher for when the starter gets in trouble, pitchers include middle relief, set up, left handed specialists, closers, and a new invention (oy!) — openers; instead of hit and runs, stolen bases, and sacrifice bunts, we have too many games seemingly consisting mainly of strike outs and home runs; instead of articles about what happened at a game, the NYT compares spin rates on curve balls; instead of reserving defensive shifts for hitters like Ted Williams, they’re now used for those batting .238.

It’s not that I’m anti-sabermetrics (though $10 to the person who can explain to me so I really understand how WAR is computed and what it actually means). But the unrelenting reliance on statistics makes the game feel overly mechanical at times, rather than a lovely way to enjoy a lazy, long, sunny Sunday summer afternoon.

I can, and do, still enjoy a good game, like the one at the new Stadium my mechutan Ray invited me to, and the one my daughter took me to at Rogers Centre to watch the Blue Jays, my grandkids’ favorite team — a highlight for me of our last visit to Toronto. The fact that our excellent seats were close enough to the players to almost touch them, and were near the kosher hot dogs and fries (something I dreamed about as a kid) certainly didn’t hurt. But I go to games more rarely than before, and watch them less on TV. It’s just not as much fun.

So why the difference between books and baseball. Why have I adapted so well to significant changes in one of my loves and not so much to those in the other? I have some guesses about possible answers, but understanding the reason is not really what’s important. What is important is the realization that I can pick and choose what changes I like and can happily adapt to, and which ones I don’t. I’m neither bound to the past nor committed to abandoning it for the future. I can remember, cherish, and even relive the old while still learning about, appreciating, and participating in the new.

I can be 71 and feel 15 at the same time. Sometimes.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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