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Baseball Rashomon

George Bowering, Baseball Love (Talonbooks, Vancouver, 2006, 253 pp., $19.95 pb)

George Bowering’s recently published baseball memoir, Baseball Love is a book with considerable virtues by a writer of great skill. Not least among the virtues is Bowering’s deep and abiding love for the game, which he played for roughly sixty (really!) years, mostly as a light-hitting but intelligent infielder. As anyone who played with him or attended minor league games at Vancouver’s picturesque Nat Bailey Stadium is aware, he talked a better game than he played. To say this is no insult, either. Bowering had a truly unique and fabulous baseball mouth as both player and fan. He literally never shuts up at a game, and he is almost always outrageously funny.

I can testify to the quality of that baseball mouth personally. I played on the same teams with Bowering for close to thirty years—the last one here in Toronto about five years ago when he DHed for a Dooney’s Café team that was deep into a losing streak that lasted 42 games. We lost another, but he enlivened the game, picking on the team of macho Italian 30 year olds who were taking the game too seriously with the same egalitarian gibes he applied to his new team-mates, who, as always, weren’t taking the game seriously at all.

While I lived in Vancouver I attended games with him as a fellow fan whenever I could. My favourite fan moment was the night he got to former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Brad Leslie, who’d gained the nickname “The Animal” for his overly-animated antics in the majors. Around the fourth inning, Bowering spotted him in the dugout, and started in on him with his best armour-piercing voice: “We want the Vegetable.” Naturally I joined in, and when he went to the bullpen to warm up around the 7th inning quite a few more fans got in on it. It crescendoed in the 9th when Leslie went to the mound to try to close out the game—and, clearly distracted, got shelled.

Actually, if it was the crescendo of noise, it wasn’t quite the climax. That happened after the game, when Leslie tried to coax George out of the stands, and I had to hustle him out of the stadium in a hurry. Leslie never did get back to the majors, but while I’m not sure I’d blame Bowering for it, I’m pretty sure he ruined a few baseball players’ careers from his perch above third base, including that of a fairly decent Vancouver third baseman named Lawrence Rush who Bowering tormented through several season for his unwillingness to get his always-spotless uniform dirty by diving for ground balls.  

My favourite on-the-field moment with Bowering happens to be chronicled in Baseball Love, and it is the only one of the hundreds of fun moments I had with him in which his mouth didn’t play some sort of pivotal role. At the end of a Chapter titled “Your Government In Action”, which concerned a sandlot fastball league that was built from a federal government OFY (Opportunities For Youth) grant in 1971, he records a locally famous incident in Vancouver sandlot baseball lore that involved a grapefruit painted up to look like a softball—and thrown to him to hit. It happens that about a half-dozen others who played in that game remain active in Vancouver literary circles, and when he read the story at the book launch there, he took a fair amount of crap from them about the accuracy of the story, which each remembered differently. I was playing in the game, too, so I’ll offer my view of what really happened first, and follow it with a summary of other eye-witness views.

The idea of painting a grapefruit to look like a softball came from a Fielding Dawson story written in the 1960s. Dawson was a New York/San Francisco bon vivant and raconteur from the Richard Brautigan/Frank O’Hara line who became reasonably famous in the late 1960s before he got too drunk to write. I’d read the story, and thought it would be a great prank to pull on someone. Among the specialties of the OFY league, after all, was guerrilla theatre, and my team—mostly made up of Simon Fraser University English Department graduate students—had developed a competitive rivalry with Bowering’s much older Granville Grange Zephyrs, a team made up of established writers and visual artists, mainly because we could exchange four and five syllable words with them without meeting incomprehension or threats of violence.

Among the East End Punk players that night was Michael Barnholden, now a highly-regarded editor and translator; Tom Grieve, now the Chairman of the SFU English Department; Paul Naylor, a skilled tradesman and professional book-reader; and Karl Siegler, who is the publisher at Talonbooks. I played first base, Michael Barnholden was pitching, Tom Grieve was at second, Paul Naylor at shortstop, and Karl Siegler was at third. I’m not sure who was catching—a guy I never did know well named Bruce, I think, who no one has been able to contact. There were outfielders, of course, but they were too far from the play to have a clear view or, for that matter, a sense of just how funny it was.

In my memory, the grapefruit was manufactured by my then-wife Sharon Thesen and me.

We threw the ball to Bowering three times after I retrieved it from the dugout on the first base side of the field and gave it to Michael Barnholden. The first pitch nearly bounced, the second was high, and the third was as Bowering describes it in the book: a changeup, waist high and in the middle of the plate. It must have looked the size of a watermelon when it arrived, because Barnholden had a very good fastball. When Bowering connected, the result was beyond my wildest expectations: the grapefruit atomized, and there wasn’t a piece of it larger than an inch across to be found anywhere. Bowering stopped dead with surprise, and then with a glower of malice, took one step toward first base—he recognized that I was the chief villain of the piece, maybe because I was laughing harder than anyone else—then thought better of it and began to laugh with the rest of us. Everyone at the game but Bowering knew what was happening by the second pitch, but that didn’t lessen the effect when the grapefruit disintegrated on the business end of his magnificent home-run swing. It was an amazing sight, and it surprised everyone.

Karl Siegler had a wholly different story when I asked him about it. “The whole little ‘play’,” he wrote, “was dreamed up by us folks at the Benjamin J. Dover J-Bar Dude Ranch (the Surrey commune which supplied many of the East End Punks players, including Fast Eddie who lived in a Teepee on the back 40). Annie Segal, also a commune member, sometime ball player & musician & visual artist, actually painted the grapefruit, nice & white, with the stitching etc., that Michael Barnholden ended up pitching. I believe it was Tom Grieve (also a Ben Dover commune member) who was catching, and exchanged the fateful grapefruit for the softball (after Michael’s elaborate succession of sucker pitches) during his confab with Fast Eddie on the mound, in readiness for the last pitch George describes in such loving detail in the book.”

Tom Grieve thought I’d made the ball, and that he was playing second—or outfield. When I sent him Karl’s version, he changed his mind: “I think Karl might be right about most of this,” he wrote. “I vaguely remember catching, now that he mentions it, and I certainly remember Karl’s sartorial splendour at third.”

Paul Naylor had this to say, at least at first: “It’s funny, I remember it like I was in centre, but we had Klinx then. Maybe Tommy Grieve was at short. Didn’t you drop a pack of firecrackers when Whip got to 1st, or was that a different time?” A day or so later, he revised that view: “Yeah, I remember the look on George’s face (a tad miffed?) So maybe I was at short, cuz I definitely saw the expression on his mug very clearly.”

The one with the clearest view of the proceedings was Michael Barnholden, but he was oddly circumspect: “There’s no way there was more than two pitches,” he wrote. “The first one bounced, then I laid in a perfect change up. I had been sure you were catching but upon further review I think it was Bruce. You walked in the grapefruit ball as George was coming to bat. George was the only person who didn’t know it was a grapefruit.”

Barnholden went on to say that there were other errors in the story, but didn’t specify what they were. I suspect he was thinking what I’d been thinking: that the real story was the glory of the prank, and the true protagonist was the grapefruit itself. The rest of us, Bowering included, were strictly supporting cast. I don’t know—or very much care—what the absolute facts are, except that the centre of the story was the amazing moment when that grapefruit exploded. I suppose it’s understandable that Bowering thought the story was about him—he was, after all, the one covered head-to-toe with tiny shards of grapefruit—but it’s also slightly curious, and uncharacteristic of the way the book works.

Beyond parts of that single chapter about the OFY grant league, he’s utterly clear that the book is about the love of baseball, and not its author. So, despite this unimportant piece of fallfield Rashomon, Baseball Love is a love poem to baseball, beautifully and wittily written, and a subtle piece of social history. Not many people stay in love for sixty years, and there are few writers with a sharper eye than George Bowering. That makes this a worthwhile read for baseball fans, and anyone else with an appreciation of deep and abiding fidelities.

1674 w. May 21, 2006

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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