“Did you catch the scores?” my father would ask me, fairly regularly during the baseball season. I’d tell him the Yankees lost, and so did the Mets, I’d give him the tallies. He would always ask me “how’d the Tigers do?” That I never had any idea, no matter how often he asked, seemed to be an eternal disappointment he needed to have reaffirmed regularly. I felt momentarily bad about it each time but I simply did not register how the Detroit Tigers did when I caught the scores on the radio.
I don’t mean to trivialize his hurt or his need to regularly confirm that, on this very basic level, I seemingly had to show him over and over that I simply didn’t care about his feelings. Ignoring the fortunes of my father’s favorite team, playing home games in a city six hundred miles away, was not something I did consciously, but it also showed a certain returning of the favor.
“OK, I get that. I get that now that I’m dead, of course. All things are made clear to the dead, wait til you see it, you’ll love it, not that there’s a damned thing you can do about any of your great insights once you’re resting in peace. My advice, keep doing what you’re doing while you can still do things. Try to do better, try as hard as you can not to do to others things that you hate being done to you. Two wrongs don’t make a right and an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind in the end,” said the too-late-wise skeleton.
It was hard for me to remember to listen for the Tigers score because they played half the time in Detroit and, outside of the fact that Hank Greenberg, the New York City born, Bronx raised Jewish slugger played for the Tigers during my father’s childhood, they were just another team forty years later, a team whose fortunes meant nothing to me. Except, of course, that I knew my father continued to root for his childhood team, as most lifelong fans do.
My father idolized Greenberg, a Jewish giant who ignored the anti-Semitic slurs of virtually everyone in baseball and hit home runs like Babe Ruth. In 1938, when my father was fourteen, his hero threatened Ruth’s single season home run record by clouting 58, with a 59th wiped away in a game that was rained out before it became official. When my father was eleven Greenberg had become the first Jew ever to win the Most Valuable Player award. Plus he lead his team to the world championship that year. He was the first Jew ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and remained the only Jew inducted until Sandy Koufax joined him a generation later. I always knew about my father’s great identification with the Jewish superstar, though, after my father died, I was a little shocked to discover, printed beneath his photo in the 1941 Peekskill high school yearbook, Irving “Hank” Widem.
Catching the Tiger scores, however, was beyond me. It felt like actually driving those ten to twelve hours to Detroit to get the score of a game I didn’t care about at all and carrying it back to my father at the kitchen table. He’d read it in the paper the next day anyway. But he always asked and I don’t think I ever told him the score, though I might have once or twice. He always reacted with the same mild, fatalistic hurt. His facial expression said “sure, why would you do anything nice for me? Why be considerate of this tiny thing your father asks you about almost every day of the long baseball season?”
His facial expression had a good point. Why would a kid, relegated to the role of eternal adversary before he even knew his first words, feel the need to be considerate of his prosecutor father’s tender feelings? Added to that, could anything be more trivial than a mid-season baseball score, that most transient of statistics in a season that had expanded to 162 games a year during my early childhood?
I suppose, on the other hand, that the evanescence of these scores made my ignoring of them all the more poignant to my sentimental father. The score of an individual game lives for a brief moment of a single day as something new, then is almost always forgotten. To not even register the numbers 4-2 when they are spoken over the radio? What could be crueler confirmation of indifference?
I guess the only way I could have been crueler would have been by not answering “how’d the Tigers do?” at all. Silence as response was something my father had a strategic genius for deploying with devastating effect. In our last real conversation, two years before the gentle one he participated in from his death bed, he told me snippily, and irrationally, “you have to respect my right not to respond to this letter.”
“Respect?” I said, “I acknowIedge that you once more don’t intend to answer, but I am not obliged to respect a father’s decision not to say a word on a vexing matter his son has taken great pains to express as clearly as possible, in a letter written three months ago, now delivered four times.”
“I never got that letter,” my father had told me the first time I asked him about it. I sent another copy, emailed a third copy. The copy I handed him in the den in Florida that day was a fourth copy of the original letter.
“Oh, that letter,” he said with feigned nonchalance, “yeah, I read that letter.”
I made the universal Jewish sign for “nu…?”, “and therefore…?”
He paused, his jaw tightened. “You have to respect my right not to respond to this letter,” he said.
It was as though I’d just asked him, expectantly, “how’d the Tigers do?”