baseball crazy: the continuation of a series considering reincarnation through the national pastime

Chapman died on August 17, 1920, a day after batting for the Cleveland Indians against a Yankee submariner named Carl Mays. One of Mays’ pitches had hit Chapman’s head so hard that Mays charged the ball, picked it up and threw it to first, believing the clunk he’d heard to be ball-on-bat, not ball-on-head…”

 

by dennie wendt

 

I am not crazy.

I have a story to tell, a true story. It is strange–simple, yet strange–but it’s true, and I am not crazy. Even as I have made that clear, you’ll soon think me a crackpot. I can live with that. But you will see truth in my story. You’ll see integrity.

So you know, I have no particular insight into humanity, and I am certainly no moralist, but I do know that everyone has some part of themselves that hungers for the truth, for simple, unassailable facts. This explains the human condition that leads us, almost universally, to regard sincerity as, of all things, a virtue.

My story begins far away–far enough to suggest a certain fairy tale whimsy and, as whimsy will, to hint at imbalance. But I’m not crazy.

It begins in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where I once saw Ray Chapman’s eyes in a woman on a boat anchored to the shore of the Sava River. The boat was a restaurant, and I was in its bathroom, pants around my ankles, standing in front of a urinal. I was drunk. She was an ancient, troll-like woman, barely over four feet tall, and as she stood there in her long black coat and faded blue scarf, I realized that she was looking at my bare ass, and that she was embarrassed. Evidently, it was a unisex bathroom–not unusual–and I had failed to lock the door.

Why was I there? A student of Slavic poetry? An embassy employee? Staying a night on the trip from Austria to Greece? Yes. One of these types of things.

It was a shock to me, to be sure, having this dried-apple-faced woman staring at me, there, in front of that urinal. In my surprise, I addressed her in English. “Hello,” I said. She hesitated, her surprise becoming disgust and anger, and she chose not to speak. She turned to leave. I was momentarily sobered and ashamed.

I hastened to make myself presentable and moved toward her. “Dear woman,” I said, in a quick, respectful dose of minimalist Serbian. She stopped. I took another step toward her, and looked into the eyes of her kidney-shaped head. What I saw came, of course, as a considerable shock. Sure, my mind had been softened by my first few weeks of foreign travel, and by the alcohol, and by an alluring Norwegian I had just met on the boat, but I said to this woman, in dire English certainty, “Hello, Ray. Hello, Ray Chapman.”

It will be in the interest of my story to share a little of the Ray Chapman tale for those not already in the know. Chapman died on August 17, 1920, a day after batting for the Cleveland Indians against a Yankee submariner named Carl Mays. One of Mays’ pitches had hit Chapman’s head so hard that Mays charged the ball, picked it up and threw it to first, believing the clunk he’d heard to be ball-on-bat, not ball-on-head. The blow crushed the side of Chapman’s skull, and blood oozed from both ears as the victim collapsed on his instinctive way toward first base.

Ray Chapman was the first on-field major league fatality. Now, he stood before me, reincarnated as a peasant Serbian woman.

What I felt I had to share with her was difficult for me–of course–in her native language. I remember repeating the words “Ray Chapman Ray Chapman Ray Chapman,” hoping to jog her (his?) memory.

She began to swear. As profanities are the first words an American visitor to Belgrade learns, I understood her well. She turned from me, and shuffled–but quickly–out of the restaurant, raising her voice. I thought she was being just a little dramatic.

I emerged to stares and few laughs. It was quickly forgotten. The Norwegian was gone.

That night, as I lay on a couch in a Belgrade apartment, my head swelled with images of the early-twentieth-century National League, of the finest hotels in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia. I smelled infield dust, moist wool, chewing tobacco. I was a rangy shortstop, getting my big body and bowed legs behind anything that came near me. In a handsomely appointed, if threadbare, apartment in the White City of the Balkans, I first came to understand what I hope the reader can understand now: In a previous life, I was Honus Wagner.

That is how I knew it was Ray Chapman.

There are probably fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates for whom no sacrifice would be too great to have the opportunity to live through those glory days, to know what the wind felt like in the Flying Dutchman’s hair as he rounded first at Forbes Field, already knowing he would arrive at third standing up, and already knowing that he would smile and wink into the opposing dugout. What would undoubtedly be their blessing has been my curse. Sure, there have been sleepless nights and daydream days when memories of winning the 1909 World Series warms my solitary heart, but mostly having been Honus Wagner is a pain the ass. How can I live up to the greatest shortstop there ever was?

But, you might say, that shortstop was you. You did those things. Well, yes and no. Philosophers will quibble here. It’s a good question: Who am I, a century later, if I’m still awake nights trying figure out how and why Boston beat us in the ’03 Series?

Frankly, I don’t need it. And probably neither to modern Wagners, who would rather believe that their dear departed ancestor and hero of the national game is, well dear–and departed. I am very much aware that by bringing my secret to light, I may bring pain to a lot of people. But have truth, if not grace or discretion.

But, as I said, I don’t need it.

I’m not really much of a baseball fan. How could I be?

I’m a housepainter and reader of mysteries in a small Northwestern town. And, from 1880 until 1958, I was Honus Wagner. That’s just too much for a regular guy like me to carry around.

You think I’m crazy. Of course you do. That’s all right with me. I had something to say, and I said it. But I’ll bet you found something in there, some means of relating to Honus and me, even if you don’t believe that Ray Chapman came back as a Serb peasant.

I’m a housepainter and reader of mysteries in a small Northwestern town. And the greatest shortstop there ever was. You can understand that.

 

Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Two
October 2002

 


Dennie B. Wendt is an Oregon man whose work can also be found on the web journals Sweet Fancy Moses , Über , as well as in Portland Magazine. This article originally appeared in Sweet Fancy Moses.  More from Dennie can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

 

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