Las Vegas, NV
May 20, 2020
Garrison Keillor hits Las Vegas with a new solo show!
April 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor comes to the Rochester Civic Theatre for a night of stories, songs, poetry, and humor. Tickets $50 and up
February 19, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 2 of 2. Tickets $30+
February 18, 2020
Garrison Keillor with Heather Masse at the Dakota. Night 1 of 2. Tickets $30+
OUR LAKE WOBEGON TEAMS DID not do well last year, the Whippets with no pitching finishing dead last, the Leonards pitiful and helpless in the fall even with a 230-pounder to center the offensive line, and now it’s basketball season again and already the boys are getting accustomed to defeat. When they ran out on the floor for the opener versus Bowlus (who won 58-21), they looked pale and cold in their blue and gold silks, and Buddy had the custodian turn up the heat, but it was too late. These boys looked like they were on death row, they trembled as their names were announced.
It’s not defeat per se that hurts so much, we’re used to that; it’s the sense of doom and submission to fate that is awful. When the 230-pounder centered the ball and it stuck between his tremendous thighs and he toppled forward to be plundered by the Bisons, it was, I’m sure, with a terrible knowledge in his heart that he had this debacle coming to him and it was useless to resist. Two of the basketball players are sons of players on the fabled 1958 squad that was supposed to win the state championship and put our town on the map, but while we looked forward to that glorious weekend our team was eliminated in the first round by St. Klaus. None of us ever recovered from that disappointment. But do our children have to suffer from it, too?
As Harry (Can O’Corn) Knudsen wrote: “In the game of life we’re playing, people now are saying that the aim of it is friendship and trust. I wish that it were true but it seems, for me and you that someone always loses and it’s us.”
Can O’s inspiration came from playing eleven years for the Whippets, a humbling experience for anyone. The team is getting trounced, pummeled, whipped, and Dutch says, “Come on, guys, you’re too tense out there, it’s a game, go out there and have fun,” and you think, This is fun? If this is fun, then sic your dogs on me, let them chew me for a while, that’d be pure pleasure. But out you trot to right field feeling heavyhearted and not even sure you’re trotting correctly so you adjust the trot and your left foot grabs your right, you trip on your own feet, and down you go like a sack of potatoes and the fans in the stands are doubled up gasping and choking, and you have dirt in your mouth that you’ll taste for years—is this experience good for a person?
Some fans have been led to wonder if maybe our Lake Wobegon athletes are suffering from a Christian upbringing that stresses the unworthiness angle and is light on the aspect of grace. How else would boys of sixteen and seventeen get the feeling that they were born to lose, if not in Bible class? And the uneasiness our boys have felt about winning—a fan can recall dozens of nights when the locals had a good first half, opened a nice lead, began to feel the opponents’ pain, and sympathized and lightened up and wound up giving away their lunch. Does this come from misreading the Gospels?
Little Jimmy Wahlberg used to sit in the dugout and preach to the Whippets between innings, using the score of the ball game to quote Scripture; e.g., John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” or Matthew 4:4: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” That was fine except when he was pitching. God had never granted Little Jimmy’s prayer request for a good curveball, so this fine Christian boy got shelled like a peanut whenever he took the mound, and one day Ronnie Decker came back to the bench after an eternal inning in centerfield and said, “First Revelations 13:0: Keep the ball down and throw at their heads.”
Ronnie is Catholic, and they have more taste for blood, it seems. (Was there ever a Methodist bullfighter?) In St. Klaus, the ladies chant, “Make ’em sing and make ’em dance / Kick ’em in the nuts and step on their hands.” The boys are ugly brutes with raw sores on their arms and legs and with little ball-bearing eyes who will try to hurt you. A gang of men stands by the backstop, drinking beer and talking to the umpire, a clean-cut Lutheran boy named Fred. Fred knows that, the week before, Carlson called a third strike on a Klausie, dashed to his car, the men rocked it and let the air out of the tires but couldn’t pry the hood open and disconnect the spark plugs before he started up and rode away on the rims. Fred hopes to keep the fans happy.
For a Golden Age of Lake Wobegon Sports, you’d have to go back to the forties. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder. Nine big strapping boys with identical mops of black hair, big beaks, little chins, and so shy they couldn’t look you in the eye, and E.J. was the manager, though the boys were such fine ballplayers, he only sat in the shade on a white kitchen chair and grumbled at them, they didn’t require management.
E.J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He’d spit and curse and rail at him, and then R.J.’d go up and pound one out of the park (making the score 11-zip) and circle the bases and the old man’d say, “Boy, he put the old apple right down the middle, didn’t he? Blind man coulda hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit. When the Schroeders were winning every game, E.J. bitched about how they won.
“Why’dja throw to first for, ya dummy?”
“But it’s the third out, Dad. We won the game.”
“I know that. You don’t have to point that out to me. Why’ntcha get the guy at third?”
“It was easier to go to first.”
The tenth son, Paul, had a gimpy right leg but still tried to please his dad and sat in the dugout and kept statistics (1.29, for example, and .452 and .992), but E.J. never looked at them. “That’s history,” he said, spitting, “I am interested in the here and now.”
So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it. Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfe1d fence for a long long long fly ball and threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and glove and turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, and E.J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes. The batter was called out, the third out. Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad. E.J. sat chewing in silence and fnally he said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago but he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”
What made this old man so mean? Some said it happened in 1924, when he played for the town team that went to Fort Snelling for the state championship and in the ninth inning, in the deepening dusk on Campbell’s Bluff, Lake Wobegon down by one run, bases loaded and himself the tying run on third, when the Minneapolis pitcher suddenly collapsed and writhed around on the mound with his eyes bulging and face purple and vomiting and foaming and clawing and screeching, everyone ran to help him, including E.J., and he jumped up and tagged them all out. A triple play, unassisted. What a rotten trick, but there they stood, a bunch of rubes, and all the slickers howling and whooping their heads off, so he became mean, is one theory.
And he was mean. He could hit foul balls with deadly accuracy at an opponent or a fan who’d been riding him, or a member of the fan’s immediate family, and once he fouled twenty-eight consecutive pitches off the home-plate umpire, for which he was thrown out of the Old Sod Shanty League.
“Go! Hence!” cried the ump.
“For foul balls?”
The umpire and the sinner were face to face. “Forever!” cried the ump. “Never again, so long as ball is thrown, shall thy face be seen in this park.”
“Foul balls ain’t against any rule that I know of!”
The umpire said, “Thou hast displeased me.” And he pointed outerward and E.J. slouched away.
So he coached his boys. He never said a kind word to them, and they worked like dogs in hopes of hearing one, and thus they became great, mowing down the opposition for a hundred miles around. In 1946 they reached their peak. That was the year they disposed easily of fifteen crack teams in the Father Powers Charity Tournament, some by massacre, and at the closing ceremony, surrounded by sad little crippled children sitting dazed in the hot sun and holding pitiful flags they had made themselves, when E.J. was supposed to hand back the winner’s check for $100 to Father Powers to help with the work among the poor, E.J. said, “Fat chance!” and shoved away the kindly priest’s outstretched hand. That was also the year Babe Ruth came to town with the Sorbasol All-Star barnstorming team.
The Babe had retired in 1935 and was dying of cancer, but even a dying man has bills to pay, and so he took to the road for Sorbasol, and Lake Wobegon was the twenty-fourth stop on the trip, a day game on November 12. The All-Star train of two sleepers and a private car for the Babe backed up the sixteen-mile spur into Lake Wobegon, arriving at 10:00 A.M. with a blast of whistle and a burst of steam, but hundreds already were on hand to watch it arrive.
The Babe was a legend then, much like God is today. He didn’t give interviews, in other words. He rode around on his train and appeared only when necessary. It was said that he drank Canadian rye whiskey, ate hot dogs, won thousands at poker, and kept beautiful women in his private car, Excelsior, but that was only talk.
The sleepers were ordinary deluxe Pullmans; the Excelsior was royal green with gold-and-silver trim and crimson velvet curtains tied shut—not that anyone tried to look in; these were proud country people, not a bunch of gawkers. Men stood by the train, their backs to it, talking purposefully about various things, looking out across the lake, and when other men straggled across the feld in twos and threes, stared at the train, and asked, “Is he really in there?” the firstcomers said, “Who? Oh! You mean the Babe? Oh, yes, I reckon he’s here all right—this is his train, you know. I doubt that his train would go running around without the Babe in it, now, would it?” and resumed their job of standing by the train, gazing out across the lake. A proud moment for them.
At noon the Babe came out in white linen knickers. He looked lost. A tiny black man held his left arm. Babe tried to smile at the people and the look on his face made them glance away. He stumbled on a loose plank on the platform and men reached to steady him and noticed he was hot to the touch. He signed an autograph. It was illegible. A young woman was carried to him who’d been mysteriously ill for months, and he laid his big hand on her forehead and she said she felt something. (Next day she was a little better. Not recovered but improved.)
However, the Babe looked shaky, like a man who ate a bushel of peaches whole and now was worried about the pits. He’s drunk, some said, and a man did dump a basket of empty beer bottles off the train, and boys dove in to get one for a souvenir—but others who came close to his breath said no, he wasn’t drunk, only dying. So it was that an immense crowd turned out at the Wally (Old Hard Hands) Bunsen Memorial Ballpark: twenty cents per seat, two bits to stand along the foul line, and a dollar to be behind a rope by the dugout, where the Babe would shake hands with each person in that section.
He and the All-Stars changed into their red Sorbasol uniforms in the dugout, there being no place else, and people looked away as they did it (nowadays people would look, but then they didn’t), and the Babe and his teammates tossed the ball around, then sat down, and out came the Schroeders. They ran around and warmed up and you could see by their nonchalance how nervous they were. E.J. batted grounders to them and hit one grounder zinging into the visitors’ dugout, missing the Babe by six inches. He was too sick to move. The All-Stars ran out and griped to the ump but the Babe sat like he didn’t know where he was. The ump was scared. The Babe hobbled out to home plate for the ceremonial handshakes and photographs, and E.J. put his arm around him as the crowd stood cheering and grinned and whispered, “We’re going to kill ya, ya big mutt. First pitch goes in your ear. This is your last game. Bye, Babe.” And the game got under way.
It was a good game, it’s been said, though nobody remembers much about it specifically, such as the score, for example. The All-Stars were nobodies, only the Babe mattered to the crowd, and the big question was Would he play? He looked too shaky to take the field, so some said, “Suspend the rules! Why not let him just go up and bat! He can bat for the pitcher! Why not? It wouldn’t hurt anything!” And nowadays they might do it, but back then you didn’t pick up the bat unless you picked up your glove and played a position, and others said that maybe it wouldn’t hurt anything but once you start changing the rules of the game for convenience, then what happens to our principles? Or do we change those, too?
So the game went along, a good game except that the Babe sat sprawled in the dugout, the little black man dipping cloths in a bucket of ice and laying them on the great man’s head—a cool fall day but he was hot—and between innings he climbed out and waved to the fans and they stood and cheered and wondered would he come to bat. E.J. said to Bernie, “He’ll bat all right, and when he comes, remember the first pitch: hard and high and inside.”
“He looks too weak to get the bat off his shoulder, Dad. He looks like a breeze would blow him over. I can’t throw at Babe Ruth.”
“He’s not sick, he’s pretending so he don’t have to play like the rest of us. Look at him: big fat rich New York son of a bitch, I bet he’s getting five hundred dollars just to sit there and have a pickaninny put ice on him. Boy, I’d put some ice on him you-know-where, boy, he’d get up quick then, he’d be ready to play then. He comes up, I want you to give him something to think about so he knows we’re not all a bunch of dumb hicks out here happy just to have him show up. I want him to know that some of us mean it. You do what I say. I’m serious.”
It was a good game and people enjoyed it, the day cool and bright, delicious, smelling of apples and leather and woodsmoke and horses, blazed with majestic colors as if in a country where kings and queens ride through the cornfields into the triumphant reds and oranges of the woods, and men in November playing the last game of summer, waiting for the Babe, everyone waiting for the Babe as runs scored, hours passed, the sky turned red and hazy. It was about time to quit and go home, and then he marched out, bat in hand, and three thousand people threw back their heads and yelled as loud as they could. They yelled for one solid minute and then it was still.
The Babe stood looking toward the woods until everything was silent, then stepped to the plate and waved the bat, and Bernie looked at him. It was so quiet you could hear coughing in the crowd. Way to the rear a man said, “Merle, you get your hands off her and shut up now,” and hundreds turned and shushed him. Then Bernie wound up. He bent way down and reached way back and kicked up high and the world turned and the ball flew and the umpire said, “BALL ONE!” and the catcher turned and said, “Be quiet, this doesn’t concern you,” and the umpire blushed. He knew immediately that he was in the wrong. Babe Ruth was not going to walk, he would sooner strike out and would do it himself, with no help from an umpire. So the umpire turned and walked away.
The Babe turned and spat and picked up a little dirt and rubbed his hands with it (people thought, Look, that’s our dirt and he’s putting it on his hands, as if the Babe might bring his own) and then stood in and waved the bat and Bernie bent way down and reached way back and kicked high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and missed; he said huhhhnnnn and staggered. And the next pitch. He swung and cried in pain and the big slow curve slapped into the catcher’s mitt.
It was so still, they heard the Babe clear his throat, like a board sliding across dirt. They heard Bernie breathing hard through his nose.
The people were quiet, wanting to see, hear, and smell everything and remember it forever: the wet fall dirt, the pale-white bat, the pink cotton candy and the gentlemen’s hats, the smell of wool and the glimmer of a star in the twilight, the touch of your dad’s big hand and your little hand in it. Even E.J. was quiet, chewing, watching his son. The sun had set beyond right field, darkness was settling, you had to look close to see—Bernie took three steps toward home and pointed at the high outside corner of the plate, calling his pitch, and the Babe threw back his head and laughed four laughs. (People were glad to hear he was feeling better, but it was scary to hear a man laugh at home plate; everyone knew it was bad luck.) He touched the corner with his bat. Bernie climbed back on the mound, he paused, he bent down low and reached way back and kicked real high and the world turned and the ball flew and the Babe swung and it cracked and the ball became a tiny white star in the sky. It hung there as the Babe went around the bases in his famous Babe Ruth stride, the big graceful man trotting on slim little feet, his head down until the roar of the crowd rose like an ocean wave on the prairie and he looked up as he turned at third, he smiled, lifted his cap, strode soundlessly across home plate looking like the greatest ballplayer in the history of the world. The star was still in the sky, straight out due northwest of the centerfield fence, where he hit it. The ball was never found, though they searched for it for years.
“Did you see that?” your dad says, taking your hand.
You say, “Yes, I did.”
Even E.J. saw it and stood with the rest and he was changed after that, as were the others. A true hero has some power to make us a gift of a larger life. The Schroeders broke up, the boys went their own ways, and once they were out of earshot, E.J. sat in the Sidetrack Tap and bragged them up, the winners he produced and how they had shown Babe Ruth a pretty good game. He was tolerated but Babe Ruth was revered. He did something on that one day in our town that made us feel we were on the map of the universe, connected somehow to the stars, part of the mind of God. The full effect of his mighty blow diminished over time, of course, and now our teams languish, our coaches despair. Defeat comes to seem the natural course of things. Lake Wobegon dresses for a game, they put on their jock-straps, pull on the socks, get into the colors, they start to lose heart and turn pale—fear shrivels them.
Boys, this game may be your only chance to be good, he might tell them. You might screw up everything else in your life and poison the ones who love you, create misery, create such pain and devastation it will be repeated by generations of descendants. Boys, there’s plenty of room for tragedy in life, so if you go bad, don’t have it be said that you never did anything right. Win this game.