One of the Greatest Loves of my Life
I’ll be attending my 190th Yankees game this summer. The first for Pookie and the second for Nings. Sourcing life through sports is a tradition in our family, going back to that fishing hole in upstate NY. My Yankees are in their first season without Derek Jeter at shortstop in 20 years. I just sighed, smiled, and held my breath. It’s either going to be a loooooooong season, or a long first season since the man dubbed the Captain retired. Some would say he was “arguably” one of the most popular players of the last generation. For me, that’s an emphatic statement and he will undoubtedly be a future first ballot Hall of Fame inductee. Most importantly, he played shortstop for the New York Yankees like an old school construction worker. He brought his lunchbox to work, kept his head down, and did what his team needed to get the job done. Thank you DJ. Yes, I call him DJ. It’s been my name for him since I was an itty-bitty thing.
My granddaddy was a lunchbox guy too. I was raised by Pop-Pop in a small town in upstate New York. I mean really small. There was something like 42 students in my graduating class. Our neighbors were hogs, horses, and steers. A construction worker by trade, my granddaddy religiously awoke at 4:30 each morning to have his coffee and pack a proper lunch. Once the pop of his AM radio went off I knew he’d be calling for me to get up for school shortly. I could smell the fennel seasoning of freshly made sausage from hogs he raised out back on my way down to the basement style kitchen- in the house that he built.
Fishing with Pop-Pop was akin to checking a Facebook account these days; it kept us connected. I got to chat him up about all things from religion, to how to plant bush beans on the car ride to and from the fishing hole. Granddaddy was in his 60s by the time I came along. He had already raised seven children- six girls in fact. He wasn’t a cuddly type of man. After all, he was born at the start of WWI and raised in Virginia during the enacting of The Racial Integrity Act. He was a man who taught by example. He wanted me to be able to think and provide for myself.
With two dense braids sticking out of each side of my seven year old head we listened to Yankee games on an old AM radio. Often, my braids were the tightly woven results of granddaddy’s enormous, heavily calloused, labored hands. I don’t remember if he actually told me to do so, or if it was just an unspoken code to sit in silence during the game. I learned a lot by listening.
Among many things, I credit my granddaddy with introducing me to the game of baseball and planting the seed that led to my love of sports and figuring out plays. I can identify defensive schemes in football with the sound muted. To this day, I have a difficult time watching sporting events with people who don’t understand the game. (Occasionally that includes my own children. Jus sayin’.) I listened closely so at night I could imitate calls made by long time Yankee radio announcer, Phil Rizzuto, and later John Sterling.
The smell of the plastic lunch pail that was often placed evenly between us was partly freshly fried shad fish crusted in his well-seasoned, heirloom cast-ironed skillet, and part fresh vegetables from our garden. The scents from that lunch pail spoke the language of life to me. It was how I recognized how a man provided for himself and his family.
The sounds of the day were accented by the crack of Don Mattinly’s bat. Now, the Yankees broke my heart a lot in the 80’s. After the 81 championship I mostly looked forward to seeing a picture of Larry Milbourne’s mustache in the paper.
I spent the better part of 40 years sending newspaper clips and talking with my granddaddy about the Yankees. In June of 2011, the month before he passed away, he confessed that he was a Dodger fan. He kept it to himself because he never wanted to break my heart. So, he listened to me for years even though Jackie Robinson had sealed his team allegiance long before I was born.
My granddaddy, William Lewis Morgan, would’ve been 101 years old this year. Over the course of a century many things have evolved in sports. What’s remained the same is the passion fans have for their chosen teams. For as much as the Yankees broke my heart on the field, the team has served to define what would become one of the greatest loves of my life.