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Bambino Road: Day Eight

Day Eight (and a bit of Nine): March 13, 2003

The final historical ballpark on my itinerary was Orlando’s Tinker Field. Once upon a time Tinker Field was a standalone facility, but now it is part of a multi-venue complex in Orlando that includes the Florida Citrus Bowl and a music hall. While researching the history of the field I found some claims that professional baseball had been played on the site since 1914. In the twentieth century, the field has been home to teams in the Southern League and the Florida State League, as well as the spring training home of the Twins, Cubs, Dodgers, and Senators.

Back in 1914, the site could not have carried the name Tinker Field, could it? At the time, Joe Tinker was playing ball with the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. From 1902 to 1912, Tinker was the shortstop immortalized in Franklin P. Adams’ poem “Baseball’s Saddest Lexicon” about the Cubs’ rally-killing double play combination of “Tinker to Evers to Chance.” Tinker was an important part of the four Cubs pennant winning teams, and then was one of the first ever salary hold outs in baseball. In 1909 when he wanted a $1000 raise (he settled for $200).

In 1921, retired from playing, Tinker became owner of the Orlando Gulls, a Florida State League team, and tried to make his living in real estate. Tinker Field was built on land that was once his, but I could not find the date that the field took on his name. Perhaps in the larger scheme of things that date itself is less important that the accomplishments of Joe Tinker’s life and career, which I never would have looked up if I had not visited the field bearing the Tinker name. (My research also led me on the path of the fascinating history of Wrigley Field… but that excursion will have to wait for a future season.) Tinker was supposedly a mediocre hitter, yet he could always hit Christy Mathewson. Per Mel Allen: “How about that!”

But Tinker Field itself evokes another name even more than that of Tinker: Griffith. Just inside the main gate there stands a monument to Clark Griffith, erected in 1968 “by the people of Orlando,” who once appreciated the bringing of big league baseball to their town. Griffith was a star pitcher at the turn of the century who became majority owner of the Washington Senators and took them to train on the site in the spring of 1936. The “Old Fox” passed away in 1955, and the team passed to his adopted children, nephew Calvin and his sister Dorothy.

Calvin Griffith was a baseball owner, which means he was both reviled and revered. Adopted by Uncle Clark when he was a boy, Calvin’s involvement with the Senators far predated his inheritance. Young Calvin was the Senators’ bat boy for the 1924 season, when Walter Johnson was their star. By 1961, financial straits precipitated the club’s move to Minnesota where they were rechristened the Twins. Griffith remained in control of the team and acted as his own general manager for decades, but finally sold a majority share in the team to billionaire Carl Pohlad in 1984, ceding 52% ownership in a tearful ceremony in the Metrodome. Griffith passed away in 1999, mercifully before any talk of the Twins contraction.

So how is this for a strange set of coincidences? Calvin Griffith was born and raised in Montreal before being adopted by his uncle. The Senators became the Twins. In 2001, Bud Selig announced that two major league teams would be eliminated, widely known to be the Twins and Montreal Expos. MLB now owns the Expos and may move them to the Washington, DC area to fill the vacancy once created by the Montreal-born owner. These are the kinds of things one notices when looking at the history of baseball, where the figures who have shaped the game are identifiable by name, the outcome of winners and losers recorded in detail, and the connections among people in the game are forever complexifying. Need another example? How about this: Joe Torre, upon his arrival in the major leagues as a player, bought his first car from a used car salesman in the Milwaukee area: Bud Selig. (For those of you who don’t keep up with modern baseball, he’s the commissioner now.)

My host at Tinker Field was once employed by the Griffith Twins and now works for Florida Citrus Sports, in a modern office attached to the Citrus Bowl. A slim, bespectacled man, Dillon Thomas walked me around the field, pointing out things I would never have discovered myself, like Griffith’s private box, located in a building separated from the grandstand, on the second floor above the groundskeepers stores. “He would hold court up there, in air-conditioned comfort,” Thomas told me.

The original grandstand was wood, of a similar vintage to Bell Memorial Field in Americus, and was torn down in the sixties and replaced with a cinderblock and metal structure. Wooden bleachers were also added to expand the park’s capacity from around 3000 to 5000. The bleachers look old, very old, warped and splintered in places, and yet they were probably built in my lifetime.

But the field is in essentially the same place as it used to be. When the football stadium was rebuilt to add a tall upper tier, and rear supports were added, the whole baseball field was shifted about 15 feet toward third base. Fifteen feet does not change the feeling that this is the grass that the great players walked on when they were here. This is not EXACTLY the mound where Firpo Marberry and Bobo Newsom toed the rubber, or the batters box where Rod Carew and Harmon Killebrew dug in. So what? Hallowed ground is hallowed ground.

If they tear down Fenway Park and build it up again in the same spot, the new park retains a psychological power that a new park built across the street (as Turner Field was) would not. Of course, one could argue that in the case of the Red Sox, that psychological effect might be detrimental to the home team, but take instead the case of Yankee Stadium. Before Rudolph Giuliani left office he approved a plan to tear down Yankee Stadium and build a new stadium on city land across the street. New Mayor Michael Bloomberg quickly shelved the plan–New York has too little money post-9/11 to undertake such a project. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay criticized the project roundly, though, as foolish. If you are not going to build it on that hallowed ground, then why rebuild in the Bronx at all? If you’re going to move across the street, why not across the River? You lose all the wonder and power of it being the place where Ruth walked, where Gehrig gave the “luckiest man” speech, where Reggie hit three homers on three swings of the bat in a World Series, etc. etc.

Tinker Field’s pedigree is not quite so laden with miracles and historic moments as Yankee Stadium’s–but then maybe no site in sports history is. I am using Yankee Stadium as a point of comparison to Tinker Field because of their similarities, not their differences. They are both venerable sites, despite the difference in their magnitude, and both could be swept away in the coming decades. Tinker Field stands empty now, the minor leaguers gone, lured to a snazzy and wonderful facility at Disney World (and set to move to Montgomery, Alabama, in 2004), the major leaguers now spending their springs in Fort Myers. Even the high school team that plays here, the Lake Highland Highlanders, coached by former Twin, Cy Young winner and World Series MVP Frank Viola, are getting ready to move to a new facility. Who will play ball here next? And if no one does, does the significance of the place disappear, or only the building itself when it is torn down? Will the building be replaced by a historic marker? Or not even that?

On my journey, I’ve stood on the ground where men bled and died in the Civil War and I’ve stood where Joe Jackson put on home run hitting demonstrations with his bat “Black Betty” after being banned from baseball. I visited where Jackie Robinson was born and where Ty Cobb was laid to rest. And here’s why. Because in the “information age” there is no longer a hard and fast division between fact and fiction, between entertainment and news, between truth and spin. Maybe there never was, but in these days of “reality TV” and “info-tainment” I find it important to experience history as something other than just a good tale well-told. A Hollywood writer didn’t invent Joe Jackson, but if we don’t preserve the reality of Jackson’s life, then someone might as well have made the whole thing up. There is a difference between fact and fiction, and the places, the historic markers, the artifacts in museums (“memorabilia” makes it sound too trivial) are the pieces of reality that remind us of this.

This is perhaps an odd conclusion for a fiction writer to come to–that a good story well-told is not as important as real life–but given the current context of the impending war on Iraq, the Enron scandal, and the seemingly forgotten lessons of human history, it strikes me now as a no brainer. How can we fail to place a premium on truth, fact, and the search for “what really happened” in the realms of human striving? It seems to me it is more important than ever that we value history and knowledge. And no, it is not enough to just “know” that J. “Tom” Zachary was the pitcher that gave up Ruth’s historic 60th homer in 1927; it is not enough to see it in a book like a fairy tale. Hence the need for landmarks, the preservation of places and things, and trips like mine.

The outfield wall of Tinker Field is dented and scarred from decades of baseballs whacking it, like the surface of some faraway moon. In the old days, they used to paint the advertisements directly onto the metal. As we walked along the warning track, we could make out remnants of peeling letters, still visible under layers and layers of newer paint. “Attorney.” “Florida.” “Vehicle.” The walkway from the locker room entrance to the dugout is lined with bricks that are identical the the bricks lining the drive to the Henry B. Plant Museum, formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel and Florida’s first destination resort at the turn of the century (the nineteenth century). I visited the Plant Museum on my final day in search of one last Ruth landmark.

They say that Babe Ruth, Sandra Bernhard and Thomas Edison all stayed at the grand old hotel that is now the museum, lovingly preserving every detail. Were those hundred-year-old bricks I stood on in Orlando? Or in Tampa? I do not know, but I am sure that somebody does. I walked those bricks in search of a historic marker on the campus of the University of Tampa. It was another one of those bronzed engraved signs, on a walkway in front of the business school. It commemorated Babe Ruth’s “longest homer,” hit in 1919 in an exhibition game against the Giants. Ruth wasn’t even a Yankee then, but a Red Sock, so you know it was ancient history. The field is gone, but the marker is there.

The marker is there.

And so the trip that began with a Ruth home run marker, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and ends with one, in Tampa, Florida. And maybe I will have to give up making the distinction between fact and fiction after all, because some men and some deeds inhabit that place between them both, the place of legend. For all that I found Ty Cobb demystified and Joe Jackson humanized and players like Joe Tinker brought to light during my travels, Ruth remains mythic. I must acknowledge the power of story after all, because maybe with Ruth the truth matters less than the apocrypha, the man matters less than the image he has left America with. From the bellyache heard ’round the world to the “called shot,” from the homers hit for sick kids in hospitals to the piano Red Sox fans are now trying to dredge out of a Sudbury lake, Ruth is something larger than a sum of the facts. Perhaps he is the exception that proves the rule about the importance of history.

For now my traveling is done. I have a novel to write, and a new major league season is upon us, and perhaps war, too. Let me indulge in one last parallel between war and baseball in the context of history. In war, they say, the hero is the man who is in the right place at the right time, who finds himself in the circumstance to do right, and when given that chance, does it. Those without that chance may have the same skills, the same courage, but we will not remember their names. I think it is the same in baseball, indeed, in any sport. We were chided after 9/11 for referring to sports figures as “heroes,” but this is what it means–to be the one to rise to the occasion, to grab that chance when it comes and to do the thing we’ll always remember. I dream of the day when all the “heroes” we laud will be athletes and not soldiers, because war will be a thing of the past, when the names that will go down in history will not be of genocidal despots and generals, but shortstops and managers.

Someday may our children’s children know war only as a historical marker, erected by a field where now they play ball.

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