LADY AT THE BAT: Saying Goodbye To An Old Time Baseball Fan

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Saying Goodbye To An Old Time Baseball Fan

Last week, the woman who raised me and introduced me to the greatest game in the world, passed away. My Aunt Lillian, who was 91 years old, was a huge fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Lillian grew up in Brooklyn and, I believe her interest in the game began upon Jackie Robinson's arrival to the Big Leagues. Jackie was her favorite player, and she followed every aspect of both his game and his life. She took great pride in Jackie, the same way any individual takes pride when a member of their own race/ethnic group breaks a cultural barrier: he was part of her family, and a member of the family had made good.

She attended many games at Ebbets Field, of course. She even sat through inclement weather, cheering on Jackie as he danced off first base, made his way around the diamond, and stole home.

When the Dodgers left her for Los Angeles, Lillian, an evangelical Christian, decided to let her fandom leave her, as well. One of the 10 Commandments orders believers to "have no other gods before Me." She had put baseball ahead of God, she felt, and that needed to end.

I came to live with her in 1969, and a few years later, I learned of her old baseball life. TV show reboots are very popular these days, but they were occasionally done back in the day, as well. A show called "This Is Your Life" was rebooted in the early 1970s, and Jackie Robinson was the guest on one episode. Lillian was very excited, and told me all about him. As we watched, she pointed out how sick and frail he looked. It could not have been more than a few months before he passed away.

Lillian put her old life back on the shelf, and I didn't hear about it again until she heard Willie Mays was returning to New York to finish his career with the Mets. She didn't actually say anything; she just turned on Channel 9 one afternoon and watched for a few innings while she did her ironing.

In 1974, when Hank Aaron was about to break Babe Ruth's home run record, Lillian's interest was piqued again. I'm not sure how she found out, but she turned the TV on just after it happened, just as a small ceremony was beginning. (Perhaps she'd been listening to the all-news station and they'd announced it.) I watched with her, not understanding any of it, but not caring either way.

Fast forward four years, to the 1978 World Series. That's when I did start caring. It was Yankees vs Dodgers, the match-up she'd watched many times all those years ago. We watched the Yankees win the Championship, and while Lillian's fandom once again went back on the shelf, I discovered mine, and have worn it as a badge ever since.

Her grandson Eddie and I became die-hard Yankee fans, and begged her to take us to a game. We finally went, along with Eddie's younger brother John, two days after Yankees Captain Thurman Munson was killed. The left field bleachers were open that day, and when we entered, Lillian complained about the sun before we even sat down. She announced she was going back to the car for her umbrella. They'll never let you back in, I told her. They let her back in, and she sat in the last row of the bleachers, holding the umbrella over her head for all nine innings. We watched Tommy John (whom she liked because he was a Christian) pitch a complete game, as the Yankees defeated the Baltimore Orioles.

She also took an interest in Reggie Jackson, lovingly chastising him as if she were his auntie. I am pretty sure she would have had said some rather blunt things to him if she'd ever met him. But, he probably would know that it was just auntie talking.

Sometimes we could get her to tell us stories about the Dodgers. She remembered the one time they beat the Yankees in the World Series, and once compared Eddie Stanky to Billy Martin. They both were "always arguing" she said.

We all went to the Stadium together one other time. It was probably in the early '80s. We sat way up in the upper deck and watched the Yankees destroy Kansas City, 9-2.  On the way home she laughed as she told us what she heard a man sitting nearby tell his very young son (who could not sit still): "This is your first and last ballgame!"

That was probably Lillian's last ballgame, as well. It definitely was the last time we went together. As the years passed, we chatted about the Yankees every now and then. She was not entirely informed about the changes made to the game during her "absence" and, with the exception of the Mets, always seemed a bit bewildered when I mentioned teams that had come into existence after 1959. When the Yankees swept the Padres in the 1998 Series, she asked if the Padres were a good team. She sounded as if she were asking if they were an MLB team.

The last time I tried to talk to her about baseball, I was saddened to learn that she had completely forgotten that part of her life. She had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. 

That was about 10 years ago. 

I am glad I still have those memories she lost. I'm also glad she will always be a part of them. RIP, Aunt Lillian.

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