A Baseball Game and War
I couldn’t believe my eyes! I was at a flea market earlier this week and I saw it! It was on a table as clear as life. I have looked on ebay so many times for this game that I enjoyed in my childhood. I’ve found it but couldn’t justify paying $75-$100 for a childhood memory. It couldn’t be just any of the versions either. It had to be my particular version from the year 1966. When I was nine years old I got this baseball game. I don’t remember if it was for Christmas or what the occasion was but it was called All-Star Baseball Game and it was made by Cadaco. When I asked the vendor how much he wanted for the game I couldn’t believe my ears. “Five dollars”, he said. I couldn’t get the five dollars out of my pocket fast enough! He obviously didn’t value it nearly as much as I did!
What gave the game it’s uniqueness was how they made it so realistic. They took statistics from players in the major leagues and made round cardboard discs of that player that represented his performance statistically. For instance if a player hit a home run five percent of the time the home run number on his disc would be five percent of the total space. The discs were put on a spinner and there were two spinners (one for each side). The player not batting had a spinner to spin too. If the player batting spun a number representing a fly ball the other player would spin to see if his team caught it. The same was true for a ground ball. On hits the defensive player would spin to see how many bases the other runner on base got or if he possibly could throw out a runner stretching a hit.
My cousin Wendell and I would spend the night at each others house often. The neat thing about it was that we were allowed to stay up as late as we wanted to. Of course we did it in the summer so school wasn’t involved. He or his older brother Lawrence had an All-Star Baseball game too. I’m not sure whose game it actually was but it was available to us! There were times Lawrence played right along with us even though he was 5 or 6 years older.
The game would start with drafting players. We would put all of the discs in a big pile and then take turns pulling players for our teams out of the mix. You had to fill all of the positions and then maybe add a few subs. Then we would take 5 or 6 pitchers each and we were ready to go. We would sit there long into the night playing the game. Spinning the spinner over and over. Moving our pegs from base to base. Figuring team statistics after the games.
One time that I remember as clear as if it were yesterday I was spending the night at Wendell’s and we were playing the baseball game. His brother Lawrence was there too but he wasn’t playing with us that night. Lawrence was 18 and he was a very skinny excitable kid although at the time I didn’t think of him as a kid. He also smoked a lot and on this particular night or morning he was smoking more than usual. He was very talkative and at this particular time he was talking even more than usual. But it wasn’t his normal talk. It was more of a nervous scared kid as he listened to the radio. My memory tells me it was at night but it doesn’t make much sense because of what was happening. Like the way Wendell and I were drafting our players Lawrence was involved in a different draft. On that morning or night they were in the process of picking dates of the first 18 year old boys to get drafted to go to Vietnam. Each birthday was drawn out of a baseball cap (in my imagination) and the first ones drawn would be the first to get drafted. The radio was broadcasting it like a baseball game. They would pick a date and pause for a little while and pick another date. All the while Lawrence was smoking one right after another and scared out of his wits. He couldn’t get very excited when his number wasn’t called because he knew the next one could get him. It was almost like he was in the war and the enemy was shooting at him. Trying to dodge the bullets was a skinny kid whose life had seemingly just begun but now faced a decisive day as to it’s future.
My next door neighbor Bob and I were good friends. His brother Al served in Vietnam. Since he was much older than me I accepted the fact that he was gone away more easily. Finally after he served his time Al got his discharge. Instead of letting his parents know Al had something else in mind. We lived within walking distance of the airport. Al decided to fly in and make the walk to his parents house and surprise them. What a surprise it was when Al showed up on the doorstep. There were tears of joy on a day that was long remembered!
Looking back the irony of that day at Wendell’s was mind boggling. Here Wendell and I were spinning the spinner with our disc in place. Lawrence sitting there with the radio on smoking up a storm. In reality it was like he was in a separate game. Maybe his game would be called “War” and it seemed that game was played differently. Wendell and I chose our team based on how we perceived the skills of the players. In the game Lawrence was in it was a random draft. One player was just as good as the other in that draft. It was like Lawrence was actually on one of those discs we were spinning. But instead of hits or outs that disc was divided into 365 numbers and each little section had a number between and including 1 through 365. After each spin the resulting number was slotted into the sequence it was picked. Maybe the top one hundred numbers were sure to go. One of the numbers on that disc was Lawrence and the longer he could go without his number called the better for him. The object of the game he was playing was to have his number slotted near the end of the drawing.
It may seem kind of crazy but our baseball game kept going. We drafted our players and spun our spinner like nothing was happening around us. Lawrence tried to draw us into his game with updates on his status. He did draw our interest and answered our questions patiently. Question after question as only 11 or 12 year old kids could ask. It was amazing that he was able to talk to us at all sitting there with his future in the balance. Meanwhile our minds drifted back to our game and spinning the spinners in the hopes of scoring runs and making statistics!
I remember watching the news in those war days. Each day Walter Cronkite would read the statistics on the war. Kind of like a baseball games post game show. This was like the war games end of the day rap up. Total Americans killed today and a number. Total Vietnamese killed and another number. Sometimes we would see some play by play as a journalist took us behind the lines. We could see our troops over there fighting for their lives in the jungles. We would see explosions all around them as they fought on. Most of the time however it was just the cold hard statistics that Cronkite would read.
As I looked back on that day I started thinking that maybe we could have been more supportive to Lawrence. Maybe we should have abandoned our game and put our whole attention on his radio and him. I started thinking about the lesson I learned from this place in time and what I might be able to pass on. The theme kept coming into my mind that so many of us are busy playing games while our neighbors are hurting. Although this is a very true statement this conclusion just didn’t seem to fit our situation in this case. What could an 11 and 12 year old do in this uncomfortable setting to help their older brother and cousin? Maybe the best thing we could do is just what we did. We continued to be kids and played our game. What purpose would be served by stopping our game other than causing even more discomfort for Lawrence? After all maybe the fact that we were playing a game made him dream of a time when he could leisurely play a game without it being life and death. Maybe the most important thing was that we were there. Maybe the lesson out of all of this is even if you can’t do anything being there is important. It wasn’t that we comprehended everything that was happening, but we were there even if it was unplanned. When we started playing the game we didn’t realize his game was going on. When he came in smoking his cigarette with his radio, as he voiced his nervous giggles we realized that there were two games on the agenda. We didn’t drop our game, but we definitely paid attention to his game too.
Not all of the Vietnam stories had happy endings like Al’s. There were 58,138 U.S. Soldiers that died in the Vietnam war. Fortunately Lawrence was not one of them. He won his game that day! I think his number was over 300! I don’t remember who won most of the games Wendell and I played. Our games were fun games with results long forgotten. Our games were kids games where life is fun and problems come later. Two years ago Lawrence died. It was some forty years after that fateful night. Lawrence ended up losing a war to inoperable cancer. I don’t think I cried when I heard the news. It was an expected thing because the cancer had eaten away Lawrence’s skinny body. There was not much of him left when he departed. It was more of a relief knowing that his suffering was over, much like the relief he felt when the draft numbers fell his way. It’s strange that relief can come from both death and avoiding death. When I bought that All-Star Baseball Game I was thinking about my childhood. I was sure it would bring back memories of games past. In fact that is exactly what it did, but in a much different way than I anticipated. Little did I realize that the memory it would take me to would be a transition place between being a boy and a man. A time that would decide if my cousin Lawrence would jump right into manhood and possibly die for his country or if he might be able to remain a boy and play a few games for just a little longer? The other day as I was thinking again about the memory of Lawrence on that day tears filled my eyes. I’m sure it was a belated mourning of Lawrence dying as I thought of the games we played that night. Wendell and I competing for honors in a baseball game while Lawrence was involved in a much different game altogether. We were two kids playing a game of chance for fun and one young man who was on a playing piece in a game of chance with his life and future on the line.