Now that the Royals are headed to the World Series, the rest of my posts this month will likely be devoted to baseball, so bear with me.
This post features a quintessential ardent baseball fan, my paternal grandmother who passed away 8 years ago at the age of 97. Meet Louella. Her life, by any standard, was fraught with difficulties and challenges, though she would never have characterized them that way. Born and raised on a farm in northeast Kansas, she was the eldest daughter of parents of Swiss French heritage.
She was a child when the flu pandemic of 1917 struck her tiny corner of Kansas. That fall, her mother begged her father not to travel to attend the annual livestock show in Kansas City, Missouri, known as the American Royal, for fear he could come in contact with the disease. Her father, however, believed he had to attend in the interest of his family and livelihood, and unfortunately fell ill shortly after he returned home. Her mother nursed her father and all 4 of their children through horrific bouts of the disease before she finally succumbed to the influenza herself and died.
My grandmother once described to me the intense and frantic fear attached to this devastating pandemic and explained that families in their community had to mark their homes to signal to others that they had the flu. Priests would not give last rites to victims because they feared contracting the illness.
In her late teens, she moved to Kansas City with her father and attended secretarial school. She worked as a secretary, married my grandfather, and bore two children, both boys. My father, the oldest, was born in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. Her world was again upended, this time by the Great Depression, during which my grandfather struggled to find work and began seeking solace in alcohol. She worked at a large department store downtown to help make ends meet, leaving my dad and his brother in the care of others before she rode the streetcar to work.
They briefly moved to Michigan, believing that jobs were available in the auto industry, only to be profoundly disappointed to learn that no such work existed. Upon their return to Kansas City, they were forced to live, uncomfortably, with my grandfather’s relatives until they could get back on their feet.
During World War II, she obtained employment in a factory, making radio crystals and lifelong female friends. Like many women, she lost her factory job when the war ended. Soon she found work as a secretary at a steel company where she worked until she retired.
My grandfather’s alcoholism unquestionably complicated her life and though she loved him, she confessed to having felt some measure of relief when he died in middle age. He was a goodhearted person, but his unpredictable behavior propelled by liquor disrupted their lives and finances with regularity and eventually sabotaged his ability to secure steady work. After he died, she began to create a new life for herself, including a 30-year stint as a volunteer at the veterans hospital and her church and a long membership in the Ladies Auxiliary of a local American Legion.
Because my dad checked in on her daily, she was able to live independently until the last year of her life. She walked everywhere when she was still driving and even more so when she no longer could drive. After she sold her bungalow near the baseball stadium, everyone thought she was crazy for selecting an apartment on the second floor which required her to walk up and down a full flight of stairs daily. Of course, I now realize that probably contributed significantly to her good health in the final decade of her life.
She taught my children how to make cupcakes from scratch and delighted in helping take care of them on their days off school when my husband and I worked. She would get mad if we didn’t leave her a basket of clothes to fold so she would “have something to do” when the kids were napping. We’d come home to find the clothes folded with military precision and dinner preparations made.
She was an incredible seamstress who wasted not a single thread and could whip yards of cloth into apparel or home decor. She was infinitely resourceful, a walking model of thrift and sustainability; she never met a bread wrapper or piece of foil she could part with easily. She gave only bear hugs and had a handshake that could pull grown men to the ground. Her cheerful countenance masked a steely resolve and powerful work ethic borne of what most would consider a life of hardships.
Every year for Christmas, she gave us a beautiful gold Christmas ornament commemorating the year with a scene of the Plaza, a unique area of the city, and always purchased from the department store where she had worked when she was a young mother barely scraping by. When we bought our house, she gave us money from a US Savings bond she had held in my name since I was born.
She didn’t spend much money on sports merchandise and she didn’t buy season tickets or even attend a lot of baseball games. I’m confident she did not own a Royals T-shirt. But she listened to baseball religiously on the public radio and watched it on television, taking in every single Royals game every season for every decade this team existed. She was “tickled” that the Royals beat the Cardinals in their last World Series appearance.
Baseball provided her a joy no other sport could. When her vision failed, she could follow every play on the radio and not miss a thing. It was a game that had been around her whole life, and one that had not morphed into grand spectacle or reckless showboating. It was a team sport where everyone had a part to play, a contribution to make, and nothing, but nothing, in any game could ever be deemed insignificant.
And in that vein, every play of every game offered hope. No matter how far down you were in a game, you could pull out a win. No matter how many games you were down in a series, you could turn it around. No matter how many losses you sustained in a season, you could stage a triumphant comeback at the end. No matter how many years you missed the playoffs, there would always be another season next year and the next. Hope springs eternal in baseball in a way it simply cannot in other sports. In some cases, hope can last 29 years or more.
So you can imagine her surprise when my brother Mark, gift-giver extraordinaire, gave her the gift of a lifetime—enjoying a baseball game at Kauffman Stadium with her family for her 92nd birthday in mid-September. Mark bought tickets for the “Crown” seats right behind home plate and arranged for lunch in the club restaurant before the game.
But history would intervene when the unthinkable occurred on September 11th that year, 2001. The game on her birthday a few days later was cancelled as flights were banned and and all sporting events at stadiums, including that entire week of the baseball season, were postponed indefinitely.
I don’t really know how she ever came to sort out the horror of 9-11, but I do know what happened on a beautiful sunny Thursday afternoon that October. My son left his 5th grade class early to join “Gram” and his Uncle Mark and his grandfather and his dad at the stadium to watch the rescheduled birthday present, which now turned out to be the Royals final home game of the season.
At the end of the game, the players threw balls and bats and everything they had in the dugout up to the grateful kids in the stands before all were let loose to come down on the field for a final runaround. Mark had secured special permission to wait until the kids cleared the field so he and my dad could walk my grandmother by herself around the bases. And walk those bases she did!
Here are scenes from that momentous day:
I suspect there are many baseball fans just like my grandmother, who live solid and respectable lives, slaying every mighty dragon that comes before them and never thinking twice about it. They are not the least bit bitter about the hand that life has dealt them nor do they ever complain. They are the unsung heroes for whom baseball— with its quaint organ music, ballpark hot dogs, 7th inning stretches, simple cheers and clap-clap-claps, against-all-odds playing, and, most importantly, its flagrant permission to hope—became the most truly pleasurable and meaningful pastime for a lifetime.
“Let’s go Royals!”
So who is the lesser known baseball fan in your life?