The Boys of Summer

E on DC

When June arrived back in the South Bronx in the early 1960s, schools went the way of the yo-yo. I ran across the street to the playground next to PS 39. It was where I played baseball. It was where I fell in love. How did this begin? It might have started with baseball cards, pink Spaldings, and a good broomstick. Yes, there is such a thing as seduction. Little did I know. I thought I was just collecting cards with my heroes’ pictures. 

Today people draft reports about why there are few African Americans playing baseball in the major leagues. How many young black kids are collecting cards? How many kids are playing stickball in the streets of Washington? I don’t see them. Back in April, as the cherry blossoms were trying to bloom, I found a greenish-yellow softball on Georgia Avenue across the street from Howard University. At first, from a distance, I thought it might be a tennis ball. I seldom find baseballs in the streets of our city. No one is hitting a ball over a fence. Why?

My father never took an interest in any sport except boxing. His favorite fighters were Kid Gavilan, Kid Chocolate, and sweet Sugar Ray Robinson. It was my mother who purchased my first baseball glove. I was blessed to have a cousin who lived upstairs in our apartment building on Longwood Avenue who had been bitten by the baseball bug. Even in the snow we played catch, throwing the ball until our arms grew tired or the sun did.

My mother only knew the name Jackie Robinson. She was a closet Dodgers fan only because she once lived in Brooklyn. Baseball might have been in my blood, but I didn’t get it from anyone who sat around the dinner table. While my brother was discovering Thomas Merton, my sister was into Sam Cooke. Not the best siblings to discuss RBIs and strikeouts with.

In June 2010 my son and daughter treated me to a Washington Nationals game for Father’s Day. It was hot, very hot. My children’s clothes were sticking to their seats. I looked at both of them and knew on that day they were not baseball kids. I also knew how much they loved me. They were willing to suffer sunstroke for their dad. It would be nice if love was simply as round as a baseball. You could toss it into the air and always catch it. My children rarely played baseball. Is it because they were DC kids growing up before the Nats came to town?

There is an emptiness in the streets these days. Not the playgrounds or the gym – but the streets. When was the last time you saw a Spalding? When was the last time you saw 12 or 18 kids with bats and gloves? Where is the addiction to the game? How many kids imagine themselves pitching a no-hitter in the big leagues? 

Maybe it should begin with the baseball cards and the collection of memories and dreams. But who would invest in them? It’s sad to see young boys this summer ignoring the American pastime. I’m afraid something might be forever lost. Why must the number 42 remain so lonely? 

There are many black people playing baseball. They just happen to be black people who speak Spanish. This reflects our changing nation. What’s good for the American and National leagues should be good for all of us. Maybe we need to embrace language the way we keep embracing color. 

There was a time when the ball I played with in New York was pink. Si! Pink.

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