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Traveling the Bambino Road: Day Three

Day Three: March 8, 2003

I cried at Joe Jackson’s gravesite today. But I didn’t figure out why until I was at Ty Cobb’s.

But I’ll get to that later.

The day dawned frigid and gray. Thirty nine degrees again. By the time I wended my way across Greenville to Joe Jackson Memorial Park, a chill wind was whipping. Wasn’t the forecast for sixty degrees? That would have been after the fog burned off. The fog was so thick that visible clouds of it blew across my path as as I approached the commemorative plaque.

It is one of the largest commemorative plaques I have ever seen, perhaps because there was so much to say about Joe Jackson that could not be encapsulated in the typical inscriptions one sees that tell home town, lifetime batting average, date of Hall of Fame induction. I wondered why the plaque and the accompanying frieze of Jackson were each slivered into three sections? Was it an artistic decision, meant to reflect the fragmented nature of the man and his life? Or did someone just think it would look cool? It made the plaque somewhat hard to read.

Frieze of Joe Jackson at Jackon Memorial ParkIt is a nice little field. From the way the bases were set, it looked like it was last used by a Little League team. Home plate was missing, but the other bases were left on the sand, in close on the all-skin infield. There are two very small covered dugouts, a nice-looking restroom building, and a water fountain with a commemorative plaque of its own (not to Joe Jackson but to some youngster who passed away in 1949 at age eleven).

The plaque is not, however, the most prominent nor affecting feature of the field. That designation belongs to the gigantic mill complex that stands across the street. Two huge red brick buildings, one low, and one several storeys high and hundreds of yards wide, dominate the view. It loomed out of the fog. Was this the mill where Joe Jackson worked when he was young, along with his father and his brothers, the mill whose baseball team he played on until he went to the majors?

I did not find out, but perhaps it does not matter if this was the Brandon Mill or another one with another name. The place had quite a presence.

From there I drove through downtown Greenville, looking for the statue of Joe Jackson that was erected just last year. It stands at a crossroads in the middle of the business district, surrounded by quaint buildings. The statue depicts Jackson at the end of his swing, his eyes looking upwards, as if following the path of a home run fresh off his bat. Maybe it is just that I am halfway through reading Eliot Asinof’s “Eight Men Out,” the definitive book on the Black Sox scandal, but I thought the look on the statue’s face quite poignant. It would be just my luck that as I reached the statue, the sun came out, warm and brilliant, but back-lighting the statue so that even with my flash, Joe’s face is in shadow in my photos.

Then it was off to Woodlawn Memorial to the gravesite. My drive there was slightly delayed by some kind of charity run through downtown Greenville. I never found out what cause all those people were running for, but I am sure it was a good one. It was around this time I began to think I should have brought something to leave at Joe Jackson’s grave. The thought just came into my head as I was sitting in the car. I thought to myself, I have a quarter in my pocket. I’ll leave that.

When I arrived at the cemetery, I had a moment of panic as I thought, it’s Saturday, will the office be open? How will I find Joe in this immense field of graves? Like Alamance Memorial, which I visited yesterday, it was all flat ground, with no headstones sticking up. Just the markers set into the ground. I drove to the office and was relieved to find it open.

“Can I help you?” A nicely-dressed man at the reception desk asked me. It was a much more opulent office than at Alamance.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for the grave of Joe Jackson.”

He smiled and said “Around here we call him ‘Shoeless.'” He dug out a file of newspaper clippings about the burial, attached to which was a map marking the site. He gave me a map and pointed out how to get to the right section from where we were. “Just go on over to this section here, go about thirty of forty feet and then just look around. You’ll usually see four or five baseballs there, and a bat.”

I thanked him and got back into my car for the slow drive through the curving lanes of the plots. I thought he had said thirty or forty yards, so I went a bit too far, and found myself wandering a bit among the graves, trying hard to stay on the lanes between stones and not tread on anyone’s resting place directly. There were some patches of red earth where recent interments must have taken place. Joe Jackson was nowhere to be found.

The man has said it would be a companion marker, showing the husband and the wife, so I knew it would be large. And where were the baseballs? I could not see it. I walked to and fro and was starting to think about giving up–after all, I needed to make it to Demorest before 1pm, when the Johnny Mize museum would be locked up.

But then I saw the baseballs, off to my left.

There must have been thirty or forty balls piled up along the marker. Someone had left a pair of sweatsocks, too, and two bats. Some of the balls looked like they had been there a long time–their covers eaten away from the stitching by weather and time. Some were official Major League balls, others were not. One was a Macon Braves souvenir ball, and I imagined a Macon baseball fan leaving it there, asking Joe for help in keeping the team in Macon. (It didn’t work; they moved this season to Rome, GA). Some of the balls had people’s names and dates written on them.

And there was money. Mostly pennies and nickels, a few dimes. No one but me had brought a quarter. I bent down to place it on the marker and said “Well, Joe, I’m sorry I didn’t bring you anything more. If I could ask you a favor, I guess it would be to help me make better decisions in my life about money than you made in yours.”

That was all I had planned to say, but then I stood there a few seconds longer. And then I said, “I’m going to play ball this summer.” That was when I started to cry. I cried for a couple of minutes before I pulled myself together, said thank you, goodbye, and “wish me luck,” and got into my car.

The sun was shining now, and the drive to Georgia was pleasant. To get to Demorest I had some thirty or forty miles on back roads in the mountains and the country was beautiful. I pulled up to the Johnny Mize Athletic Center at twenty minutes of one. As I got out of my car I heard a wonderful sound, a percussive strike that could only be ball hitting bat. Way down the hill behind the athletic center I could see players in colorful uniforms on a field. Ping! There it was again. I resisted the urge to go down there, rationalizing for myself that I should see the Mize exhibit first, while it was still open. If I had time after that, I could go down the hill and see what was going on.

The “Big Cat” collected a lot of memorabilia in his life, not only many things related to the accolades associated with his career, but balls and bats from other players, mutually signed items, commemorative T-shirts, and more. I entered the exhibit from the back, duh, so the first thing I saw was a framed piece showing a painting of the Georgia Peach, along with a check for one dollar and fifty five cents, clearly endorsed by Tyrus Cobb. There was no explanation for why Cobb wrote this check to some guy named Olsen, nor how it ended up in a memorabilia collection. Had Olsen cashed it? Or kept it as worth more than $1.55?

Check signed by Ty CobbMost of the other items were more self-explanatory, like the plaque presented to Mize by the Cardinals upon his 1981 Hall of Fame induction, thanks to the veteran’s committee. One whole case (out of about ten cases of stuff) was devoted to the Yankees and the five consecutive championships Mize had helped them to win in 1949 through 1953. One case was for the Cardinals. One was for all things related to the Hall of Fame.

Shortly after one o’clock, I left the building, and headed down to the baseball field. Rock music was playing from the field house PA system, and two teams–the Piedmont Lions in green tops and white pants, and the North Carolina Wesleyan team in yellow and blue–were getting ready to play a game. What I had heard must have been batting practice. A couple of young guys in green shirts–from the junior varsity squad, maybe?–were re-doing the chalk lines on the field. A crowd was gathered to watch, sitting in the metal bleachers and assembled in camp chairs. A small concession stand was open, their barbecue grill smoking merrily. I sat down in the first row of bleachers and waited for the festivities to begin.

It began with the exchange of lineup cards and then, after the Lions took the field, the rock music faded and an announcer’s voice came over the PA, asking us to rise for the national anthem. It was sung by a Piedmont College women’s basketball player, and sung very well.

I cried during the National Anthem. Since September 11th I often do. Actually, now that I think about it, I used to get pretty emotional during it before 9/11, more for the baseball connection than patriotism. Now there are more complicated feelings there, too. Wounds and grief. But still, nothing gets me readier for baseball than a good rendition of the anthem.

As is my usual policy when visiting a new ballyard, so long as the Yankees are not playing, I rooted for the home team. I liked the look of the Lions. Before the game, they were loose and jocular, cocky and ready to play. The other team was not as compelling to me. Especially once the inning started.

The Lions pitcher warmed up a la Trevor Hoffman to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.” He was throwing gas, making the ball hiss through the air, and the catcher seemed pleased with the results. He was even more pleased when the first NCW player stepped in (sorry, I’ve forgotten their team nickname…) and he swung and missed by a large margin. A few pitches later he grounded to short. The next guy put up a little more of a fight. I think it was 2-2 when he tagged one, hard, and the crowd’s eyes widened a little. The left fielder ran back to the ten-foot-high padded fence and caught the ball at the 370 foot marker as he banged into the padding. The number three hitter went to a full count, but finally grounded routinely to second and the side was retired.

Then it was the Lions’ turn. My plan was to get to the Ty Cobb museum by 3pm, since they closed at four. Royston was over an hour away, so I could not stay much longer. But I figured I could stay through the Lions’ half of the inning. The sun was warm and I took off my long sleeve shirt and thought how nice it was to sweat.

There is a moment in baseball that I felt very keenly today, and which I felt when batting myself once two summers ago, but I had forgotten about. Somehow, in the big leagues, the little things are sometimes lost on the audience. For me I think it is because I don’t empathize with the godlike celebrities we have for baseball players now as much as I do with, oh, the guys who play in the Boston park leagues, or these college players. The moment I am talking about is the moment when the count goes from 3-1 to 3-2. With some big leaguers, it doesn’t seem as important, like this small detail could not possibly matter to those Titans the way it does to us when we stand in the batters box. The first Lion at bat took two pitches in the dirt, and then one high, to make it three and oh. He took one more, 3-1, and you still felt that he was in control of the at bat, even if he hadn’t taken the bat off his shoulder. But the next pitch was a good one, nipped the corner or something, and as the umpire raised his arm for a strike you felt the whole balance shift. Suddenly the at bat was balanced on a knife edge, the walk on one side, the strikeout on the other, both possibilities looming, but…

As I was thinking all this, the batter took another pitch, and walked. The crowd cheered. The next at bat was much the same, except that the first guy stole second in the middle of it, so then first base was open, and… well, maybe he would have walked him anyway. This pitcher did not seem to be having a stellar outing.

The Lions #3 hitter was a big fella. Again the count mounted, went to 3-2, again there was that thought, is he going to stare at strike three? Will he curve him? Is this big guy a contact hitter or is he prone to swing and miss? I’ll never know. The next pitch hit him on the shoulder with a meaty thud and the batter wasted no time running to first base which was rightly his, and you could just feel that something was about to happen.

It did. The Lions cleanup hitter took his stance in the batters box. After all those long at bats it was almost a shock that he slammed the first pitch he saw into the outfield for two runs.

There’s more. There was the perfect sac bunt to move the guys to second and third. There was the sac fly at the end of a long-long battle that, unfortunately didn’t go quite deep enough and didn’t score the runner. The third out was a long high drive that was hauled in at the 407 foot marker in deep center. Well struck, sir. But, inning over. And time for me to move on.

Royston, Georgia, home of the Georgia Peach. The Ty Cobb museum is housed in a building that is part of the Ty Cobb Health Care system and the Cobb Memorial Hospital. Cobb gave a huge sum of money to get this non-profit hospital built, to bring top-quality medical care to a sparsely populated area of north Georgia. As a player, he never earned that much. But he was an early investor in Coca-Cola, as well as an early pitchman for the product. This is just one of the many facts I learned at the museum.

The thumbnail sketch of Cobb has always been that he was, well, something of a bastard. The museum, of course, presents a more laudatory view, but the evidence of his virtues does seem to be irrefutable, from his philanthropy to things like Cobb’s leadership of the first “union” of professional ballplayers in 1914. Perhaps one of the most astonishing things to see on display is a reproduction of the “be good” letter which his father wrote to him when young Ty had just left for his first try as a professional ballplayer in the Sally League. His patrician, academic father, exhorts him in the letter to go and do whatever he needs to do to quell the temper and demons inside him, so that he could become educated, and truly to appreciate the wonders of nature and the pleasures of life as only the enlightened can.

Exhibits at the Cobb MuseumIt took me about forty five minutes to see the Cobb museum, including the short film on his life and, of course, the gift shop. It is a sweet and charming little museum, even if Cobb wasn’t, very professionally done and very compelling, which Cobb was.

From the museum it is a short drive to the cemetery where the Cobb family mausoleum stands. “You can’t miss it,” the woman at the museum desk had told me. She was right. There is only one mausoleum in the place, and it is up on a slight rise, so from anywhere in the cemetery it is visible. The Cobbs were the royalty of Royston, I guess–small fief though it was–and not because of Ty’s career necessarily, but because of his father’s, a prominent figure in the town.

The mausoleum is austere, saying only “Cobb” above the lintel and on a stepstone set in the plot’s border. “Well, Mr. Cobb,” I began, wondering why he was Mr. Cobb to me where Joe Jackson was merely Joe. “Here I am. I’ve come a long way to see you, and I’m glad I came.

“I’m going to play ball this summer and I came to ask for your advice. I guess I don’t really need advice about baseball so much as I do about life, though. Because that’s the secret, isn’t it? There is so much going on in this world right now, some of it you can see, and some of it you can’t.” I was thinking of the impending war in Iraq, the aggressive moves of North Korea, all the anxiety and fear and doubt built up around that. And I realized a big piece of the tension I have been carrying around in my chest all this time is exactly that, my piece of the national anxiety. “The secret to succeeding in baseball is to have all those things going on around you, all the things you could be worrying about, and yet when the time comes, you just have to do it. You just have to be able to put everything aside and be in that one moment in order to succeed. That’s why baseball is like life, isn’t it, Mr. Cobb?”

And with that, the pupil was enlightened. Intellectually, I’ve always seen the playing of baseball as a Zen pursuit, and yet like all moments of Zen enlightenment, they come as revelations. We know the answers to all the questions, somewhere deep in our hearts. We have only to remember them.

So, I am going to play baseball this summer, with a women’s team in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I have no idea if I will succeed, or be a miserable failure. But at least now I know what my goal is. Focus. And find out if I can find myself there in the center of a moment, maybe even that moment when the count has gone to three-and-two, and hitting the ball.

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