published Thursday, May 1st, 2014

Cleaveland: Living life via baseball

By Clif Cleaveland

My family has an enduring love of baseball.

The game entered my earliest memory on radio via Mutual Broadcasting System’s “Game of the Day” and remained a staple in my afternoon activities until the advent of television. When I visited either set of grandparents in their Georgia homes, we listened to broadcasts of Atlanta Crackers games. When the team played away games, the announcers relied upon the telegraph to give them pitch by pitch updates. With hyped speech and background sound effects, listeners could imagine that we were witnesses to the actual game.

Visits to my North Georgia grandparents in the summertime always included semi-pro baseball games between teams sponsored by the cotton mills that dotted the region. Passions ran high. Once an umpire had to run for safety after an unpopular, game-ending call.

In 1943, I saw my first major league game at the home park of the Washington Senators while wartime barrage balloons swayed over the buildings of government. After the game, civil defense teams used large searchlights to sweep the sky and pinpoint aircraft flying overhead.

Post-World War II, professional baseball came to my LaGrange, Ga., hometown as a Class D farm club of the New York Yankees. In the several years of the club’s and league’s existence, a single player from our team, Don Bessent, made it to the major leagues.

A business-mandated move to Columbia, S.C., exposed my family to a Class AA team in the Cincinnati Reds farm system. The legendary Frank Robinson played briefly for Columbia. Hank Aaron played a season for the Jacksonville team in the same league. Neither player was permitted to stay in the same hotels used by their white teammates.

Medical school in Baltimore presented the opportunity to see the Orioles multiple times, including a game against the Red Sox and Ted Williams and the Yankees and Whitey Ford. A summer visit to St. Louis included a Cardinals game in which Stan Musial drove a ball into the right field stands.

As my parents grew older and relentless illnesses slowed them, they became ardent fans of the Atlanta Braves, watching almost every televised game. Each could quote batting averages and won-loss records. Their favorite players differed as did their least favorite opponents.

My mother, widowed some 20 years, continued the tradition. Conversation ceased during games except for commercial breaks. As pulmonary fibrosis eroded her health, the Braves became almost an extended family for her. Rewarded by only one World Series Championship, she held out hope that the next season would bring the second. She had favorites — Greg Maddux, Brian McCann, Bobby Cox — who could be counted upon to bring home the next set of championship rings.

Her health deteriorated throughout this spring. She was 101. Already dependent upon continuous oxygen, she spent more hours sleeping, saving her waking hours for evening baseball.

During the weekend of April 18-20, she seemed at the end of her life with long periods of unresponsiveness interrupted by brief periods of wakefulness. She wanted the television set in her bedroom tuned to the Braves. She wished to be positioned on her left side facing the screen.

On Saturday evening, April 19, the Braves pulled out a close win. She seemed oblivious to the game. At the last out, I spoke slowly into her right ear, “The Braves won.”

“Great,” she replied. “What was the score?” She did not open her eyes during our brief conversation. Soon she was deeply asleep, waiting as her life eased toward its conclusion.

Sponsors of major league baseball concern themselves with demographics of the audience. How should advertisements be shaped? How can more young adults be lured to watch? They may overlook a large contingent of aging loyalists.

For many senior Americans, baseball remains a powerful presence in their lives, catching them up in one more pennant race, one more attempt to stage a late-inning comeback, one more chance to beat the Mets or the Phillies or the Reds, one more reason to hold on for a new season’s spring training.

Play ball! Show me what you’ve got.

Contact Clif Cleaveland at cleaveland1000@comcast.net.

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