Delivered by Michael Fallon on July 17, 2016, Pasadena Central Library, Pasadena, California
Good afternoon. I am very honored to be here today, and I would like to thank the Baseball Reliquary, and especially Terry Cannon, for extending an invitation to speak to you.
I also would like to commend this year’s inductees to the Shrine of the Eternals — Arnold Hano, Bo Jackson, and Don Newcombe. None of us would be here without your contributions to the game of baseball and to our collective culture.
And I offer my congratulations to Tom Derry and Neftalie Williams, winners of the 2016 Hilda Award and Tony Salin Memorial Award, respectively. I am truly inspired by your significant contributions to our sport and to our country.
One of the things I have enjoyed as a new baseball book author is speaking to others about the sport and my experiences with it. One of the things I have learned over the past few months, though, is my take on baseball is perhaps not the norm. Though I enjoy the game’s statistics and shared memories of outstanding games and player performances, I tend to fixate more on how these stats and feats fit into the culture. My interest in the wider meaning of baseball comes likely because of my own personal path as a follower of the sport. In this talk, I will attempt to explain what I mean by this.
To start with, I should offer you a bit of background. For six years or so during the 1970s, my family — mom, dad, and two younger brothers — lived not far from here (about 4.6 miles actually) in a little post-war rambler on Santa Paula Avenue on the eastside of Pasadena. About 1.3 miles from the house, on Orange Grove Avenue, was my grade school. It was officially called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, but we all referred to it as Assumption of the BVM, which really I hope isn’t some sort of mortal sin. Across the street from the school is a park, called Victory Park, which is where I first learned to play baseball in the East Pasadena Little League.
I mention these places and distances to plot a map for you of my world from age 8 or so to age 11 and 12, the years that are covered in my baseball book. This physical topography — which contained driveway whiffle ball games with neighborhood kids, Little League games I played on the “Johnson Products” team at Victory Park, games of scrub baseball at Assumption that we called “Workups” (**did anyone else use that term growing up?**), all the times I saw Dodger games on TV and at the ballpark with my dad, and all the faux baseball games I played in my head while doing chores, during school, and while walking and biking around Pasadena — was where I became aware of the geography of baseball.
I use the term geography purposefully, for baseball for me as a kid was a way of navigating through space, of situating myself in a confusing world and protecting myself from what made me anxious — bullies, new experiences, camping trips, kids on the bus, kids from other unknown neighborhoods, priests and nuns, and of course, increasingly in those years, girls.
Do you remember that interactive map that the New York Times posted a few years ago, the one that plotted out, county by county, the influence of various baseball teams on the regions of the United States? [I brought a printout of the map, but it’s probably hard to see – you can Google by typing in “New York Times” and “Map of Baseball Nation”]. I envision my baseball landscape being just like this, except the tiny geographical units, or nations if you will, are millions of individual fans across the country, each protected by their individual baseball geography.
In the geography of baseball, of course, each nation has its own origin story. That is, I imagine most of you, if prompted, could situate the origins of your love and devotion to your own baseball team within your own specific topographic map of moments, memories, and associations. And of course each of our nations has their own special Lineup of Heroes. These are the gladiators from our team who fight for us against the treacherous, unjust world. In my case, I was fortunate that, in 1974, just as my 8-year-old anxiety was mounting in the aftermath of a harrowing bullying incident and a resulting change of schools, there arrived on the Dodgers a fresh batch of noble heroes — Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Bill Buckner (and later Dusty Baker), Doug Rau, Bill Russell, Steve Yeager, Tom Paciorek (and later Reggie Smith), and so on. It was these men, in many ways, who carried me safely into my high school years.
The geography of baseball also helped me understand something important at an early age. I learned that the baseball nationality you chose could be an advantage, and it could bring you some trouble. Since 95 percent of the kids I knew at school, in little league, on the Cub Scouts, and so on were Dodger fans, I mostly had safety in numbers. However, I did meet just enough fans of other teams — the Angels, Yankees, Giants, Reds, Padres, etc. — to also know something about rivalry and animosity. The worst in those years, of course, were the Reds. Between 1970 and 1976, the team from Cincinnati finished in first place five times in seven seasons. And the Dodgers finished right behind in second place in each of those years. It was quite embittering.
Some would argue that this rivalry stuff is all part of the fun of baseball, and of sports in general. But at the same time we’ve all seen how rivalry can be just a small step away from the social exclusion that often emerges out of group identity. Think of the bigger-stakes geographical clashes between the British nation and the European Union, for instance. I myself have, as I would guess many of us have, sometimes identified too closely with my baseball nation. This is especially true in times of stress or anxiety, during which I forget my gentlemanly sense of sporting fun and fall into a kind of mad antipathy for “those other guys.” I have even sometimes allowed my feelings of being wronged by a team or a player lead me to feel something approximating hatred. Not to mention any names, but [cough: Reggie Jackson].
This all of course leads to some bigger questions: Why exactly do we create these baseball nations for ourselves? What is the human impulse behind this kind of group identification? And, in this divided, divisive, and often deranged world, is this a completely healthy or productive thing for us to do? Rather than stumble toward an answer to these questions, though, I’d like to relate here a story that is at the crux of both my own personal baseball geography and my path to becoming a baseball writer. My grandfather Thomas Fallon is a character in Dodgerland, and the story he once told me years ago about a specific time and place in his life had an impact on me that, though I didn’t realize it at the time, was so profound that it informs my identity even today.
Born into coal country in Eastern Pennsylvania in 1920 to an extended Irish coal-mining family, Tom Fallon became an “orphan” in 1929 after the death of his mother. Since his father could not care for the five children, Tom was placed in a Catholic orphanage located in downtown Philadelphia. Here, he quickly became unhappy. In addition to now being motherless, Tom had also been taken away from the rest of his siblings — two younger brothers and two younger sisters, one of whom was less than two years old. Additionally, with Tom the nuns at his orphanage were strict and inhumane. My grandfather told stories to me of being beaten so often for being left-handed and other such crimes that, after teaching himself to write with both hands, he vowed he would never have anything to do with nuns, or the church, again.
In 1938, when my grandfather turned 18 and was released from the orphanage, he fled from Pennsylvania and never returned. He went to live with some relatives in Brooklyn — one of many aunts or cousins perhaps — and found some sort of work — maybe as a stock boy or store clerk. The plan was for him to wait and get established as his siblings moved to New York and could reconnect. My grandfather worked hard. He saved what money he could, and he waited for the grim memories of his childhood to fade.
Now, I’m not looking for sympathy on behalf of Tom Fallon. You should know, that when I knew him in later years he was the most loving, most curious, most supportive, and most beloved person I’ve ever known. Rather, I mention his tough childhood to posit the idea that my grandfather, lost and living in Brooklyn at age 18, was ripe to fall into the geography of baseball. And so that’s exactly what he did. In 1938, my grandfather became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.
This was an odd and unlikely choice. First of all, Tom Fallon was not a Brooklyn native, he didn’t have any real associations to Brooklyn and its team. Additionally, the Dodgers in those years were not only the perennial doormat of the National League, but also something of a joke — often bumbling in epic ways, and generally known for profligacy and clubhouse gambling. But my grandfather fell into their orbit nonetheless, mostly, and curiously, because of one player. “My favorite player is a bit notorious today,” he told me in the 1970s, probably after I had just explained to him the virtues of my baseball hero, Steve Garvey. “He was a natural leader, you could see that even then. And a great shortstop. He had great, soft hands, and could get to almost any ball hit to him.” He paused just long enough for me to ask the question. Who was it? “It was Leo Durocher,” he said.
As it happens this was an impressively prescient choice. In 1938, Durocher was a new and reluctant Brooklynite. Having just come from the World Champion Cardinals, and earlier having played on the Yankees of Ruth-Gehrig-Lazzeri-and so on, Durocher said he thought he had “dropped through a trap door” onto a team that would finish seventh place in the National League. My grandfather, though, saw something in the aging shortstop, who played well enough in the first half of that season to be named to his league’s All Star Team. In 1939, Durocher began to change his mind about Brooklyn and the Dodgers after he was named player-manager and led them to a 84–69 third-place finish. By 1941, Durocher’s Dodgers appeared in their first World Series in 21 years.
For my grandfather, Durocher and the Dodgers came at just the right time. They became his baseball nation as he recovered from life in the orphanage, met his wife and moved to Albany, became a shop-keeper who supported his alcoholic father during stints of brief sobriety, started raising six lively Leave-It-to-Beaver-era children, joined the Albany Police Department, and then, eventually, and inexplicably to his siblings, grew restless and moved his family to the land of sun-bleached milk and golden sweet honey: Southern California.
Looking back, it would have been easy for my grandfather to give up at some point in his life and to lose complete faith. He could have turned to anger and resentment over the lot that life had dealt him at an early age. He could have taken the one small solace he found in the early stages of his liberated adult life — his membership in the Dodger nation — and turned that into a defensive shield against a harsh world. But instead he was always optimistic and somehow open to what the world had to offer. He preferred to remain a cheerful baseball fan and to pass on his love of the game to others. When I knew him he was a fan of the entire sport, and particularly of its history. I trace the origins of my own love for the history and meaning of baseball to the time that he loaned me, at age 12 or so, one of his favorite books, Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times. One additional twist of fate was the fact that just four years after my grandfather moved west, the Dodgers shifted its geography to locate itself just a freeway drive away in Los Angeles. Still, even if his team hadn’t moved West, and another team such as the Athletics or Senators had instead, and even if all of his grandchildren had become, heaven forbid, Giants fans or Yankees fans or whatever, it didn’t really matter. My grandfather remained ever charitable to any member of the baseball continent even as he never wavered in allegiance to his own baseball nation.
In early 2010, almost twenty years after Tom Fallon passed away, I lost a job during that year’s recession. Suddenly, I was home alone, with a three-month old child to care for, and without really thinking about it I began writing about my grandfather. When it became clear, some time over the next few years, that the manuscript I was working on was actually going to become a book, and that the book was also about baseball and other things, I found myself thinking about my relationship with the wider continent of baseball. If I was going to do the rest of the work necessary for this manuscript to see the light of day, I thought, would I really want to keep holding on to the resentments and antipathies that I seemed to feel were an important part of the baseball fan experience? In time, I decided, it didn’t make sense to do so if I was going to truly tell my grandfather’s story.
Sometime in 2012, then, I pushed myself to break out of my nationalistic patterns by joining SABR and attending my first convention. I also joined the Baseball Reliquary and started contemplating the “eternal” worth of players outside my baseball geography like Lefty O’Doul, Rusty Staub, and Luis Tiant. I started playing Fantasy Baseball and sincerely rooting for players on just about every team in the league. I joined several passionate baseball groups on Facebook, where I argued and defended my team and learned not to get too worked up when someone told me just how much they hated Tom Lasorda and anything to do with Dodger Blue. I met and became friends with people like the author Dan Epstein, the writer Jeff Polman, the artist Greg Jezewski, and the documentary filmmaker Jon Leonoudakis. None of these people were even remotely members of my baseball nation, and yet it turned out they were members of the nation of really great people. In time, under the influence of this new openness, I started feeling calmer, more accepting and at ease. In time I began to understand what drove my grandfather. And in time I also had a two other realizations.
First off, I realized that, stuck as we each are with our own baseball nationalities, and trapped as we are within our baseball geographies, we still exist in a much larger, very flourishing ecosystem of disparate and diverse nations. Some of these nations, sure, will be rivals to us. A few may even declare themselves to be our enemies. But this is all fine. Because in the bigger picture all baseball nations are compatriots. All the different baseball geographies, as unique from each other as they may be, still are fundamentally bound together by the larger truth that we’re more alike than we are different. I only wish the Brexit folk, and those who preach the gospel of exclusion and separation, could learn what the nations of baseball have taught me over the past few years.
Additionally, I also realized a completely unexpected thing in the process of researching and writing this book and preparing for its publication. That is, the more I learned about him, the more I understood how he prepared to play the game despite what he had to deal with, and the more I realized the uniqueness of his stunning (and, to me, heart-breaking) accomplishments, the more I actually came to admire Reggie Jackson. Yes, I said it, and much as I know Tommy Lasorda would probably scream a thousand obscenities at me for saying this, I can’t help it. This guy I had hated, with blind allegiance to my nation, from the age of 11, became, through the process of introspection I began in 2010, someone I admired.
So in the end, I just have to say that I wish everyone would know what I now do: That baseball connects us in the midst of our differences. That our differences are really nothing in comparison to how strongly our baseball selves, and our human selves, are similar. It only took six years and the publication of a fairly sizable book for me to learn this. But for this I will be eternally grateful.
And I am grateful too for your time and attention. Thank you very much.
A writer on arts and culture based in Minnesota, Michael Fallon is the author of Dodgerland: Decadent Los Angeles and the 1977-78 Dodgers and Creating the Future: Art and Los Angeles in the 1970s.