Pining for an Opening Day and a season that (so far) is not to be calls for truly drastic measures. With the COVID-19 virus waylaying any sense of normalcy or structure to our lives, including the simple, life-affirming act of watching the game of baseball, I’ve settled on the next best thing to keep the jonesing at bay: sorting through my stash of vintage baseball ephemera.
And by vintage I mean the stuff I’ve collected since the days way before any current major league ballplayer was born (unless Julio Franco makes a comeback): Namely, my 1970s baseball cards, assorted Boston Red Sox yearbooks and programs, and vintage ticket stubs dating back to the first years my dad began taking my brother and me to Fenway Park.
Among the saved items I’ve hit upon is something that informed (and took a good chunk of) my adolescence: a pen-and-paper-produced collection of baseball magazines, tenderly wrapped by ribbon and tidily stacked. But they weren’t magazines you’d ever find at the corridor-length news stand at the A.J. Hastings stationary and supply store, or the overstuffed paperback and magazine racks at Augie’s tobacco shop in downtown Amherst. No, this magazine was my own Private Idaho, a natural extension of my obsession with the game that I gave the brilliant, metaphorically rich name of “Off The Wall.”
Every week (with few exceptions) during baseball season for four years, I wrote, illustrated, edited, “published,” and distributed (circulation: ONE COPY!) “Off The Wall.” This all happened between the summer of 1977, when I was 13 and watching in awe as the Red Sox set a then-franchise season record for homeruns (or “taters” as George “Boomer” Scott called them), to the World Series of 1980 pitting a Kansas City Royals team of George Brett, Hal McRae, and Willie Wilson against eventual winners the Philadelphia Phillies, who were led by Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, and Steve Carlton. If those names ring a bell, that’s right in the wheelhouse of the players and the era I was writing about with a supremely dedicated focus that, at least to my thinking at the time, was (ahem) unparalleled.
Folding in half the long yellow-lined legal pads my dad brought home from the AM radio station where he worked writing advertising copy and hosting radio shows, these eight-page issues — expanded to a whopping ten or 12 pages if they were World Series special editions! — had player profiles, historical quizzes, trivia, and actual photos clipped from old school library issues of Sports Illustrated or the Boston Globe or Herald newspapers.
Until just now, I had forgotten about the three-panel comic strip inside the issues that I briefly wrote and drew called “In The Booth,” which centered on the rapport and ribbing between a humorless baseball play-by-play announcer and his buffoonish, ex-jock color analyst (Not bad, actually; I thought it was funnier than Tank McNamara, from which it was completely ripped off).
There are even offers — aimed squarely at my brother and parents’ piggybanks — by me to draw any major league player for a nickel or a dime or, in the last years of the mag’s run, a princely sum of 25 cents (seriously, this is what I thought was decent money; I guess I was kinda desperate for cash).
This offer was a way, I thought, that I could cleverly subsidize my baseball card-buying habits, and possibly enhance my baseball mag’s “brand” as I built my Bic pen-powered empire as high as the heavens. This endeavor took work and time, after all, and hey, those baseball cards weren’t going to buy themselves.
A small sidebar and diversion here: “Off The Wall” actually had followed on the heels of two other self-published in-house mags. The first was “TV Weekly,” taken up when I was ten years old. Henry Winkler (“Fonzie” from “Happy Days”), Freddie Prinze (“Chico” from “Chico & The Man”), James Garner (“Jim Rockford” from “The Rockford Files”), and, of course, Lee Majors (“Steve Austin” from “The Six Million Dollar Man”), were among my beloved subjects. All dudes, I know, but I just couldn’t draw women very well (and believe me, I would have loved to be able to convincingly draw Lee’s wife, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, her “Charlie’s Angels” replacement, Cheryl Ladd, and Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter).
Then, at age 12, “TV Weekly” was usurped by a more general interest tome titled “Variety.” Nope, I didn’t know a world-famous entertainment industry publication by that name already existed. My slightly more modest effort containined well-researched investigative articles on quintessential ’70s subjects such as the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Evel Knievel, and UFOs.
I modeled “Variety,” in retrospect, on a hybrid of “People” magazine and “Dynamite,” the elementary school-aimed Scholastic Books publication I had a summer subscription to. Getting “Dynamite” and its cast of characters like Magic Wanda and Count Morbida mailed to my house during those sweltering July and August days when school was out felt special. Plus, I loved the way the fresh pages of that pulpy paper smelled, kind of like crushed bananas and pine.
OK, back to “Off The Wall” ‘s mission: I placed a premium on not playing favorites and being fair-minded through the years, taking care to mix up American and National League stars even though I was a die-hard American League fan, having grown up with the Red Sox. I even profiled hated Yankees stars like Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles, for instance, and waited a whole five issues before profiling my favorite player and baseball idol ever, the gritty, methodically swaggering Boston catcher Carlton Fisk, who, like me, was born and raised in New England.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then, there were no omnipresent cable sports channels or 24-7 baseball networks. Even Red Sox games were not carried by the local television station on a regular basis. That’s what weekends were made for. And certainly where I lived, we only saw the National League or its players during the annual All-Star game and World Series. Inter-league play was, thankfully, eons — or at least decades — away.
But being an avid student of the statistics on the backs of baseball cards, and being a faithful reader of the Street & Smith’s Baseball guide every spring, I knew exactly who Ed Kranepool and Al Hrabosky were. In fact, the first star to grace the cover of my first issue was Rusty Staub, who was in the midst of having a solid year for the Detroit Tigers after having spent his entire career in the National League.
This went on, year in and year out. It’s funny to think about now, but I don’t recall ever telling my close friends at school about what I was up to all those afternoons and evenings after school. Somehow, it felt like a private indulgence, something secret that I cherished. Plus, my classmates might have made a joke of a job I took seriously. To be honest, deep down I probably knew the whole enterprise seemed a bit geeky and obsessed.
By the time Opening Day 1981 eventually rolled around, I was in the midst of my junior year of high school. I had started succumbing to more school work, as well as the usual teenage temptations and distractions. In other words, stuff that required behavior far less productive and disciplined than putting out a homemade baseball magazine for four people, myself included. (Well, three, really; My mom claimed she dutifully read each issue but I didn’t actually believe her, as I think the panorama of baseball nuttiness surrounding and engulfing her household was overwhelming, or at least irritating). Life was getting more complicated.
Despite the fact that the previous year had been a high note for “Off The Wall” — a noticeable improvement, I thought, in the sophistication of my drawings and text — I decided to pull the plug on the publication. Go out on top, I thought, like “The Bob Newhart Show.” Besides, eighty-six issues was a really good run. It felt like the right time to end, and properly honor, “the magazine for more than a fan” by not diluting its storied legacy with an occasional issue I squeezed into my increasingly busy social schedule of sneaking into midnight movies or hollowing homemade bongs out of Red Delicious apples.
Besides, even though I felt somewhat guilty at the disloyalty, I knew I had sort of outgrown the idea. There was a twinge of sadness knowing that an era was about to pass. But I also felt, frankly, a tinge of relief that I was letting myself off of the deadline hook, at last. I was, in effect, allowing myself to retire after four years of dedicated service.
So with a kind of psychic sigh, I resigned myself to allowing Opening Day and the new baseball season to begin without me attempting to chronicle it (ironically, 1981 would prove to be a dismal season shortened by a players’ strike that summer; also, Carlton Fisk had signed on to play for the Chicago White Sox that winter after a nasty contract dispute with the Red Sox, a tragedy of epic proportions that broke my heart).
In a way, though, I was experiencing more baseball up close and personal than I ever had. In what can only be described as a miraculous occurrance, a perfect storm of high hopes and sustained deception, I had somehow made the high school baseball team — well, technically the high school junior varsity baseball team — having fooled the team’s day drinking manager into thinking I could actually hit a fastball. It was a really good time in my life.
After my junior year, summer came, slow, hazy, and lilting with open-ended possibility. And then one sleepy morning that July, my parents saw something — a small ad — listed in the local paper. “Jonathan? Could you come in here a minute?” said my mom from the kitchen, calling me from another room. She sounded intrigued and even excited, which she wasn’t very often. I walked into the kitchen, where mom was seated at the table. “The paper says there’s a part-time sportswriter’s job opening at the Amherst News.”
Even if you live in the Pioneer Valley and you’re reading this, unless you’re about 45 or 50 years old minimum right now, chances are you’ve never heard of this paper, which was, to its credit, every bit the local labor of love that “Off The Wall” was.
In fact, The Amherst News would never last as long as my little publication. It was, sadly, a short-lived weekly community newspaper that — I learned much later — grew its staff from a round of layoffs, or a dispute of some kind with The Amherst Record, a longtime local institution. For all of two years, the News was based in downtown Amherst, Massachusetts, and circulated to the neighboring towns whose news and items of interest it covered.
Anyway, back to our tale and my mom calling me into the kitchen that sunny summer’s day. In a couple of months, I would start my senior year of high school. I liked the idea of making some extra money (remember, this is the same guy who charged between a nickel and quarter for original drawings) to do something I would have done for free. At the very least, the “salary” (the sum wasn’t specified in the ad, but it was pretty close to writing “for free,” as it turned out) could probably buy me some records or a couple of midnight showings of “The Kids Are Alright” and “The Wall” — or a few more Red Delicious apples to enhance those experiences.
Still, I was pretty nervous about the prospect of applying for a summer job that didn’t involve farm work or manual labor of some sort; in other words, a job that didn’t involve washing egg- and cigarette-butt smeared restaurant dishes, stacking endless cords of wood in 90-degree heat, or picking squash or cucumbers while lying in a baking field, flat on my stomach on a sweat-stained mattress in the sun. All of which I had done, and was doomed to do again.
But I felt I should take a shot, and I could hear in my mom’s voice that I should. I called up the paper and, to my unprepared surprise, was immediately put through to a formidable, aristocratic-sounding editor named Frances Chastain. Her voice reminded me a little of Katharine Hepburn’s. I was instantly intimidated.
I remember bumbling an introduction and expressing a formal yet timid desire to talk about that sportswriter’s job being advertised? All of those palpitating, pre-phone call rehearsals in my bedroom had not polished my presentation in the least. I could hear my voice jump up an octave so that I sounded almost 12. Amazingly, Ms. Chastain invited me in for an interview the following day. I can’t remember if I told her I was in high school.
The next morning , I woke up and found my “good Sunday clothes” at the bottom of my bureau. I even put on a necktie and borrowed my dad’s tie clasp and took a deep breath of destiny. Standing in the kitchen, my mom handed me a yellow, brick-like stack of something. “Show the editor these,” she said. “They” were the complete run, in chronological order, of my “Off The Wall” magazines, tied with a slash of gold ribbon salvaged from a previous Christmas.
My mom drove me to the news office, which was a small upstairs newsroom in a creaky but lovely old red brick building on North Pleasant Street. I trudged up a handsomely burnished wooden stairwell and opened a wood and frosted glass door that read ‘The Amherst News‘ in a very official-looking font. The ribbon holding together the bundle of my magazines dug into my fingers and palm and suddenly seemed very heavy, and clumsy. Or maybe that was just me.
A distinguished, austere-looking woman of about 60 sitting behind a big desk toward the back of the room looked up, lowered her glasses, and beckoned me inside. There were about four or five other desks with typewriters, pencils, and piles of paper positioned around the sunny, smallish room. A few older (35 at least!), busy reporters milled about, working the xerox machine, or talking on the phone. The room smelled like coffee and carbon paper.
It wasn’t exactly the WJM newsroom with Lou Grant barking out orders with his shirt sleeves rolled up, or the Daily Bugle, where photographer Peter Parker worked for crusty J. Jonah Jameson inside those Marvel Comics pages. Still, it all seemed very professional. And the news editor, Ms. Chastain, certainly commanded the room much more in the manner of Lou Grant than Mary Richards.
I said hello, introduced myself, and Ms. Chastain noticed my hand holding a stack of … what, exactly? I handed the stack to her. She hesitated for a moment, as if accepting an unexpected gag gift that might pop out of a cheap can and into her face.
“I thought I’d bring these for you to take a look at, if you wanted to,” I said, heading off her question. “It was a baseball magazine I worked on for a few years, just for my family. But I liked writing and putting them together. My mom said I should show them to you.”
“Four years?” She asked as if she expected the word following “four” to be “months.” Then, as she took them, Ms. Chastain asked why I thought I’d be a good fit for the job, which, as she described it, entailed attending local sports events around town and writing up reports of the games. I said something about loving language and writing stories ever since I could remember, and that when I was a kid I wanted to be a comic book illustrator and writer. But lately, with college looming in the not too far off future, I was beginning to think journalism might be a good career path.
She nodded absent-mindedly, adjusted her glasses, and proceeded to flip through the issues in front of her. I watched her expression for any clues. As she skimmed the issues, perusing the copy-packed profiles and trivia sections and hand-scrawled columns of batting averages and strikeout totals, she looked to me a little startled at what she was looking at; almost perplexed (as I sometimes am even now when I look through them). As if she was thinking, ‘What in the hell is all this? And what kind of teenager would do such a thing for no monetary gain? For four freaking years!’
Finally, Ms. Chastain put the stack aside, neatly and respectfully, and looked at me. I can’t remember if I was still standing or not. But I’m not sure she ever offered me a chair. The newsroom of humming xerox machines and water cooler chatter suddenly seemed to go silent, and now, for some reason, all of the oxygen seemed to have been sucked out of the place. I felt flush and light-headed. Was I coming down with a fever?
“Well, I’ll say this,” she began, a little more warmly now. “At least there’s one thing I know I don’t have to ask you.” I waited for a moment, wondering what the unanswerable trick question was going to be. She broke into a small, wry smile. “You obviously know how to meet a deadline.”