Back in my days as an English professor, I attended a writers conference on a cold wintry weekend in Chicago and warmed myself by serving on a baseball and literature panel.
When it came to my turn to speak, I noted that those in the audience and on the panel were wearing name tags. Since most of us were probably die-hard baseball fans, I told them it might have been more fitting if we were wearing tags also identifying our favorite team.
Since that wasn’t the case, I assured them that I could tell what team they rooted for by observing their demeanor. The Cubs fans in the audience were easy to pick out because they were the ones who looked like they needed a hug. It was also easy to find the Cardinals fans because they were the ones sitting next to Cubs fans. They weren’t about to hug the fans of Chicago’s lovable losers, but they did want to make sure that Cubs fans knew what the fans of a winning team looked like.
I had fun with the audience that day, but I’ve often wondered if long years of rooting for a winning or a losing team shapes the character of a baseball fan. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist George Will, for example, believes that an “early and prolonged exposure to the Chicago Cubs” gave him his dark, doubting, conservative view of life. He also claims, with conservative tongue planted firmly in cheek, to have knowledge that “the St. Louis Cardinals are fully paid-up, card-carrying members of the Axis of Evil.”
Contrary to the conspiracy-minded George Will, popular novelist John Grisham and television personality Bob Costas believe the Cardinals represent the best of the American character. Growing up in Arkansas, Grisham remembers the way that Harry Caray’s broadcasts of Cardinals’ games brought family and friends together. For Grisham’s boyhood town, “baseball was life in those days.”
A die-hard Yankees fan in his youth, Costas got his big break when he took a sports broadcasting job at KMOX in St. Louis and became a regular as “little Bobby Costas” on Jack Carney’s morning show. He quickly shifted his allegiance to the Cardinals and later wrote, “the combination of passion and civility among St. Louis baseball fans is what makes it the best baseball town in America.”
As a longtime Pittsburgh Pirates fan, I’ve certainly experienced enough losing seasons, including a record-breaking 20 in a row, to feel an affinity with Cubs fans. I’ve watched my Pirates win three dramatic World Series, so I also know the joy Cardinals fans have experienced during a championship season.
But whether the Pirates won or lost, and mostly they lost, I’ve felt a deep and unwavering loyalty to my hometown baseball team ever since I saw my first game in 1948. No matter how unhappy, confused or inferior I felt growing up in working-class Pittsburgh, I could always go out to the ballpark and watch baseball. The Pirates had terrible teams in those days, but I always had the hopeless hope that this time they were going to win.
Over the years, I’ve never found anything lovable about losing baseball, but, while Pirates losses have turned me into a grumpy old man, I’ve never lost my love for the Pirates or for baseball. I’ve also tried to pass that love along to my family in the hope that some day another Bill Mazeroski, with one swing of the bat, will show them that baseball ballparks are where dreams come true, if you keep faith in the team of your youthful dreams.
As for my wife, Anita, she didn’t grow up a fan, but she caught the baseball bug from me and comes down from time to time with a serious case of Bucco fever. Every time she watches a game and gets upset when the Pirates aren’t playing well, she turns to me in frustration and asks, “Why do I care?”
All I can do is shrug and feel grateful that she’s talking about the Pirates and not her husband.
RICHARD ‘PETE’ PETERSON is the commentator for the Reading Baseball series on WSIU-FM. His most recent publication is Pops: The Willie Stargell Story.