I don’t have any photos of my father, but I do have stories. Here’s One
A lot of my fondest memories of my Dad are centered around sports and especially baseball. We went to lots of games together, not only was it fun, but it was educational too. It wasn’t just about seeing the Cubs or the White Sox, but about seeing the great Black players of the ’60s and ’70s. I can recall riding on the El train as he explained that I should play careful attention to Willie Mays positioning in centerfield and how much ground he covered. Or that I should watch for Hank Aaron’s batting stance and his patience at the plate or Frank Robinson’s intensity in the batter’s box (it made me feel sorry for the pitcher!). By the time, I was 5, I was sneaking off with the newspaper so that I could follow the standings.
I knew that the World Series was special but I didn’t appreciate how much until 1967. The ’67 season was a desultory one for Chicago White Sox fans. It was the last hurrah for the core of the team that had been very good but never champion since the early 50s. They faded down the stretch in ’67 and baseball faded from the household zeitgiest. Then on Columbus Day, which back then was celebrated on October 12 regardless of what day of the week it was, my brother Phil was assigned to watch me, so he took me to get a haircut. The barber shop had the World Series on, it was Game 7 and Bob Gibson was mowing down the Red Sox to the increasing delight of the customers and a wide range of other people who piled into the shop on 47th St. in Chicago to watch the little black and white set. The excitement was amazing as Gibson struck out 10 in a complete game win, his third of that series. There was electricity in the shop as Gibson got the final three outs.
So when the World Series approached in 1968, I was ready and eager. I knew that the Game 1 pitching matchup figured to be one for the ages. St. Louis, led by Gibson, had made it again and they would face the Detroit Tigers, a team that featured Denny McLain. McLain had won 31 games that season, and I was impressed. My Dad heard my take and chuckled derisively. He told me that McLain’s season couldn’t compare to Gibson’s, and I was perplexed. Gibson had won 22 games and while I was a long way from calculus, I was math savvy enough to know that 22 and 31 weren’t close. However, as my Dad explained, Gibson’s Earned Run Average was a microscopic 1.12 compared to McLain’s excellent but not historically significant 1.96.
I wondered what this Earned Run Average was all about so my Dad taught me the math and the concept that “wins” were a team accomplishment, reminding me of games we’d attended where the one team beat the other 1-0 or 2-1. The pitcher’s job was to keep the other team from scoring and it was almost unfair to tag a starting pitcher with a loss for such well done work. While we ate breakfast, my Dad also taught me how to calculate Batting Average and On Base Percentage. Then he headed off to work and I to school.
These numbers were important to my father. He felt that the great Black players of the ’60s didn’t receive their due. That the media focused more on McLain’s 31 wins instead of Gibson’s remarkable E.R.A was just one instance. He also felt that Frank Robinson’s triple crown numbers were better than Carl Yazstremski’s due to Yaz playing in Fenway Park, a good setting for a left handed hitter. He would happily argue that Mays would already have eclipsed Babe Ruth’s 714 home run mark but playing in the pitcher friendly environs of Candlestick Park and the Polo Grounds which hurt his batting numbers. “Perceptions vary,” he told me several years later, “but the numbers are the facts.”
Indeed, Gibson went on to outpitch McLain twice though the Cardinals lost the series, and it launched my passion for sports via numbers. My Dad liked to cite them in discussions with relatives and coworkers about sports, but when we were together, he also expressed his misgivings about certain statistics too. He hated the way the NFL counted all yards as if they were equal. “Two yards on fourth and one means a lot more than ten on third and fifteen,” he’d quip.
My Dad had studied as part of a combined BA/MBA program at the University of Chicago, and my sense was that this was always how he’d looked at sports. I figured he was unique, but then in 1983, I stumbled onto my first copy of the Bill James Baseball Abstract and felt as I eagerly read it that my Dad had a kindred spirit who went even deeper into his dive into baseball numbers. Upon finishing it, I immediately mailed my copy to my father (it may well have been a Father’s Day gift that year). He loved it and began buying it himself every season and we’d discuss it ahead of Opening Day. My Dad was approaching retirement when James stopped writing the Abstracts. My Dad was crestfallen; I think he had planned to volunteer as an intern.
My life became complicated building and maintaining a career both as a music journalist and a food business professional, but I always stayed abreast of sports and the latest statistical developments, and I often shared my discoveries with my Dad. He was sometimes impressed and sometimes skeptical. For instance, he disliked OPS, the stat derived by adding On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage. He felt OBP was more important and should be weighted more. “Everyone has a computer or at least a calculator handy, it’s just a little more work,” he said with his usual derisive chuckle.
Meanwhile during a down moment in music journalism, I began writing about sports. In 2003, I was hired to write analytical articles about the NBA for the NY Sun. He was pleased that I’d shown the versatility to adapt to difficult times, and he read my pieces carefully, sometimes complaining that I didn’t harp on the NBA’s indifference to the three point line. “If you passed first grade, then you know three is more than two,” he’d snip.
Although his mind remained sharp, his body was failing him. In 2005, I eagerly called him after the White Sox won the World Series only to find that he’d gone to bed during the clinching game. In early 2006, I made what would be my final visit to see him. He was in a hospice and not doing well, but on my last afternoon, he perked up. He read the articles I’d brought him and eagerly asked for an explanation of Player Efficiency Rating. Before I could delve into it, the attendants came and gave him some medicine that knocked him out. I waited for a few minutes as I’d hoped to tell him how much I loved him and how much I’ll miss him. After about 30 minutes, he was still out cold, and I decided yeah, if our final conversation was about sports, that was entirely appropriate. He knew that I loved him; he didn’t like being told what he knew. He always wanted to learn the new stuff.
Sure enough, a week later, I got the call to fly in for a funeral. He’d gone to meet his maker without ever getting a good explanation of why .44 of free throws attempted is such a key multiplier. I got the call at 4 a.m. I had to write a sports column that day. It was one of about 15 I wrote in mid ’00s discounting the possibility of LeBron James ever playing for the Knicks. It was a subject my Dad and I had discussed from time to time. People thought I showed grace under pressure for writing it. I told them it was the easiest piece I’d ever written. I was just recounting my conversations with Dad.