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Stories For A Depression

Stories For A Depression

Associate Editor

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

If this a depression, let’s take a trip to a rooming house porch, 1938.

Indians pitcher Bob Feller recently spoke to Terry Pluto, the Cleveland Plain Dealer sportswriter (and religion writer) about the time, in 1938, when the future Hall of Famer lived modestly, in a rooming house.

He was 19, son of an Iowa farmer.

There were only day games back then, said Feller. “After most games, I’d sit on the porch with this 90-year-old man. He said he was 15 when he ran away from home and joined the Union army. He said he fought in the battle of Vicksburg.”

Imagine, there’s a man in 2008 who once sat on a porch with a Civil War soldier.

Feller also met Eliot Ness, Cleveland’s safety director at the time.

“Just a little guy, very quiet and polite,” Feller said. “Never guess he was one of the Untouchables.”

On the Fourth of July, the Indians held an Old-Timers Day. Cy Young, 71 years-old, started for the Old-Timers. “Standing straight as an arrow and clearly proud to be in uniform again . . . he pitched to four men, allowing one hit,” reported The Plain Dealer, adding that Young spoke to the crowd “through a megaphone” about a game that he pitched on the same League Park field in 1891.

Two days later, and four months before Kristallnacht, the Evian conference opened in France with 34 countries, including the United States, debating what should be done with the overwhelming number of Jews looking for refuge. Of all the nations gathered in “beautiful Evian” (as Menachem Begin, with bitter sarcasm, later referred to the French resort), 32 nations said don’t call us, we’ll call you. Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic agreed to take in a limited number of Jews, if someone else paid the bill.

“A-Tisket, a Tasket, a green and yellow basket,” by Ella Fitzgerald, was the number one song in America on July 4, 1938. (You can find the number one song for any day since the 1890s here.)

There was some money around in 1938, not everybody was broke. Pluto tells us that $2 box-seat tickets for the All-Star Game in Cincinnati were being scalped for $25 per pair. More than 143,000 people applied for tickets for a park that held slightly more than 26,000.

The big issue was night baseball, writes Pluto. American League President William Harridge told the sportswriters covering the game: “It’s coming just as radio came to the game. Not so many years ago, owners thought radio would ruin the game. They’ve changed their minds, and they’ll change their minds on night baseball.”

“No one kept track of pitches back then,” Feller told Pluto. “You threw until they hit you.” Feller estimated he averaged about “125 to 135 pitches” per game and rarely felt tired.

Feller, once 19, is now 90 years-old, as old as the old man on the porch, who was once 15 in Vicksburg.

Feller, when he was 19, met Cy Young, born in a farmhouse in Washington Township, Ohio, 1867. The U.S. census says there were fewer than 800 people living there in 2000, let alone 1867.

That’s about as far as I go back, second-hand, other than the time Bel Kaufman was telling me how she sat on the lap of Sholom Aleichem, born in 1859.

I met Feller one night in the dusk before a ball game in upstate New York. He was sitting in a row of folding-chairs in a wooden minor-league park in Oneonta, I think it was. Maybe 1974.

He’d been sitting on the porch with the Vicksburg soldier not long before that, 1938 being as recent to Feller in 1974 as 1974 is recent to me now.

I didn’t ask for an autograph, anymore than Feller asked the old Vicksburg boy.

Feller was 56 in Oneonta, as old as I am now.

The groundskeeper was waving a hose, spraying a high arc of water over the infield grass. Over the centerfield fence there was nothing but gently sloping tree-covered mountains growing darker with the evening, the lights of the park taking effect.

I wasn’t much older than 19 and didn’t know the half of it.

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