Other Life continued
sixty-four was my baseball year. I had mastered stickball, softball, and
baseball so that I was considered a good player. Guys wanted me on their
teams. For hours at a stretch I would throw a rubber ball against a wall,
playing out whole games in my imagination while I strengthened my arm.
I often played with Italian kids, as baseball and stickball were far more
popular with them than with my black friends. On the occasions when the
black boys got together a team to play the Italian kids, the Italians
would insist that I had to be on their side because I lived in their neighborhood.
And so, in the oddest of scenarios of integration, I would play, most
of the time, for the white team against my black friends and the blacks
did not mind at all. After the game, I would often go off with my black
friends to play pinball, and no one would mention that I had just played
against them. Sometimes I went off with the white kids to talk baseball.
On Fathers Day of 1964, my baseball year, right-hander Jim Bunning of
the Phillies pitched a perfect game against the Mets. It was the first
game of a doubleheader that I watched on television. I thought it was
an omen of things to come. No matter, it was not the Phillies year. With
only 12 games left and a six game lead, the Phillies proceeded to lose
10 games in a row. The Cardinals won the pennant and the Phillies finished
Dick Allen was
one of the greatest athletes ever to play for a professional team in Philadelphia.
Old Number 15. He was, without question, the best offensive player, and
probably the best pure athlete on the 1964 Phillies. (He was a horrible
fielder in his rookie year: he made over 40 errors. He would never in
his career be anything more than an adequate fielder, at best.) In his
rookie year, he wore glasses, giving his face the appearance of a schoolboy.
His body was like that of a halfback. He gave me chills whenever he came
to bat. He was clearly indulged when he came to the Majors. He was a strange
man, for at times he seemed not to care about playing baseball at all.
He would disappear for several games. No one, not even his family, apparently,
knew where he was. He drank a lot, sometimes while playing. He smoked
heavily, often during games. It was difficult to tell from his habits
whether he was inattentive to his great athletic abilities or stressed
by them. And the fact that he was treated special, combined with his moodiness,
was a cause of great friction with the fans, especially white fans, during
his entire time in Philadelphia. Some of the Italian kids I lived with
felt Allen was a major reason the Phillies died down the stretch: Colored
guys cant take the pressure. They choke.
Them white guys
always talking about Allen choking, said one of the black men in my barber
shop, but they never ask themselves where the team would have been without
Allen. They would never have been fighting for a pennant at all. Allen
gave black kids something to cheer about; it was unlikely they would have
paid the team any attention at all had Allen not been on it. The Phillies
had a bad reputation in the black community of Philadelphia since the
days of Jackie Robinson, when then-Philadelphia manager Ben Chapman needled
him so viciously.
Many others blamed
Gene Mauchindeed, in my neighborhood, Mauch was virtually execrated for
the teams demise. Allen, in his autobiography, Crash: The Life and
Times of Dick Allen, expressed this view: The problem with Gene Mauch
as a field general in 1964and it haunted him to his retirementwas that
he held the game too tightly in his hand. Mauch was a brilliant strategist.
I learned more about baseball as a chess game under Gene Mauch than I
did under anybody else in baseball. The mans a master of the little gamewhen
to bunt, how to steal a sign, what base to throw to, all the ways to outthink
your opponent. But Gene Mauch never let us play the game instinctivelyand
without that you cant win enough baseball games to capture a flag
we started to skid, Mauch became a wild man. After losses, he would close
the clubhouse door and start dressing us down, throwing things around.
After one particular loss in that ten-game streak, Mauch stood up on a
table in the clubhouse and began telling us what a good marriage he had
and how for the good of the team we should all follow his lead. I think
maybe Gene lost it at that point
So, the blacks of North Philadelphia
had their nervous breakdown in August and the Phillies, led by Gene Mauch,
having caught the virus, had theirs in September. A cordon of police surrounded
Connie Mack Stadium during the days of the riot. There was a great deal
to think about that Christmas. So much had happened for a 12-year old
It was perhaps
Christmas Eve or the day before Christmas Eve that my middle sister and
I were walking around among the stores in Center City, Philadelphia. The
song you could hear everywhere was Downtown by Petula Clark. By January
23, 1965, it would be number one. It was a special song of the city that
year, just like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas Dancing in the Street
was earlier that summer, a song that, ironically, took on a heavier political
significance than its singers or its composers ever imagined. During the
riot, Dancing in the Street became the song of the Revolution, the song
of the new dispensation. It seemed so strange to me that a song of such
happiness like Dancing in the Streetall we need is music, sweet musicwas
connected with such an act of misery and anger. All of us in Philadelphia
felt good about the song because our town was one Martha Reeves called
out for special attention in the lyrics. Now, in December, August and
the riot seemed a long time ago. Downtown was a different song, for
a different time, for, in effect, a different city. I remember a colleague
of mine, a specialist in African culture, told me a few years ago that
that song had a significant effect on rural people in Tanzania when they
heard it. It made city life seem so attractive that many of them simply
left the farm and crowded into the city, much to their own economic disadvantage,
as it turned out, he said.
On that day,
right before Christmas, walking with my sister in the cold, helping her
buy her presents for everyone in the family, hearing that song made me
suddenly and achingly feel the glory and power of the city, this city.
For the city was the adventure of inadvertent contact, often meaningless
and sometimes irritating. But as we bumbled along in this huge anonymity
like so many estranged atoms we sometimes bumped and bonded. And you
may find somebody kind to help and understand you/someone who is just
But what the song suggested was that the accident of finding
someone like yourself could not be predicated merely by a similarity of
appearance. For if it were outer appearance that truly mattered, only
the most tribal similarities, why leave the neighborhood? The city is
this ironic romanticism, this cheap but transcendent realism.
I was, as a boy,
blinded by the light show of the city, its magic, its aura, the fervent
hope that next year will be better. Next year the Phillies will win the
pennant. Next year the stores on Columbia Avenue will re-open. Next year
Chubby Checker will have another hit record. No road is more golden with
hope and promise than an innocents unobstructed view of the future. So,
I pinned my soul upon the wondrous architecture of this unstoppable, manmade
frontier of streets, and buildings, and parks, and people, pressed against
the magnificent firmament. O Heavenly City! This is my city, Frank Rizzo
always said, and I felt his same ownership. Our city, I thought, and it
means something to be from this city, to live in this city. How could
those black folk in North Philadelphia want to burn down their neighborhood?
How could they want to burn what was their city, too? This is what it
means to be an American, I thought as a boy, to live in this place and
to feel this way. And I was not to learn fully for several years yet what
it meant to be the particular type of American I was.
I could not imagine
anything better than this, the roaring buses, the lumbering trolleys,
the busy merchants, the fancy rowhouses of Society Hill we passed on the
way home, the downtown movie theaters. The lights are much brighter there/
You can forget all your troubles/ Forget all your cares/ And go Downtown.
We went to the Boyd theater or some other downtown theater that day and
saw a film. I cannot remember what it was, only that it must have been
wondrous and colorful. We stopped by our small church, St. Marys Episcopal
Church at 18th and Bainbridge Streets, an Episcopal parish mission started
specifically for West Indian and city blacks back in the 19th century,
to get my red cassock and surplice. I was an altar boy and had to have
my vestments cleaned and pressed for the midnight mass on Christmas Eve.
So we walked about Center City, I with vestments probably being mistaken
for a Catholic, and my sister with her packages, leading the way: Scout
and the sidekick, Old Red Ryder and Little Beaver, Zorro and Bernardo,
Don Quixote and Sancho we were. It was time when I was supposed to be
thinking of this other life, the baby Jesus, but there was no other reality
for me on these streets but these streets. I did not want that life, not
that new possibility of the other life. All I could think of was that
there could be no better life than this. It was all and everything for
me. There could be no other life. As it was in the beginning is now and
ever shall be, world without end! I was so wildly happy, so utterly and
completely filled by the possibilities of this life, the riches of this
city, so lushly endowed by the company of my sister and her shopping,
I turned to her and said with joy, I want no other life but this one.
No other life. And then I said to God, silently, Please let there be
no other life. Let me live no other life but this one.
C74 is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University,
St. Louis. This article is excerpted from a longer piece titled, The
Lights Are Much Brighter There, which appeared in Three Essays: Reflections
on the American Century, published by Washington University and Missouri
Historical Society Press.