”No Other Life” continued


    Nineteen 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 Father’s 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 third.


    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 can’t 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 Mauch—indeed, in my neighborhood, Mauch was virtually execrated for the team’s 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 1964—and it haunted him to his retirement—was 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 man’s a master of the little game—when 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 instinctively—and without that you can’t win enough baseball games to capture a flag … Once 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 to understand.
    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 Street”—“all we need is music, sweet music”—was 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 like you …” 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 innocent’s 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. Mary’s 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.”

Gerald Early C’74 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.

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