Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Johnny Bench: Rat Bastard by Adam Berenbak

“No rumors of the fix had yet reached us by midsummer of 1920.  The White Sox were still white.  Swede Risberg was still my favorite player.  I began to walk pigeon-toed because Risberg was pigeon-toed.  I did this for a full year before my mother asked me why I was walking ‘like that.’  I couldn’t explain.  I still walk like that.” –Nelson Algren So Long, Swede Risberg

Fly Creek is situated on Rt. 28, heading west from the Otsego Lake on the way to Canadarago Lake, in Otsego County, NY. It was here, just under three miles from Cooperstown, where the dusty attic of Abner Graves’s imagination spawned the idea that would give rise to the Hall of Fame, and where his dusty attic contained the ball that would serve as its centerpiece. And it was in Fly Creek that I learned the lessons of a broken heart, and the failings of the archetypal sports hero.

Graves’ letter to the Mills Commission in 1905 sparked not only the Doubleday myth, but the industry of Cooperstown, that would provide me with a setting for that lesson. A century later I was fortunate enough to become an intern at the Hall of Fame. As I walked the streets, a flood of memories washed over me, almost like returning home.

Though I had visited several times before, Cooperstown was still a new and mysterious place. Aside from the card and memorabilia shops, there was layer after layer of baseball history to discover, disseminate, and absorb.  As before, it was overwhelming, but not as much as on my first visit. On that first visit I was aided by a unique happenstance—my sister’s grade school friend was the granddaughter of a Cooperstown local, and we were invited to stay with them only two blocks from the center of town and baseball heaven. 

From a very early age, my passion had always been baseball history—spending time with my Aunt, who lived near a baseball card store, stoked a love for vintage cards.  My favorite teams were historical, and so were my favorite players, a sort of ‘anti-nostalgia.’ Cooperstown, more than any other baseball landmark, steeped in, and founded upon, history, was my Mecca.
In 1989 Johnny Bench was elected to the Hall of Fame along with Carl Yastrzemski, Red Schoendienst, and Harry Caray. My acquisition of a 1969 Topps Bench card had fueled a dedication to what can be described as my hero at the time—though not a Reds fan I became a Bench fan, swayed by the classic heroic traits he embodied, as well as the early 70s Reds aesthetic, the last holdover of the post-war modern still untouched by 60s revolution, and a powerhouse team soaked in baseball history. I became a catcher. A bad catcher, but a dedicated one. 

All of this fell into place that summer of ’89, and we all traveled the winding roads through upstate New York to Cooperstown.

Our hosts were longtime Cooperstown residents – with the institutional knowledge of the heart of the town, cradle of baseball myth, to send a Johnny Bench fan to the right places in order to meet a hero, get an autograph, and ultimately to discover what heroes are made of. 

Sports heroes, athletes in general, seem to always let you down. As we get older we admire people for their actions, which creates an ideal, or someone we hope to be—but less sophisticated hero worship tends to embody those simple traits of strength, fame, talent or power, and style. “Hero-hunger,” said Fess Parker of his Davy Crocket days, “[is] a children’s ailment. It’s like a vitamin deficiency, only it affects the development of character rather than body.”


Working in a convenience store in late fall 2000 as a night manager, I listened to the entire Subway Series on the radio as I worked, and regained my interest and passion in the day-to-day minutia of the game that had been lost to rock and roll and everything else. The revelation of steroids, and the bursting of the home run-hero bubble a few years later, came with little shock.  It’s not that I was aware of the problem (in fact, I had been all but oblivious to the ’98 home run chase until I saw the record had been broken, at which point I incredulously spited Mark McGwire), but more that I was prepared for the disappointment and heartache. Like Bart Giamatti said, baseball is designed to break your heart. So are heroes. As an adult, I understand that heroes and villains are necessary for the drama and entertainment of sport.  In Fly Creek I learned, thanks to Mr. Bench, that the building up of heroes was not a lost cause, but part of that drama. Yet, while good vs. the bad is necessary for the entertainment, a child can’t separate himself from it and see the drama for what it is. It turns into a lesson well learned, that of respect without worship.


“Our love of the game was not shaken by the exposure that followed.  But we stopped pitching baseball cards and took to shooting dice.  The men whose pictures we had cherished were no longer gods.” –Nelson Algren So Long, Swede Risberg

The patriarch of the family with whom we stayed in downtown Cooperstown that week in the summer of 1989 had made it clear where to go to meet Hall of Famers, and the Fly Creek Inn was the place. Nestled into the tiny town of Fly Creek, southwest of the lake, the steak and potatoes restaurant was a favorite of new and returning Hall of Famers. We were told that the best chance to meet Bench, who, as a new inductee, would be hesitant to be part of many of the autograph assemblies across town, would be to linger at the steakhouse as long as possible. 
I wish I could remember the food, but I was too excited throughout the entire week to notice anything but baseball heroes. I’m sure it was delicious. We were seated at a round four top in one of the three or four dining rooms, carved out of what must have been, at one point, a downstairs living space.

The first night went by slowly, with no sighting of Bench or anyone else through the first part of the meal. Then, as I was finishing up the food I can never remember, in walked a large party headed for the “dining room.”  I recognized Yastrzemski at once. However, unlike the entourage that often accompanies such luminaries, the crowd that followed seemed much more like family. An older, well dressed man, two attractive young women, and another man in a suit. 

I can only imagine that our stares were felt at once; yet, for this family, the stares must have not stopped throughout their stay in upstate NY, and I can only guess that they were used to it. I can’t remember what I whispered, but, before long, it was obvious to anyone within a quarter mile that I was (very visibly) building up my courage to swim across that old room and ask for an autograph. I didn’t have to.

The old man next to Yaz must have been the least desensitized to the attention, and very quickly realized my intentions. He put up a hand and signaled to us (sister included) to come over to the table. 

The old man introduced himself and asked, with a twinkle in his eye, if I knew who his son was. I mumbled out an answer the must have both offended and reassured the Yastrzemski family familiar with generations of butchering names. 

Yaz asked if I had anything to sign, while his father pointed to the large, “50th Anniversary of the HOF” books in the possession of the two women. I sheepishly shrugged my shoulders—my embarrassment at carrying around my autograph book now seemed to be coming back to haunt me. Luckily, my mother had some scrap paper, and Yaz signed a sheet for my sister and me, while explaining how his children (the other family members at the table) had been carrying around their books the whole time, reveling in autograph hunting and having a great time. It stuck with me, and I was resolved to never leave the house again without a similar book. 

I don’t remember the rest of dinner, or the car ride home.  Consuming the food as I had consumed everything else baseball—the memorabilia, statistics, and even the players themselves.


The next night, needless to say, we were back in Fly Creek. At the same damn table. I would have eaten there every night for eternity.

All great sports stories blend myth and memory, like Doubleday or Cartwright. If I’m the Abner Graves in this story, then the bartender at the Fly Creek Inn is the Abner Doubleday. We only knew him that one night, but his role in the evening has evolved from that of friendly bartender into that of witness, hot dog and hero. It just so happened that Kahn’s Hot Dogs (the same Kahn’s who had made a rookie card of Bench in 1968), was sponsoring an event held in the lounge next to the dining room. A hot dog celebration is always the stuff of dreams.

On recommendation, once again, of our host, we kept an eye on the Kahn’s celebration. We must have just sat down to dinner when we were summoned to the next room. I don’t remember by who, but I would like to think it was that bartender.

We got up, I with my glossy-photo book in hand, walked up the ramp (I remember that slightest of inclines feeling like Mt. Olympus), and through the door into the lounge.  There, at the bottom of another ramp, was Johnny Bench, in a sport coat, holding a rocks glass, chatting with another man. The room was empty otherwise.  As we slowly descended the ramp, I remember Bench looking at us, looking over at the bartender, then back at us.  Then he remarked to his companion as I came up next to him, “Oh, look, he’s even got a book.” His smirk and sarcastic tone at once sent to my face a burning rush of blood, accompanied by a stomach sinking nervous ache.

I don’t remember much after that.  He signed the book smugly. He was rude and condescending but his comments are lost in my memory. Just a signature and a dismissal. But he did sign it. I am still not sure what I was expecting, but maybe Yaz’s warmth had built up my expectation, and maybe the fact that every other Hall of Famer I met was gracious and kind, and didn’t treat me like a 40-year-old autograph hawk. 

And this is the point in the story where fact definitely blurs to myth.  

Later that evening, I was with my family, walking in a haze along Main Street, crowded with induction attendees all there to be a part of the annual Hall of Fame parade. The streets were crowded, and shop owners, food vendors, and all of the other Cooperstown natives dependent on summer tourist money were out in abundance looking to prepare for the winter hibernation. 

What happened next…in my mind’s eye a giant hot dog, drunk and angry, hot, a steaming caricature of conspicuous capitalism, appeared before us. In reality, it was the bartender from the Fly Creek Inn. He had been dressed, at some point after the Bench incident, as a giant hot dog, the foam, Kahn’s hot dog man, at the event. But now he was in street clothes, calm and collected. Seeing him in three different guises only added to my melancholy haze and, I guess, allowed them to meld together in my memory. Either way, I will remember him saying “I see you met that rat bastard Bench.” It couldn’t have been stated more aptly if I had imagined the entire scenario.

I remember feeling nothing but pain as I thanked the giant hot dog for his drunken empathy. A hero in a hot dog outfit and a hero in a sport coat. I was unable to see them for what they were then just as I am unable to see them for what they are now, both in time and memory. The Bench I wanted to be there wasn’t, just like the hot dog bartender I see in my memory wasn’t there either.
There was no right or wrong, though, only hurt feelings, and, to this day, I feel that Bench, in snubbing me in my hero worship, only helped me grow. I developed an appreciation for the underdog, a kind of antihero worship to go with my anti-nostalgia.

On Sunday, I watched the induction ceremony alone, from a small hill on the grounds just south of the Library, outside of which the speeches used to take place. Chris Berman was perched high above, partially obscured by his ESPN banner on the platform, but I don’t remember anything memorable. In fact, aside from Red Schoendienst’s speech, and the Cub Fans appreciation of Harry Caray (and, of course, “Take Me Out To the Ball Game”), I don’t remember anything else of that ceremony that had been the reason for making the trek through New York. 


The Fly Creek Inn is long gone. That weekend 25 years ago I had consumed baseball entirely: as collector, hero worshiper, hot dog enthusiast. It had consumed me as well. Yaz had not been my hero, and Bench had. The villain, the heel, is needed in sports as in entertainment, the two being virtually indiscernible. Good vs. Bad only enriches the story, and the difference between vilifying the persona vs. the individual only helped me to understand that. So, I’m still not sure whether to despise Bench for hurting me, thank him for helping me to understand the nature of heroes and to root for the underdog, or just call him a rat bastard and leave it at that.

Adam Berenbak is an archivist in the National Archives Center for Legislative Archives. He earned a master of library science degree with a focus in archives from North Carolina Central University and was a 2008 Frank and Peggy Steele Intern at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center in Cooperstown, New York. He has previously published “Congressional Play-by-Play on Baseball” in Prologue (Summer 2011 edition), and "“Henderson, Cartwright, and the 1953 US Congress"  in the SABR Baseball Research Journal (Fall 2014 edition).

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