May 16, 2008

May 4, 2008: Celebrating a Century, Lessons From the Fields, The Education of a Private Man

“These are the saddest of possible words:
‘Tinker to Evers to Chance.’
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker to Evers to Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

--Franklin Pierce Adams, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”
Originally published in the ‘New York Mail’, 1910 (1)

In these few lines, Franklin Pierce Adams immortalized the last of the Chicago Cubs to have reached the summit of baseball’s Mount Olympus, words that have been carved into the monument of our national pastime and have forever immortalized a team that set the twentieth century record for winning in a single season (1906, only to lose the World Series to the cross-town rival White Sox in six games). They would win three consecutive National League championships between 1906 and 1908, but a century ago, the year 1908, would prove to be the last year the Cubs would make an appearance in the fall classic and emerge victorious. Still it took the famous “Merkle Boner” to get there, an inspiringly “bonehead” play in which New York Giant Fred Merkle, in a September game against the Cubs, apparently failed to touch second base as one of his teammates scored the winning run. Merkle, seeing his teammate score, simply headed for the dugout. Cubs’ second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball and as the crowd was filing out of the Polo Grounds, he stepped on second and recorded the third out of the inning. With fans already crowding on the field the game was suspended and, after several protests and appeals, was rescheduled later in the year. As luck would have it, the Cubs and the Giants held identical records at the end of the season so this game was replayed to decide the championship of the National League(2). The Cubs prevailed, but let’s make no mistake about it, if it hadn’t been for the now infamous ‘Merkle Boner’, it would now be 101 years since the Cubs were last the Champions of the World. The Team produced three consecutive league championships and two World Championships, but if not for Merkle, the famous double-play combination so eulogized by Franklin Adams would have, at the end of the day, been champions only once. So began the long and sorry tale of a franchise that has consistently wasted the talents of great players—men like Ron Santo and Ernie Banks, Furguson Jenkins and Greg Maddox, among many—who, if they reached the fall classic at all, did so playing in the uniform of another team.

Yesterday, at Zion Lutheran in Holland Michigan, my family gathered with nearly two hundred other souls to celebrate my Grandmother’s 100th Birthday. To understand this accomplishment one needs to reflect on the fact that she was born during the spring of the year in which the Chicago Cubs, the team that featured the famous double-play combination of Tinker, Evers and Chance, were last the Champions of baseball. Arriving in time to witness the last year of the famous Teddy Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House, and Freddie Merkle’s infamous boner, she has seen 18 presidents, 30 presidential administrations, two world wars, several other hot wars and one long cold one. In addition she has been through several economic downturns and one major depression. Through it all she has exhibited a hopeful optimism, a belief in the goodness of her fellow human being, a firm belief in providence, and a determination to teach lessons that have seen her family through thick and thin.

I arrived into this world during her 41st year and, having left my mother much the worse for the experience, was taken into her custody for my first six months as mother recovered. I have fond later memories of Grandfather, after a day at the factory, gathering up my baby brother and me, and driving out into the countryside to pick up grandmother, then teaching in a one-room rural schoolhouse outside of Ludington, Michigan. I remember listening to the car radio, the voices of Burns and Allen in my ears as we made that daily sojourn. Then there would be the inevitable stop at the Park Dairy to load up on ice cream as we made that journey, a practice my mother brought to a halt after watching several cooked meals go to waste.

She would teach for nine months of the year and in the summer we would bundle up and make the journey to Mount Pleasant where grandmother was continuing her education at Central Michigan University. In time she would earn her Master’s degree and follow us south relocating in Holland, Michigan where she continued to teach first again in one-room schools, and later as a special education teacher. Displaying a determined work ethic, she worked tirelessly to blaze a trail in higher education that would make possible later generations to follow.

To understand Grandmother one needed to understand that she was, in her soul, a teacher. As such she would tolerate no nonsense at the waterfront. When we misspoke she would correct us, when we misbehaved she would rebuke us. In this she is much like my paternal Grandmother. Both were women of learning, both married to earthy men who chafed under the constraints. I fondly remember my Grandfather’s frequent use of expletives. In a moment of disgust or anger he would customarily respond with appropriate profanity. I can still hear the voice coming from the kitchen, “Joseph”; she would yell out, “stop swearing in front of the children!” “Hell,” he would reply with a wink in his eye, “they got to learn sometime”. Grandfather was a boisterous, confrontational union leader; grandmother a quiet peace maker. They balanced each other for sixty years complementing each other in ways that takes years for an observer to understand.

To see Grandmother as a quiet, demure, schoolmarm is to materially misunderstand with whom one is dealing. She was quick to correct, sure in her judgment, and determined to see a positive outcome. At the tender age of nine, she declared that it was time to take the boy out into the fields and introduce him to the world of labor. So in the summer of 1958 I found myself absenting the ‘field of dreams’, putting my emerging career in professional baseball on hold, and heading out to the “blueberry” patch to earn some money. It was Grandmother’s wish that I be introduced early to life’s labors and in so doing instill in the young lad a work ethic that she knew I would need in order to prepare for life’s many trials.

And so it was that I found myself laboring in the fields well before my 10th birthday. Memories that now span half a century are as vivid as if it were yesterday of getting up well before sunrise, partaking of a quick breakfast, and heading out to the fields. We would arrive as the sun was rising, the blueberry bushes still wet with the morning dew. Our hands would quickly turn blue as residue of insecticides would mix with the natural juices of the fruit and the cold wetness of the morning dew transforming the ends of our fingers into something that looked like blue raisins or prunes. As the day progressed and the hot August sun rose in the east the temperature would climb and, by mid afternoon, the cold wetness of the morning would give way to a hot and dry furnace. At the end of the day we would emerge from the ‘patch’ covered with dust and ready to go home to eat some dinner and go to sleep. Day after day, for half the summer, while my peers honed their skills on the fields of play I, and later my younger brother, would so labor beneath the hot summer sun learning valuable ‘life lessons’ under the watchful and protective eye of our beloved Grandmother.

Her purpose, as befitting a lesson plan for a nine-year-old, was a straightforward one. To teach that money does not grow on trees, does not fall into one’s lap, but must instead be earned by the sweat of one’s brow. In this she succeeded in her mission. Later in life, as I lay in pain from serious back injuries—injuries that would in time require surgery removing entirely a ruptured disc—I could hear the voice of Grandmother calling me. “Joey”, she would call out—it was always ‘Joey’ not simply because I was young but to differentiate me from my Grandfather—“it’s time to get up. Let’s get going we don’t have much time”. Then I would rub my sleepy eyes and, in spite of the pain, drag myself up and out of bed and prepare for another day’s labor.

As straight-forward as was the mission, the lessons learned often transcend the limits of the lessons taught. While developing a tough and determined work ethic, which would lead me to work two jobs while going to college, and labor at many positions in my adult life for which I have been overqualified, the experience in the fields taught other, unintended lessons.

It was while laboring in the fields that I was introduced to the squalor and the exploitation of migrant workers. I labored with whole families who made the annual journey from Mexico and the Deep South arriving in time to harvest the crop and leaving just before the deadline, the Monday after Labor Day each year, established by the State of Michigan requiring that the children be put into the state’s schools. I saw a system that employed child labor and saw children, much younger than myself, not at play but working with us in the fields. I saw families dependent on the labor of such children and, unfortunately, children on occasion beaten for falling asleep or not working to expectations. What I saw before my very eyes was the underbelly of the established economic order; the wretched working conditions that made possible cheap and plentiful food.

While teaching her grandson life lessons about the nature of work and reward, Grandmother had inadvertently taken me into the recesses of those places that were still beyond the reach of the New Deal. Agriculture was, and still is, exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act and, therefore, is not subject to the labor law providing for overtime, the 40 hour work week, or the minimum wage. Accordingly, laborers are paid by the unit, in this case the pound, in those days being 7 cents a pound. A young child could, on a good day, fill a 15 pound pail making a little over a dollar a day. Adults would make more, but a five or six dollar day was a good one. If a grown adult could pick 100 pounds in a single day, making $7.00, such a person was considered to be very good at it. Grown adults, if they were good at it, would work for between thirty and forty dollars a week, assuming one didn’t get sick. Grandmother had taken us into the fields to earn a little extra money, but these people were in the fields earning a livelihood. In my first two years in the fields I managed, by such labor, to earn $20.00 for the summer. The migrants, following the crops and the seasons, would keep in perpetual motion laboring for such meager rewards. Needing the labor of every member of the family, children were kept out of school in order to stay at work in the fields. This produced a permanent underclass of exploited men, women and children, available each harvest season to planters who would grow wealthy on the backs of such labor. This is what I witnessed at a young and tender age. I will never forget the sight of the old jalopies stuffed with children and all their earthly possessions as the arriving migrants would take up residence in the ‘living quarters’ often shacks resembling nothing so much as old slave quarters of Southern lore.

It radicalized me. When Lyndon Johnson sought to complete the New Deal by extending the benefits to those left behind I understood. When I read, in 1966, Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”, I understood. The poor were invisible. One could drive down Highway 31 between Grand Haven and Holland, Michigan and never see the squalor of worker’s ‘shacks’ just a quarter-mile or so from the road. I didn’t need Upton Sinclair to describe the working conditions in the meat-packing industry, or Karl Marx to explain the nature of exploitation in the workplace. I had seen it first hand. We lived in the working class neighborhood, down by the factories in what was once an industrial as well as a resort town. But the hardships we knew were nothing compared to what I witnessed in the fields of Western Michigan. Some were radicalized in the 1960’s, for me it happened a decade earlier. Later in life I would constantly find myself to the left of the Democratic Party and, of late, a sworn enemy of the Democratic Leadership Council and others of those who would move the party of FDR to the right. Grandmother had taught her lessons well, for she gave to her grandson not only a strong work ethic, but a social conscience in the bargain.

Happy Birthday, Grandma, may you have many, many more.


1.’s _Sad_Lexicon

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