The Baseball Connection

Baseball has brought together many grandparents and grandchildren all over the country. (via David Wilson)

Grandpa grew up on a farm in Nebraska during the Great Depression. A former high school basketball player, he served in the Coast Guard during World War II. As part of a construction battalion, he helped build a LORAN station on the east end of Nantucket Island to aid navigation and monitor shipping and submarine traffic in the Atlantic Ocean.

While stationed on the island, he attended a dance where he met my grandmother. They began a relationship, and even after Grandpa went to the Pacific, they stayed in touch by writing each other letters. Following the war, Grandpa returned to Nantucket, and they married shortly thereafter.

In the years that followed, Grandma and Grandpa began building their lives together. They had two children. At first, they lived out in Madaket, on the west end of Nantucket, in a 500-square-foot beach cottage, insulated against the harsh Atlantic wind by seaweed salvaged from the nearby beach. Shortly after, they built a slightly larger—836 square feet—house in town on a lot behind my great-grandparents’ house.

As he and my grandmother raised their family, Grandpa held a variety of jobs. He delivered milk, worked as a handyman, was a bank director, and worked for the Steamship Authority where he once had a run-in with Johnny Carson trying to cut the line for the boat. In the 1950s and 1960s, he often would drive his family across country to Nebraska or California to help his brother with the yearly plowing or visit his family.

Grandpa didn’t talk a lot. He was so tightlipped that once during dinner, my grandmother forgot to pour him his customary glass of milk. Rather than say anything, he just sat there quietly. When Grandma finally noticed and asked him why he hadn’t spoken up, Grandpa replied, “Didn’t think you wanted me to have any.”

Underneath his strong and silent exterior, Grandpa had a wicked sense of humor—the first words he said to my cousin’s future husband were, “There’s some beers in the fridge if you wanna get lit.” And he dealt with living just a few feet from his especially messy in-laws the only he knew how — by playing pranks. He mailed unsigned cards or stale loaves of bread to his mother-in-law because he knew it would drive her nuts.

Living on Nantucket, Grandpa became a Red Sox fan. He listened to games on the radio, watched them on his little television, and went to Fenway with my father. But the Red Sox of the second half of the 20th century were mired in mediocrity. The Impossible Dream of 1967 and Fisk’s walk-off home run in Game Six of the 1975 World Series were fleeting moments of hope in a perennial parade of disappointment.

***

As a child, watching Red Sox games with Grandpa was a staple of our yearly trips to Nantucket. Such opportunities were few and far between. In their later years, Grandma and Grandpa rarely went off-island. Occasionally we saw them for holidays, when there wasn’t any baseball on TV. But most years I only saw my grandparents during the first two weeks of July.

Before settling down to watch the game, we had dinner as a family. The script was always the same. Grandma cooked, and the menu reflected my grandfather’s tastes. There were always glasses of milk waiting at the dinner table. Grandpa wanted milk with everything. Milk with tuna fish. Milk with steak cooked to the consistency of leather. Milk with something called upside-down pizza. In later years, the milk often was lukewarm since the fridge didn’t work exactly right, but, as Grandma insisted, there was nothing really wrong with it.

After dinner, Grandpa would settle down in his recliner—the only comfortable piece of furniture in my grandparents’ house—and turn on the game. He’d have Rusty, his little white poodle, seated on his lap and reach over and put his glasses on—the only time he ever wore them. The crack of the bat, the sound of the ball ricocheting off the Green Monster, and the voices of Jerry Remy and Sean McDonough flowed from the television, occasionally interrupted by Rusty’s high-pitched yips as he ran himself in circles trying to get the blue ball stuck underneath Grandpa’s shoe.

By about the second inning, Grandma would ask if anyone wanted ice cream. For Grandpa the answer was always yes, even though we’d finished dinner twenty minutes before. He’d end his day with a bowl of ice cream in his lap and the Red Sox on TV. Even if we didn’t want ice cream, Grandma made sure to send us away with some cookies, cakes, doughnuts or whatever else she had whipped up. She may not have been a great cook, but her desserts were sublime. She knew everyone’s favorite, and at some point during the visit, she’d send us back to the cottage with our preferred confections.

Night after night, year after year, baseball brought us together. While my grandfather and I came from different eras and had different interests, there was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting on my grandparents’ weirdly squishy couch and watching a baseball game. We didn’t talk a lot, but that wasn’t the point. Just being there mattered.

On Nantucket, we would have dinner in town some nights. On others, my brother and I would ask if we could go to Grandma and Grandpa’s and watch the Sox game. My father would call and check to see if this was alright. It always was. We’d pile in the car for the six-mile drive down Madaket Road. When we’d walk through the screen porch and into the little galley kitchen, Grandma would be cleaning up from dinner, and Grandpa would be in his chair. After handwashing all the dishes—they didn’t have a dishwasher—Grandma would sit down in her chair and knit while we all watched the game.

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On days when we didn’t go into town, we had own traditions for listening to the Red Sox. We’d turn on the radio as the static crackled and the voices of Joe Castiglione and Jerry Trupiano filled the cool summer nights. In those days, there was no computer or television at the cottage (there still isn’t), so the radio was our only option. I spent many nights laying in the front room on the daybed that was so worn out it sank in the middle. On good nights, Trupiano enthusiastically bellowed “WAY BACK! WAY BACK!” as a Red Sox player hit a home run. On bad ones, Castiglione adopted an air of loving disappointment at a team that always seemed on the precipice of something special but always found a way to screw it up.

As the night wore on, the June bugs flung themselves at the window screens, drawn in by the light from the old metal lamp. When the game was over, I’d reach up to turn the light off and just barely avoid second-degree burns on my hands. To this day, I still reach for the top of the lamp even though my father replaced the switch to prevent any trips to the ER. Some habits are hard to break.

Every morning, I walked half a mile to the little shack that sold coffee, newspapers, and assorted essentials for people who didn’t want to drive to town. I had to time my walks just right. If I left too early, the Boston Globe wouldn’t have arrived yet and I’d have to go back later. I bought the paper and devoured the sports page. I scoured the standings, busied myself in the box scores, and poured over transaction logs. I squirreled away each bit of information, deepening my knowledge of the game and, by extension, my bond with Grandpa.

***

By the early 2000s, the Red Sox were in the midst of some sustained success. They’d won at least 90 games in 1998 and 1999 behind the otherworldly pitching of Pedro Martinez. Nomar Garciaparra was the best Red Sox shortstop since Rico Petrocelli. Manny Ramirez anchored an increasingly dangerous Red Sox lineup. In 2002, Boston won 93 games but missed out on the Wild Card because of the Moneyball A’s. That summer, like every summer before it, I watched games at Grandma and Grandpa’s. In the season’s waning days, my parents and I went down to Nantucket to attend a wedding.

Grandpa, however, didn’t go to weddings. I had come to the island to look after the dog. I was also too young to be left at home without a car. As a result, Grandpa and I were left to our own devices. At dinnertime, he drove me around the island in search of something to eat. I had to look around corners to make sure no one was coming. He refused to put his glasses on, though he kept a pair in the glove box in case he got pulled over.

Since the summer season was over, our options were limited. After striking out at our favorite sandwich shop, we settled on pizza. We brought it back to the house and sat down at the table. As he sipped a Coke, Grandpa admitted he never ate pizza anymore. Grandma didn’t let him.

During the drive and the subsequent dinner, Grandpa told me about driving out to Nebraska, his family, his encounter with Johnny Carson, and a hundred little things. I don’t remember everything we talked about, but I remember the kindness and warmth of his words, mixed in with a hearty dose of sarcasm. It was certainly the most I’d ever heard him talk in my life. The conversation gave me a glimpse into who Grandpa was beyond his quiet and unassuming nature.

A few months later, at Christmas, Grandpa went into the hospital. He rehabbed at a facility very close to my parents’ house. Grandma flew up from the island and spent Christmas with us. She visited him every day, and I occasionally tagged along. During a conversation with my father, Grandpa said he was never going back to the hospital. In February of 2003, he kept his promise.

On the afternoon of my father’s birthday, Grandpa sat down in his chair and asked my grandmother what they were having for dinner. Leftover chicken, she answered. Looking back on it, we suspected Grandpa knew something was wrong. But he didn’t want to go back to the hospital. Nor, as we later joked, did he want to eat Grandma’s chicken again. Shortly after, he passed away in his beloved recliner.

The next year, when the Red Sox won the World Series, I thought of Grandpa. I wish he’d been alive to see it. I thought about the years of watching games at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The years of losing, but also the joy he took from watching the Red Sox night after night. In those moments, with a bowl of ice cream in his lap, Grandpa was happy. We should all be so lucky.

***

In the years that followed, we would still watch games at Grandma’s. She still overcooked the steak and over-steamed the vegetables. She still offered us ice cream. The recliner still sat in the same spot in front of the television. I was hesitant to sit in it. After all, it wasn’t my chair, and it never would be. It was his.

I now have my own time on Nantucket at the family cottage—the first two weeks of July. Grandma and Grandpa’s house in town is gone, sold to some venture capitalist. I may be able to watch the Red Sox game on my iPad or iPhone, but I don’t. Instead, I turn on the radio, lay down on the new daybed—this one doesn’t sink—with a book in hand, reading by lamplight. Only now I don’t have to worry about burning myself. I listen to the sounds of Joe Castiglione and WEEI’s merry-go-round of co-hosts and the relentless barrage of the June bugs. Around nine o’clock, I get up, head over to the freezer, make myself a bowl of ice cream, and think of Grandpa and the game that brought us together.


Chris Bouton is a historian turned jury research analyst. He is currently writing a book on slave violence in antebellum Virginia. He is on Twitter (@ChrisHBouton).

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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Wonderful trip down memory lane. The best line here is “[b]ut the Red Sox of the second half of the 20th century were mired in mediocrity.” Which is a lot better than they were in the first half of that century. There is a myth about the long suffering Red Sox fan, enduring heartbreak after heartbreak akin to the end of a teenagers’ first true love, but loyal to the bitter end. It is exactly that: myth. Your grandfather (and you) were a vocal minority at the time. Ironic that HT posts a recent picture of Fenway Park (sold out,… Read more »