On this Fourth of July, I’ll pass on the fireworks and the patriotic fervor that has flipped our country upside down and cleaved a great divide among red- and blue-state Americans.
Instead, I’ll celebrate a delightful book about baseball, a boy’s adolescence, and a universal story of hope. (And, boy, could we use some of that now.)
The book is “Slide!” and the author is Carl Wolfson, a neighbor of mine who was host of “Carl in the Morning” on two of Portland’s progressive talk radio stations from 2007 to 2016.
Slide has two meanings. One, the physical act of a runner sliding into a base. Two, the figurative act of a gradual decline.
In this case, Carl writes about his boyhood idols, the Philadelphia Phillies, and their historic collapse in the waning days of the 1964 season, when they suffered through an inexplicable losing streak (or slide) and squandered a chance to play in the World Series.
Several weeks ago, I attended an event at our neighborhood bookstore where Carl read from the book, took questions, and autographed copies for one and all. I’d just come off reading two books with pretty grim content, so I welcomed the respite offered by “Slide!”
I wasn’t disappointed. This coming-of-age memoir is fun, light reading, crafted with skill and wit by a guy who knows a thing or two about writing (he was a Communications major in college) and humor (he was a professional comedian before going into radio) and baseball. The subtitle hints at Carl’s tongue-in-cheek approach: “The Baseball Tragicomedy That Defined Me, My Family, and the City of Philadelphia — And How It All Could Have Been Avoided Had Someone Just Listened to My Lesbian Great Aunt.”
Though the event at Broadway Books was in mid-May and I read the book in June, it’s no accident that I’m writing about the book now. I’ve always associated the Fourth with baseball, the sport that truly was our national pastime when I was growing up. Inthe years since, Major League Baseball has been eclipsed by the NFL and the NBA, particularly among younger fans.
But in 1964, Carl and I would both turn 12 years old, cheering for teams on opposite sides of the country. Despite living near San Francisco, I was a Los Angeles Dodgers fan then. Carl was living in southern New Jersey, rooting for the underachieving Phillies. With just 12 games to play, the Phils had a seemingly insurmountable lead on their closest rivals in the National League and felt confident enough to print World Series tickets.
All of a sudden, they couldn’t win. They lost 10 of their last 12 games and finished in a second-place tie, one win short of the league championship. The St. Louis Cardinals, not the Phillies, would go on to play the New York Yankees in the ’64 Series.
Adult Carl writes about Young Carl and how the season unfolded for him against a backdrop of national tumult and change, amid a family filled with memorable characters, including his bickering parents, his staunchly Republican grandmother (who refused to carry a Roosevelt dime), and his mouthy lesbian great aunt, whose deep knowledge of baseball and strong opinions about the Phillies prompted her to write many a letter to the team’s front office about what they should do about this player or that one.
Though the book is undeniably about baseball, it’s also a broader look back at the early Sixties, when Young Carl is coming of age at a time of the Kennedy assassination, the Johnson-Goldwater campaign, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. Race riots flared in several cities and Communist paranoia caused schoolchildren to dive under their desks during air raid drills.
Growing up with three sisters and as the new kid in town following a move from northern Virginia, Carl didn’t find much success on the playing field (his Little League nickname was “Lead Bottom”). But he did find in the Phillies a team to root for and bond with along with his parents and other family members.
In 1964, the Phillies were a newly and fully integrated team, with black and Latino players like Richie Allen, Cookie Rojas and Ruben Amaro taking their place in the lineup and on the bench alongside whites. That made a big impression on Carl.
“As a kid, my heroes were the Phillies — of all races,” he said at the May reading. “That was a very important lesson for a kid.”
The other lesson was one of hope, of holding onto optimism even as the defeats piled up. The Phillies had enjoyed a remarkable season, with star pitcher Jim Bunning throwing a no-hitter and outfielder Johnny Callison crushing a home run to win the All-Star Game. But they fell short, depriving Carl and his dad a chance to see the World Series, and breaking a city’s heart.
“The 1964 Phillies, though, had forever won my heart,” Carl writes. “If they finished in second place, they also gave me enough thrills for a lifetime. They were the team of my youth.”
You don’t have to be a Phillies fan or even a baseball fan to enjoy this book. It’s a refreshing take on the role sports can play in bringing people together, on the worldview of a suburban adolescent, and on the life lessons one can take away from disappointment and loyalty.
Well done, Carl.
Postscript: For me, this book was like a time machine. I remember my confusion trying to make sense of national politics and race relations at the same time, like Carl, that I found refuge in the sports section of the newspaper. I also vividly remember many of the ballplayers whose names are sprinkled throughout this book: Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson. They were the luminous stars of the early ’60s, when I played Little League, and fantasized about succeeding Maury Wills as the Dodgers shortstop.