An Old Man, A Long-Forgotten Pitcher, An Obsession Remembered

Baseball glove and ball

I’ve learned to mistrust reverie. One of the unexpected lessons old age has taught me is to beware of what comes out of the soft, furry pocket of memory. Sometimes, it is a thing with edges. Like the time recently when I tried to educate my girlfriend Julia about the game of baseball back in the tame 1950s.

“I know the son of a baseball player,” she said.

“Who is the player?”

She checked with Google to make sure: “Aber.”

“Al Aber. Relief pitcher. Detroit Tigers.”

Julia gasped. You’d have thought I plucked Aber fully formed out of a hat. I actually amazed myself responding so readily, as if I saw him pitch just the other day. I hadn’t thought of Al Aber in more than 60 years.

I had to wonder if, perhaps like Cardinal’s shortstop Marty Marion, Aber was one of those players I chased from his mid-Manhattan hotel down into the Grand Central subway station for his autograph. (In the 50s, players routinely traveled up to Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds by subway.)

Julia diligently put me in touch with Aber’s son, Mick, a retired Oak Park social worker. We first exchanged emails to set up a time to talk. He sounded surprised but pleased that a stranger from the East would be interested in his father almost 30 years dead.

“In his entire career (1950-1957), my father never made more than $10,000, tops,” Mick Aber said when I phoned him. “The money a physician might make in those days. After retirement, he worked in a clothing store.”The remnants of baseball’s exalted otherness still makes that seem unimaginable. Some of my neighbors worked in clothing stores, some pitched coins. None pitched baseballs. How could a major league pitcher wind up measuring waists?

There seemed to be no reason initially to remember a journeyman relief pitcher with a lifetime record of 24 wins and 25 losses. Relief pitchers in those days were mainly anonymous commodities who often bounced around from one team to another. Before being traded to the Tigers, Aber pitched for the Cleveland Indians and wound up his career with brief stint with the Kansas City A’s.

When I understood why Al Aber was still interred in me, I thought, “Of course,” Raised in the Bronx, I was a long-suffering Red Sox fan. (At one time, there was no other kind.) Throughout my childhood, as good as the Red Sox were, the Yankees always found ways to torture the Sox into oblivion, to subject me to abject humiliation.Any pitcher from any team who worked against the Yankees had my useless blessing. I’d park myself by the visitor’s bullpen in right field, imagining every pitcher who warmed up uniformed—not in harmless flannel, but in armor only I could see. One of those was Al Aber, who it turned out, the Yankees wanted to sign out of West Tech High School, but he chose instead to play for his hometown Indians.

Even today, returning to the Bronx as an old man, whose life has been changed by deaths, disappointments, spiritual insights, it amazes me that the old dread and animosity can still be awakened. I still carry somewhere in my untended museum of childhood the heat of a young boy’s sacred fire built at the altar of a great wound.

Yankee Stadium’s right field bullpen became for me part of a mythological space where a great battle was being fought, and almost invariably, lost. At the bottom of the eighth inning of a close game, a pitcher like Aber, or fellow Tiger reliever Ray Herbert, would be called on to stop a lineup consisting of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer and Gene Woodling, all good clutch hitters whose heartbreaking hits at the end of games would send me home with the fiendish roars of Yankee fans still in my ears.

How can it be that the embers of that old rage I felt will not completely go away when my anger at insults suffered at school can no longer even be recalled. Some days, even after the existential clarity of a Krishnamurti talk on the ills of conditioning, I may still find myself opening a newspaper to see if the Yankees lost. Does that elicit shame? Sometimes, yes. But more than shame, wonder. How can we account for what lives and what dies in us?

At one point in our conversation, I asked Mick Aber to tell me a bit about how his father fared against the greater hitters of his time.

“Mantle,” he said, “he thought he could handle. He respected him as an intimidating hitter, but he could stand up to him. He threw him a lot of fastballs and a good slider. He had success against Mantle. Ted Williams terrified him. He hit the longest home run off him my father had ever seen.”I am a Red Sox fan because of Ted Williams. I saw him hit some of the longest home runs I had ever seen. But they were never enough to dethrone the Yankees, Bronx’s evil kings of baseball.

Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet. He has spent much of the last five years writing and assembling poems about his mother’s Alzheimer’s. In 2019, Presa Press published a volume of his poems titled, The Road To Canaan. His work has appeared in Parabola, Tricycle, Spirituality & Health, Sojourners, The Moth (Ireland), Tears In The Fence (UK) and other publications.

Leave A Reply (Your email address will not be published)