by Mark Jent
Today is the 84th anniversary of my Granddaddy’s first and only baseball game. This is his baseball story.
It was August 2012 and our visit from Nashville to their home in Haleyville, Alabama started off like many others in recent years. We arrived on Friday afternoon, enjoyed an evening meal together, let the kids play with what few toys were in the house and more than anything, we were there to let them spend time with their great-grandparents. Granddaddy was 92, Grandmother was 90. The effects of Alheizmers over much of the past decade had left her bedridden and incapacitated in the living room. At this point my grandparents had been married for 72 years and although they had around the clock help, he was still acting as the primary caretaker for my grandmother. His courage and selfless love for her never ceased to amaze me. They were part of the Greatest Generation who were born in the early 20s, lived their childhood through the Great Depression and became war families in the 40s. Their story was no different.
On this particular visit, it started out as ordinary. My work would be picking up steam on the college campus in a few weeks, so this was a great time to get out of town. We left that Friday to make the three hour trek not knowing that it would be a trip that would leave an indelible mark on our life. Brooklyn had just turned four, Harrison was almost two and Zach was a month away from being born. Beth was a trooper to make the 350 mile round trip at eight months pregnant.
After the kids had gone to bed, I found myself in my normal spot in the living room – in the chair beside Granddaddy who was sitting in a chair by Grandmother’s bed and we watched television together. As was usually the case, we watched what seemed like seven straight episodes of M.A.S.H. Fortunately (for me) as would normally happen, he turned the channel to a baseball game. The Braves were playing. Granddaddy wasn’t a Braves fan per se, but he would watch them on occasion to pass time and he knew I was a baseball fan.
The evening was similar to all the others that Beth and I had made in our nearly decade of marriage. Then he started telling me a story. Man could he tell good stories! I had sat at his feet for years listening in awe about his stories from World War II. He left my Grandmother at home to care for their nine month old baby girl, my Mom. He served under General Patton, he crossed over the Rhine River as part of the Battle of the Bulge, he slept in a fox hole only to find out that 24 hours later it was bombed and he got frostbit that ultimately led to his coming home. These were just a few of the countless stories he had shared with me about the war.
But on this particular night the story telling took a different turn as we sat there watching Chipper Jones in his final season with the Braves. It was a story that he had never shared with me before and it was a story that I didn’t realize would have such a profound impact on me and I’d be writing about it on my baseball blog seven years later.
He told me the story about his first and only major league baseball game.
It was 1935 or 1936, he wasn’t sure which. (I extended him grace seeing that he was 92!) This would have put him at 15 or 16 years old. He grew up in Belmont, Mississippi and the St. Louis Cardinals were running a promotion. For five dollars you could ride a train from Memphis to St. Louis and it included your game ticket. He did vividly recalled it was a Sunday and the Cardinals were playing the New York Giants. He even remembered the pitching matchip, but how could he not, it was two future hall of famers on the mound! The Cardinals’ Dizzy Dean was pitching against the Giant’s Carl Hubbell.
I sat there in awe of his memory of the details. Here he was at 92 years old and he was recalling the specifics of his first baseball game that took place over 75 years ago! I asked if he ever made it to another game. He said no, that was the only one he ever attended.
The Braves game ended some time after 10:00, we turned off the television, told each other good night and then he began his nightly ritual with my Grandmother. Even though we might peak around the corner to witness the moment, we would respect their privacy and let them be alone in the living room. Every night before he’d go to bed, leaving her to a caretaker, my Granddaddy would stand over my Grandmother’s bed, often with tears in his eyes, stroke her hair and tell her how much he loved her. More times than not in those last years, she would just smile. Although her illness had taken a toll on her mind and body, his adoration for her was unwavering and unconditional.
I went to bed that night thinking, “Wow, how or why has he never shared this with me?” I want to find the box score to the game he is talking about.
It would be the last conversation we ever had.
With two young kids in tow, our stirring got started early on that Saturday morning. We were awake long before Granddaddy, but in no hurry to make the journey back to Nashville. Our breakfast ritual was pretty simple. I’d take his order and drive the half mile down the road to Hardees and we’d sit at the kitchen table to partake in our cinnamon raisin biscuits. But on this particular morning, that ritual never happen.
Harrison was excited and anxious for Granddady to wake up, so he would keep peering into his bedroom and then laughingly run away when he spotted him. About 10:00 that morning I saw Granddaddy walk down the hallway towards the bathroom and shut the door. Then seconds later the inexplicable happened. He collapsed. Upon hearing the sound of a 200 plus pound man fall in a 30 foot square space, I knew immediately he had fallen. He was unresponsive. During his fall he had lodged himself against the door, making it impossible for us to gain entry. The ensuing minutes seemed like hours as I tried furiously to figure out a way to get to him. I finally located a ladder in the barn. I knew our only way to him was for me to climb the ladder and break into the bathroom window.
There are few moments in life where you feel heaven and earth collide, that what you are witnessing is a holy moment. When I got to him I knew his condition was not good, yet through my tears and cries for help I remained hopeful. By now the police and paramedics were arriving, so I moved him away from the door so they could gain access to the bathroom. Shortly thereafter they stated the obvious – he had passed away.
One of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever made was to my Mom telling her the news.
Even as I write this story, a flood of memories come back to me that make this the most emotional story I’ve written to date. My grandfather was my life hero, a man I admired and respected so much. I admired his love for my grandmother. I admired his courage of being a soldier. I admired his determination and tenacity in being a small town business owner. I admired his relationship with my Mom. Everything. If there was a picture in the dictionary by the definition of grandfather, it would be his.
Since that day, I have always been thankful to have had the opportunity to be present that day. We often admire our heroes from afar, yet I not only had an intimate relationship with mine, but go to hold him as he took his final breaths.
That afternoon as Beth and I were driving back to Nashville to collect our stuff to then return for the visitation and funeral, it was then that it hit me that our very last conversation was him telling me about his one and only baseball game. Although it had not fully sunk in, I was taken back at the significance of it. For curiosity sake, I wanted to find out the exact date of the game and with baseball research plentiful and accessible online I liked my chances, but I needed help. I called my good baseball friend Drew Bingham asking for an online scavenger hunt favor.
“Drew can you look up box scores from 1935 and 1936 between the Cardinals and the Giants? Can you then narrow it down to how many times the Giants Carl Hubbell faced off against the Cardinals Dizzy Dean? Can you then filter those three games to see if any took place on a Sunday?” My Granddaddy’s memory was like a steel trap and I was confident the facts would line up. Within minutes Drew replied:
Sunday, September 15, 1935.
I will be thinking a lot about him today, the 84th anniversary of his first and only baseball game. I have always been grateful for the topic of our last conversation. I will never know what triggered him to open up to me that night to go down the path with our final conversation, but I am glad he did. Simply A Fan was years away from even being an idea so I’d be kidding myself if I said that back in 2012 I ever thought that I would one day launch a baseball company with the purpose of giving baseball fans a platform to share their baseball story. Something tells me he wouldn’t mind that I’m sharing his with you.
As I finish writing this story, I’m reflecting on what it must have been like for him on that day – September 15, 1935.
He is 15 years old and he’s about to go on his first baseball adventure. It’s early on Sunday morning and he’s just paid his five dollars to the attendant. He boards the train in Belmont and looks for a window seat in the economy class. He’s excited about taking the train a few hundred miles to St. Louis. He excitedly hops off at the station nearest Sportsman’s Park. Before the game starts, he goes to the concession stand and pulls out what few quarters he had to buy himself a hot dog and a box of cracker jacks. He settles in to his seat with a few friends and 43,000 others who were in attendance. Dizzy Dean winds up and throws the first pitch to the Giants LF Jo-Jo Moore. They scream and yell at the top of their lungs. He gets to see five future Hall of Famers play that day – Mel Ott, Carl Hubbell, Joe Medwick, Leo Durocher and Dizzy Dean. Hubbell throws a complete game and the Giants win 7-3. He and his friends walk back to the train station headed south. He’s jubilant and excited.
My Granddady has just seen his first major league baseball game. A lifetime of memories await him.
Mark Jent is the chief trip planner and designated storyteller for Simply A Fan. He lives in Nashville with his wife Beth, and their three kids, Brooklyn, Harrison and Zach. He enjoys cheering on his Dodgers, reading baseball history, hiking at Radnor Lake and chasing waterfalls throughout Tennessee with his family. He launched Simply A Fan in July 2018 with the two-fold purpose of taking people on adventures to ballparks across the country and providing fans a platform to share their baseball stories. He is currently on a quest to meet as many of the living Brooklyn Dodgers as possible.