Book excerpt

The Road to Cooperstown

A Father, Two Sons, and the Journey of a Lifetime

Tom Stanton

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One

Spring 1972: Cobb's Birthday

My father, Joseph Stankiewicz, was born in 1920, the same year Carl Mays accidentally killed Cleveland infielder Ray Chapman by beaning him with a fastball. My mother, Betty Muse, arrived two seasons later, days after Wally Pipp and teammate Babe Ruth went at it in the dugout. But please don't read into those associations. There is no correlation. Mom was feisty, not violent, and Dad, though stubborn, certainly would have relinquished the inside of the plate rather than take a ball to the head.

The Chapman and Pipp incidents say nothing about my parents, but they say everything about me and how I pictured the world as a boy: as spinning on an axis of baseball. Everywhere I looked, I found parallels to my life and the game. I remembered dates by placing them on baseball's timeline; I remembered people by connections I conjured between them and the men who wore the uniforms.

My parents met during World War II, when Dad was stationed in St. Joseph, Missouri, close to Mom's home, and at a time when Ted Williams, who had enlisted in the Navy, was giving baseball fans something more to remember him by: a Triple Crown performance. Long before Mom caught Dad's eye in a soldiers' hangout near Rosecrans Field, Dad was hitching rides to town with her stepfather, a carpenter who built barracks. He was a strapping, sturdy farmer, and when I see pictures of Cy Young I think of him. Mom's mother, who smiled tight-lipped like Ty Cobb, was a pioneer woman who wore dungarees and ball caps and could shoot the head off a rattler from twenty feet.

Mom and Dad came from different, Depression-era worlds, neither well-to-do. Mom and her three sisters (a brother died young) lived in small towns and on farms in Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas, their American roots nine generations deep. Dad grew up in an industrial city, Detroit, born to Polish immigrants. His mother raised him and his nine siblings to be good Catholics. His father raised him to love baseball.

They married in 1944 and moved from Missouri about the time Mickey Mantle was making news in the minors at Joplin, where, depending on whose stories you believe, he may or may not have gotten drunk with Uncle Grubby. My parents settled in the Detroit area to raise their children, each separated by four to seven years: first came Jan, who followed Jackie Robinson into the spotlight; then Joey, a rookie with Hank Aaron; next, me; and finally Colleen, a bigger 1965 surprise than Zoilo Versalles.

I was born in 1960, the year Bill Mazeroski won the World Series for Pittsburgh. But it's the date, not the year, that's important. I was born on December 17, and, sure, by itself maybe it means nothing. But when you're a boy who lives for baseball and you're studying the crisp-tissue pages of The Baseball Encyclopedia and you stumble upon the fact that Ty Cobb was born on December 18 and then discover that Al Kaline was born on December 19, well, you begin to see something at work. It's destiny, not mere coincidence, that aligns your birthday with those of the two greatest Tigers.

We arrived on Shawn Drive before Colleen was born. It was our second home. The neighborhood had sprouted from a cornfield in the three-year-old city of Warren. By the end of Sandy Koufax's career, it stretched for three-quarters of a Michigan mile: hundreds of nearly identical ranch homes on sixty-foot lots and slow-speed streets, with smooth, chalk-gray sidewalks and scrawny, curb-side saplings, with yards fenced and garages attached and young white families like ours inside, moving up in the world as we moved out from the city.

Few secrets survived on Shawn Drive. We kids ensured that, several dozen of us in a space no bigger than Fenway's outfield. The Knudsens-their living room decorated with china teacups and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II-had come from Canada with four sons. All played hockey and soccer, some well enough to attract scouts. The Elliots had three children. The girl with long blond hair danced on American Bandstand and, while her parents worked, occasionally allowed her hippie friends to skinny-dip in the pool behind their house. (You would have watched, too.) The Metts boys lived down the street near the Pellegrinos, who knew sign language because their father was deaf, and across from Tom Norkiewicz, a red-haired boy whose dad was a policeman-"the fuzz," as my brother might have said. Next door were the Newmans, featuring little Jimmy, who sometimes shocked the Burchette sisters by showing them what made boys different. There were also the Hellickers, Ostrowskis, Lewandowskis, and the second nicest man on the block, Mr. Woitha. When Johnny Woitha, his oldest teenage son, went for surgery, the kids from Shawn Drive gathered along the sidewalk to send him off with well wishes. Johnny smiled and waved from the car, and that's the last picture we have of him. He died in the hospital. Despite his anguish, Mr. Woitha always managed a hearty grin for us children who passed his house as he mowed the lawn.

lMy best friend, Jeff Mancini, lived across the street. He was months younger and a grade lower, the oldest of four boys who came one right after another. Jeff looked like his dark-haired, Italian dad, who raced cars professionally. You could often find Mr. Mancini-or hear him-in his garage working on a candy apple-red Dodge that he drove to victory at the drag nationals. On our street he was the closest we had to a celebrity.

Jeff and I shared a devotion to baseball. In the spring of 1972, our collective lives centered on the sport. If we weren't practicing with the St. Malachy Tigers, we were playing Strikeout with a rubber ball against a wall or hitting each other grounders on the school's brick-hard field or alternating as pitcher and catcher against an army of invisible power hitters in the last of the ninth with the game on the line and Boog Powell at the plate and then Richie Allen and George Scott and Harmon Killebrew and even Mike Epstein. Many of our baseball adventures took place at Robert Frost Elementary, which seemed fitting in that Robert Frost loved the sport. "I never feel more at home in America than at a ball game," the poet said.

Some of my best baseball memories include Jeff.

Often, he and I would be sorting cards-by team, not number-wondering how it was possible to get so many of Dalton Jones, or exploring the rivalries of the day, feigning impartiality but always deciding in favor of our Tigers. Yeah, we would agree, Mickey Lolich pitches way better than Vida Blue. For sure, Bill Freehan will be the All-Star catcher again. Ray Fosse and Thurman Munson don't have a prayer, and Elrod Hendricks and Andy Etchebarren, well, they're both so bad that Earl Weaver won't let none of them catch full-time. And speaking of Weaver, Billy Martin could take him in a fight. And no way would we trade Kaline for Clemente or Willie Horton for Reggie Smith or Aurelio Rodriguez for Ken McMullen. We matched the Tigers against the Baltimore Orioles, who had won the division title the three years prior, 1969-71, and had played in the past two World Series. They were the enemies: Brooks, Boog, Belanger, Blair, and Buford, and a pitching staff with four twenty-game winners. But no matter who they had-and they no longer had Frank Robinson, incidentally-by our calculations they were no competition for Billy Martin's team.

Before coming to Detroit, Martin had managed only one year, taking the Minnesota Twins to first place and into the playoffs against Weaver's Orioles. He succeeded Mayo Smith, who had brought us a world championship but couldn't tame wild Denny McLain. Billy Martin resurrected the Tigers in 1971-or did they resurrect him?-and vowed to oust Weaver from first place in the campaign about to begin.

"Billy Martin should be an evangelist," said Weaver. "He's got you guys believing he's got the best team again. He's done that now every year he's been in the league. To hear him talk in 1969, we had no business even showing up for the playoffs. Then we had his Twins down two games to none and he announced he had us right where he wanted us."

Brash, feisty, and often angry, Billy Martin fit the times and our region. He had a testosterone-fueled edge that mirrored the acrimony over the Vietnam War, cross-district busing, race, and "women's liberation."

Dad disliked Martin. He reminded him of every mean, blowhard drunk he had ever known. "It's always somebody else's fault with him," he said.

Martin's emotions swung to extremes, one year feuding with Willie Horton and the next proclaiming him the soul of the team. Cruelty burnt in his eyes. In contrast, my dad rarely raised his voice-and never his fists. But such subtleties are lost on the young.

To a boy, there was something appealing about Billy Martin. He was like one of the tough kids at school with whom you formed a fragile alliance. You liked him mostly because he was on your side. Billy Martin had bluster and bravado, and he had promised victory. And not much was more important than that.

On a morning in spring while writing letters to Willie Stargell and Dock Ellis-we decorated the envelopes in yellow and black to ensure they would be plucked from the mail pile-Jeff Mancini and I began talking about the inevitable, about the day we would make it to the majors. At forty I see that dream through a mist of nostalgia. But it looked different then. It looked as solid as Johnny Bench. We talked about it with the same certainty we talked about everything. Jeff would be shortstop; I would be center fielder. Eddie Brinkman and Mickey Stanley would be old, in their late thirties, and retired, and we'd be out of high school and ready to play.

"And let's be roommates, okay?"

"Yeah, like Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo."

"Except for the dying part."

"And we can share a house."

"Yeah, with three bedrooms. One for me, one for you, and one for all our trophies."

"And a big basement with paneling and white-shag carpeting and a pool table and a bar."

"And a huge TV."

"A colored TV."

"I know how to make hot dogs and chili."

Jeff adjusted his cap.

"And we can get pizza a lot because we'll be making a lot of money."

"Yeah, about thirty thousand dollars."

"Heck, more than that."

"And we'll play twenty years."

"No, twenty-four. Like Ty Cobb."

"And retire at the same time."

"Then when we both get married, we'll get houses next to each other."

"Our kids will be best friends, too."

"And we'll go into the Hall of Fame together."

We mapped our futures in ten minutes' time, never doubting that baseball would always be the focal point of our lives, certain that we would be best friends forever, believing that it would end where all baseball dreams end, at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

The Sporting News greeted the scheduled start of the season with an issue featuring Roberto Clemente on the cover. "Pirates' Mister Big," it said. Inside was a locker-room photo of the star holding a sign with the number 3,000 on it, alluding to the hitting mark he hoped to reach. It preceded a story about another National League legend, Hank Aaron, who needed 76 home runs to top Babe Ruth. "If I can remain healthy I'm confident I can break the record," Aaron said. "If I don't I guess it's not too bad being runner-up to the Babe."

Deeper in the publication, other articles detailed a brewing dispute that threatened to bring baseball's first full-scale players' strike. Publisher C. C. Johnson Spink came down firmly on the owners' side, questioning the logic of pensions for players. "Baseball is not a career in the true sense of the word," he wrote. "Instead, it is just an interlude-and a rewarding one-before the player embarks on what should be his real profession or occupation."

The players struck that spring, ending training camp abruptly, an action that Billy Martin took personally. He stormed through the locker room calling his players "pot-lickers." "They've pulled my whole team out from under me," Martin told reporters. "Somebody doesn't want me to win." I couldn't figure out who that somebody might be. The newspapers carried a photo of the players' attorney, Marvin Miller, looking as evil as Satan in slicked-back hair, with Reggie Jackson at his side in a wide-lapelled coat and defiant mustache. Maybe it was them. Maybe Reggie didn't want us to win.

The strike spanned thirteen days. When the season finally opened, it was a cold, damp Saturday and the Boston Red Sox were in town. Dad, who had worked that morning at the tank command (he was a government photographer), melted into the afghan-covered couch in front of the console. I sat on the floor beside him, the sliding back door partially open. The two of us spent many Saturday afternoons together watching the local broadcast or the Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola. A couple years earlier and my brother Joey might have been with us.

There comes a time, though, when your older brother isn't around much, when his existence overlaps yours only along the edges. He reaches eighteen and though he may be in high school, he lives a life that flourishes beyond the walls of home. It's his senior year, and he has a job at the meat shop, a romance with the butcher's daughter, and adventures with longhair friends who take him away most evenings. You see little of him, and you notice because it used to be different. Before the girlfriend and the car, before he talked so much about The War, before he got an eight-track and began listening to music your parents had never heard, you could tag along as he went trick-or-treating on Halloween or hide out with him in his snow fort while it incurred a friendly assault or cling to the side of the swimming pool while he dunked his pals. If you lost your grip and slipped into water above your eyes, he would retrieve you and return you to the safe perimeter. If it happened too often, he would thump your head and order you out of the pool. For a long while it was that way with us.

But by 1972 Joey had lost interest in the game. He said there were more important things. By that he meant Vietnam and his girlfriend and George McGovern and the draft and Sly and the Family Stone and his artwork-all-white, life-size papier-mâché sculptures of anonymous people, silk screens of the Zig Zag man, eight-foot canvases of vibrant blue-and-orange toilets.

Anymore, Dad and I watched the games without him.

With my father a broad landscape of baseball lay before us. He had decades of stories that I mined endlessly. He painted an enchanting picture of his younger days and of Ty Tyson's radio broadcasts in the 1930s and of neighborhood ball games and of streetcar tides to Navin Field, where the Tigers played. It sounded like such an adventure that I often wished I had grown up in that time.

Copyright © 2003 by Tom Stanton
Tom Stanton has been a journalist for twenty-five years. His previous book, The Final Season, received the Casey and Dave Moore awards, for best baseball book of the year. A former professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, Stanton was the recipient of a Michigan Journalism Fellowship. He lives in New Baltimore, Michigan, with his wife, Beth, and their three sons.