Ben Brien: Guest Column

In November of 1962 I finally got my working papers, and my first job, not counting the two paper routes I’d had for a couple three years or the lawns I regularly mowed summers for the same folks whose walkways and driveways I cleared winters. I can’t exactly say that I was uncommonly industrious but it mightn’t be too wide of the mark to claim that I was one of the greedier little sods skulking about the nabe, doing odd jobs and collecting two- and five-cent soda bottles for redemption when really down on my chips. Anyway, the corner grocery which thenceforth took my afternoons and Saturday mornings was owned and operated by a boorish and self-congratulatory white-haired whitened sepulchre who pontificated from the pulpit of the Broadway Baptist Church on Sundays and from behind the deli counter of his neighborhood store the rest of the week. His young grocery manager and aging cashier were both Calvinists, a nod not so much to his open- mindedness as to demographics – the store was located in Midland Park, NJ, a redoubt populated almost entirely by members of the Eastern Christian Reformed Church, a Calvinist outfit with Dutch roots that even had one or two parochial schools, built to rival the Papist influence so rife in most north Jersey communities (and everywhere else, to the predestined chagrin of Calvinists and Anabaptists and God only knew who else). Johnny VanderMeer, who in June of 1938 became the first and only major-league pitcher ever to hurl two no-hitters consecutively, hailed from Midland Park, although he was probably the only quondam celebrity ever to call it home. He did, however, entirely off his own bat, encourage a fair number of not-very-athletic kids to take up an interest in baseball, and one of those less-than-adept athletic hopefuls was a geeky, gawky Marvin Van Wy, later the young grocery manager at Harry Gladwin’s corner store, on the border of Midland Park, Ridgewood and the known universe. The way Marvin told it (being a motor-mouth, ‘telling it’ was just one part of selling it for this recent graduate of Calvin College), ‘Mister’ VanderMeer was very popular with the boys of summer in Midland Park, even though he’d washed out of the majors in ’51 (having lost two more games than he’d won throughout the course of his fourteen-year-career), by which time young Marv had himself come to the sorry realization that he, too, was a washout. Not only couldn’t he pitch, neither could he hit, nor was he any better in the field. Nevertheless, he could do what so many others his own age could, absent any athletic ability – he could lionize, idolize, even apotheosize those brighter lights who could and did, and he could collect their iconic images and fashion altars to his newfound gods (O the heresy of it!). Thus it was that, somewhere in the spring or summer of 1953, Marvin Van Wy, frustrated fielder of uncooperative grounders and flummoxed fanner at unhittable pitches, became yet another accumulator of baseball cards. By 1956 he’d dropped as many pennies as any thrifty product of Dutch austerity might be able to justify,  arriving at the realization that there was little or no sense in squandering those cents on heroes who seemed less and less heroic the older he got. The altar was dismantled and consigned to one of the umpteen shoeboxes kept tucked away in attics, basements & garages throughout this land by the Moms of America. Not-as-young- Marvin’s stash never again saw light until the day after he learned that I, too, had been an avid collector not so very long ago, and still had more than a passing interest in the pastime. Generous soul that he was (to me, anyway, albeit less avuncular than evangelical), by the following day that old shoebox of his had become my newest. If I said it was like a pirate’s chest I’d not be stretching the truth by too very much. There were Williamses and Fellers and Mantles and Mayses a-plenty, with a Campy and a Yogi or two, or a few, but the card which most captivated me was issued by Topps in the summer of 1953, the earliest year represented amongst the lot, and depicted someone I had read and heard about but had never held in my hand nor ever expected to. Had he been anyone else he’d have been naught but a dim memory to a lot of those old-timers who’d read about him but may or may not have ever seen him play, yet because he was the legendary Satchel Paige he was still on a major league roster well into his forties and guys like Bill Veeck (as in ‘wreck’) felt honor-bound to try to give him some of his due, after years of being recognized as maybe the best pitcher of all time, and certainly one of the most colorful. Pity it wasn’t the right color to get into the majors until it was almost too late, first with Veeck’s Cleveland Indians in ’48, then with his St. Louis Browns in ’53, and finally, for three innings in ’65 with the other P. T. Barnum of baseball, Charlie Finley,whose Kansas City As that year won just as many games as Satch had years – 59. The grand old man struck out one and left with a perfect E.R.A.

The world had finally caught up with Ol’ Satch, who got to throw his ‘trouble ball’ in the bigs often enough that it paved his way to Cooperstown, and who, unlike me, never looked back. I did just that every time I opened my wallet and saw that ’53 Topps hand-painted portrait of him in his St. Louis Browns uniform, the wry smile suggesting he had both a secret and a heart. That card now belongs to another young baseball enthusiast who’s about the age I was when it first came into my clutches and I don’t doubt but that he’ll be narrating his stewardship of it one of these years. What goes around comes around, and thank heaven for that. Thank heaven for that.

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