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Saturday, May 4, 2013

TOPPS 1959

by Garrett Rowlan

On a September night in Los Angeles, 1959, Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Roy Face lost, and my father fell into the pool. Bill Jones pushed him from behind. We were guests at Bill’s house. The two men were drunk, fifties-style, alcoholic expansion in a country tipsy with postwar hubris. Vin Scully announced Dodger baseball on a plastic radio, his voice sailing over the city lights below.  
I’ll always remember my father’s expression as he climbed out of the water, his anger restrained under tight lips. I equate that expression with the Topps’ baseball card of 1959 depicting Pittsburgh reliever Roy Face. He’s shown poising with his arms lifted and his eyes cut toward some imaginary runner leading off first base. I have that card. A glance at it brings me back to the night of September eleventh, a date later to live in infamy. Roy Face had won eighteen straight games that 1959 season. The Pirates had come to Los Angeles. A heat wave, according to the microfilm of that September edition of the Times, had hit the city. I don’t remember the heat in particular, but they had a pool, the Jones’s, and I had gone with my parents to their house. Bill was a round-faced man with the sort of ruddy glow you get with sun and alcohol, and who bore a resemblance to the bandleader Phil Harris. His wife Rose was a husky-voiced brunette cut in the same mold as the actress Ruth Roman. They lived on a hillside on the northeast part of Los Angeles. The splash, the lights below, and Vin Scully’s voice, the card brings it all back.
I was ten years old in 1959. I was on the cusp of things. We all were. It was about to be a new decade, with a new President, and our family was about to move, choosing a better house uptown. These facts alone make the Roy Face’s 1959 card and other Topps’ for that year memorable. They set a marker. They look backward and forward. The oval-shaped pictures in the front of the card suggest a window into the past. Turn the card over and you’ll see the players’ stats. For me those numbers had the allure of the ancient and obscure, and since they include minor league totals, a hint of the American hinterland, of the smell of hay and the taste of corn and small motels like those we’d see or sleep in every summer driving north from Los Angeles to my father’s family in Kalispell, Montana.  The players, depicted on the front side, steel-eyed and strong-jawed in the sun, strike poses that are almost mythic: pitchers winding up and following through, batters poising to swing, the bat raised and cocked. Often I’ll see behind them some looming stadium from the era when Eisenhower was President, colonnades and stanchions that suggest an imperial reign in its decline, and blues skies beyond without a hint of ozone depletion.
The sort of blue that is behind Bud Daley who pitched for the Kansas City Athletics. His 1959 picture shows him captured in his follow-through pose. The photo was taken on the grounds of what I assume to be the old Monarch Stadium in Kansas City, a bit of which is visible in the background while, beside his left hip, juts the spire of some distant building or silo. The suggestion is of a Kansas stretched beyond the grass of the stadium, full of farms and prairie, home of Dorothy come back from Oz and not the slain Clutter family, who would years later be the subject of a groundbreaking book by Truman Capote. The sky is a bright blue.
I recall the splash of chlorinated blue as my father fell into the water. He had been trying to teach my mother how to dive, instructions he gave without demonstrating them himself. (He was hydrophobic. Holiday weekends we would drive up the California coast. On some beach around Santa Barbara he would, if coaxed into the water, stand in the low surf with his hands clasped across his chest and shiver.) Bill Jones, coming up from behind, must have seen the hypocrisy in the moment, and the opportunity. Looking back on that moment, I can’t help but see in it a whiff of class warfare, or at least distinction. It set a boundary. We were still lower middle-class. We had a modest house at the end of a cul-de-sac and lived next to the railroad tracks. In retrospect the Jones’s hillside house stands with a monochrome elegance, outside of the aqua-colored swimming pool, the sort of static luxury captured in Julius Schulman’s architectural photographs, the suggestion of an austere, otherworldly glory.
Otherworldly, like the hull of an abandoned spaceship, is how the batting cage behind Bobby Thomson looks in his 1959 baseball card. The athlete’s face is back-dropped by the oddly-shaped structure. On the card’s reverse side is a cartoon on the upper right hand corner that shows a smiling figure. It is Thomson being carried on the shoulders of his teammates while the caption reads, “Bobby’s homer won the 1951 pennant for the Giants.” I had dreamed of some kind of similar glory, some defining career moment culminating in fame, a hillside house, and a swimming pool. I had already projected myself into the future as a baseball star and wrote out complete statistics for a major league career beginning in 1970 or so, by which time, in reality, I was working for minimum wage. I had written that I would hit fifty-one homers in 1973 and recall thinking, even at age ten or so, that that number was a bit excessive. Remember, this number was projected a couple of years before Roger Maris broke the Babe’s record, and well before Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire began their chemically-enhanced pursuits of Maris’s record and its eventual eclipse. I’d like to state now for the record that my fifty-one home runs in 1973 were hit without the use of steroids. They were powered strictly by fantasy.
I still make up statistics about myself, though sometimes I view my career in baseball in retrospection and modesty. My life experiences have imposed upon me a regimen of lowered reverse accomplishments. I still have those fantasies I mentioned earlier, but often now I’m not a star player anymore swatting fifty home runs a year, but a utility player or a pitcher who had parlayed a tricky pitch or modest hitting skills into a brief career. The numbers I give myself are mundane, certainly nothing on the scale of Billy Pierce’s 1.97 ERA in 1955, another gleaming statistic from the 1959 Topps’ set. Usually I apportion myself a career of some five or six years, ending around 1980, with a batting average in the high two hundreds and, if I’m a pitcher, victories ranging from thirty to sixty in that span of time. What I’m saying is that I stay in pro baseball long enough to get my pension, something I think about in real life. If I’m feeling expansive and consider the fact that I was in the same profession for almost twenty-five years, and have now retired, I extend my modest achievements, lengthening my career to a dozen years and my wins to around one-hundred. I’ll even take the record of Pedro Ramos, the Cuban-born pitcher who pitched for fifteen years, from 1955 to 1970, won one-hundred and seventeen games and lost one hundred and sixty.
My father, you might say, had a lifetime record also on the losing side. He’d suffered various disappointments, and often he vented resentment at the stupid and powerful having so much influence. Richard Nixon was always a prominent object of his scorn. As was, I believe, Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought his team out West in 1958, displacing the residents of Chavez Ravine in order to construct Dodger Stadium.
It was a sort of protest, then, his taking us to see the Los Angeles Angels for their second-ever home game in 1961, the Haloes against the Minnesota Twins on Friday night, April 28, 1961. The newly-formed Angels played in front of a crowd of 9,745. The pitcher that night for the Twins, an expansion team, was Pedro Ramos. The Angels’ lineout consisted of other teams’ cast-offs. Among those was Albie Pearson, the diminutive center fielder, a pick-up from the Washington Senators. I doubt if my father wanted to see the five-foot-five Albie Pearson play as much as I did. Still, it would have suited him to support the underdog. He liked the idea of the deprived, the oddball, and those who did the most with what they had. (He would have liked David Eckstein, the Angels’ former shortstop.) He was opposed to the waste and prejudices and inefficiencies that he thought characterized American life. While my parents lived in San Francisco before I was born, he was an advocate of Technocracy, a kind of quasi-socialistic form of organization based on managerial expertise. Later on, after we had moved to Los Angeles when I was small, I recall him as being an enthusiast of the writings of Thorstein Veblen, the dour coiner of the term “conspicuous consumption.” Even our cars ran toward the offbeat. First it was the Italian Fiat and then the Borgward, a Swedish car, which was ruined after we had an accident, the result of his aggressive driving.
The game went into extra innings before the Angels won, 6-5, in the twelfth, Albie Pearson coming home from third on a hit batter. I don’t remember that. We probably left early. The results I got on microfilm. I don’t remember much about that night except my mental snapshot of Pedro Ramos releasing a pitch under the bright electric lights, and my feeling of the immensity of the surrounding stadium whose seats seemed magnified in number, so that the domino-like acres of (mostly unfilled) chairs suggest infinity.
Those 1959 cards have an-almost infinite fascination for me. They are consonant with the microfiche copies of old newspapers and photographs and other artifacts that I use to dislodge relics of recollection from the place where my father, other family members, and a few friends have gone. When I turn over a baseball card, it’s another time. It’s Bud Daley or Ralph Terry, another hurler for the Kansas City Athletics, throwing a pitch against a pristine blue sky, and it’s also like Roy Face, looking over his shoulder as if to see what’s coming next.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired substitute teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has published about 40 stories, essays, and poems, most recently in Map Literary and the Cafe Irreal.

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