Always a Champion

Looking at the photo, I wonder if it was the highlight moment of his challenging life, a moment filled with elation, devoid of worry.

Barely 18 years old, he and his teammates are celebrating an undefeated Iowa state baseball championship, a 1-0 victory over West Waterloo on June 8, 1961.

Sporting his #7 uniform number, he batted third and played centerfield, both characteristics that emulated Mickey Mantle, his childhood idol.

In the photo, he’s kneeling in the front row, far right, his arm draped around his teammate and best friend.  That same friend would serve as the best man in his wedding a mere two days later.

Like many kids of the time, he dreamed of a career in baseball.  Although he possessed amazing intellectual ability, school wasn’t something that interested him.  No college opportunity was even considered; he was married, and his first child would be born that November.

A job was his present and future, ultimately getting him into the sheet metal trades, something he mastered but never embraced.

His dream of playing professional baseball was still alive, and he fed it competitively by excelling in the sport of fastpitch softball, a stellar player in a time when the sport was nearing its pinnacle.

In 1964, with baseball still on his mind, he went to a tryout camp for the Milwaukee Braves in tiny Rippey, Iowa.  It was Bill Fitch of NBA fame, a childhood acquaintance in the Hayes Valley area of Cedar Rapids that presented him the opportunity.  He excelled at the camp, and the performance earned him a place in a Silver Sluggers futures game at Milwaukee’s County Stadium, an opportunity to impress on the big stage.

The Braves were playing the St. Louis Cardinals that day, and as his game on the undercard ended, he waited in the visitor’s dugout and got an autograph from every member of the Cardinals that day except one, future National League president Bill White.

“I don’t have time son, I gotta play ball.”  This was White’s retort when asked to sign the ball every other member of the future World Champions did happily, without hesitation.

It’s a story he told me many times.  And despite the priceless souvenir, it was incomplete, not unlike his dream of playing baseball.  He unselfishly gave it to his brother-in-law, then a ten year old kid with minimal interest in the sport.

A fortunate circumstance, however, was exposure in this game.  Other scouts were present, and it led to a Pittsburgh Pirate representative coming to Cedar Rapids and giving him a private workout.  He was 22 years old, could still run and throw well, and the scout recommended the big club send him straight to Triple-A, figuring at his age he needed to make it to the big leagues in a few years or the club couldn’t invest any more money in him.

The scout left to work out the contract details, and pledged to return in a few weeks.  But before the scout returned, a missed rung while decending a ladder resulted in a severe knee injury.  The dream was over.

I’m pretty sure this solitary event, an injury caused by a missed step, changed a once promising life forever.

The injury healed after a major surgery, and with the dream of baseball out of the picture,  he returned to the fastpitch game where he continued to manage a team that would ultimately develop into a national champion. Despite being the architect, however, he missed out on this success as well, having assumed the role of Iowa ASA State Commissioner the year before.  At 28 years old he was the youngest Commissioner in the nation, but that role left him ineligible to personally compete in championship competition.  It was 1971, and with the team earning an invite to the 1972 International Softball Federation World Championship in Manila, Philippines, he resigned as Commissioner so he could return to playing.  But the invite to the ISF tournament never came, and although rejoining that team later that season, the reunion was short-term.  He lived with that rejection the rest of his life.

Looking back, his role as Commissioner certainly wasn’t without accomplishments.  During his two year appointment, he established the Iowa Softball Hall of Fame, an organization that still exists today.  Ironically, he has never been elected as a member, despite far less accomplished players accepting honors in recent years.  Although he belonged, he would never lobby for inclusion, figuring the honor would be diluted if it wasn’t genuinely offered.

It was around this time a genetic handicap took over.  He entered into the early stages of alcoholism, a disease that would control him the rest of his life.  His mother and father were both functioning alcoholics, but for him, the disease wasn’t manageable, becoming the most formidable opponent he would ever face.

Despite having a son when he was 18, and a daughter five years later, the accepted lifestyle of the time never embraced him.  His drinking led to a divorce, reconciliation, another divorce and reconciliation, and finally, a parting of ways permanently.

He never got over his inability to maintain that relationship, and genuinely only loved one woman his entire life.

Without a stable family unit, his life took on a nomadic existence, something that would span from his middle years to his final days.  Winter was the worst, as he hated the harshness of the Iowa weather, and longing for greener pastures, he traveled from Virginia to San Diego, living in Las Vegas and Kansas City in between.

He acquired life experience during this time, as many of his temporary addresses were missions and abandoned buildings.

He learned to live on the streets.  Yet there were still periods of social conformance where he would live a more normal existence, even working at times.

It was never permanent.

When he was finally awarded disability for his alcoholism, it gave him more options, although his monthly stipend was rarely enough to pay for housing, food and of course, alcohol.

I need to make it clear that he was never a bad person through all this, but simply a hostage to his addiction.  When meeting acquaintances of his later in life, they all talked about a person I was never fortunate enough to know.  They told me about his compassion for others, and how positively he interacted with the other “clients,” those that frequented the same food pantry or soup kitchen.

Looking back, that lack of recognition falls solely on me, as our friendship was enduring despite the challenging moments, but my attention to his life took place in monthly or bi-monthly increments, never locked in on the details.  I was leading my own life, and only occasionally making room for him within its boundaries.  Sadly, it’s not something I can change now.

Ironically, with all of his acquired life knowledge, it’s memories of his childhood that will leave his lasting legacy.  He grew up in a time of playgrounds and sandlot baseball, and together with a wonderful writer named Carol Gorman published a book called Stumptown Kid in 2005.

Targeted toward elementary and middle school-aged children, the storyline draws on elements of his childhood, yet teaches a lesson in human compassion and friendship we could all learn from.  Nominated for many awards for young readers, it’s a story any adult could appreciate as well.

I certainly do, and am proud of his legacy, despite the turmoil he both lived through and inflicted on others close to him.  I came to terms with who he was late in his life, and that acceptance was a blessing to us both.

Yet looking at the photo, it’s almost haunting to see the expression…the hope.  To see the vibrant 18 year old kid, experiencing a state championship which so few ever achieve, and knowing that, despite the overwhelming joy of the moment, his life could have been so much more.

Earlier this year, at 66 years of age and suffering from heart ailments, several minor strokes, diabetes, bipolar disorder, and of course, alcoholism, his mind remained sharp, and stories of earlier times were still captivating.  In and out of the hospital several times with pneumonia and fluid buildup from the heart disease and kidney failure, he had a port installed and was scheduled to start kidney dialysis a few weeks later.

His mind was on his next book, and those thoughts sustained him though the daily battle with his health issues.

I used to tell him to write things down so he wouldn’t forget, but he was intimidated by his bad spelling, and insisted on refining the characters and storyline before committing anything to paper.  For someone that lived such an imperfect life, he was a perfectionist when it came to his literary goals.  Unfortunately, many of those ideas left this phase of his existence with him.

Despite ailing and out of breath the few days prior, I talked to him last February 10th, and he sounded better than he had in weeks.  His final words that day are ironic, considering the life he led, and the lack of self preservation he employed.

“I want to live,” he told me, talking about the benefits dialysis would give him.  He was on his way to a friends house, presumably to drink, but also to break up the isolation of the prior few days when he was unable to walk down the stairs from his apartment, too fatigued to even make it to the bus stop.  For some reason, he had a burst of energy this day, feeling better than he had in some time.

After spending most of the day and evening in the company of friends, he went to sleep that night on their couch, and didn’t wake up in the morning.

The phone call that morning led off with “this is bad,” and I barely remember the rest of the conversation, instead thinking back to the day before, and wondering how this could all be reality.

For living such a chaotic life, my hope, and perhaps my sustaining personal rationalization, is that those final moments were peaceful, as he slept.

It’s unfortunate that I can’t tell him in person what I write here today.  There are thoughts I never got around to communicating, unanswered questions that only come up after he’s gone.  I hope somewhere he knows what I’m thinking, somehow hearing what my heart is telling him.

Happy Father’s Day.  I love you Dad.

1 comment

  1. Mary Ann

    What wonderful writing you do! I’m sure your father is looking down on you from heaven, smiling because he is so proud of his son.
    Mary Ann

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