An ode to the good dads

I share a lot with my dad, including a love of the greatest book about baseball cards ever written.


The text popped up at around noon on a Wednesday: “Page 92. Clevenger. ‘Geez, Tex, maybe you should.’”

The text is from my father. I look up from my phone and reach to my right.

I’m at my desk at work, but I know exactly what he is talking about, and the page in question’s in a book on my desk, right next to a copy of “Cinematic Storytelling” and a book of Greil Marcus columns.

I flip to Page 92. There’s a photo of one of Yankee Tex Clevenger’s baseball cards. To the left of the card, it reads: “If the camera indeed does not lie then what are we to make of all this.

“Tex Clevenger could never seem to shake the lingering and nagging self-doubt which plagued him throughout his career. Given his record, of course, this was readily understandable. But couldn’t he have tried a little harder to cover it up? In this picture he seems to be saying to himself, ‘Geez, maybe I should get out of this racket.’”

“Geez, Tex, maybe you should.

“But in the meantime, stop picking your fingernails.”

I text back: “in the meantime, stop picking your fingernails”

Dad: “Fabulous”

This book is called “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubblegum Book,” and it’s by Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris.

My father and I agree on a lot of things, but, to paraphrase Lester Bangs, another early hero of mine, we will never agree on anything the way we agree on This Book.

Here is what I wrote last year about “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book” to celebrate the season’s opening.

“This 1973 classic, reprinted once in 1991 and in-print as a Kindle edition, can be found used for about $1.99. Do not hesitate. Boyd and Harris were working at a bookstore in the early ’70s, wrote this and, as far as I am concerned, made themselves immortal. One intro is a sweet and funny meditation on the 1950s (a mere 13 years after the decade was over), the other a look at how baseball cards are made. Most of the book consists of small paragraphs about various cards, and it is here where these two deliver the single funniest monograph about baseball ever written. A massive achievement for baseball, ekphrasis and American humor.”

I stand by all of this, but the above doesn’t quite capture what is going on here.

FROM 2017: What I wish I’d known about parenting 10 years ago

Boyd and Harris write with an insidery, wink-nudge style that feels like proto-Letterman with less raw cynicism and more affectionate snark — they kid because they love, not because they’re smug. They went for the joke (especially the entries written by Boyd, who took the American League while the very slightly more sober Harris stuck with the National).

It’s a jaw-droppingly funny book of arts criticism, sports writing and interrogation of the fannish urge all at once. Like the best writing about art or music or film or anything else, the book is as much about the cards as a vector for thoughts and jokes about childhood, baseball, life, the universe and everything as anything actually on the page.

At the same time, it is impossible to look at Sandy Koufax’s 1955 rookie card the same way again after reading, “This is Sandy Koufax’s Bar Mitzvah picture. The uniform was a present from his grandmother.”

I think I was in my teens when I discovered this book on my folks’ shelves. I liked baseball and played Little League and mourned the continued and ongoing mediocrity of the Baltimore Orioles, but I was never a “sports guy” or even a “baseball guy” like my dad was. The acreage he reserved for sports trivia I had long ceded over to movies, genre fiction, visual art comics and, above all, music.

Unlike the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” the “Godfather” movies and “Watchmen” #1, I don’t remember the exact moment of discovery. But I do remember my father’s face lighting up when he saw me reading it.

“That book is terrific,” he said. “I don’t know if you will find it as funny as I do because I remember all of those players and you won’t, but it’s really funny.”

I have no earthly idea if I find it as funny as he does, but within a few years, the thing was an inside joke between us the way nerdy friends of mine traded “Monty Python” jokes. We would just reference the thing without even giving context.

Me: “if he doesn’t stop swinging the bat that way”

Dad: “he’s going to break both of his arms”

(See also Page 74, Paul Smith.)

***

How old were you when you realized you had a good dad? How old were you when you realized you had a lousy dad?

I think I was maybe 8 or 9 years old when I figured out I had a good dad. Kids notice things. There’s that one dad you’re scared of: “My dad doesn’t yell like that.” Or the one dad who is very nice to you but seems pretty critical of his son: “Why is he being so mean to my friend and why is he doing it in front of me?” Or the one who makes really inappropriate jokes to your parents while you are around. (OK, that is less about being a bad dad than being a sketchy person.)

Of course, you don’t know the whole story about any of these people. But you know your own (as best you can, according to every shrink ever). And one day it hits you: You have a good dad.

When you were a kid, he was kind, patient and pleasant. He was funny and not in a dad-joke way. He laughed easily, and other adults (including colleagues) seemed to like him. He played catch and was the assistant coach for your Little League team that one year you had the really good pitcher and won 15 out of 16 games. (Never let anyone tell you kids don’t notice who wins or losses.) He wasn’t the sort of guy who threw a club when he made a bad golf shot.

FROM 2015: Your dad was great, but mine was the greatest

When you got older, he was a patient homework helper and good at making your writing better. (Dad: “This is confusing. What do you mean to say here?” Me: “Blah blah blah.” Dad: “Then say that.”) He didn’t really care if you swore. He was never mean or belittling to your mom, or anyone else for that matter. He showed you that compassion and kindness aren’t incompatible with masculinity.

In college, you ran into people who adored their dads and hated their dads and whose dads were never there and whose dads coached Little League and were cool and whose dads seemed fine to you but abused them in ways they couldn’t even discuss until years later and whose dads you enjoyed conversing with as adults and whose dads would be fine if they even bothered to try even a little bit.

Years later, you meet people who had no father to speak of and ended up being incredible fathers themselves. You find these folks endlessly admirable. You realize you were really lucky in that you didn’t have to imagine what being a good dad looked like. You realize that “lucky” means “you had it easy” (and, in some contexts, privileged as hell).

You have kids of your own. You also realize “lucky” and “easy” mean “you have to live up to this, dude.”

***

Pre-internet, I recall taking The Book to the library one summer and Xeroxing the entire thing two or three times. I stapled the thing together and handed it out to friends. It was a joy to see it almost make one pal incontinent with laughter.

My smart friend Rob, an English professor at the time, pointed out how it was an ingenious example of “ekphrasis,” which means a poem or piece or writing about (or inspired by or describing) a work of art. (John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the example everyone uses.)

This is also a description of cultural criticism at the very highest level, which is what I ended up doing with my life anyway. (Not the highest level bit, but as a job. You see what I mean.)

***

In the Facebook era, it becomes much easier to realize that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are fraught as hell for a lot of your friends. Some of them just stay off social media — if your relationship with your parent is lousy, the last thing you want to be reminded of is how good everyone else’s is. Like so much on social media, what was once a one-to-one relationship becomes performative, both positive and negative.

The piece you are in the middle of writing suddenly seems a little offensive and irritating, like hearing about everyone’s incredibly healthy baby at birth when you know a lot of babies that really, really weren’t.

***

After the internet, giving the thing as a gift gets much easier. I found half a dozen copies of The Book on eBay for pennies, then a few more on Amazon.com. Now you can find the entire thing uploaded to the internet — you can Google it yourself, but it really is worth owning a physical copy.

Later, as it gets easier to find things online, I realized there were plenty of people in this cult. Josh Wilker’s terrific website and book “Cardboard Gods” is practically a tribute to “Great American …” (You’ll find an actual tribute to Boyd and Harris by Wilker on his site.) Evangelists for this thing all over the place.

***

Me in 2009 or so: “You made being a dad look incredibly easy and you seemed really good at it.”

Dad: “That’s ridiculous. I made plenty of mistakes. You didn’t see a lot of them because you were a kid. You’ll be fine.”

Me: “Well, thanks for that.”

Dad: “But you do have to force your kids to do things sometimes that you think will be good for them.”

Me: “Geez, really?”

Dad: “Oh, yes.”

I realized I might be too lazy and self-indulgent for this.

Then I recall the words of my father’s mother, talking to a small boy at my 6th or 7th birthday party when he complained to her that he wasn’t having any fun. Her reply? “Well, try harder.”

My dad retired a few years ago. He was a lawyer at the Justice Department for something like 40 years, a reviewer in the Civil Rights appellate section who issued all the final administrative decisions for the department in equal employment opportunity cases since about 1982.

FROM 2017: Lessons from TV dads

At his retirement ceremony, which I missed, the lawyers in his charge pretty well made the case that he was exactly as good a boss as he was a dad: fair, kind, nonsense-free, advising his lawyers to argue the case from the other side so you can both understand the other person’s point of view and be ready for any questions you might face. They said he made them better lawyers.

My mom: “I fell in love with him all over again.”

My aunt: “You really should have been there.”

***

I got really lucky.

I have some work to do.

***

Dad: “P. 133. Whammy Douglas. Call Mom more often.”



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